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This article is an extract from


Ethnographic Glossary.

Printed at the Bengal Secretariat Press.
1891. .

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Vaidya (from Sansk. vid, to know) Ambastha, Bhisak, Chikitsak, a well-known and highly respected caste, found only in Bengal Proper, whose features and complexion seem to warrant theil" claim to tolerably pure Aryan descent. There has been much controversy regarding their origin. The name Vaidya does not occur in Manu, but the Ambasthas are there said to be the offspring of a

Traditions of origin

Brahman father and a Vaisya mother, and theil" profession to be the practice of medicine. According to this account the Baidyas are amtlomai (born with the hair or grain, i.e., in due order), the father being of higher caste than the mother. Another tradition describes them as begotten on a Brahman woman by one of the Aswini Kumaras, the light¬bringing and hearing twin-horsemen of Vedic mythology; and then, oddly enough, goes on to say that they were reckoned as Sudms because their mother was of superior mnk to thflir father, and theil" generation was consequently pratilolnaia, "against the hair," or in the inverse order according to the succession of the castes. It would appear from this that the Aswini Kumaras were classed as Kshatriyas, aud that, according to Brahmanical ideas, even the gods were not equal mates £01' a Brahman maiden.

An expanded version of the pedigree given by Manu is found in the Skanda PUl"ana. This legend tells how Galava Muni, a pupil or son of Viswilmitra, being greatly distressed by thil"st while on a pilgrimage, was given a draught of water by a Vaisya girl named Birbhadra. The grateful sage blessed the maiden that she should soon have a son. Birbhadnl demurred to this boon, on the ground that she was unmarried; but the rash oath, so characteristic of Indian mythology, could not be recalled, nor could Galava himself put matters straight by marrying the virgin whose kindness had involved her in so strange a difficulty. For, so it is explained, she had saved his life by the draught of water, und therefore he looked upon her in the light of a mother. A miracle was clearly in request. By the

1 The term Baic1ya is not distinctive, and may denoto eithel' a membor of the Baidya caste properly so called, or a man who practises medicine, whothel' a Brahman or a membor of somo lower ca to. In Bohar, where the Baidya caste is unknown, Sakadwipi Brahmans aro the regular physicians. word of power of a Vedic mantra a wisp of kusa grass (Poa Cynosu1'oides) was transformed .into a male child, variously known as Dhanvantari, Amrita Kcharya, and Amhastha. He was the first of the Vaidyas, because to a Vedio (Vaidik) text he owed his birth. He was also Ambastha beoause he had no father, and therefore belonged to the family of his mother (Amba). A number of analogous myths have bf'en oolleoted by Baohofen in his two letters on "l'ueri j uncini," and his method of interpret.ation, if applied to the present case, would lead to the conolusion that the tradition given in the Skanc1a Purana records an instance of female kinship.

Internal Structure

The Baidyas are now divided into the following four sub¬ castes:-(l) Rarhi, (2) Banga, (3) Barendra, (4) Panc akoh, accordmg to t e parts 0 Bengal in which their ancestors resided. All of these are endoga¬mous. A fifth endogamous group, which, however, bears no distinctive name, comprises those Baidya families of the districts of Sylhet, Chitta gong, and Tipperah who intermany with Kayasths and Suuris, the children in eaoh case following the caste of the father. This practice appears to be the only modern instance of inter-marriage between members of different castes. It is said to have arisen from the reluctance of the Baidyas farther west to give their daughters to men who had settled in the country east of the Brahmaputra. Failing women of their own caste, the latter were compelled not only to many the daughters of Kayasths, but to give their own daughters in return. This interchange of womell is said to extend even to the comparatively degraded caste of SUDri, and it may be for this reason that the Uhittagong, Tipperah, and Sylhet Baidyas are out off from community of food with the other sub-castes. The sections or exogamous groups in use among the Baidyas will be found in Appendix 1. All of them appear to be eponymous, the eponyms being Vedic Rishis or saints. The restrictions on intermaniage are the same as among Brahmans.

Legend of Ballal Sen

The evidence of inscriptions shows that a dynasty of Baidya Logend of Ballal Sen. kings ruled over at least a portion of Bengalhom 1010 to 1200 A. D. To the most famous of these, Ballal Sen, is asoribed the separation of the Baidyas into two divisions, one of which wore the sacred thread and observed fifteen days as the prescribed period of mourning, while with the

other investiture with the thread was optional and mourning lasted for a month. Before his time, it is said, all Baidyas formed a single group, the members of whioh intermarried with one another, as all were equal in rank. All wore the thread and observed the term of mourning characteristic of the Vaisyas. Ballal Sen, however, insistecl on marrying a ferryman's daughter, named Padmavati, of the Patni or Dom-Patni caste. His son, Lakshan Sen, fvllowed by a majority of the cn te, protested agaiust the legality of the man-iage, and, finding their remonstrallces unheeded, tore off the sacred cord which all Baidyas then wore, and retired into a distant part of the country.

These were the ancestors of the Banga and Barendm sub-castes of the present clay, while the Rarhi Baidyas representtheromnant who condoned Ballal Sen's offence. It is difficult to reconcile this legend with the accepted tradit.ion that in the course of his social reforms Balhil Sen separated the Baidyas into three ola8ses-Rarhi, Barendra, and Banga-according to the place of their abode, and introduced the hypergamous divisions of Kulin, BangsaJ', and Maulik.

Hypergamous groups

A Kulin must marry his daughter to a Kulm, but he himself may marry either a Kulin or a Bangsaj woman. 1£ he marries a Maulik woman, his family is to a certain extent dishonoured, but the stain may be wiped out by marrying his sister or daughter to a Kulin. Hence the saying, I' Rising and falling is the Baidya's lot, provided the original stook remains sound." Balla! Sen is said to have distributed the Baidyas of his time into twenty¬seven stlulns or communes, beyond whioh no one oould reside without losing caste. The principal settlements were at Senhati, Chandam Mahal, Daspara, Puignim, Karoria, Shendia, Itna, and Bhatta• pratap in Jessore; Poragaohha in Bikrimpur; and Dasora and Chand-pratap in Dacca. 'fo him also is attributed the institution of the three olasses-Siddha, Sddhya, and Kashta, which, like the Kulinistio groups, have reference to social esteem or purity of lineage. They differ from the latter in being more rigid. Thus, a Siddha Baidya who takes a wife from the Sadhya or Kashta class sinks at once to their level, and his descendants oannot recover their status by marrying into a higher olass.

The Samaj.pati, or presidency of the Banga Baidyas, has for several generations been vested in the family of Raja Raj Ballabh of Raj nagar, who reside on the south bank• of the Padma river, and though now poor and dependent, the members are still oonsulted on matters affeoting the caste. In the middle of last century the influence of the family was still stron<>er, and a Baja of that time induced many of the Banga and Barendra Baidyas to resume the sacred thread which their ancestors had discarded. With reference to this tradition, Ward writes as if the entire caste had then for the first time obtained the right to wear thread by means of Raj Ballabh's influence. He says :-" Raj Ballabh, a person of this [BaidyaJ class, steward to the Nawab of Murshedabad, about a huncu:ed years ago first prooured for Baidyas the honour of wearing the pailu: he invited the Brahmans to a feast, and persuaded them to invest his son; from which time many Baidyas wear this badge of distinction."


Infant•marriage is the rule of the caste, rare exceptions being met with in highly-educated families, which have come under the influence of European ideas. Polygamy is permitted, but i not practised on a large scale. Divorce is unknown: a woman taken in adultery is simply turued adrift, and ceases to be a member of respectable Hindu society. Widows are not allowed to marry again, and the practice of sali was formerly very oommon. On this point Ward, writing in 1811, says :-" Many Baidya widows ascend the funeral pile. At Sona-khali, in Jessore, which contains many families of this order, almost all the widows are regularly burnt alive with the corpses of their husbands."

The Baidya marriage ceremony does not differ materially from that in vogue among Brahmans, except that sometimes the Kusundilca ceremony is performed on the marriage night. When equals marry a curious custom is observed. A bond is executed certifying that the bridegroom has received twelve rupees; should a second son marry, he executes a bond for twenty-four; and in the case of a third son the acknowledgment is for thil'ty-six. Beyond this it never goes, however many brothers the bridegroom may have older than himself.


The religion of the Baidyas is that of the orthodox high caste R r . Hindu. All old Baidya families are Sakti worshippers, but among the poorer classes Vaishnavas are occasionally found. Of late years many of the caste have joined the Brahma Samaj. Brahmans are employed for religious and ceremonial purposes; but it is doubtful whether these are of the highest rank, as they also officiate for the N ava-sakha. 'l'hey have also ghataks of their own, who were formerly Brahmans, bulifor many years past members of their own caste have discharged this import¬ant social function. The innovation is ascribed to one Viswarath of J essore, who is said to have been the first regular Baidya ghatak.


The practice of medicine, according to the traditional Hindu method, was no doubt the original profession of the Baidya caste. From the time of the Sen kings, however, the tendency has been towards the adoption of other pursuits, and at the present day hardly one-third of the caste are bE'lieved to be engaged in their traditional avocation. These latter are still in pretty general request. Certain passages of the Shastras regard the taking of medicine from a Baidya as a sort of sacramental act, and forbid resort to anyone not of that caste, so that some orthodox Hindus when at the point of death call in a Baidya to prescribe for them in the belief that by swallowing the drugs he orders for them they obtain absolution for their sins.

Many 13aidyas have distinguished themselves at the Bar, and as agents, managerR, and school-masters, whilst others have taken to the study of English medicine and have entered Government service or engaged in private practice as medical men. Many again are found among the higher grades of land-holders, as zemindars, tenure• holders, and a few are occupancy raiyats. They will on no account hold the plough, or engage in any form of manual labour, and thus necessarily carryon their cultivation by means of hired servants cash or by a share of the crop.

Social status

In point of social standing, Baidyas rank next to Brahmans and above Kayasth&. Strictly speaking, they are inferior to Rajputs, but this point cannot be insisted on in practice, as there are comparatively few Rajputs in the area inhabited by Baidyas, and those are mostly immigranto from Upper India, who belong to a different social system from Bengalis. There has been some controversy between Baidyas and Kayasths rE'garding their relative rank, the leading points or which will be found in the artiole on Kayasths. Putting aside the manifest futility of the dis(;Ussion, we may fairly sUm it up by saying that in point of general culture there is probably little to choose between the two castes, and that the Baidyas have distinctly the best of the technical claim to precedence. On the other hand, it would, I think, strike most observers that the Kayasths are the more pliant and adaptive of the two, and have thereby drawn to themselves a larger share of official preferment than the more conservative Baidyas.

Baidyas eat boiled rice and food coming under that category only with members of their own caste. They will drink and smoke with the Nava Sakha and with castes ranking higher than that group, but will not use the same drinking vessel or the same hookah. Brahmans will eat sweetmeats in a Baidya's house, and will drink and smoke in their company, subject to the restriction noticed in last sentence as to not using the same vessel or pipe.

The following statement illustrates the distribution of Baidyas in 1872 and 1881 ;¬

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