This article is an extract from
THE TRIBES and CASTES of BENGAL.
Printed at the Bengal Secretariat Press.
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In every province of India bands of vagrants, vaguely styled Nat, Kanjar, Brajbasi, or Banjara, are met with, who correspond to the gipsies of Europe, and bear a striking resemblance to one another. In the delta of the Ganges, boats being the only means of conveyanse, the nomadic tribes move about in vessels which vary in build according to the particular division. In Bengal these vagrants are genetically known as Bediya, from the Sanskrit Vyadha, a hunter. Each division (bahr) has its route fixed beforehand by a Nardar, or Murabbi, who resides in a central locality within easy reach. He promotes the general interests of the tribe, selects the boats which are to form the fleet, appoints a director to each party, and punishes any disobedience, such as leaving the fleet and joining another. He settles all disputes, and, if any serious difference occurs, takes evidence and delivers judgment. Fees are paid to him at marriages, and presents of clothes are given on other festive occasions.
Once every year the different tribes of Bediyas meet to consult, to celebrate marriages, and to lay in a supply of goods for retail during the ensuing year. On the full moon of Kartik (Nov.-Dec.) Hindus bathe at the old junction of the Brahmaputra and Ganges. Afterwards a fair, lasting a month, and known as the Varuni Mela, is held, to which traders from all parts of Bengal, and Upper India, resort. At it the merchants of Dacca, Silhet, Tipperah, and Mymensingh, buy their annual stock of merchandise, and hither come the Bediyas to replenish their stores. Each fleet brings its own Nardar, but when all have united one supreme head is elected, who directs the affairs of the whole tribe as long as it remains together.
The Bediyas have unfortunately given up most of their old customs, and been transformed within the last fifty years into uninteresting, and prosaic, Muhammadans. The Farazi Maulavis practising on their credulity, have made out that these wanderers are really the descendants of Nuh Nabi, or Noah, who being a Bediya, lived in a big boat with all his family!
At the annual gathering a Maulavi is always present to instruct his disciples, to teach the boys to pray, to perform marriage services, and to superintend the rite of circumcision. Although he wields much influence, the Maulavl is unable to wean the Bediya from all his old Hindu superstitions, red lead (Sindur) is still his symbol of marriage, and of married life, and the "Marocha," or four plantain trees, is the altar at which alone the marriage ceremony can be properly performed. Many women continue to tattoo the forehead like their Hindu sisters, and all classses invoke Manasa Devi, and engage Brahmans to perform "pujah" to a particular deity in times of sickness.
The Bediyas of the present day are as reserved as the Nat and Kanjar of Hindustan, and rarely talk freely to strangers.
They still understand Hindustani, and sing Hindustani songs, but they converse in Bengali with the villagers, and in an Argot, or cant, language with their own people. The Bediyas and Nats mutually disclaim any relationship, but now and then the tall muscular figures, and unmistakeable features of the true Nat, or gypsy, are seen among the Bediyas, and when such persons are appealed to, they confesss that either they, or their forefathers, came from Upper India. The Bediya, however, is so cunning and so clever at giving answers to stop further enquiry, that what he says must be received with caution. Nevertheless, we know that early in this century the gypsies of Bengal followed the customs of their ancestors in the northwest, and had not in mass become converts to Islam. They regarded religion with indifference, and if a deity was worshipped in private, he was in public discarded for any idol or god adored by the villagers around.
Like the gypsies in all lands, the Bediya carries in his features the stamp of a peculiar race, and from exposure to heat, glare, and privations, he is tanned of a darker brown than the Bengali artizan, and vies in swarthiness with the fisher Kaibartta, and rustic Chandal. It is rare to find a pretty girl or a handsome man, but the prevalent countenance is characteristic, and quite different from the usual Bengali cast of features. The profile is generally fine, the nose being straight, narrow, and often aquiline. The forehead is broad, sometimes intellectual. The figure is short, and the limbs less sinewy and graceful than among gypsies. The elders become corpulent, and rarely live to a green old age. Hard work and child-bearing soon efface the beauty of the young women, who are wrinkled hags at thirty. Men and women dress like ordinary Muhammadans, having laid aside the jackets and petticoats formerly worn. The men are remarkably lazy, and may often be seen enjoying a siesta, or a pipe, while the wife with a babe at her side is rowing, or punting the boat. The Bediya boat never carries a sail, and as a rule there is only one rowlock, consequently only one person pulls at a time. Still this hard working, patient woman, is an affectionate wife, a sympathising and indulgent mother, who, without a thought for herself, devotes her whole time and attention to the recovery of a sick child, or fever-stricken husband. In the hospital at Dacca, the devotion of these women often excites admiration and respect, as they, with few exceptions, are the women who most frequently accompany their sick relatives, and, regardless of the depressing effects of a hospital ward, sit by their bedsides day and night, anticipating wants, and calming the restless patient.
The Bediyas, like their kinsfolk the gypsies, are often charged with being thieves, and whenever a robbery is committed near a Bediya fleet, they are suspected. This evil reputation, however, is often taken advantage of by professional thieves, who trust to escape detection by casting suspicion on the Bediya.
Various attempts have been made to wean the Bediya from his unsettled habits, but only with partial success. Until the interior of the country is opened up by roads, the wandering trader will be welcomed, and his goods find a ready sale. At present his movements are uncertain, depending on the state of the rivers, and when the creeks get dry, the fleets disperse to suitable places, where a piece of land on the bank of a river is rented, a tent pitched, and the boats hauled on shore, and repaired. This encampment is occupied till the end of May, when the periodic rains enable them to set out on their annual circuit. Although the mass of Bediyas lead this life, a few go to other districts to collect shells, while those of settled habits return to their home, and cultivate land like the peasantry.
The boats of each Bediya subdivision differ in some respects from all others, and by this difference can be distinguished at a distance. The boats of the Samperia have the bow and stern raised, while those of the Shandars are horizontal. The "Chhapar," or tilt, of boats belonging to the Mal, Samperia, and Bazigar, is fastened outside the gunwale, while those of the Ba-bajiya and Shandar are fastened inside, with mats hung outside to prevent water entering. The boats of the Gayan again are merely canoes with raised wooden bulwarks, and an opening towards the stern. The roofs of all Bediya boats are rounded, tapering towards one or both ends, and except in the case of the Gayan, having two openings, one towards the bow, the other towards the stern.
Under the Muhammadan government, there was an officer who kept a register of all the tribes of wandering musicians and performers, according to some authorities they varied in number from eighteen to thirty-two sets. A tax, known as "Chandina Damdari," or "Bajantari," was levied on them, being included wider the head of "Sair," or miscellaneous imposts. For the year 1777-8, the collection for the Dacca division, including Mymensingh and Silhet, amounted to rupees 2,761.4.0; namely, Damdari, rupees 821.4.0; and Bajantari, rupees 1,940.1.8. At a still earlier date the aggregate of the two taxes amounted to rupees 4,500 a-year.
The following are the seven divisions of Bediyas in Eastern Bengal: -
The origin of this name is disputed, but it is probably derived from the Sanskrit Banijya, or Banij, trade. By their kinsmen they are called Lava and Patwa, the former in Sanskrit meaning a section, the latter a derivative of Pata, a screen.
The Ba-bajiya are pedlars. Their wares are very miscellaneous, consisting of gaudily painted wooden bracelets, waist-cords, tape, brass finger rings, nose rings, glass beads, wooden cups for oil, playing cards, looking glasses, sandal wood chains, and fishhooks. They make voyages to Silhet, bringing back shells for lime, and pearls used in native medicine. Few sportsmen are bolder divers, and none excel them in spearing fiish, especially mullet, with the harpoon.
The Ba-bajiya keep dancing monkeys, and, like the Bazi-gars, teach their daughters acrobatic feats, while adults perform tricks of legerdemain with all the mysterious flourishes, and fluent talk, of the wizard tribe.
Though assuming to be Muhammadans, they chaunt songs in honour of Rama and Lakshmana, and exhibit painted canvas scrolls, representing the redoubtable deeds of Rama and Ravana, and the exploits of Hanuman.
The women have the reputation of being skilful in the treatment of infantile diseases, and in the removal of nervous and rheumatic pains. They occasionally tattoo, but are not so expert as the Natni.
The Bazi-gar is generally called by Bengali villagers Kabu-tari, from his tumbling like a pigeon (Kabutar), or Bhanu-mati, from the daughter of Vikramaditya of Ujjayana, the first person, according to Hindu tradition, who practised jugglery and conjur-ing. Another familiar name is Dora-baz, or rope dancer.
The Bazi-gar women and girls are the principal performers; the men play tricks with balls and knives. The girls are very supple, twisting and bending their bodies into most bewildering figures. One of the ordinary feats is fastening a buffalo's horn in front, climbing to the top of a pole on which a board is fixed, and resting on the point of the horn, spinning round at a rapid and giddy pace.
The women dabble in medicine, and prescribe for children ill with fever, or indigestion. A favourite remedy for the latter is the juice of the "Sem," or flat bean, mixed, with lime made of the common shell, called Sambuka. They are also cunning rubbers for rheumatism, and dexterous curers of toothache.
In Dacca the Bazi-gars rarely live ashore, but in Farridpur they have become cultivators, and are being rapidly absorbed into the village population. These families are very thrifty, purchasing standing crops and disposing of them at a profit, or leasing a grove of date palms, and making money by the sugar attracted.
In physique the Bazi-gars resemble the Nats and Kanjars of Hindustan, and they often admit that their immediate ancestors came from Ghazipur, or Upper India.
The name Mal is derived from the Sanskrit Mala, a hillman, but according to their own account they were wrestlers (Malla) at the court of the Dacca Nawabs, and gained the name from this profession. From their dexterity in extracting worms from teeth, the nickname Ponkwah is often given.
Notwithstanding their roving habits, peculiar physiognomy, and characteristic figures, the Mals repudiate any connection with the Bediyas, but neighbous can recollect when relationship was readily admitted. At present Mals are with difficulty recognised. As a rule they are Mahajans, or bankers, never dealing in pedlar's wares, but advancing small sums on loan, rarely exceeding eight rupees, and on good security. The rate of interest charged is usually about fifty per. cent. per annum, but this exorbitant demand is less than that exacted by town bankers. The borrower has also to pay the writer of the bond a fee, called Tahriri, calculated at the rate of two paisa for each rupee.
The Dacca Mals never keep snakes, and know nothing about the treatment of their bites. The women, however, pretend to a secret knowledge of simples, and of wild plants. They are also employed for cupping, for relieving obscure abdominal pains by friction, and for treating uterine diseases; but never for tattooing.
Mals do not intermarry with other Bediyas, or with Muhammadan villagers, and if a stranger asks in marriage a Mal maiden, he must leave his paternal home, relinquish his calling, and adopt the life and habits of a Bediya. This custom, formerly insisted on by all Bediyas, has been gradually given up by families realizing the advantages of settled life, but its general disuse is still resented by the older members.
The Mir-Shikar, or Chiri-mar, the smallest subdivision of Bediyas, only musters some hundred boats. They capture singing birds, "Bulbuls," and parrots with birdlime and the Sat-nali rod, or with nooses of horse-hair. Formerly game was killed with arrows, but these antiquated weapons have given place to the Mungir fowling piece.
The following animals captured by these hunters are sold for medicinal purposes, or for charms.
Ban-rahu, Manis, or scaly anteater. If bound on the arm its scales are reputed to cure palpitations of the heart. Mahokha, or Pan-Kori, the common crow pheasant of India. Killed on a Tuesday, or Saturday, its flesh cures enlargement of the spleen, and puerperal disorders. Pencha, the spotted owlet of Jerdon. Its claws and droppings, pounded with betel-nut, are, according to Muhammadans, a very powerful and certain philtre. Dauk (Gallinula Phaenicura). When dried its flesh is highly beneficial in rheumatism.
The Samperia are the snake charmers of Bengal, who, like other Bediyas, huckster miscellaneous goods in the villages of the interior, and manufacture fish-hooks and such like articles.
The snakes usually exhibited are the Jait,1 or cobra; the light and dark varieties of the Ophiophagus Elaps, named by them Dudh-raj and Mani-raj; the python; a beautiful whip snake, with red, black, and yellow spots, called "Udaya Samp;" and a large brown snake with black stripes on its neck, known as "Ghar-banka," from the singular way it bends before striking.
These snakes are caught in the forest. When one is seen the Samperia pursues, and pins it to the ground with a forked stick. He then rapidly glides his hand along, and fixes his thumb over the first vertebra, the animal being rendered quite helplesss. If the snake be a poisonous one, the fangs are barbarously torn out, but the poison "bag," the most profitable product of his dangerous trade, is carefully preserved. Snake poison is highly valued by Hindu physicians, being used in the treatment of diseases, and fetching in the market from fifteen to sixteen rupees a "bhari."2
Another valuable prize is the tick (Kilni), occasionally found on the hood of the black cobra, about which the most fabulous stories are told. One of these parasites fetches a large sum of money, as it is popularly believed to be a certain preservative against snake bites, and poisons in general.1
The cobra does not feed on snakes, but the Ophiophagus, as its name indicates, does. The Samperia feeds his menagerie on fish, frogs, and mice. Domesticated snakes, with the exception of the python, rarely live more than five months in captivity, and never breed, incredible as it may seem, snake charmers assert that all kinds cast their slough once a month. In a wild state this occurs once a year.
Samperias have no specific for snake bite, but each man carries, as a charm, the root of the "Bhatraj," a forest creeper, but the specimen shown by one was a twig of the common wild vine (Vitis Indica). The popular belief is that the bud (malati) of the "Bhatraj" is a specific, but the Samperia deny this. When any one is bitten by a poisonous animal, the Samperia follows a rational treatment. He ties a string round the limb, racks the wound, bathes the extremity in hot water, and covers the bite with the leaves of the "Bhatraj." One of the company then recites Hindustani mantras, or incantations, which are usually utter gibberish.
The Samperia are in great request for the due performance of the Manasa Devi festival, in the month of Sravan (July-Aug.), being engaged by Brahmans to exhibit their collection, and make the snakes crawl in front of the idol Manasa Devi still maintains her position as the patron deity of Samperias, and no Mulla has as yet dared to cast her down from her pedestal.
When snakes are exhibited the Samperia plays on a pipe, while his wife, or child, chaunts a monotonous Hindustani song, and irritates the reptile to strike by threats and shouts.
The Samperia is also a sportsman. He tames jungle cocks to entrap wild ones, and the "Lora" (Gallicrex cristatus), a bird famous for its pugnacity. When he is in want of food he tethers it near a marsh, arranging a low screen with three movable leaves from which horse-hair nooses hang. The wild bird advancing to test the courage of his captive brother, gets entangled, and falls an easy prey to the Bediya who is lying concealed in the brushwood.
The Samperias, like other Bediyas, keep tame cormorants to drive fish into the net, for he is a great fisherman, although he never sells what he catches. When moored near a jungle he stalks deer, and shoots partridges, paddy-birds and egrets.
1 The common name for the Cobra de Capello is "Gohmana," or "Gokhra."' In Sanskrit it is "Krishna-Sarpa."
2 A "bhari," or Sicca rupee, equals 179 grains.
This is the most orderly and industrious of the Bediya divi-sions. Many have settled in Dayaganj, a suburb of Dacca, but others live in boats. Their name is derived from the Persian Shanah, a comb, corrupted into Hanah by the Bengalis. This comb, or more correctly reed, through which the warp threads pass, is in great demand by Tantis, and Julahas, for their looms, as no other workmen can make them so cheaply and artistically. The framework of the comb (dhangi), is made of split bamboo, and the teeth (gaibi) of well seasoned wood from Kachar. The latter are fixed at equal distances apart by strong cotton thread. The sale of these combs obliges the Shandars to visit villages where weavers reside, and Dacca where the Tantis work. This intercourse with the working classes has civilised them.
The Shandar, however, follows other trades. Like gypsies he is a "Manihar," or pedlar, buying beads and trinkets; making neck bands; purchasing waist-strings (Kardhani) from the Patwa; and needles, thread, and tape, from the Mughuliya shop; which are retailed in the villages.
The Shandars are also expert divers, and, when anchored in suitable localities, gather the common bivalve shells (sipi), and sell them to the Chunari, or lime burner. They also use the Sat-nali, or bamboo rod of seven joints, tipped with birdlime, catching "bulbuls," and other small birds, like the Samperia they keep tame "Koras," jungle cocks, and cormorants, and, if able, take out a gun license to shoot game.
Shandars form the largest division of the Bediyas, often associating with the other septs, but never in a friendly manner. They have all become Muhammadans, wearing the skull cap and dress of the villagers, from whom they cannot be distinguished. As a rule Shandars are short, muscular men, more communicative, and less suspicious of strangers, than the ordinary Bengali peasant. Many of the race peculiarities have been lost, but Muhammadans banish them from society, and refuse to intermarry, to eat, and to pray with them. They seldom speak, or understand, Hindustani, and Bengali is the spoken language.
A class called Gayan, literally a singer, has separated from the Shandar, but is already disappearing in the ranks of the village Muhammadans. The Gayan, instructed by teachers, believe they are descended from Jihad Gayan, who accompanied Shah Jalal in his conquest of Silhet, and state that they emigrated from that country in covered canoes, differing in build from those inhabited by other Bediyas.
The Gayan is usually a peasant, and when absent from home the wife watches the crops and tends the cattle. Any relationship with other Bediyas is warmly repudiated, for which reason the Farazi sect sometimes concedes to them the rights and privileges of other Mussulmans, and this concession has transformed these vagrants into rigid Puritans. The Gayan women are secluded, and the other Bediyas are reproached for indelicacy in allowing the women to wander about unveiled and unprotected.
The Gayan sing Bengali songs in public, and the musical instruments in use are the violins, called "Sarangi" and "Behla."
A few gangs of this subdivision are now and then met with in Dacca, but they are more numerous in Pubna. Their boats are of curious construction, being only half covered over, while the tilt is cocoon, or bottle-shaped, tapering gradually towards the stern, where there is a small round opening through which a man can with difficulty crawl. These Bediyas work with zinc, which is bought in pigs, melted, and run into moulds. From the similarity in colour of zinc and mercury (Rasa), the division has derived its distinctive name from the latter metal.
The Rasias make anklets, bracelets, and collars for the neck (hansli), which are worn by all Hindu and Muhammadan females of the lower orders.
At their homes the Rasias are cultivators, and having completely amalgamated with the village Muhammadans are strict Farazis. Their standing, however, is so precarious, that prolonged absence from home, or a manifest partiality for boat life, is punished by expulsion from society.
When afloat the Rasia shows the same fondness for animals as other Bediyas, keeping a caged "Maina," or "Kaim" (Purple coot), for amusement or sport; while cocks and hens wander at will throughout the boat.
1 Regarding the Sarpa-mani, Gara-Mani, "snake gem," or carbuncle of romance writers see "Asiatic Researches," xiii, 317-328.