The Gujaratis are inhabitants of the state of Gujarat in western India. They are more of a regional group than an ethnic group. Around 91 percent of the inhabitants of Gujarat speak Gujarati, an Indo-Aryan language that was derived from Prakrit and Sanskrit and has incorporated a number of Arabic, Urdu, Portuguese and English words There are a number of Gujarati dialects, some of them spoken only by certain castes and communities. Gujarat borders Pakistan and is not far from Karachi.
The Gujaratis are considered enterprising, businesslike and serious. They have a reputation for being traders and businessmen. Hindu and Jain Banias are the main trading castes. Patidars are regarded as entrepreneurs. Parsia and Bohras are also major players in Gujarat economic life. In the 6th century Gujaratis were trading with Indonesia and Cambodia. In the 7th century they were involved in trade with China, Japan, Sri Lanka and Thailand. In the 20th century, large numbers of Gujaratis emigrated to Africa, Europe and the United States to seek their fortune and some have done quite well.
Gujarat is India's westernmost state. Covering 195,984 square kilometers and very dry, it embraces seacoast, irrigated farmland and large expanse of a desert known as the Kutch. It is divided into four major regions; 1) north Gujarat, between Mount Abu and the Mahi River: 2) south Gujarat, between the Mahi and Damanganga Rivers; 3) the Saurashtrian Peninsula and the Kutch; and 4) the hilly eastern region. The monsoon season lasts from mid June to mid October. Rainfall amounts vary greatly across the state. The southernmost area receives 200 centimeters a year; the central area 70 to 90 centimeters; and the Kutch and the western part of the Saurashtra, less than 40 centimeters. May is the hottest month. Temperatures often exceed 40 degrees C. January is the coolest month. temperatures rarely exceed 30 degrees C.
Gujarat is home to 52 million people and has a population density of around 250 people per square kilometer, with the highest concentrations of people in the central part of the state and the lowest in the Kutch. Brahmans make up 4 percent of the population; other upper casts, 8 percent; middle castes, 12 percent; farm laboring castes, 24 percent; lower castes, 7 percent; Dalits (Untouchables), 7 percent; Muslims, 8 percent; and Scheduled Tribes 14 percent. Gujarat is named after the Gujar, a historical caste believed to have descended from the White Huns, who invaded India in the 5th and 6th centuries.
Gujarat produced Mahatma Gandhi but is also regarded as the heartland of the Hindu nationalist movement. The Hindu nationalist political party, the BJP, is very strong and some of the worst anti-Muslim riots and Hindu-Muslim confrontations have occurred here. It is the only place where the BJP has dominated the state government. Hindus make up 89.5 percent of the population; Muslims, 8.5 percent; and Jains, 1 percent. Gujarati-speaking people make up 91 percent of the population. The majority of tribals live in the hilly eastern part of the state. Sixty-nine percent of the population lives in rural areas; while 31 percent lives in urban areas. Ahmedabad, Surat, Vadodara and Raujkot are large cities.
Gujarat is one of India's most developed and wealthiest states, accounting for 17 percent of India's exports and 11 percent of its GNP. Many wealthy people from the state live overseas and send their money home. These include members of the Patel caste, who own many motels in the United States and have erected million-dollar temples in Gujarat. Most people make their living in agriculture. The main commercial crops are cotton, peanuts, tobacco and sugar cane. Bajri, jowar, rice and wheat are the main food crops.
On January 27, 2001, Gujarat was hit by a devastating earthquake that measured 7.9 on the Richter scale and killed 25,000, injured 65,000 and left 600,000 homeless. It was the worst earthquake in India in half a century. The epicenter was 15 miles north of north of the town of Bhuj, where more than 6,000 people died.
The Gujar are a historical caste whose name was the basis for the Gujarat state. The are believed to have descended from the White Huns, who invaded India in the 5th and 6th centuries. In the old days they were regarded as looters and squatters. Now they are regarded as law-abiding farmers and cattle herders. The term ‘Gurjara Bhoomi” (“Home of the Gujar People”) was used between the A.D. 5th and 9th centuries. The term “Gujarat” has been used since the 10th century. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]
The Gujars are known for their skill at farming and raising animals. There are Hindu Gujars and Muslim Gujars. The former are mostly farmers. There latter are mostly pastorals. Many Muslim Gujars have adopted Hindu customs and are thus viewed as compromised by other Muslims. Among the Hindu practices observed by Muslim Gujars are the worship of family gods, celebrating Hindu festivals, consulting Brahman priests to determine the best time to hold certain rights, and the making of fire offerings and upturning a pitcher at the graves of the recently deceased.
Gujarati Life and Culture
Gujaratis have traditionally lived in three-generation extended families that had up to 30 members and cultivated the same land. Many now live in nuclear families or small extended families. The Gujaratis are not very enlightened when it comes to women’s rights. Most women still work at home.
Gujarati Hindus have traditionally placed a great emphasis on ritual bathing and fast every week or every 11th day in a fortnight. They believe in Heaven, Hell and transmigration of the soul. Though small in number Gujarati Jains are influential in Gujarat society and the economy.
Paintings called sathia and rangoli are made using powdered chalk by women at the threshold of their houses for festivals and ceremonies. Calico textile printing is associated with Gujarat. Temples, palaces and other buildings are decorated with wood and stone sculpture. Tattooing is common among some castes.
Ras and Garba are important Gujarati folk dances performed by both males and females. Bhavai is a popular form of folk drama, generally performed in open spaces in towns and villages. Melas feature dancing, singing, bullfights and cockfights.
The Patels are a caste associated with entrepreneurship from the Kheda district of Gujarat. Also known as the Patidar and Kanbi, they are part of the Vaisya, or trader caste and have a reputation for being shrewd businessmen and naturally hospitable, and are fairly well off . Members of the Patel caste own many motels in the United States and have erected million-dollar temples in Gujarat. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]
The Patels are the wealthier members of the Kanbi caste. They rose to positions of influence in the waning years of the Mogul empire in the 19th century when their predecessors were appointed revenue collectors by the Moguls and Marathas and they used their positions to accumulate wealth, land and power. In India today, most Kanbi are farmers. The Patels and wealthy Kanbi are involved in a variety of professions and trade-related activities and are involved in investment and other commercial activities.
In the Kheda District of Gujarat the Patels and Kanbi are regarded as the second highest caste after the Brahmans. Within the Patels and Kanbi castes, position is based mostly on wealth. In matters of marriage, the burden is on the family of the bride that often has to pay an exorbitant fee to secure a son-in-law of high social standing,
Patels and American Hotels
More than half of the motel in the United States are owned by Indians. Of these 70 percent are owned by Patels. Many Ramada Inns, Holiday Inns and Comforts Inns are owned by Patels. On some stretches of American highway you can one motel with a Patel owner and then travel 50 kilometers down the road and find one owned by his cousin. A hundred kilometers further is another owned by another cousin.
The Patels have been attracted by the freedom and opportunities of the United States. They were reportedly have been attracted to the motel business because there is steady cash flow and it comes with a place to live. The whole Patel-motel thing started in the 1940s when an Indian named Kanjihai Desai managed t buy a hotel in downtown San Francisco area. In the early 1950s a Patel decided to copy Desai's model and bought a hotel and over the years bought more and he was copied by other Patels.
By the 1960s, there were 60 or 70 Indian-owned hotels in the United States, most of them in California. In the 1970s large numbers of Patels and other Indians began immigrated to the United States. This occurred at a time when many owners of motels were retiring and their children didn't want to take up their businesses. Property prices were low.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, may motels went up for sale. Patels and other Indians were able to but a lot of them because they were able to borrow money from their large extended families to pay the substantial down payments. After they began buying more motels. More immigrants arrived. Some of them came from Africa, where they no longer felt welcome.
Maharashtra State: the Home of Bombay
Maharashtra is India’s richest and second most populous state. Located on the west coast of India and regarded as the threshold between the Indo-Aryan north and the Dravididian south, it is where Bombay is located and is surrounded by the Arabian Sea to west, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh and to the north, to the east and Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka to the south.
Much of Maharashtra sits on the Deccan Plateau. It is watered by many rivers, including the Tapto, the Godavari, the Bhima, the Krishn and their tributaries. which divides the land into subcultures that have their own identity and history. The main political centers have been in the Godavari basin and the Krishna Valley. The state also embraces the fertile coastal plain of Konkan and thickly forested regions in north and east.
Maharashtra was created after independence in 1947 by cobbling together Maharashtra-speaking areas. About 100 million people live in Maharashtra. Marathi is the native language of Bombay and Maharashtra. About three quarters of the population of the state speak it as their first language. The area is a stronghold of Hindu nationalists and has traditionally been dominated by upper caste Brahmins and landowning Maratha Kunbi. In the past it was often ruled by Muslim leaders. It has a long history of independence from the other dynasties of India. If was only briefly under the control of the Moguls. Feuds were common between the Muslim rulers and Hindu population. Hindu occasionally rose up in revolt.
The Hindus were beginning to take upper hand around the time the British arrived. The British used Maharashtra as a foothold to gain control of the rest of India. They took control of the region in the three Maratha wars, in which they sided with one faction against another. At the end of the Third Maratha War in 1818 the British incorporated vast amount of Maratha territory into the Bombay Presidency.
Marathas are a Marathi-speaking people and a caste of chieftains and warriors which claim Kshatriya descent. They are closely related to the Kunbi, a caste of landowners and farmers, but consider themselves to be superior to them. Most Maratha are farmers but they have also risen to positions of power in the government and business. Marathi is the southernmost Indo-Aryan language spoken in India. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]
Marathas and Kunbis are the dominant castes in Maharashtra State. Shiva and his consort Parvati are the most important deities and Vishnu is worshiped as Vitthal. Reverence is also given to holy men and poet-saints. Polygamy is allowed and practiced. Boys get married between the ages of 12 and 25. Girls often get married before they reach puberty. Bride wealth is paid and gifts are exchanged between families after the wedding. The marriage ceremony is quite elaborate and has 24 different steps. Gifts are also given to women during the third, fifth and seventh month of pregnancy. Other important life-cycle ceremonies are held for births, “mother fifth and sixth” day after delivery and first hair cutting.
Today most Maratha are farmers. Many have traditionally used bullocks to plow their fields and do other chores. They take great pride in their animals. It is not usual for cattle to share house space with their owners, During some holidays the cattle are decorated and displayed and featured in processions. Diet staples include wheat cakes, rice, lentils,, clarified butter, vegetables and condiments. Less affluent people eat jowar (sorghum), bhajari (spiked millet) and lentils while the poorest of the poor eat millet seasoned with spices.
The Mahars are an Dalit servant group found mostly in the Maranthi-speaking areas of the Maharashtra, and to a lesser extent Madhya Pradesh and Baroda. Many have converted from Hinduism to Buddhism (See Neo-Buddhists) and are great admirers of B.R. Ambedkar, who himself converted to Buddhism. Despite their conversion they still occupy their same position in the caste system and are treated by non-Dalits and Dalits.
Mahars have traditionally been responsible for removing dead carcasses from villages. They also have brought wood to cremation grounds, carried messages to other villagers, acted as village watchmen, cared for horses, and fixed mud walls. They were expected to eat the flesh of the animals they dragged from the villages. The Mangs are a caste of ropemakers that are regarded as lower than Mahars. They keep pigs.
The Bohra are Shiite Muslims that live in Bombay and the Surat and Bharuck districts of Gujarat State. Also known as the Bohora, Daudi Bphra,. Lotia and Vohora, they are known as being traders and regard Surat the their religious and political center. Some deal in silk, hides, horns and cattle. Others have overseas business in the Middle East, China, Thailand and Zanzibar. Most are village shopkeepers, selling spices, books, stationary, hardware items and groceries. In Bombay, Surat and Ahmedabad they are known as being confectioners. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]
The primary religious authority of the Bohra is the mullah of Surat. His authority is not questioned. Some regard him as divine. Every major Bohra community has its own mullah, who serve as a religious leader and earns his income acting as a schoolmaster. There are different Bohra sects, with slight variations in customs and beliefs. Punishments of most religious matters are in the form of jokes. For some crimes people are flogged. The Bohra are famous for the fish, beef and fowl curies. They cook with ghee and abstain from pork, alcohol and drugs. There are maybe 300,000 of them.
The Bene Israel Jews have traditionally lived in Bombay and villages on the Konkan Coast, south of Bombay. Today around, 5,000 of them live in India and 32,000 of so live in Israel. They claim they originated in Israel and were members of a “lost tribe” shipwrecked in the Indian coast in 175 B.C. Their name means “Children of God” in Hebrew.
The Bene Israel, had lived along the Konkan Coast in and around Bombay, Pune, and Ahmadabad for almost 2,000 years. Unlike the Kochi Jews, they became a village-based society and maintained little contact with other Jewish communities. They always remained within the orthodox Jewish fold, practicing the Sephardic rite without rabbis, with the synagogue as the center of religious and cultural life. [Source: Library of Congress]
The Bene Israel speak Marathi, the language of their neighbors. In coastal areas they traditionally worked as oil pressers. In Bombay, they have traditionally lived in tenement buildings and were employed as white color workers, mechanics and skilled laborers in factories and workshops. Some served in the armed forces. A minority were doctors, lawyers and teachers.
The Bene Israel Jew embraced some Hindu beliefs about caste and were incorporated by Hindus into the caste system. They were also divided into White (Gora) and Black (Kala). They married only other Jews and intermarriage between Black Bene Israel and White Bene Israel was very rare. Black Ben Israel are descendants of offspring of mixed marriages with Hindus, maybe Dalits (untouchables). Many Israel Bene marriage customs are in line with Hindu concepts of marriage. They have traditionally preferred cross-cousin marriages, discouraged the marriage of widows, practiced some polygamy and conducted a prewedding henna ceremony.
History of the Bene Israel Jews
According to tradition, the original shipwrecked Bene Israel Jews lost all their prayer books and kept their religion alive by what they knew about in the their heads—namely some prayers and dietary customs. They practiced circumcision, celebrated many Jewish festivals but didn’t have synagogues and had adopted many Hindu customs.
The Bene Israel community was discovered in the 18th century and was brought in to line with mainstream Judaism. They established their first synagogue in Bombay in 1796. Some Cochin Jews assisted them by acting as cantors, ritual slaughterers and teachers. In the 19th century some Jews from Bagdad, including the legendary Sassoon family, joined the Bombay community.
The number of Bene Israel increased from 6,000 in the 1930s to 20,000 in 1948. After Israel became an independent state in 1953 large numbers of Bene Israel began emigrating to Israel. In the 1950s, many rabbis refused to marry Bene Israel with other Israelis due to doubts about their purity and Jewishness, The Ben Israel staged some protest in the early 1960s. In 1964 the Chief Rabbinate declared them “full Jews in every respect.”
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated June 2015