RAJPUTS AND THAKURS
Rajputs are a particularly successful branch of the warrior Kshatriya class, which is just below the priestly Brahman class (See Below). They have traditionally been known for their fighting skills and have held key positions in the Indian army. This tradition began under the Moguls, who gave the Rajputs limited autonomy in exchange for soldiers. Over time the Rajputs were able to use their positions to accumulate great land holdings and through this land great wealth. The word Rajput comes from the Sanskrit term “raja putra,” meaning son of kings. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]
Rajputs are associated most with Rajasthan but are found across northwestern India, the Ganges plains, Madhya Pradesh and the Himalayan valleys. After their services as soldiers were no longer needed they established themselves as landowners. Some worked the land themselves. Many were well off enough to hire others to work the land for them. Some held so much land they were able to establish kingdoms. Following independence, 23 Rajput states were united to form Rajasthan. The majority of Rajputs are Hindu but more than a million are Muslims.
The Rajputs are tall and slender, relatively light skinned and many have aquiline noses. They and people from Rajasthan are known for their courage of the willingness to accept death before defeat and are regarded as "uncontrolled, tough and hardheaded. They live according to "a well established traditions of lawlessness, vendettas and blood feuds." Even poor Rajput farmers regard themselves as equal in stature to many other landowning castes and consider themselves superior to the professional classes. Many Rajputs have only one name, like Sarwan or Chontu.
Thakurs are upper-caste Rajputs. They are a dominant landowning caste. Thakur is a term of respect used in different ways. It is sometimes used to describe Brahmins. Others expose their left buttocks to say that they belong to their father’s family. Some are landlords. Others are very poor and forage in the jungle to survive. It has been used to describe Rajput nobles. In other places it is used to describe barbers. Some Thakur women expose their breasts.
The Kshatriyas are a large group of Hindu castes, located mainly in the northern half of India. The Sanskrit term kshatra means “warrior, ruler” and identifies the second ranking varna, below Brahmins. Kshatriya have traditionally been expected to maintain law and order and protect the land from attackers from the outside. Although they are supposed to be descendants of warriors who served princes or rulers or were in royal families themselves few have anything to with soldiering or royal families anymore.
In the past some rulers have legitimized their status, especially as usurpers, by claiming their lineage was Kshatriya. The most well known of these are the Rajputs, who established many princedoms in Rajasthan. Both Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, and Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, came from Kshatriya families. It has been argued that these spiritual leaders took the path they did as a reaction to excessive ritualism that was associated with their caste.
Most Kshatriyas today are landowners or follow urban professions. Many are civil servants, teachers and servants. They have many of the same customs as Brahmins but the caste restrictions they observe are not as strict as those of Brahmins. Many Kshatriya eat meat (not beef) and drink alcohol, which are denied Brahmins.
Over the centuries Kshatriya were often accused of hypocrisy. In the past they were supposed to deny themselves worldly pleasures so they could be better soldiers. But often, as was the case with the Rajputs, they spent relatively little time on the battlefield and made their homes in lavish palaces with multiple wives and concubines and enjoyed he pleasures of good food, fine horses and falconry.
Rajputs emerged in the 9th and 10th centuries. Their origins are unknown. Some think they may have been descendants of Hun invaders. Rajputs formed a loose confederations of fiercely independent and often conflicting kingdoms, called Rajputana, in northwestern India. Rajputs remained mostly Hindu despite constant Muslims invasions in west India. They established many princedoms in Rajasthan and legitimized their status, especially as usurpers, by claiming their lineage was Kshatrya.
The Rajputs resisted Muslim conquerors until accepting Mogul control in the 16th century. Great Rajput warriors include Prithviraja III, who defeated the Muslim invader Muhammad Ghuri at the Battle of Tarain in 1191. Maharna Pratap was the last Rajput to hold out against the Moguls. In the 1576 Battle at Hadighati he reared his horse so that its hooves crashed into the head of the war elephant of the imperial commander, allowing him to kill the elephant’s driver slowing the Moguls advance. Only the arrival of reinforcements saved the day for the Moguls. The horse who did the damage, Chetak, lives on in the name of a motor scooter.
The Rajputs were far from compliant even under the Moguls. One Rajput prince, Amar Singh, was once told to pay a penalty for missing a meeting. Singh said “the only wealthy I possess is my scabbard...Come take your penalty if you will!” When a Mogul minister reprimanded him his head was cut off in mid sentence. Singh then attacked the Mogul emperor Shah Jahan, the Taj Builder. Singh escaped from the Mogul palace on a horse that he coerced into leaping off 20 meter-high ramparts. The horse died in the fall but Singh survived and made it back to his palace, where he was later captured.
During the British Raj period, Rajasthan was comprised of 18 largely independent princely states. The largest of these were Jaipur and Jodhpur. In 1947, the main Rajput states were merged into the present-day state of Rajasthan and the overall power of the Rajputs declined as other caste were able to advance economically and politically in a democratic rather than feudal system. Still the Rajput identity remains strong and is a source of pride and prestige.
There has always been element of hypocrisy to the Rajputs as members of the Kshatriyas caste. They were supposed to deny themselves worldly pleasures so they could be better soldiers. But many of the rich ones spent relatively little time on the battlefield and made their homes in lavish palaces with multiple wives and concubines and enjoyed the pleasures of good food, opium drinks, fine horses and falconry. On the Rajasthan princes, Kipling wrote, "Providence, created the Maharajahs to offer mankind a spectacle."
Mary Anne Weaver wrote in New Yorker, "It was a land of fabulous wealth, of reckless extravagant maharajahs, and vast ornate, impenetrable palaces. The princes loved all the magnificence and pomp, celebrating the birth of a son with the booming sound of kettledrums, holding ritual pig-sticking contests and elaborate tiger hunts."
Rajput Society and Customs
Rajputs are organized into a hierarchically-ranked clans and lineages. Over a 100 Rajput clans are well known. Other important features of the Rajput society include rankings based on regional location, degree of centralized political control within a state, and the use of marriage to improve one’s standing.
The Rajputs have long lived under a strict code of honor that has been compared with the chivalry of medieval European knights. Rajputs were famous for fighting to the death against great odds. Women and children would march into a funeral pyre in a ritual known as jaubar, which some scholars say gave birth to the practice of bride burning (suttee). Funerals remain big events today. Suttee is not longer performed and is illegal.
Rajasthan is one of India's most tradition-bound areas. The feudal system endures and landlord have had a reputation for being cruel and violent to peasants farmers. In Rajasthan, people still lived in compounds surrounded by walls with rifle sights. In the 1930s, planes were prohibited from flying over the town Bikaner because local rulers feared the modesty of students in a girls' school would be compromised. At fair and festivals men and women are not allowed to embrace rf kiss in public. “ Half clothes” are not allowed.
Some Rajputs are followers of the Hindu Swaminarayan sect, or Ramanuja, and are strict vegetarians. Most are Shibaites, many of whom not only eat meat but also indulge in drinking alcohol and smoking opium, hashish and tobacco.
Rajput Marriage, Men and Women
Child marriages have been outlawed since 1929 but are still common in some parts of rural Rajasthan. At upper class and royal Rajput weddings, the groom wears a golden turban and a string of emeralds around his neck. The wedding procession features caparisoned elephants and prancing horses. Before a Rajput wedding of a son of a raja the groom sits on a throne where he is entertained by dancing girls. The bride's face is covered. The government has limited the amount of food and drink that can be served to eliminate the extravagant of the past. [Source: Raghubir Singh, National Geographic, February 1977]
In Rajasthan, men enjoy pigeon and pheasant shooting. Female infant mortality rates have traditionally been high. One village, Devra, boasts that no bridegroom came from there in 110 years. Education levels are very low. Explaining why many Rajput women don't call their husbands by their give names, one woman told the New York Times, "For a wife, your husband is God. And you don't call God by his first name."
Princesses from Rajput are said to be very adept in swordsmanship and some have thrown themselves onto a funeral pyre instead of face humiliation. [Source: Marilyn Silverstone, National Geographic January 1965]
Rajput Mustaches, Culture and Clothes
Some men in Rajasthan have great curling handlebar mustaches that sweep across their cheeks and have thick bushy ends. They wear loose pantaloons that are pulled between their legs and orange, maroon or white turbans. Some men wear astonishingly large turbans and sport earrings, bracelets and anklets. Shocking pink turbans call pagas are wound from five meters of material
The churidar worn in Rajasthan and Kashmir fits tightly beneath the knees lie jodhpurs. On ceremonial occasions a long coat called a sherwani is worn with the churidar. The finest ones are made with satin and brocade and are decorated with jeweled buttons.
Women in Rajasthan were layers of colorfully patterned cloth. and pierce their ears and n noses with gold. Some women wear ankle-length veils decorated gold, silver and copper coins, and heavy silver jewelry, displays of their family wealth.
Culture flourished in the Rajput courts. Literature and drama in Sanskrit and vernacular languages reached a high level. Rajput bards were known for their ballads. One of the most famous ballads, Prithiraj Raso, tells how Prince Prithiraj carried off his bride. The ballads often gloried warfare and great heroes and battles.
Rajput men built great places and temples such as the Saivate temples of Khajuraho and the Dilwara Jain Temples at Mount Abu.
Rajasthan Music and Dance
Rajasthan has a very lively folk music scene. Members of the manganiyar, a musician caste, perform at weddings, theater events and other gatherings. A pair of male singers often perform a devotional call-and-response style of wailing accompanied by stringed instruments like the kamayacha, ravanhata (two-string fiddle) and drums. Other musicians include jogis, wandering mystics who play the one-stringed bhapang and bhopa, and epic bards who play the ravanhartha or jantar (a zither supported by two gourds).
The Rajputs love to sing and dance they have songs about everything the monsoon to the trials of everyday life. Their musical instruments include the satara, which is sort of like a bag pipe without the bag. It is a double flute with one flute providing a drone and the other playing the melody. Instead of a bag it is uses the musician’s lungs to supply the drone. The satara is often the instrument of choice among snake charmers of the sapera caste. It and the sumai (oboe) and murali (double clarinet) are the favored instrument of langa, a caste of musicians and camel traders.
The Tera Tali is a dance performed in Rajasthan by two or three women, with their faces covered with veils. They dance with a sword between their teeth and a pot balanced on their heads. The women produce a variety of sounds with manjira (small cymbals) in their hands as they shift and slide on the ground. The chari is another dance performed in Rajasthan. Traditionally performed by women to receive the bridegroom’s party before a wedding, it features veiled women dancers jumping, squatting and moving with flaming brass pots on their heads. The dance ends when the fire goes out.
Rajputs and Camels
Camels are led by a rope attached to a ring in their in the nose. At night they are hobbled with ropes around their forelegs to keep them from wandering too far. At camel fairs in the 1990s prices ranged from $16 for an unbroken baby camel to $1,000 for a mature cart pulling male. During the days of the maharajahs Rajputs had to get loans from private money lenders who charged 18½ percent.
In late 20th century, camel carts dramatically changed transportation in western India, particularly in Rajasthan and Gujarat. Similar to a bullock cart except larger, and equipped with airline tires, they can travel over almost terrain and are particularly used in places where there are no roads or the roads are really bad. Camels carts are a preferred mode of transportation in the desert. Thousands of people make a living transporting goods in camel carts. Many of them members of traditional camel-herding castes and tribes like the Raika and Rabari.
Camel herders and farmers having been coming to Pushkar in the Thar Desert in Rajasthan to buy and sell camels in what has been reported to be the largest camel market in the world. In 1994, more than 17,000 camels, and 23,000 cattle and horses were traded during the six-day fair. And 1994 was a slow year because the monsoon rains brought good crops and farmers were not forced to sell their camels to survive until the next growing season. The camel fair is held to coincide with Kartik Purnima, a religious festival that is held during a full moon in October or November. [Source:Molly Moore, Washington Post ***]
Describing the fair, Molly Moore wrote in in the Washington Post: "Desert tribesmen arrived with their families and household possessions piled high atop medieval-style wooden carts drawn by camels after a 14-day trek across the desert. The sand dunes in the lake side city of Pushkar were covered with camels, camel carts, cattle, horses and campsites as far as the eye could see, a vast panorama of another era. Women clad in brilliant saris of red, blue and orange carried massive heaps of fodder on their heads to feed the camels while men wearing equally bright-colored turbans clustered around campfires, slurping tea and debating camel prices. The air reeked of acrid smoke of burning camel dung and the pungent odor of sweaty blankets. ***
The Puskar fair features camel races and the camel pile on event. Moore wrote: "camel owners primped and pampered their beasts, combing their humps, clipping the hair on their sides into intricate geometrical designs and festooning the long necks with colorful collars and necklaces. The camels appeared to have mixed emotions about the entire event. Babies cried plaintively as their mothers were led away, buck-toothed adults snapped at would-be buyers peering into their mouths, and those waiting to be sold belched malodorously and moaned as they chewed their cud. The result was a constant cacophony of barnyard coughing, wheezing, bellowing and groaning." ***
Large numbers of tourists have begun descending on the fair. Camel herders charge 60 rupees ($2, two days wages for a desert farmer) for camel rides. When one man was asked what he thought about all the tourist, he said, "We like to look at them."
Zamidars are a Muslim Rajput caste of horsemen and soldiers that developed into a powerful group of landowners and presided over a feudal tax collection system known as zamindari. They acquired land in various ways and but more crucially obtained state recognition to collect taxes and transmit them to more powerful leaders, including the British, and jacked up their authority with fortresses and militias. “Zamindar” comes from the Persian word for “landowner.”
Zamidars had a reputation for wasting their money, exploiting peasant farmers but also being friendly and generous. Up until the mid 20th century villagers had to prostrate themselves whenever the came in the presence of a zamindar. The zamindars described they system as benign and paternalistic. Some say they viewed themselves as parents looking after the welfare of their workers as if they were children, paying for weddings, provided medical care and giving them places to live. Zamidars are generally devout Muslims. They view themselves as Muslims rather than members of a caste.
Land was passed down generally from father to son and could not be sold without the agreement of other family members. The zamindar go through great lengths to prevent their land from falling into the hands of outsiders. Women are generally excluded from owning land and making decisions on land. Marriage is viewed as a way to form bonds between newly-bonded families or strengthen existing bonds. Age and skin complexion are taken into consideration when choosing a marriage partner.
The power of the Zamindars has been greatly reduced by democracy and the subdivision of land among relatives. Land reforms enacted in 1951 stripped the Zamindars of some of their holdings but they remain powerful politically and economically. In 1952 a law was passed outlawing the feudal tax collection system of zamindari in Uttar Pradesh. The Zamindars have also seen their power reduced by laws that limited the amount of land that people could own. Zamidar landowners have tried to get around these laws by placing land holdings in the names of other family members.
The Jats are an upper farming caste that lives primarily in northern and northwestern India and southern and eastern Pakistan. Most are settled farmers or semi-nomadic herders who have been incorporated into the caste system where they reside. There are maybe 20 million Jats. In some places they call themselves Baluchis, Pathans or Rajputs. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]
The Jats have a reputation for being like Rajputs. They have a military tradition and in some places are powerful landowners. They live in communities of the own kind but speak the languages and dialects of the people that live around them. There are Hindu, Muslim and Sikh Jats. A large portion of all Sikhs are Jats.
The origin of the Jats is not clear. Some have suggested that they are descendants of Aryan invaders or Scythian tribes. Other have said thy might be related to White Huns. Many of the same theories have been proposed for the Rajputs. In the 17th century Jats established a kingdom in Rajasthan that lasted until they were defeated by the British in 1826. In the Punjab, they were involved in organizing peasant uprisings against Muslim landlords. They also established bands of marauders than were known throughout northeast India. They were classified as a “martial race” by the British.
Jat Culture and Life
The Jats have always been close to the land and have a reputation for being hardworking and clever. They grow grains, pulses, fruits and vegetables and raise camels, cattle and water buffalo. The animals are raised mainly for milk and sale. Over the years many of those who were animal herders have switched to farming because of a shortage of grazing land.
Customs of individual Jats are often determined more by where they live or what religion they belong to rather than anything inherent about being a Jay. Many ceremonies, especially those associated with rites of passage, are celebrated by all Jats and many Jats do not believe in life after death. Hindu Jats have recognize certain gods. Muslim Jats have a tradition of venerating saints. Sikh Jats have a reputation for being strong Sikh nationalist but not being observant of Sikh customs.
Jat women are largely confined to the home. There has traditionally been a strong preference for boys and female infanticide used to be fairly common. Jats reportedly got rid of unwanted baby girls by placing them in buffalo pens to be trampled to death. Female infanticide is reportedly not practiced anymore.
On the local level Jats are organized by clan. On a larger level wealthy Jat landowners are involved in regional and even national politics. Often they act not only as spokesmen for Jats but for rural people as a whole.
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