Thakurs are upper-caste Rajputs. They are dominant land-owning caste Thakur is a term of respect use in different ways. It is sometimes used to describe Brahmins It has be used to describe rajput nobles. In other places it used to describe barbers. Some Thakur women expose their breasts. Other expose their left buttocks to say that of belong’s to her father’s family. Some are landlords. Others are very poor and forage n the jungle to survive.
Many businessmen, especially in Calcutta, are Marwaris. The Marwaris were originally traders and moneylenders from Marwar—a region of southwestern Rajasthan state in North Western India also known as Jodhpur—that migrated to Calcutta and Bombay and other places where they amassed huge fortunes in British Raj era.
Marwari once referred only to people from Marwar but now it often refers to anyone originally from Rajasthan. Many of the businesses in Calcutta are owned by Marwaris. The Marwaris, who have been trading for centuries, had the cash to buy many businesses after the British left.
Marwaris are regarded as proud, temperamental and generous. In the old days they placed great prestige and honor on dying in battle. Marwari women are regarded as first rate cooks. Marwar means “region of death.” The prince who founded a dynasty there belonged to the Rathores, a clan of fierce warrior belonging to the Rajput caste of rulers. Over the years the group expanded their territory until it was powerful kingdom the size of Belgium and conquered most of Rajasthan. Marwari horses are know for their bravery, short-tempers and passion.
Jats are members of an upper farming caste. See Jats, Minorities
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 term “peripatetics” is used to describe nomads and traveler who do not live off the land or animals as most nomads do but rather earn money in other ways such as working as street performers, animal trainers, peddlers and tinkerers. They roam around the countryside and travel from town to town and have flexible skills and the ability to speak several languages. Snake charmers, traveling puppeteers, street acrobats, and traveling blacksmiths fall into the category of peripatetics, who are sometimes called Gypsies. Sometimes sadhus are considered peripatetics. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia”, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]
Peripatetics are ethnically diverse and found throughout India. There are believed to be between 5 million and 10 million of them. The groups are generally grouped by trade. Most are Hindus, although some are Muslims and Sikhs, and they have a somewhat vague status in the caste system. Peripatetics of a given trade are generally of the same caste but sometimes the rules are somewhat ambiguous as to whom they perform or work for. Some work for only people of the same caste. Others work for castes outside their own caste. They generally speak the language of their home village or camp as their first language but also speak the languages of the places they travel in. The also are familiar with the customs and economies of the places they work and try their best to fit in.
The existence of peripatetics is attributed the abundance of weekly markets, fairs and pilgrimages in India that bring large groups of people together and create markets that peripatetics can exploit. Peripatetic groups were described in the Vedas (written between 1000 and 700 B.C.). The “Rig Veda” describes traveling dancers, snake charmers, flute players, fortune tellers and beggars. Ancient Tamil literature also describes traveling entertainers and also describes nomadic wanderers who acted as intermediaries for royals. In the British colonial period these people were often described as Gypsies.
Life of Indian Peripatetics
Some peripatetics travel only part of the year and spend time at their “home villages.” Others are on the road throughout the year and have no real home village. While they are on the road they sleep in their bullock carts or in cloth or reed tents. Some take shelter at temples. They have traditionally been the busiest around the harvest season when they hoped to get grain as payment for their goods. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia”, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]
Peripatetics are good at sussing out the needs of the communities they service. Many practice several trades and have trades they can resort to if necessary. One group may specialize in household utensils and farm tools while another may specialize in hunting, trapping and fishing tools. Performers often have several specialities and can practice a trade if necessary. A man with a dancing bear, for example, may also be a passable singer and storyteller and have skills as a fortuneteller or a blacksmith. Some women work as prostitutes. Their flexibility and low overhead often allows them to out-compete non-nomads. If they have trouble making a living in one trade they switch to another. If all else fails they beg.
Often entire families travel together and all the members are involved in the trade. If they aren’t they usually lend support by doing things like domestic chores, setting up tents and fetching water. Often extended families travel and camp together. There are a wide range of marriage customs although unions are generally within a general trade group. Some groups have a council of elders that plays a role in social control and resolving disputes.
The Qalanders are itinerant people who travel from village to villager with performing animals. Found throughout South Asia, particularly in northern India and Pakistan, they do rope climbing, magic tricks, puppetry, tightrope walking, music and tricks with trained animals. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia”, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company]
There are several tens of thousands Qalanders. They share a number of characteristics with the Roma (Gypsies): a similar language and similar nomadic habits. The Qalanders are very good with languages. Many of them can speak five or more languages. They are mostly illiterate. Their nomadic lifestyle precludes attending schools.
The Qalanders have a very long history. Entertainers with bears and monkeys are mentioned in texts from the Vedic era (1000 to 700 B.C.) They are also mentioned in many old folk tales and histories.
Life of Qalanders
Qalanders have traditionally viewed the world in terms of themselves and outsiders and prefer to keep their relations with outsiders limited to business and entertainment situations. They typically have a normal circuit and try to visit every village and town on that circuit twice a year. They try to vary their routine and visit when it is not expected so as to generate an element of surprise and novelty to their visits. The Qalanders have carefully studied the customs of the villagers they visit and have tried to figure out the best way to exploit them. At the same times they are reluctant to reveal information about themselves, lest their lifestyle be altered. Thus little is known about them. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia”, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company]
Qalanders own no land or permanent shelters. They travel around in carts pulled by donkeys and sleep in tents. All their possession are carried with them. Their tents are of the Bender type used by peripatetics throughout Asia. The tents have barrel-vaulted ribs supported by vertical end poles and horizontal ridge poles. Qalanders tend to pitch them in fallow fields, along canal banks or near railroad tracks. In urban areas they set up their tents in vacant lots. Viscous dogs are kept to guard their camps. They subsist on chapatis, cooked lentils and cereals, vegetables, goat’s milk and tea.
Qalanders often announced their presence by banging on small but highly resonant drums and/or goatskin bagpipers. They also use the same instruments to provide background music for their routines. They try yo hit villages and towns right after the harvest and accept wheat and other grains for payment and try finding work at weddings and festivals. They may hit as many as three villages a day. The grain they receive is taken to markets and exchanged for cash, silver and gold and other goods they need. As the post harvest season comes to end they head to the cities.
The Qalanders traditionally migrated between Peshawar and Delhi but their routes were disrupted by the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 and trouble in the Punjab in the 1980s.
Qalander Trades: Juggling and Bear and Monkey Shows
One survey in the mid 1980s found that 15 percent of Qalander families owned bears. The preferred animal was a Kashmiri black bear, which has a distinctive white V on its chest. A few had larger Asian brown bears. There are more dangerous and difficult to maintain. Both species are not adapted to the climate of India and suffer in the heat. Irritated bears have killed their handlers with a single blow or attack. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia”, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company]
Audiences like the bear routine because they are interesting and carry an element of danger and they often earn the most money. The wars in Afghanistan and Kashmir have made obtaining bears difficult and many bear handling families have turned to rhesus monkeys (macaques).
Monkeys have traditionally been obtained from hill tribes and taught to imitate human situations such as feuding lovers, police and soldiers and trained to ride bicycles, dance and walk on tight ropes. Monkeys are less expensive to maintain and breed better in captivity than bears. Qalanders also train goats and dogs to do balancing acts.
Qalanders also are skilled jugglers, acrobats, magicians, impersonators. Children and women also beg. Sometimes women work as prostitutes or exchange sexual favors for camping privileges or grazing rights. Sometimes the nail clippings and hair from the bears are sold for amulets that are said to ward off disease. Qalanders are flexible and adaptable, making money any way they can.
Qalanders and Dancing Bears
Sloth bears are the original dancing bears. For centuries they have been captured by Qalanders, an itinerant group of performers, and taken from village to village to performer for handouts from villagers. The bears are trained to do tricks as well as dance. To keep them under control the bears often have a ring through bones of the animal’s nose, mouth and muzzle. The original dancing bear reportedly began dancing after eating fermented Mohwa tree flowers. Today a pull on the rope is all that is necessary to get a bear to "dance" in pain.
Some Qalander traders live near forest where the bears live. Cubs are abducted by poachers from their dens when they are three to five weeks old and typically sold at markets when they are three months old for around $100. Sometimes well-trained bears can fetch $600. Studies have shown that urban people and tourists are most interested in seeing the bears dance. Rural people just want to see a bear because they believe the bear will protect their of children from evil spirits.
In India there are around a thousand dancing sloth bears. Animal welfare groups are working with Qalandars to try to convince them to give up their bears.
In May 2006 AP reported: Amsterdam Sloth bears at the Beekse Bergen Safari Park in Holland treed a Barbary Macaque (a monkey sometimes referred to as a Barbary Ape) and then ate it in front of horrified zoo-goers. A zoo statement confirmed the incident. "In an area where Sloth bears, great apes and Barbary macaques have coexisted peacefully for a long time, the harmony was temporarily disturbed during opening hours on Sunday." Apparently several Sloth bears chased the Barbary macaque into an electric fence, where it was stunned. It then fled onto a wooden structure, where one bear pursued and mauled it to death. Other bears then consumed the simian. [Source: AP, - May 15, 2006]
Qalanders generally only marry other Qalanders. Marriages have traditionally been arranged and have been important in forming alliance and determining who travels together, Divorces are relatively common. Engagements, marriages and divorces occupy a lot of the Qalander’s time. The basic family is the “puki”, a household that shares a tent. In most cases it is a nuclear family.
A group that travelers together is usually made up of three to seven puki and is called a “dera”. The group usually consists of a mixture of skilled performers and animal acts and is united in various economic and family concerns. Compatibility is necessary because the group is together so much. Oftentimes they are united by marriage. Leaders are often the bear handlers.
Qalanders have their own justice system that they use to settle disputes. Causes of disputes include fights between spouses, adultery, feuds over money, disagreements about travel routes and demands by parents and group members. The matters are sometimes worked out using lawyers and judges in a formal trial. The settlements involve the paying of fines, public apologies, and banishment. Before a settlement is reached the parties involved agree to accept the judgement of the trial.
Qalanders are regarded as agnostics, They say the are Hindus, Muslims, Christians or Sikhs depending on what suits their best interest. They do believe in the evil eye and wear charms and amulets to protect themselves. Many suffer from chronic malaria or typhoid, When an individual is too old to travel or walk he or she is considered dead and left behind. The dead are wrapped in a clean white cloth, sprinkled with perfume and buried in an unmarked grave, usually within 36 hours after death.
The Kanjar are an ancient widely, dispersed group of artisans and entertainers spread through South and Southeast Asia. They are known as dancers, singers, musicians, carnival ride operators and prostitutes. Many make their living selling small terra-cotta toys they make door to door in settled communities. They are somewhat similar to the Qalanders and have traditionally been most numerous in the Punjab and the Indus River Valley in northern India and Pakistan. They used to travel a regular circuit between Rawalpindi, Lahore and Delhi but this route was disrupted by the partition of India and Pakistan.
As is true with the Qalanders, there are several tens of thousands Kanjar but it is difficult to get an accurate count of their numbers because of their nomadic ways. They share a number of characteristics with the Roma (Gypsies)—a similar language and similar nomadic habits—and can speak many languages. They are mostly illiterate and have a very long history like the Qalanders. The discovery of ancient terra cotta figures in Harappa like the ones that Kanjar make today suggest that Kanjar-like people may have been around at least since the time of the Indus civilization (3000 to 1500 B.C.). The basic social unit is the traveling group, which is made of several families. All materials and animal resources are owned by the group and no specific differentiation is made between children and adults. Children pitch in and help with all the chores and activities that adults do. Especially attractive girls are trained to be entertainers. They Kanjar have their own legal system like the Qalanders and similar ideas about religion and death. An incapacitating illness is greatly feared because it slows the mobility of the group.
Kanjar have traditionally announced their arrival in a village or town with their women walking the streets shouting, “Come and take the toys.” Village children acted as if the ice cream man was in town and begged their parents for money or something to trade for a toy. At night the village people showed up in a field where the Kanjar set up a makeshift Ferris wheel or some other carnival ride and went on the ride and enjoyed singing and dancing performances. Young Kanjar women often sold sexual favors and older ones were sought for advice and tips on sex for soon-to-be-wed girls. In some places the Kanjar also engaged in begging and hosted cockfights and dog fights. Like the Qalanders they prefered cash but often engaged in trades and bartered for goods and services.
The Kanjar traveled from place to place in carts pulled by mules or donkeys and set up camps with distinctive tents made from woven reeds or grass. Their tents were quite different from the cloth tents of the Qalanders and other nomadic artisans and entertainers. Women were the chief breadwinners. The majority of the group’s income came from their songs, dancing, prostitution and the hawking of toys. They also tended to take on most of the dealings with outsiders and made many decisions within the group. They were highly valued as wives and daughters. Many marriages were regarded as an exchange of females, often between generation or clans.
The Kanjar knew where supplies of clay were along their route and periodically stopped and made clay figurines of birds, buffalo, elephants, camels and other animals as well as household goods such as plates and pots by molding them with their hands, sun-drying them and then firing them over fires made of grass, straw and dung. Surface firing meant the goods were fragile and broke easily, which meant there was a constant demand for them. Over the years their traditional way of life suffered with the introduction plastic toys and goods.
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.
Last updated June 2015