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Chapter 6: Working and Aboriginal Classes

  “Sweetly the drum is beaten and 
  Sweetly the girl comes to draw water: 
  Sweet is the ochre on her forehead: 
  Sweet is her bodice of silk: 
  Sweet is her charming footstep.  
  Ohé! the cakes baked by the girl: 
  Sweet is the girl with her infant child.  
  Lo, her dress is wet and clinging from the water 
  And she is adorned with tassels of jewels: 
  On her hands are bracelets 
  And her feet are enriched with anklets.”

                 Rowing Song of the Fisher Kolis.
  “A palmer came over the mountains and sat down under a barren tamarind tree 
  Then he got him three stones and placed a pot upon them.
  He went to the midst of the town to ask alms and played his pipe as he went.  
  The sound of his pipe reached the ear of Rádha.  
  She ran towards her father and towards her mother: 
  ‘You are my father and my mother: I am going off with this palmer for my man.’ 
  ‘Do not go, my dearest daughter, I will give you all you want.  
  Cows and buffaloes will I give and for your service four hand-maidens.’ 
  ‘What should I do with your cows and buffaloes?  
  What should I do with your four maid-servants?  
  For such a man have I prayed to God for full twelve years.’”

                                       Marriage Song of the Fisher Kolis.

If it was difficult in any way to summarize the varying conditions of the middle classes and to present with anything like unity some picture of their women, to attempt the same for the lower classes is to face difficulties that are in fact insuperable. The middle classes, as in all countries, are much conventionalized, and are always busied with a conscious effort to live up to an ideal that may be misapprehended or incomplete, but is still in the main intelligible. The differences that exist are either geographical or sectarian--differences due to tradition and development in differing environment, in varying faiths, for instance, and doctrines. The lower classes, especially the aboriginal tribes, still stand so narrowly on the circumference of the Hindu system that, with a literal eccentricity, they evade the attraction of conventional rule and regulation. They are governed by customs, often of immemorial antiquity, which may be outside the orbit of Hindu precept, and by superstitious fears which lead to sudden and capricious divagations. The main criterion of their status and the chief factor of divergence in their lives is the degree to which they have accepted Hindu Law or, to put it more exactly, the Brahman customs recorded in Sanscrit scriptures and stereotyped in the decisions of the Law Courts.

Broadly speaking, throughout India proper, the lower classes that stand within the Hindu system are the offspring of mixed Scythian and Dravidian parentage. But neither term can be taken too strictly. In Scythian may be included not only the hordes of White Huns, Gujjars, and Kusháns, but even some remote trace of earlier conquerors of Aryan race: Dravidian is little more than a collective name for the dark peoples who, before the dawn of history, were in possession of the Indian continent. From the two races in mixed and varying proportion are sprung the artisans and respectable cultivators of India, probably even the untouchable and degraded castes that cluster in dirty hovels on the outskirts of every village. In the far south they are almost, if not quite, Dravidian; in the north-west, where the five rivers flow, they are nearly pure Scythian. Between the two extremes are a multitude of shades and a multitude of customs. Even the Mussulman lower classes are in the main descended from the same constituents. Converts to Islam though they are and legally free to marry as they please among believers, they have usually restricted themselves to their fellows and have continued the line unbroken as it ran in the days of idolatry. The pretty dyer girl whose bright clothes and open smiling face is so much a feature of Ahmedabad, for instance, is by descent no different from her Hindu sisters. Where she has altered, where her gait is more free and her glance more bold and frank, the change is due to that influence of belief upon physique, to which far too little attention has so far been paid by the professors of anthropology. This influence of mind upon body can be seen in Europe where the Jews, descendants of so many peoples and, at least as far as Eastern Europe is concerned, mainly Ugro-Turkish by race, have yet by an unanimous and constant habit of thought largely acquired the marked cast of features which is called “Semitic.” In India the Mussulman population is a living instance of the same modification of the physical by the mental. The change has been too much ignored by a science which, from its mathematical prepossessions, thinks only in things that can be weighed or counted and neglects forces which must be measured by a subtler calculus.

The Mussulman weaver women, again, bear sons who are known for their turbulence and who strike home in every sectarian riot. Yet the Hindu weavers of the same kin are quiet and even timid. The handsome Sunni Bohora women of Broach and Cambay, converted descendants of the prevailing caste of Hindu cultivators in the province, are famous not only for their looks--and striking is their bold beauty--- but also for their virile energy and resolution.

In the Hindu artisan and cultivating classes, the status of women is most affected by the social position accorded to the caste as a whole. The higher the importance of the caste and the more it acquires wealth and consideration, the more quickly it accepts child-marriage and--what is socially even more important--the prohibition of widow remarriage. These in India are the tests of fashion; and each caste, or even any single section of a caste, as it finds its position improving, confirms and establishes it by the fresh burden that it throws upon its womankind. For the enhanced consideration gained by wealth, and the ceremonial purity which can be bought by wealth, the women pay. Life-long widowhood is the price extorted from the individual for the social prestige of the class.

In the last thirty years a remarkable and quite the most important feature of Indian history has been the rapid growth and extension of Hinduism. Yet, so easy and natural has it been, it has passed almost unnoticed. There are many in Europe who believe that Indian castes are fixed, immanent, and immutable. And this belief is upheld with conviction by almost every Indian. Yet nothing could be more erroneous. The concept of caste is no doubt ancient and of a strength so confirmed that it can almost with propriety be called permanent. Yet the actual castes--the things that are--are fluid in the extreme and are in constant movement, while the boundaries of the system have recently had vast extensions. The ease of communication given by railways has brought the central Brahman influences home to every hamlet in the continent, till whole tribes that were formerly hostile have been persuaded to adopt the name and many of the customs of the Hindu. At the same time new thoughts of Indian nationality and solidarity, born of English education, have roused in the higher and educated classes a real desire to comprise within the Hindu fold peoples from whom their fathers would have shrunk as from foreign and debased savages. But the idea round which the whole caste system revolves is that of marriage. Far above the maintenance of ceremonial purity, far above mere restrictions on food and water, stands, as the one essential rule of caste, the limitation of lawful marriage to a fixed circle of descent, real or fanciful. And with this limitation, which is of the very essence of Hinduism, goes a certain view of marriage as magical, sacramental. Thus each additional conversion of a strange tribe to the Hindu system brings fresh adherents in great numbers to what, more or less clearly adumbrated, is at least a reflection of the Brahman ideal of womanhood. To coarser minds and to tribes not much advanced beyond the savage, only a thin ray of the ideal can penetrate. Among such tribes the woman may remain free for some long time from the trammels of the higher law.

For that law can be tolerable only when it is fully comprehended. But as they advance in civilization and the conversion to Hinduism is solidified, as it were, by developing education, so the ideal, more and more clearly grasped, begins to be followed in practice. It is at this stage that child-marriage and the unrelieved doom of widowhood are introduced. New India therefore presents the paradox that while in the upper class a few, gained to the cause of rationalism, allow widows to remarry, discarding almost with violence the old sanctions and the old beliefs, side by side in the great mass of the people the prejudice daily grows and millions now forbid remarriage who thirty years ago would never have dreamt of the restriction.

But as a whole the properly Hinduized lower castes have no great interest to the observer. The conduct of the women is as close as possible an imitation of the better class, deflected as in all countries by poverty and labour and by the inevitable roughness and coarser understanding of their class. To trace in detail the full recent growth and development of such a caste might have its interest, but would transgress the purpose and limits of this book. Of especial interest, should anyone attempt it, would be the development, of the dairyman and milkmaid class in India. Divided into many septs, and in some instances differing now in race, they are descended from the Scythian tribes of Gujjar and Ahir. It would be interesting to trace them from the uplands of Kashmir, where they still roam, through the Gangetic plain to Káthiawád, where among many pretty women their women--Cháran and Rabári--are perhaps the most beautiful, and where their men are genealogists and bards, and stand surety for the treaty bonds of kings. Even in appearance, and greatly still in custom, they have much of the high mountain air of the great plateaux on the roof of Asia, where once they wandered with their sheep over dry, wind-swept uplands.

More homogenous and far more thoroughly imbued in the Hindu tint are the striking fisher or Són Koli caste of the western coasts. The collective name of Koli covers a multitude of tribes--not yet fully embraced in the Hindu caste system--whose unity of name and manifold distinction in fact forms one of the most difficult of the unexplained problems of Indian ethnology. A century ago most of their tribes were freebooters, cattle-lifters, caterans. Many Koli families won themselves little principalities, and some have got themselves recognized among the Rajput clans. Others are peaceful cultivators, and there are many who live as labourers by the sweat of their brow. But to this day there are some who prefer crime, and will even board a running train to rob the goods waggons. All of them have, perhaps, some strain of descent from an earlier race--Kolarian, or call it what you will--settled in India before the Aryan invasions. But it is clear that, though they retained a tribal organization, they must in great but varying proportion have mingled with and assumed the characters of other races. In places they are hard to distinguish from the aboriginal Bhil; in other regions--in Káthiawád, for instance, and the salt plains where the receding sea has made way between Gujarát and Sind--they seem rather to be the residue of a Rajput soldiery, common soldiers perhaps, not ennobled by a diplomatic victory, or married to women of some earlier tribe. At any rate among some of these tribes there subsist traces of customs foreign to the rest of India, such as the rule of marrying an elder brother’s widow or of the younger brother, even before her widowhood, sharing in her favours.

But of community with those wilder clans there is now little trace in the customs of the fisher tribes who live upon the shore that stretches from north of Bombay City down towards the Malabar coast. In the past a certain fondness for piracy was perhaps a solitary sign of a probable connection. From their appearance, however, it is clear that they are the descendants of a people as widely distinguished on the one hand from the darker farming and labouring castes who form the major part of the population, as on the other they are from the grey-eyed and pallid Brahmans of the coast who are its spiritual aristocracy. Distinguished physically from the other inhabitants by their light-brown complexion, the round curves of their faces, and their smiling expressions, they are equally distinguished by their occupation, their separate dialect, and their aristocratic constitution. It is also clear that from the date of their settlement on the coast-line, they have kept themselves unusually unaffected either by the amours or by the moral and mental ideals of the surrounding population. History is not plain in the matter of their arrival on the coast, but a probable inference from tradition is that most of the present day Kolis are descended from immigrants who came down from the hills some four hundred years ago. It was only about two centuries ago, under the rule of the Peshwas, that they entered the fold of Hinduism, and they themselves say that they were first taught to know the Gods at that time by one Kálu Bhagat, an ascetic who had himself been of their tribe.

They are peaceful enough now, but they are still bold sailors, and it is their fishing-boats which bring the daily catch to the Bombay market. The men are handsome and well-built, with curious scarlet caps, like an ascetic’s, which are the distinctive uniform of their class. But, as would seem in all countries to be the case with fisher-folk, where the man toils on the sea and on shore rests and smokes in idleness, in the daily round of life it is the woman who counts most. At home she is mistress, and she takes the earnings of her man and gives him what he needs for his drink and smoke. She carries the fish to market and drives her bargain with keen shrewdness. She does not lose as a saleswoman by the attraction of her smiling lips, showing her sound white teeth, and of her trim, tight figure. The dress is striking. The skimpy mantle or sari is slung tight between the legs and over the upper thigh, so that every movement of limb and curve of figure shows in bold lines, as the fisherwoman carries her basket on her head to the crowded market. The freedom and strength that they draw from the ocean is preserved by a customary law which allows women a reasonable liberty. In many ways the Koli fishwife is as fine and independent as her sister of Newhaven in Scotland. Like her, she has her share of her husband’s drink when there are guests in the house or the sorrow of the swirling, driving rain is forgotten in a cheering glass. On their right hand these women wear a silvern bracelet of peculiar and heavy shape such as is worn by no other caste. No other bangle or bracelet, ornament or jewel is worn on that hand; and the absence of such adornments is for them a sign of the covenant under which God protects his fishers from the perils of the deep.

Among the fisher-folk marriages are seldom contracted till after puberty and the bridegroom is usually required to have attained at least twenty years. For they hold that a youngster below that age cannot work as he should at oar and sail, if he have a wife to cherish. The wife is usually consulted by her parents and asked whether she is willing to accept her suitor. Widows are of course allowed to marry again, and a full divorce is granted to a husband only if his wife be taken in adultery. In other cases, only orders of what can be called “judicial separation” are passed--with the same natural results that in England follow upon such decrees. Among the many castes of India, there is usually a constitution which can fairly be called democratic; disputes are decided and case-law made by an elected tribunal. The fisher-folk have other ways. The final decision in their caste rests with an hereditary headman aided, but not bound, by assessors. He gives decrees of divorce, in which the claims of the wife are treated with more justice than would be got from an elected and therefore hide-bound tribunal. In all cases of desertion, misuse, cruelty and neglect, whether accidental or intended, the wife can get a speedy separation by the order of the headman. On him again rests the duty of providing for all orphan girls and finding them good husbands. Further, the headman, sitting by himself “in chambers,” has the right of protecting women who become mothers without being wives, of fining their paramours, and of finding them husbands to cover their disgrace. There are signs, unhappily, of the power passing--to be replaced by the usual elected body and rules derived more strictly from Brahman custom. But in the meantime women fare well, and their own bright faces, their healthy children, and their contented husbands all testify to the value of a practice as sane as it is unusual. Happiness readily expresses itself in song, and the songs of the fisher-folk are stirring and tuneful. They sing them in a dialect of their own, apart from the written language; and on their festivals it is inspiriting to hear the choruses of men and women joyfully chanting these songs of the sea.

Of aboriginal tribes pure and simple--creatures untamed and almost untouched by the various civilizations that one after another have shaped humanity in the Indian continent--there are many still left in the wilder forests and mountains. But the latest of the great civilizations that have reached India has set in action forces which they can no longer elude. A law that is at once impartial and all-embracing and a railroad system which, in search of trade, penetrates the jungle and tunnels through the rock, have brought even their homes within the economy of modern life. They are being quickly sucked into the vortex of Hinduism, to emerge half-stifled as a menial class. As at the touch they leave their strangeness and their jungle ways, they sink to the lowest scale among the civilized, where once, with all the dangers of wild animals and exposure to disease, they had at least been free of the forest. Among the smaller aboriginal tribes the Todas of the Nilghiri mountains are conspicuous. For one thing they are an instance which reduces to absurdity the inferences of an anthropology too subject to abstractions and too reliant on skull-measurement. For anthropologists of that school have found the measurements of the Todas to be exactly Aryan--the one thing which--(if the word is to have any meaning at all) they cannot be. The Todas are a small tribe now, some 700 persons in all. They support themselves by rearing buffaloes, whose milk and cheese they sell to the residents of the neighbouring sanatorium, recently built upon a mountain plateau that for hundreds of years had been thought impenetrable. In the spring they scatter with their herds through the pastures of the uplands and return to their dirty huts in the rainy season. But the touch of the finger of civilization has crushed their loins, and the decay of this curious tribe is too far advanced to be arrested. Drink, opium, and poverty have contributed to their ruin, and the tribe is scourged by the ravages of a disease to which they were new. The women are vicious without emotion, and mercenary without disgust. Miscarriages are frequent, and those children who see the light are born diseased, are left neglected, and die like flies.

Of all the aboriginal peoples--more important even than the Gond peoples and the Gond Rajas of Central India--the greatest and the most impressive are the Bhil tribes. They can be traced from the first dawn of history; and in all the Sanscrit poems, Bhil queens hospitable to errant Aryan knights are as needful an incident as Bhil archers, liker devils than men, shooting their death-dealing arrows from behind rock and bush. They held kingdoms and had founded temples, reservoirs and towns when first they met the fair warriors from the north. Then they were driven forth and hunted and slain, and their homes were made desolate and they took to the forests as broken men, their hand against all others. Century after century they lay hidden in their lairs, coming forth only to rob and raid, cruel and merciless since they themselves were dealt with cruelly and without mercy. Yet one thing they were always, autochthonic, like some primeval force in whom, if all could have their rights, the soil and its title must to the end be vested. And so it is that to this day they have by a curious prescription a symbolic function at the coronation of Rajput princes. When a ruler first ascends his throne, by a Hindu custom, a mark of ochre is printed on his brow by a priest as an auspicious omen and a sign of fortune. But for the Rajput chiefs who rule in the country that was once the Bhils’, the mark must be made by blood pricked from the finger or toe of a Bhil tribesman or his sister. Even the first and proudest chief in India, the Mahárána of Mewár, does thus acknowledge the autochthonous race whom he displaces but who hold the prior right.

From Mewár the Bhil tribes reach west to the confines of Gujarát and south to the Deccan plateau. Their status varies as the land they occupy is more or less open and cultivated. In the forests they are independent and self-sufficient, ruled by their own tribal custom, rough perhaps and uncultured, but merry, equal one to the other, not unprosperous. In the civilized tracts, where economic forces of competition have free-play and Hinduism has prevailed, they have sunk to the position of a proletariat, supporting themselves on labour such as they can get and by theft whenever possible. They lose their virtues at the contact and merge on the untouchable masses of the lowest Hindu castes, with the same vices and the same imitative rules and customs.

On the hills and in the forests of the Rewa Kántha States and Mewár, however, the Bhils are seen at their best--sporting, loyal, happy wildmen of the woods. They have no villages like the Hindu plainsmen--close-crowded and ill-smelling. Each family has its own homestead in the clearing, a hut of logs grass-thatched, overgrown by the creeper-gourd with its yellow flowers. The men are skilled in the use of bow and arrow and love to roam the forests after game. They follow the tracks by which wild animals move at dawn from the valleys, and they know each lair or water-hole. The women also know the forest, where they collect grass seeds to be ground to flour, and where they gather the luscious fleshy flower of the mhowra tree to cook into cakes or distil into fiery liquor. They keep large numbers of cattle and every homestead has its own fowls and chickens. Two enemies only prey upon them, the leopard who seizes the grazing calf, and the anopheles mosquito which injects into their blood the malaria that ages and kills them early. For the rest while the years are good and the seasons kindly and the rain comes in good time and falls sufficiently, they are happy and free from care. But when there is scarcity, they die of famine, save for the relief brought to their doors by British administration. Among the hill tribes, where they still distinguish themselves from the Hindus, the Bhil woman has much freedom. When she has long passed puberty, at seventeen say or eighteen, she marries pretty much as she pleases. They are, in a pale copy of the Rajput feudal chivalry, divided into clans and have the religious prohibition of marriage within the clan. The girl must, therefore, choose a husband from another family. But the clan descents are rather vague and blurred, and the prohibition does not in practice hamper their choice seriously. Outside of this limit, at any rate, they marry with their heart. Only the intending bridegroom must make the girl’s father a customary payment of money or of cattle, often stolen in a raid from some lowland village. If he cannot pay, however, he has the option of doing seven years’ service in the father’s house, as Jacob did for Leah. During that time he is free of the girl, though he is not fully married till the end, and he lives in the house more as a dependent poor relation than a servant. Till they are married, the girls are not expected to be too strictly virtuous. While they are young, their sport with neighbours’ boys is merely smiled at indulgently as “the play of children.” Even when they have ripened to real womanhood--“and then Chloe first learnt that what had happened near the forest was but the play of shepherds”--they still wear the white bodice which shows them to be girls unclaimed by any man, and no one looks too closely to their actions. When once, however, they have chosen their husband and settled down to marriage, it is rare indeed that there be thought of any other man. Rare above all is it, if there have been children of the marriage. If, however, there should be trouble, divorce is easily arranged by a small payment to the husband and the wife is free to marry another man. A widow of course is no less free to marry, and a young woman never remains in widowhood. Men and women live on very equal terms, and there is much good-humoured affection between husband and wife and children. Not unlike is it to the life of the Scottish peasant and his wife, an easy freedom in youth leading to a homely and loving marriage. The money that they earn is often kept by the house-wife, who allows her man so much per week for drink, the chief diversion of the Bhil. She also is none too strict and likes her glass at a festival. But the woman is usually temperate, while the man only too often drinks to a wild excess.

The Bhil women, deep-breasted, broad, their large thighs showing bare, look fit to be the mothers of sound children, healthy and strong. Pleasant and even comely they appear, with their flat, good-natured faces and their plump limbs, their features a little coarse perhaps, but sonsy. Their hair lies low on the brow in a pleated fringe, caught on the crown by a bell-shaped silver brooch. They are fond, like all savages, of adornment, and layer upon layer of glass beads, dark blue, white and crimson, lie heavy over neck and breast. Heavy bands of brass circle the leg from knee to instep, and clash and tinkle as they move. A coarse cloak of navy blue, draped from the head over the body, is tucked up into the waist-band, leaving the thighs half-bare. They look men boldly in the face, with candour and self-reliance.

The Bhils, both men and women, are fond of a joke, and nowhere in India is laughter heard more freely and more readily. The more Rabelaisian the joke, it must be allowed, the better they relish it; and women are as openly amused by an indecency as men. Their songs are not always lady-like, and a wedding song gives them full scope for merry ballads, of a sort common in Europe up to the seventeenth century but foreign to the drawing-rooms of to-day, which have room only for a Zola or an Ibsen. Laughter the Bhils have and loyalty, good-nature and simple hearts. What they have in their minds they speak openly; and plain words can surely be forgiven, when the thought is straight and true.

Dancing is one of the great amusements of the Bhils, both men and women, and they should be seen dancing at the spring Saturnalia, the festival of the Holi. They light a large bonfire of teak-wood logs, throwing into the flames handfuls of grain as an offering to the local goddess. Then the dance proceeds round the blazing fire. The men carry light sticks in their hands, which they tap against each other, at first slowly and listlessly, as they begin to circle slowly round. In the centre the drummers stand, beating the skins in wild harmony. Then the dance grows wilder and always wilder, and the dancers shout the shrill whoop, not unlike the Highlander’s when he dances, a yell which quavers from the compressed throat through quickly trilling lips. As the time quickens, the sticks are beaten faster upon each other, and the dancers move three steps forward, then a turn, then three steps forward, once again. The women also dance round and round, and their shrill voices begin a song. The men follow the words and reply, verse to verse, in a weird antiphony. When the fun becomes louder, the men join hands in a circle and the women climb up by their clasped hands till on each man’s shoulders there stands a woman, her hands also joined to her neighbour’s, and the whole circle revolves to the tune of some village song. When they are not dancing, jests and jibe are bandied freely between the younger lads and their girls, and now and again a loving look or touch is rewarded with a ringing box on the ears.

But, with all their freedom, the Bhil women have their pride and virtue. From their womanhood and independence they will not readily derogate, even if the price be heavy. And not seldom the stranger, some stall-fed Hindu from a fatter land, has learnt this to his cost. There was such a one, a Charge Officer, who administered (or was supposed to) a relief camp in the Bhil country during a famine year. Being well-fed and lazy, pampered and a fool, he thought he could have his will of the bold, “unlady-like” forest women who were forced by famine to seek relief at his hands. So he cast a lecherous eye on one who was young and fair and had a merry laugh. And being fat and foolish, he put the alternative to her bluntly, as such a man would, with no nonsense about it. If she was not pleased, she could look out for herself elsewhere. So she smiled a merry smile and fixed an hour when he should meet her in the forest. But when he got there, he found not her alone whom he sought but with her a round dozen of her women friends. And each one had a good, fresh-cut stick in her hand. Then they explained to him at some length, and with free and appropriate gesture, that they knew exactly where to use a stick with most effect. Their language was distinctly daring, but they left him clear about their meaning. And that after all is the main thing. It took him quite a long time to get home after they had done with him, and crawling through the jungle is not pleasant going. Even when he was dismissed from his employment a couple of days later, the impression of their arguments was still acute. But there were hopes that in time he would begin to understand the character of the Bhil woman.

Such manners and such characters it would be difficult to find elsewhere in India. With the general Hindu ideal of service, chastity, and effacement they have no common ground. Yet it cannot be doubted that here is a life which makes for happiness and, in its own way, for self-realization. The Bhils are wild and uncultured, of course, and they have to suffer from the fevers of the forest and from wild animals. Of luxury they know nothing and their pleasures are primitive and rather coarse. But they are contented. The wife loves her man and the husband cherishes his wife with a very real fondness and even with respect, and they have a cheerful pride as they watch their children play and grow strong and upright. They share their hardships and their small joys fairly and equally. They tend their garden with a kindly contentment; and at night, their labour done, they drink their glass and have their jest, and go to bed in the forest clearing tired and comfortable. And when the Bhil does rob a travelling merchant and is caught, it is for his wife alone that he yearns in the dreary separation of the prison.

Civilization, if it comes to the Bhil from the East, brings with it child-marriage and Brahman law and caste degradation; if from the West, it brings the factory and the industrial slum. Drunken and thrift-less, oppressed by customs which he cannot understand, he finds himself submerged in the lowest proletariat, exploited and despised. Can civilization give anything to the Bhil better than what he has?--ease and liberty!