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Exploring the Narrative History and Experiences of Meghwal Community: An Ethnographic Study

 

Mayur Helia

mayur heliaThe Meghwal community has no written history as such. Everything is in the oral form. Through this research, I have understood that a major portion of their history is lost in this process of oral history. Also, there are multiple stories which have come up over a period of time. About the origin of the community itself, there are more than five theories. The history of castes and untouchability is linked with that of occupation and food habits of the community. The factor of "purity" and "pollution" had played an important role in creating the social order. That is the reason why "Chamar" and "Bhangi" are considered to be lower in the social hierarchy than Meghwal.

Even the names which the community had at different points in time are linked with their occupation and names of patron saints; for example "Vankar" stands for weaving, "Dhedh" is related to dragging dead animals and "Meghwal" comes from the Megh Rishi. All the saints of the community had a humanitarian approach and had worked for the emancipation of the community. One of the saints, Veer Meghmaya, had sacrificed his life to get basic human dignity for the community. The concept of god in the community began from nature worshipping and has reached polytheism due to various religious influences. The cultural and traditional practices are shaped by various religious influences. And even till date, Meghwal community is marginalized due to caste.

Introduction

"Until the lion tells his side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter." 

This is an African proverb where the lion stands for the African people and the hunter for the colonial rulers. There was the practice of slavery, which resulted into illiteracy and poverty among the Africans. But there has been only a single historical narrative which was written by the colonial rulers, where they portrayed themselves as messiahs. The story of the slavery and injustice was glorified by the rulers. The world assumed that the truth was written by the hunter, since the authority and power was in their hands. But that is not the truth. There is another side to this narrative, the side of the oppressed people and their story, which can provide a clear picture about the scenario. (Adagba, 20061)

This study is based on an ethnographic enquiry of the Meghwal community residing in the Saurashtra region in Gujarat and Mumbai in Maharashtra. It is about the oral history of the community people, as there is not much that has been written. Whatever narratives that the elders of the community have, they have been passed on from one generation to another. So, the different narratives about the origin, untouchability, gods, saints, culture and traditions are the focus of this study. Meghwals come under the Schedule Castes in Gujarat and Maharashtra. In Mumbai, the community's major occupation and livelihood is based on BMC(Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation). Most of the people are laborers, specifically Safai Karmacharis. Some of them have reached higher positions in the BMC. In the Saurashtra region, their primary occupation is weaving, tilling small farms and picking up dead animals, which is now reducing.

Oral History

"'Yes', said Mrs. Oliver, 'and then when they come to talk about it a long time afterwards, they've got the solution for it which they've made up themselves. That isn't awfully helpful, is it?' 'It is helpful,' said Poirot,... 'It is important to know certain facts which have lingered in people's memories, although they may not know exactly what the fact was, why it happened or what led to it. But they might easily know something that we do not know and that we have no means of learning. So there have been memories leading to theories..." (Portelli, The Peculiarities of Oral History, 19812)

'Oral history' is a common shorthand for what we might describe more eloquently as the use of oral sources in history or the social sciences. Oral narratives and evidences which are found in oral history are but an additional tool in the historian's display of sources, and are therefore subject to the same critical scrutiny as all other sources, in order to ascertain their reliability and their usefulness (Portelli, A Dialogical Relationship. An Approach to Oral History, 19983). Oral history can be defined as the process of collecting, usually by means of tape recorded interviews, reminiscences, accounts, and interpretations of events from the recent past which are of historical significance. This form of history is simply as one among several primary resources. It is no worse than written documents. Archives are replete with self-serving documents, with edited and doctored diaries and memoranda written for the record.

Meghwal

The word 'Meghwal' is derived from the word 'Meghwar'. 'Megh' in Sanskrit means cloud or rain and 'war' refers to the people who pray. So, Meghwal and Meghwar are people who pray for rain. They claim to have descended from the Rishi Megh, a saint who had the power to bring rain from the clouds through his prayers. Meghwals are found in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. Sizeable population of Meghwals is also found in Pakistan. During the partition, people who chose to be part of Hinduism came to India, and the others settled there. Meghwals are also known as 'Vankar' or 'Dhedh' in these regions.

Geographical Location
 

Sindh 700ad

Original location of the community

(Source : http://www.worldhistorymaps.info/images/Sindh_700ad.jpg) 

It is said by the elders in the community that the birth of Meghwals took place in the Sindh region. Sindh in the ancient times is said to have extended from the present day Kashmir in the north to Gujarat in the south and from Afghanistan in the west to Uttar Pradesh in the east. The Meghwal community originated in Sindh and later migrated to the north, south, east and west. Even today, most of the community can be seen in and around the same region. The Meghwal community today is found in Kashmir, Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Mumbai. Meghwals are also residing in Pakistan, especially near the western and south-western region. The community has spread around the region over a period of time. Cultural traditions of the community can be seen to have several local influences. So, there is no cultural tradition that is common to the whole.

meghwal current

Present area where Meghwal Community members are settled

(Source :  http://www.nationsonline.org/oneworld/india_map.html)

Food and Culture

Historically, people from the Meghwal community have been beef eaters. In the past, they used to eat dead animals for various reasons. But in recent times, this practice has reduced, as it is considered as impure by the upper castes. So, in order to avoid being discriminated against, many have given up on it. But they still eat beef which is available in the market. There is not much information about the similarities in the culture within the community, as according to the geographical location and religious influence they have adapted and changed their culture and traditions over a period of time. People from the community say that there are similarities in the culture of Meghwals residing in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Mumbai and Pakistan. For example, the nature of the marriage ceremony of people, who are influenced by Hinduism, is the same. Cremation is practiced in a similar way in this region, as this region was once united in the past. In the northern India i.e. in Punjab and Kashmir, the culture is similar.

Social and Political History

This chapter will try to look at the various oral history accounts and the links between the themes that they elicit. The concept of oral history is to explore the various histories that are present in the community. To get a better understanding of the historical background of the community, oral histories are important, as they can provide insider perspectives that tend to be different from the mainstream historical narratives that tend to be written by the dominant upper castes. These narratives can often counter the mainstream narratives as well.

The institution of accepted knowledge in the past was owned by the Brahmins, as Dalits had no access to formal education. It was a system created by the upper castes, so that people from the lower strata of the society could not break the chains and revolt against them. It was an attempt to create a hegemonic rule of the upper castes, which led to illiteracy amongst the Dalits. The upper castes controlled resources for food, shelter as well as rules of entry into the village premises. So, one can hardly find any written history of many Dalit communities. Most of the history known to us is in the form of verbal narratives i.e. oral history. Oral history is passed by one generation onto the other. Through this process, one can find multiple stories regarding the origin of the community, cultural and traditional practices, stories of the saints (veer purush), food habits etc. of the people of the Dalit community. As different religions began to be more popular, they also started influencing these narratives. Different religions also influenced many things like the culture and food habits of the community. But there were some common links between different sub-sections of this community, as can be seen in the stories shared by people.

The Meghwal community are without a written history that can trace their origin, caste, culture, tradition, god or deities and the stories of their saints. There is only very little written history about the Meghwal community and most of it is in Gujarati which has also surfaced only in the recent times. Drawing from the written history about the community, it is found that the word 'Meghwal' is derived from the word 'Meghwar'. 'Megh' in Sanskrit means cloud or rain and 'war' means people who pray. So, Meghwal and Meghwar are people who pray for rain. They claim to have descended from the Rishi Megh, a saint who had the power to bring rain from the clouds through his prayers. The Meghwal are found in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. A good number of Meghwals are also found in Pakistan. During partition, people who chose to be part of Hinduism came to India, whilst the others settled there.

History of the origin and relationship between different denominations in the Meghwal community

This section will look at the different oral histories which are there in the Meghwal community. In context of its origin, there is no single history. People have different perspective about how they came into existence as a community. The story of the community is majorly linked with the origin myth that all Shudras are born from the feet of the Brahma. Therefore, tracing the origin by navigating through a variety of stories will provide a better understanding about the origin of the community. Along with this, the name of the community has undergone changes over a period of time. By understanding the connotations associated with the various names given to the community and the assertions by the community regarding their name, one can also gain valuable historical insights. For instance, the Meghwals are also known as Vankar and Dhedh. So, it is valuable to understand the connotations of different names and the history and the meaning of the name or title.

In the context of Meghwals, there are two to three perspectives about their origin that were told to me by my grandmother. One, where we are seen as the descendents of Megh Rishi who worshiped rain. The second narrative perceives Meghwals as born from the feet of Brahma. This is a common narrative told by the Brahmin. Also, the community has had different names in different time periods like Meghwal, Vankar, Dhedh, etc. Since the times of the Megh Rishi, there has been many other names or titles given to the community. Some people believe that Meghwal comes from Megh Rishi and that Dhedh is a derogatory term used by the upper castes. Vankar is the name that came from the profession. Some names were imposed, while some titles were adopted by the community. There were some occupation based names too. So, one must acknowledge these multiple narratives to understand the origins and connotations of the various names that the community got over a period of time.

Origin of Meghwal

This section will try to explain the history and the origin of the Meghwal community. Tracing the origin of any community with only oral history is difficult but it can provide some understanding of the origin of the community. In Meghwals, there are multiple stories about its origin. This section looks at multiple histories and tries to find a connection between them.

I - From Brahma's feet

Mr. Jivraj says that, "Our origin is from Brahma's feet". This is a common narrative of the birth of the Varna system in Hinduism. It says that all Shudras were born from the feet of Brahma. This theory is generic to all the Shudras and their origins. However, Mr. Jivraj believes that this theory must mean that Dalits are higher in social status as everyone touches god's feet and not the head. So, god must have kept them higher. There is no one understanding or definition of Hinduism, but it is interesting to note that people of all castes or 'jatis' only touch the feet of the deity. Although, the theory of Brahma says that Shudras are born from the feet but then why do people touch the feet of the god is not explained in detail. So, people's interpretation of this narrative shows an attempt to reverse the social hierarchy by creating a counter argument.

II - From Occupation

Mr. Solanki say that the people got their identity from their occupation. Vankar (weaver) is not a caste, it is an occupation. This is one of the major debates among the intellectuals across India that the caste has come from the occupation of the community. Further, he says that 'Meghwal' came from Megh Rishi, so we are his descendents. There was a book written on Megh Rishi and the origin of Meghwals by Saint Nathuram called as 'Megh Matang', which is now unavailable. This book explained the origins and traced the historical significance of the Meghwals.

III - From Veer Meghmaya

According to Chandulal, the name 'Meghwal' came from Veer Meghmaya. There is also a prevalent story regarding the same. He says, "Our caste name came from our occupation. Initially, there were only three jatis i.e. Nar (Male) Nari (Female) and Kinnar (Trans). First came the name 'Dedh' from our occupation, then 'Maysharya', then 'Meghwal', then 'Harijan' and finally now we are known as Dalits". In every period, the names were changing according to the occupation and the influence of saints.

IV - From Megh Rishi

According to Harshad bhai, in Matang Rishi's time there was one Rishi, named Megh Rishi or also known as Mamaydev. At that time, one of Brahmins had conflict of interest with the king. So, he cursed him that there will be no rain in his kingdom for 7 years. So, the king gave out an order that people should save water for drinking. All reservoirs were guarded by his soldiers. One day, a person was found taking a bath in the lake. Soldiers caught him and took him to the king's court. The king asked him, "Don't you know there will be no rain for 7 years?", to which the person responded by saying that this year there will be heavy rainfall. No one believed him. He said, I am going on the peak of Girnar mountain for austerity. After that, it will rain for 7 days continuously. The entire kingdom was flooded; the king went to apologize for not believing him. The Rishi said, "I have called the clouds but I don't have the power to send them back. For that you must call 'Dhedhs', and from then on we came to be known as 'Meghwal'." He got to hear this story from his grandfather.

V - Due to Aryan Invasion

Jayram Bappu, a Buddhist monk, claims that there were no Chamar or Meghwal castes initially. He says, "'Meghwal' or 'Vankar', or whichever term one may use to identify them, are the 'Mulnivasi (original inhabitants)' of this country. They were the Rajputs of this country. Hence, one may find similarities between their surnames and Rajput's surnames. After the Aryan invasion, which was around a thousand years ago, there was a conflict between the Aryans and the Mulnivasis. Some people inhabited the jungles, and they were known as Adivasis (Bhil). Whoever accepted the Aryan rule was made a Kshatriya, and small kingdoms were given to them. The others who fought and lost were made Shudras. They had to stay out the village (i.e., Simaliya). Their rights as villagers were ripped off of them. They were labeled as a despicable (Nich) jati. All the odd labours we given to them. This emerging perspective has been important in the collective struggle of Adivasis and Bahujans that is gaining momentum in India.

Vankar, Meghwal, Dhedh and other denominations

In the contemporary era, there are three names which are used interchangeably. Vankar is the occupation-based name and Meghwal comes from Megh Rishi or Veer Meghmaya. Dhedh is the derogatory term used by the upper castes.

Harshad bhai says, "When Megh Rishi diverted the clouds from the sky, we were called as 'Meghwal'. When we started weaving, the name 'Vankar' came into existence. When we dragged the dead animal, the name 'Dhedh' came into being. When we stayed in sim i.e. outside the village, we were called as Simaliya, meaning outsiders." All the names which were given to the community were related to some event, act or occupation. The derogatory name that was imposed on the community by the upper castes helped maintain cultural hegemony and caste barriers.

According to Chandulal, the word 'Meghwal' came from the Veer Meghmaya. The name of their caste was also linked to their occupation. He says that at first they were called 'Dhedh', then 'Marshariya', then 'Meghwal', 'Harijan' and now they are known as 'Dalit'. They have changed 4 to 5 names of jatis in the course of time. Mr. Dhanji says that name of the caste came from the occupation. The name 'Vankar' came from their occupation of weaving. Mr. Solanki says that the name 'Meghwal' came from the name of Megh Rishi. He further said that this was the reason why they are the 'Meghvansaj' i.e. descendants of Megh Rishi.

Jayram bappu says that 'Dhedh' is a word that was created by the Brahmins through distortion. 'Meghwal' and 'Vankar' are one and the same. 'Meghwal' or 'Vankar' are the Mulnivasis. The Aryan invaders influenced and controlled everything, including their name and food habits.. This narrative is similar to the Aryan and Mulnivashi concept.

Mr. Solanki says, "Before the 12th century there were many 'Vansh', such as 'Surya Vansh', 'Chandra Vansh' etc. People were divided into different sections according to their 'Vansh'. As time passed, occupation started to become the identity and identity became the caste of the community. The name 'Meghwal' is related to Megh Rishi. Just as many kings are 'Surya Vanshi' or 'Chandra Vanshi', Meghwals are 'Megh Vanshi'. Their name comes from the Vansh. The origin of the word 'Dhedh' is in the word 'Ther'.. If one looks into history, one can see that 'Ther' and 'Theri' are two sects of Buddhism namely, Mahayana and Hinayana. 'Ther' also means a male follower of Buddha and 'Theri' means female followers. The word 'Ther' turned into 'Thed' and finally became 'Dhedh'." Jivraj Helia says, "'Dhedh' means we are the people of one word". There are so many castes and jatis but only 'Dhedh' (ढेढ) has one word. 'Vankar' came from the occupation and 'Meghwal' from Megh Rishi. 'Dhedh' preceded the 'Meghwal'." This was the only response which was positive about the word 'Dhedh'.

Summary

There are many stories regarding their origin, but all are somewhere linked with the occupation and food habits of the community. The stories are of Brahma and the Aryan invasion, which are related to Hinduism. Along with the occupation and the saints, the stories related can been linked with Brahma's theory and Aryan invasion. Different names that the community has had are indicators of the process of being and evolving. They are also connected to their origin and occupation. The terms Dhedh and Vankar are related to the occupation that the community had. The name Meghwal is related to Megh Rishi and Veer Meghmaya. Dhedh is also seen as a derogatory term used by the upper castes. The word Sim means 'outside' and 'Simaliya' are the outsiders. So, the word 'Simaliya' came about because people from this community were made to live outside the village.

History of Caste, Untouchability and the hierarchy among Bhangi, Chamar and Meghwal

Meghwals are considered to be the descendants of Megh Rishi. They are worshippers of rain and the cloud. In this section, the history of caste and untouchability is looked at through the lens of different stories. The process of outcasting a community often has a historical context. As my grandmother told me once, our community was once considered as Brahmin. However, for reasons unknown to all, we were cast out. By studying the narratives coming from the members of the Meghwal community, one can infer about the context in which Meghwals were pushed into untouchability. Even within the "lower castes", there are further subdivisions and social hierarchy amongst them. Meghwals are considered to be higher in social status than Chamars and Bhangis. This social hierarchy is also reflected in these stories.

Untouchability and Caste

In context of Meghwals, most people believe that untouchability and lower caste status came from their occupation and their food habits. There are a few narratives on how beef was consumed and also how Meghwals were engaged in 'unclean' work. Harshad bhai, a Brahmin priest, narrates a story according to which Meghwals used to be known as 'Dharmacharis' (followers of the Dharma) in the past. Their social status was higher than that of the Brahmins. Brahmins went and complained to Brahma about what they considered to be an unfair treatment. So, Brahma incarnated as a sage and went with the 'Kamadhenu' (holy cow) into the settlement of Dharmacharis. He also offered them 'Somras' (alcohol). Brahma asked the people to take care of the cow for a few days, after which he would come back to take her back. Dharmacharis consumed alcohol and cow milk. They started thinking that if the milk of the cow tastes so good, surely its meat would taste much better. They killed the cow in their greed. Upon return, Brahma found about this and in his rage, cursed the community to serve the upper castes for four 'jugs' (eras).

In Jivraj Helia's opinion, Meghwal are born from the feet of Brahma and so they are lower in the caste hierarchy, but they are higher than Bhangi and Chamar. Untouchability came because they engaged in 'unclean work'. Also, the consumption of non-vegetarian food was the reason why they were kept out of the village boundary (Simaliye).

Mr. Solanki says that Meghwals became untouchables because of their occupation and food habits. Meghwals used to take dead animals out of the village, which was perceived to be an unclean occupation. They also ate the meat from these animals.

 In the earlier section, I have mentioned Jaydev Bapu's narrative about Meghwals as the Mulnivashis fighting with the Aryans. In his opinion, untouchability and lower caste status were punishments given to the community for resisting the Aryan invasion.
Mr. Dhanji says that their history is missing. He says, "If we see the Ramayan, there has been no mention of Dalits in the entire epic. The only Dalit character that has been mentioned cursorily is that of one sailor who was from our community. Similarly, only one Adivasi woman has been mentioned. From the occupation, caste came into existence. Like if one's occupation was to cut hair, he became a Nai."

Mr. Dhanji further says, "There was a great famine ages ago and we had no food to survive and so we started eating the dead animals. Because of our food habits i.e. eating beef, the upper castes kept us away and that's how we became Shudra or Dalit."

From the respondents, there were majorly three different stories with respect to caste and untouchability. The history according to one was that the Aryans forced them to become untouchable. The another version was that untouchability and the lower caste title came from the occupation and the food habits which included eating dead animals. The third story was related to Brahma which was divided into two as one respondent said that untouchability and low caste status came due to Brahma's curse. Another said that because they were born from the feet of Brahma. These are the stories that explain the concept of untouchability and lower caste status.

Hierarchy among Meghwal, Chamar and Bhangi

There is hierarchy within all castes cutting across from Brahmins to Shudras. The Meghwals/Vankars are seen as higher than Chamars/Rohidasvanshis, who are in turn seen as higher than Bhangis/Rukhi Samaj.

To understand the caste dynamics and various forms of hierarchy within the lower castes, one has to understand the history of the hierarchy and how this hierarchical structure came into existence. Some of the narratives shed light on this subject.

Jivraj Helia say that Bhangi and Meghwal were once one, but due to their occupation, Bhangis were relegated to a lower status. In his opinion, Mochi was also a Meghwal before but after which there was a need for shoemakers inside the village and that's how he got entry inside the village and then he settled there. This is how they became higher in the caste hierarchy.

Jaydev bappu shares his experiences in Gujarat as he says, "There, amongst the Vankar and Chamar there still prevails high levels of discrimination. They don't eat together or have inter-caste marriages. Vankars believe that they are higher in the ladder. One can see this discrimination in Surashtra region and in Mumbai too". He believes that this division has sustained for such a long time because of Manu and Sankaracharya.

According to Mr. Solanki, the occupation of the Vankar is 'cleaner' than that of the Chamars. Chamars work with leather and hence, they are considered as lower. In the Suarashtra region. there is not much hierarchy among Vankars and Chamars. You will find inter-caste marriages and people eating together. But if one moves closer to Ahmedabad i.e. to the eastern part of Gujarat, they don't have such practices. In Kutch region, one will find Maheshwari Meghwals. They practice a different system altogether. However, Bhangis have always been put at the bottom of the hierarchy because of their occupation that was considered unclean.

Mr. Dhanji explains that, "From the differences in occupations, castes came into existence. Meghwals have always been considered higher in hierarchy than Chamars and Bhangis because our occupation has been considered to be cleaner than theirs"." Even Mr Chandulal says, "Because our occupation was cleaner than that of Bhangis and Chamars, we are higher in the caste hierarchy".

Summary

The history of untouchability and hierarchy within the community is due to the factor of "purity" and "pollution". That is again connected with the occupation and food of the community. The food and occupation of the community is seen as impure, which leads to discrimination. Hierarchy between the 'Meghwal', 'Chamar' and 'Bhangi' community has come about due to differences in occupation and the ideas of 'purity' and 'pollution' associated with them. As one comes lower in this hierarchy, the number of differentiating factors reduces. For example, when the food habits of different communities are similar, occupation becomes the deciding factor.

Religious and Cultural History

In this section, I shall try to look at the history of the evolution of the concept of god within the Meghwal community. A lot of mythological stories have been used as tools to justify exploitation of the lower castes. Hence, one has to look at them with the lens of scepticism. By looking at the stories of patron saints of the community, one can get a clearer picture about the place of gods in the culture of the community as well as of the community's fights against discrimination. Saints have been crucial in uniting people against the oppressive system.

God and Idol worshiping

The concept of god is important to understand as it helps to trace the history of the community, to find out about the transformation of the community in the context of god, and about the saints who have worked for the emancipation of the community.

Mr. Dhanji says, "We have been a religious community since the beginning. Kabir Saheb has been an important saint for Meghwals. However, our community started worshipping idols due to influence of the Brahmins. Meghwals are people who bow down to every god and believe that all gods are equal."

Mr. Solanki says, "Ealier, Meghwals used to reside in east-facing dwellings, as they were worshippers of the Sun. This is a phenomenon unique to Meghwals".

Jivraj Helia says, "Palan Pir is the creator of all. He created Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh. Meghwals were monotheists in the past and worshipped one god called Oliya. However, a division occured later, where they started praying to multiple gods." Jaydev bappu says, "Idol worshiping started after the Aryan invasion. The Aryans came to India and started spreading their religion. Before the Aryan invasion, within Meghwal community, there was no idol worshipping".

According to Harshad bhai, "Goddess (Mataji) was with us from the beginning. She is the Kul Devi. Every family has different Kul Devi in the Meghwal community. Whichever temple was near to their home, they started worshipping her and she became the Kul Devi. Meghwals also worship Meladi Maa (goddess on goat) which is the goddess of "Vaghri" community. Bahuchara Maa is one of the important goddesses. She is the goddess of the eunuchs (goddess on chicken). She too is respected and worshipped by the community".

Mr. Chandulal says, "Meghwals consider every human being as God. There is no one higher or lower, everyone in equal. They believe that humans were created by the god equally and the division was created by the powerful people".

meghwal beliefThe Meghwals reside outside the village, but even there they are mostly on the eastern parts of the village, where the sun rises, as they were the sun worshippers. Then, they started worshiping one invisible god called Palan Pir, which even today is worshipped by most of the community and is considered as the creator of all. After that, either due to Aryan invasion or due to influences of Brahmins, the concept of worshiping idols came into the community. This basic understanding is derived from the merging the different narratives that were shared with me by the people of the community.

Religious influences

As different religions began spreading, the Meghwal community was also influenced by them. In several instances, they were forced to convert or incentivized to convert on the command of the ruler of the region. They did not have any say in the decision, as the ruler's demands bore the most importance.

Jivraj Helia says, "Rama Pir was from Meghwal community. We are not Hindu or Muslim, we are followers of Sanatan Dharm. The Varna system of the Sanatan dharma is totally different. Even Muslims worship him. The Palan Pir is the Pir of all Pirs. Pir according to the Oxford definition is, "a muslim saint or a holy man". Palan Pir is the creator of all. Muslims know that Meghwal are higher and so they come to us. Initially, we were also Oliya (people who worship one god) but later when different religions came into existence, we were influenced and so we got confused."

As Mr. Solanki has written a book on Veer Meghmaya, where he shows how many names in Meghwal community are similar to Muslim names. Under whichever rule they were or whichever region they belonged to, religious and cultural practices around them have influenced them. Like when Islam came, they got influenced by it. Hinduism or Sanatan Dharma had influenced them before. From culture to food, everything was influenced by the ruler. Even the geographic location has influenced them. As mentioned earlier, according to Harshad bhai, "Hindu religion is the Sanatan Dharm, every religion has come out of the Sanatan itself. So, the division is made by the people. God is one". From the narratives given in the earlier section, one can see that Meghwals were also influenced by the Aryans as well as the Brahmins in shaping their practices of worship.

meghwal religionAs Meghwals were the people who were weaker and the most vulnerable, it was easy for the ruler or for any powerful entity to influence them. One can see glimpses of several religions in religious practices of the Meghwal community. In this manner, we can conclude that the religious influences have also affected the cultures and tradition of the community. With the invasions of different religion, the Meghwal community was deeply affected.

Saints and their stories

Megh Rishi

Most of the respondants had similar opinion about the idea that the word 'Meghwal' comes from Megh Rishi. Thus, it is imporant to probe deeply into history to understand who Megh Rishi was and how he influenced the community.

meghwal meghrishi(Source: http://www.meghnet.in/2015/12/megh-rishi_21.html)

It has already been described earlier in this report that the popular narrative about Megh Rishi describes events where he was crucial in stopping the incessant rains and saving the village from the destructive floods.

Veer Meghmaya

Veer Meghmaya was born in Meghwal community in the 12th century. He is called as the Veer Purush and people also worship him, as it is believed that he had sacrificed his life for the emancipation of the community.

meghwal veermegh(Source: https://plus.google.com/111684242365653991048)

The ruler of Junagadh at that time was Siddhiraj Solanki. He saw a beautiful woman near the lake who belonged to the Meghwal community. He asked her to marry him but as she was already married, she declined the proposal. Later, she was forced into a marriage and in rage she cursed the king that his kingdom and its people will die without water. There was no rain for a few years and all the ponds and lakes dried up. Distraught, Siddhiraj called the Brahmins and Rishis to find some solution to this problem. Brahmins suggested that a sacrifice of a male who had 32 qualities would be the solution for the drought. In his kingdom there were only two persons with 32 qualities, one was Siddhiraj himself and the other was Veer Meghmaya. So he ordered his soldiers to get him to his court. He was brought by the soldiers, when Siddhiraj asked him if he would sacrifice his life for the wellbeing of Junagadh, Veer Meghmaya replied saying, "I will sacrifice my life only if you accept my demands". With his exemplary bravado he demanded for the Meghwal community be allowed to reside inside the village and the broom from their back should be removed along with the spitting pot from the neck. He made 10 such similar demands for the emancipation of the people of the Meghwal community. Siddhiraj had to agree to the demands made by Veer Meghhmaya.

According to Jivraj Helia, "Veer Meghmaya was Veer Purus who gave his life for the community". Jaydev bappa says that, "his life was taken by the brahmins because he had 32 qualities which even Brahmins did not have. As they were jealous, they created this trap". Mr. Chandulal Harshad bhai, Mr. Solanki and Mr. Dhanji repeated the same narrative.

Rama Pir

Rama Pir is considered as a god in the Meghwal community. He was the local deity of the community but now one can find his temples across the world. Rama Pir is also known as Ramdev Pir. He is considered a saint because he was a social reformer and fought against the discrimination of the marginalised community. His temple in Runecha, Rajasthan, is a religious place for all.
 

Rama pir(Source: http://pirramdev.blogspot.in/)

The common story that most of the respondents shared was that Rama pir was a social reformer born in Rajasthan and also ruled it. He considered a Meghwal girl as a sister and fought for equality for the rest of his life. He had miraculous powers and he did great things for the Meghwal community.

One the respondents narrated a story about Rama Pir or Ramdev Pir which is as follows. When pirs of Mecca heard about the popularity of Ramdev, they decided to test his powers and reached Runecha, the place where Ramdev resided. They came to Runecha and Ramdev invited them for food, but the pirs said that they had forgotten their plates at Mecca and they would not eat in any other utensil. Ramdev, used his miraculous powers and brought the plates from Mecca and served them food. The pirs were so impressed with Ramdev's miraculous powers that they declared Muslims would also follow him and that he would be called Ramsa pir. Dominique Sila Khan has done extensive ethnographic work on this popular deity. She argues that Ramdev belonged to the lsmaili branch of Nizarpanthis, a nonconformist Muslim sect.

Harshad bhai says that Rama Pir was a Rajput from Surya vansh. Further he goes onto describe Ramdev Pir as Vishnu's avatar. He is considered as a saint in Meghwal community for the work he did for the community. As Daliben, who was from Meghwal community was his sister (मानी हुई बहन). Jivraj Helia says that Rama Pir was born in Meghwal community. Mr. Solanki says that, some people from Meghwal community believe that he was born in their community but the upper castes claims that he was born in the Kshatriya community. He gives the reference that, Dr. Kusum Meghwal from Rajasthan has written a book on Rama Pir titled, "Meghwal baba Ramdev". There she writes how Rama Pir was not the son of a Kshatriya but was born in the Meghwal community. Daliben is his sister i.e. sister of Rama Pir. He further explains that, Ramdev was a social reformer who fought against discrimination and for human rights. He stood by our side and fought against the discrimination. Jaydev bappu sees Ramdev as a saint and a social reformer. There are many stories about him but a few clearly suggest that he was a social reformer and fought against the discrimination of the people from the Meghwal community who now worship him.

Rohidas

Rohidas is a deity worshipped by the Meghwal community. Most people believe that, Rohidas, also known as Ravidas, was born in 15th century. He was born in a family that worked with dead animals to produce leather products, making him an untouchable from the Chamar caste. Meghwal and Chamar have very close relationships due to their occupation. So, he is worshipped by the community as a saint who worked for the community.

meghwal rohidas(Source: http://premikan.com/2009/08/sant-rohidas/)

 Harshad bhai narrates a story about Rohidas. "He was born in our community, which includes Chamar also". He was a saint, worshiper of Krishna/Vishnu. One day Brahmins were going to Ganga to bathe. On the way they saw this person making shoes and mockingly asked, "Are you not coming to Ganga?". In reply, Rohidas gave a piece of thread and told them, that if goddess Ganga takes this with her hand then only give it to her or else bring it back to me. Condescendingly they took the thread from him. When they reached Ganges one of them said that Chamar has given a thread to put in the river, let's see if goddess Ganga takes it by her hands. When they suspended the thread into the river, a hand came out of river to receive the thread. In return Ganga gave her bangles as a proof of having accepted the thread by her own hands. Harshadbhai further goes on to explain how caste is not important for worshipping god. This system is created by the upper castes to control the 'lower' castes.

Jaydev bappu says, "Rohidas fought against the caste system, which Aryans started." Mr. Solanki explains that because the Chamars and Meghwal are together in this region they also worship Rohidas. Mr. Chandulal Says that he was a saint and a social reformer. Mr. Dhanji believes that he was a great personality who fought against the caste system. Jivraj Helia says that, "he was a saint from our community so, we worship him". The people from the Meghwal community worship Rohidas making him an important deity among the community.

Summary

Meghwals, in the beginning, were nature worshipers, as the name itself is connected to Megh i.e. rain. Also, as one respondent tells that the houses of Meghwal are in the east because in the beginning, they used to worship the sun. So, the sun and the rain means that they were nature worshipers. After that due to the other religious influences, it got transformed; like they worshipped Oliya (one god), as people who believe in the invisible god (nirakar). Earlier they used to worship one god called Palan Pir. After that, idol worship in polytheism came into existence. So, as they came into contact with different religions they started getting influenced by that. So, influences started from the time of nature worship, and even in the contemporary period people are converting or accepting and abolishing some of the practices which have existed in the community. It has been a continuous process. The saints whom the community worship are seen as saviours of the community, all are people who have worked for upliftment of the community. They had a humanitarian approach and saw everyone as equal. According to their stories, Veer Meghmaya gave his life to get the basic human right and dignity for the community. Rama Pir was a social reformer, who fought for equality. Megh Rishi and Rohidas are also worshipped as they have done things for the community. and are seen as heroic personalities by the community.

History of Culture, Traditions and Food

Knowing and understanding a community's  cultural and traditional practices enriches our understanding of the community. Even the food habits can explain and reflect many things about the community. The culture, tradition and food habits of the Meghwal community are majorly influenced by different religions. The culture and tradition have glimpses of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. This section will examine the history of culture, tradition and food habits of the community and the influence of different religions in shaping this culture and tradition. There are many stories regarding the culture and the tradition of the community which are linked with different religions. There are multiple narratives to describe this. Here, we will try to identify the linkages between the cultural and traditional practices of the community with the various religious influences.

Traditional attire

Before the time of Meghmaya, the Meghwal had to follow some customs and traditions which were imposed on them by the upper castes.

Harshad bhai says that, Brahma cursed Meghwals for Gau Hatya (killing of cow). Consuming cow was considered impure. The Brahmin imposed various regressive rules on the community which were mandatory and if broken, were faced with dire consequences. One such rule was that they could only enter the village at noon so their shadow would not fall on anyone. Another rule stated that they had to wear three rings on both the arms so that the upper castes could identify them only to divert their own path to avoid any interaction with the people belonging to the Dalit community. They were also made to tie  broom/s around their waist, so as to erase their footprints. A spitting pot was also tied around their neck so that they don't pollute the surroundings. These were some of the traditions imposed by the Brahmin community on the Meghwals. Jivraj Helia says that before Veer Meghmaya, "We were forced to wear three rings on hand, the broom was tied to our back and the spitting pot on the neck. This was our traditional identity". Jaydev bappu said that, this tradition was the part of, "a punishment that Aryans imposed on us." Mr. Dhanji explains that, this tradition was started to identify Meghwal, as they were seen as untouchables. Mr. Chandulal Says it was to oppress Meghwal and exploit them.

Marriage

Marriage in the Meghwal community is done according to the Hindu practices of marriage and not much difference is witnessed in the marriage ceremony. In Meghwal, the bride and groom take four rounds, as opposed to the seven taken in the Hindu marriage, around the fire, and take the oath of being together for rest of their life. Most people follow the same tradition and the history about this practice is not clear. Only the people who have converted into Buddhism practice it differently. I was unable to gather more information about this from the respondents.

Cremation or funeral

Harshad bhai says that the concept of burying the dead body came because the smoke from the dead body polluted the air. So, Brahmins did not allow them to burn the dead body but the toe of the dead body is slightly burned. Even today they don't face the dead body while burning the toe and do it 'quietly' instead so that Brahmins will not know about this. In Jivraj Helia's opinion, the smoke which came out of dead body was seen as impure, therefore they started burying the dead body. Jaydev bappu says that, "we also did not have money to buy firewood, so we started burying". Mr. Dhanji said that, "the upper castes controlled the resources and we had no option but to bury the dead body". According to Mr Chandulal they didn't have money to buy firewood so, burying was the alternative which then became a part of tradition which is followed even today. Mr. Solanki also suggested that economic reason was a determinant for the genesis of this tradition.

Food habits

Cow is at the centre of the Meghwal community. They are known as beef eaters.

According to Jivraj Helia, "Eating dead cow is our religion (Dharm) because if we don't eat it then there will be germs making the cow unholy. There are 36 crore gods and goddess in cow, so consuming that is good. But only we are allowed to eat the meat of dead cow and no one else. Eating halal meat is not permissible." He further says, "eating cow is our tradition (Parampar). It is our Dharm and part of our culture as well."

As Harshad bhai narrates that because of Brahma's curse the community had to serve the upper castes for 4 eras (yug). As they had killed the Kamdhenu (cow), the Brahmins gave them work of picking up dead animals from the village; further, due to scarcity of food they had no other option but to eat the same animal. That's how the practice of eating dead animals was started. Mr. Solanki tells that, according to the Buddha, eating dead animals is better as it doesn't hurt anyone. So, that's how it started because it is not hurting anyone. Jaydev bappu tells that, according to the Budhha eating dead animals is not a crime, as there is no act of killing related to that. So, they started eating dead animals.

Dhanji says, "there was great famine, ages ago and we had no food to survive and so we started eating the dead animals. So, because of the food habits i.e., eating beef the upper castes kept us away and that's how we became Shudra or Dalit." That's how the culture of eating beef started and was continued further. Mr Chandulal explains that the upper castes controlled everything and they were poor so could not afford any other food and therefore started eating dead animals.

Summary

In the context of food, culture and tradition all are interconnected. As their occupation was unclean and they used to eat dead animals. In the context of food, it was not by their choice but there was no other option in front of them. They were poor and could not afford to buy food. So, eating dead animals was for the survival. After eating dead animals, the occupation related to it came into existence. They became impure after that, their identity was imposed on them because of their occupation and food, so thAt they could be recognized by the upper castes. The burying practice was also linked to lack of resources. The community was not able to buy wood which was controlled by the upper castes. So even here they had no option but to bury. So, the culture, tradition and food are related to the act of oppression.

Conclusion

The origin is the important aspect of the existence of a community but there is no evidence to support the oral histories about the origin of Meghwals. A single historical perspective can't be proved. But in fact, there are many histories which exist and finding the definitive history is complicated. But, the historical rhetorics explain the context of Dalits from several different perspectives. Birth from Brahma's foot is the most common and the story of a curse is rare. One thing which can be seen is that due to different religious influences the stories come from that particular perspective. In the identity politics the name which one adopts or the name which is ascribed by the upper castes plays an important role in the development and growth of the community. Meghwal is a name that people have adopted by themselves. Similarly, as Ambedkarite is nowadays adopted by many Dalit,. Meghwal was the name which made an attempt to move away from the caste system. Some people believe that it came from Megh Rishi but there is no proper evidence to legitimise this claim. Like, Mr. Dhanji says that Megh Rishi was one of the saints, whether Meghwal came from him or not, I am skeptical.

There is oral history which explains what Mr. Dhanji points towards. But some people also believe that the name Meghwal also means that the community is trying to revolt. Wherever Meghwal are found, there is the picture of Veer Meghmaya who fought and sacrificed his life for the community. If one introspects, the name Meghwal is not related to an occupation like Vankar or Dhedh. Most of names of Dalit communities came from their occupations but Meghwal comes from Megh Rishi and also like other people I think that it came from the Veer Meghmaya to whom the king of Junagadh had promised emancipation. There is some documentation and scriptures found in the fort of Junagadh which supplements evidence of this event.

From narratives in Mumbai, I believe that the Meghwal community has adopted the Meghwal name after Veer Meghmaya. He gave his life for the community and the community adopted his name for emancipation. It was a revolutionary act in the context of identity politics which no one noticed at that time. It is one of the earliest acts of upliftment of the lower castes. Adopting the identity is important as it is seen as a revolt against the hegemony of the upper castes. So, Meghwal holds great importance in contemporary identity politics.

The popular theory about the caste system is that occupation had played a major role in deciding the caste. Untouchability persisted due to the caste of a particular community. Some occupations or professions were seen as 'unclean' and 'polluting'. This is the reason they i.e., people who did 'unclean' work were kept out of the village and were considered as 'untouchables'. The Meghwal community became 'untouchables' due to the same reason. Though there are other reasons related to Aryan invasion or Brahma related concepts and stories which don't have much evidence. The only thing which one can understand is that caste and untouchability came with their occupation and the food habits played an important role. As eating dead animals was also seen as an 'impure' act.

There are many thinkers who have tried to explore the history of eating beef. Dr. Ambedkar's writings on the history of beef eating are important. It is important to note that the animals in the ancient era were eaten after being sacrificed. There is no mention of any upper caste having ever eaten a dead animal. This practice is seen only in the Dalit communities which is why it was considered as impure in the later period. Even within the lower community, a hierarchy existed on the similar line i.e., unclean occupations. The hierarchical power which came on the basis of occupation, became the part of their life. So, Meghwal, Chamar and Bhangi--all at some or other point have consumed dead animals. So, while looking at the hierarchy within the "untouchables", the occupation became the centre. The menial labour, according to the popular perspective will be higher in the hierarchy as opposed to the community which did the most perceivably 'unclean' work i.e., cleaning human excreta became the lowest in the social order. It is important to understand that when it comes to division from the upper castes, two factors are important i.e., food habits and occupation. But when it comes to the hierarchy within the community, the only factor which is considered is occupation as food habits are the same. So, as one goes higher in the social order, the factors determining the higher position will increase accordingly. Is related to the "purity" and "pollution" according to the notion of upper caste? This is so even within the Brahmin community. The social system is based on the notions of 'purity' prevalent in the community. That will decide the position that a community will hold.

The concept of god in this case is very interesting as it started with more naturalisic practices and later transcended into idol worshipping due to the influence of various religions. The name Meghwal itself is linked with clouds and rain. They are called as people who pray for rain. Also as one of the respondents rightly mentions, all the houses of the Meghwal are at the eastern side outside the village because Meghwals used to worship the sun. These practices suggest the naturalistic character of the Meghwal community. Along with this one of the respondents asserts that we are people of one i.e., one god. The name Dhedh has only one syllable (Akshar). So, Meghwal were people who used to worship one god, Palan Pir, which even today is one of most important deities in the community. He says that, Palan Pir is the creator of all - he even created Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh. He is a god without any shape (Nirankar). Therefore, the Meghwal used to worship Palan Pir (Nirakar god) as their sole entity.

Further, another respondent explains how the other gods or idol worship was introduced after the Aryan invasion. That started with introducing a Brahmanical social system creating the divide after which caste also came into existence. Meghwal never had idols before as they used to worship nature and believed in one god who was invisible (Nirakar). Various religions have influenced the concept of god and therefore no one religion is dominant in the Meghwal community. During the partition, people who chose Hinduism came to India and those who chose Islam stayed in Pakistan. Therefore, a considerable number of Meghwals are also found in Pakistan. All of them don't follow Hinduism in India or in Pakistan. There exist various branches like Sanatans i.e. Hinduism, Aapa panth who worships Palan Pir and Buddhists who are followers of Ambedkar. Multiple religions influenced the community and also brought to them many gods. The saints who are also worshipped along with the gods in the Meghwal community are Megh Rishi, Veer Meghmaya, Rama Pir, Rohidas. These saints have fought against the caste system and that is one of the major reasons why they are worshipped and perceived as next to god by the community. The respect for them is more relevant in the contemporary times as they fought for the equality and for the basic Human Rights during that age. They are seen as social reformers by the community who worked for the upliftment of the community. Veer Meghmaya, a Meghwal saint, has even sacrificed his life for the community's Emancipation.

In the present time, the Meghwal community in Mumbai is engaged with BMC in cleaning the city. Most of the Meghwals are sweepers and labourers in Mumbai. Some people have obtained higher positions but most of the population is still engaged with the so-called unclean work, keeping them marginalized. The religion for them is Hindu, as in when they write caste they say, Hindu Meghwal. They are not very politically active as a community in Mumbai. Though a few from the community have been holding positions in BMC. So, in Mumbai their everything revolves around BMC. In Gujarat also, their conditions are not better. There is not much political participation as they have been few in number and even in that there are divisions due to various religious influences. In the village they are still found at the periphery and their occupation is weaving, small farming and picking up dead animals which has reduced greatly in current times. This is their contemporary situation.

~

References

1 Adagba, S. M. (2006, April). Retrieved from afriprov.org: http://afriprov.org/african-proverb-of-the-month/32-2006proverbs/224-april-2006-proverb-quntil-the-lion-has-his-or-her-own-storyteller-the-hunter-will-always-have-the-best-part-of-the-storyq-ewe-mina-benin-ghana-and-togo-.html
2 Portelli, A. (1981). The Peculiarities of Oral History. History Workshop Journal.
3 Portelli, A. (1998). A Dialogical Relationship. An Approach to Oral History. History Workshop Journal.

~~~

 

Mayur Helia is a Research Assistant at Columbia University (Mumbai Project).

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