Hotels in India » The Lifestyle of India » Banjaras


The history of the Banjaras is as colourful as their dress. They belong to a nomadic tribe whose sojourn in the Deccan dates back to three hundred year.

Like a rainbow after a quick summer shower, she suddenly appeared amidst the rocky expanse and glided down gracefully in her swirling ghagra (skirt) past old rocks. Her costume, a primitive burst of colour, was a combination of blazing red, deep mustard, emerald green and yellow. In stark contrast beside her stood the giant granite grey boulders of Hyderabad’s Banjara Hills perched one on top of another.

Somlibai, a Banjara woman and her husband, Roopla Nayak, both casual labourers, reciprocated my greeting and stood by my side for a chat.

Looking younger than her forty off years Somli, carrying her baby in her arms, was happy and proud in her centuries old tribal attire aglint with mirrors and metal coins though she did seem to belong to the modern urban milieu. Every piece of her dress was handmade, carefully woven and delicately embroidered. Her jewels bore the stamp of the genius of rural craftsmen. While Somli’s attire was gorgeous by any standards, her husband’s – a dhoti (loin cloth tied around the waist), a wrinkled coat and turban – looked austere like that of any Indian villager.

“Once upon a time this whole hill was our home and we had many tandas (hamlets) here,” Roopla said. “Today, it is a different picture. Rich people have bought large plots of land and have built big houses with bigger gardens.”

“Do you know that up above this hill they have a built a large modern hotel called Banjara? We are remembered!” They keep moving from place to place as their migratory instinct has not deserted them.

“What about your children?” I asked Roopla, only to be told they no longer share the wanderlust of their elders. The younger generation prefers to settle down to pucca (permanent) jobs in cities. Some are already plying rickshaws in Hyderabad while many have taken to sundry jobs.

The Banjara women, however, are holding steadfast to their ancient mode of dress which is perhaps the most colourful and elaborate of any tribal group in India. Undoubtedly, their dress and jewellery sets them apart from all others. Their full length skirt, is blazing red with borders embroidered in mustard and green thread. The odhni (mantle) which covers the head is long enough to drape down their backs almost touching the feet. This also elaborately embroidered and studded with little mirrors which embellish their cholis (blouses).

A variety of materials – silver, brass, some gold, cowries, ivory, animal bone and even plastic – are used in the making of a Banjara wardrobe. The women wear pretty silver anklets which clink as they walk barefoot. Long silver earrings are conspicuous and patterned cowries decorate their plaits of hair.

Somli sensed my interest in her jewellery and thrust her arm towards me as though asking me to take a closer look at her bangles. “These ivory bangles must have cost you a fortune!” I quipped. Somli giggled. “Who can wear ivory in these days of soaring prices? We now make do with even animal bone and sometimes plastic” she said somewhat disappointedly. I began to count the bangles and she had twenty on each arm. They increased in size as they went up from the wrist to the forearm. Besides bangles, Somli also wore other ornaments which were in the shape of ponderous bars encircling her while some others dangled gracefully like festoons.

Somli spoke to me in a smattering of Urdu and Telugu though her own dialect was kutni. She asked me to look at a pendant she wore. “We call it cheed and it is our most precious possession. Threaded on horse hair, it is given to us during our marriage.” Roopla proudly added, “The hundreds of cowries that Somli wears are also very auspicious for her as they represent Lakshmi, the Goddess of prosperity.”

The Banjaras came to the Deccan following the invasion by the armies of Aurangzeb. According to some authorities, the actual Banjara lineage goes back to some 2000 years. They are said to be the descendants of the Roma gypsies of Europe who migrated to India through the rugged mountains of Afghanistan and finally settled down in Rajasthan. The colourful stream of the Banjaras began to travel down to the South in the 14th century. Many of their families and pack bullocks crossed the Vindhy as and reached the Deccan country in the wake of the plundering armies.

Those were hard time for the Banjaras. “There were no navigable rivers and no roads to wheel their belongings. Thousands of laden bullocks and carts had to travel on mere dust tracks. A single tribe owned as many as 50000 to 60000 cattle” says Capt. Briggs (1813). And so, thanks to the number of cattle they owned, the Banjaras worked for the Moghuls as commissariat carriers transporting provisions and arms, setting up camps on the outskirts of army encampments. When the Southern campaigns ended, the Banjaras forgot their desert homes in Rajasthan and settled down in the Deccan.

Well built, strong and even wiley, the Banjaras found service in places like Pune, Satara in Maharashtra, Hyderabad and Mysore. They sold grain to the armies of Lord Cornwallis besides helping Comte de Bussy with stores and cattle. They even acted as spies for the British later switching over to help Tipu Sultan.

Today due to the spread of communications the Banjara lifestyle has naturally altered and the tribals have had to abandon their packs of animals and take to working as labourers on building and construction projects. Despite all this, their traditional customs, manners and ceremonies have undergone little change and their migatory instinct is still intact.

They move wherever work is available, set up their temporary hamlets and build simple homes of mud and bamboo plaits. They keep very few domestic possessions and make do with earthen vessels, small quilts, bamboo and date mats and some rickety wooden articles. Brass and copper vessels are only recent additions and even these are very few in each family. The tanda (hamlet) members are controlled by a leader who is elected. His word is law on all matters and there was a time when he was credited with supernatural powers and had powers of life and death over his members.

Fond of festivals and domestic celebrations, the Banjaras revel on occasions like the New Year which to them is ugadi celebrated with gaiety. They also celebrate holi and dasara festivals as community affairs when women go from house to house collecting donations for the feast, singing and dancing all the way. Family deities are worshipped on such occasions. Banjaras share some of the religious beliefs of the Hindus and consider Lord Venkateshwara of Tirupati as their family deity. They save money over the years to go to worship the Lord of the Seven Hills whom they call Balaji.

Song and dance come naturally to these tribal women who excel in these arts. Dances and songs also form an integral part of the Banjara wedding which in olden days used to last a whole month and is pruned down to just three days of celebration.

Liquor is distributed freely on the first day of the wedding when the bridegroom and his relatives are welcomed at the bride’s tanda. The welcome is accompanied by offering paan-supari (betel leaves and nut) according to custom. A square silver ornament or bottu is tied round the neck of the bride. The boy and girl exchange seven round balls made of rice, ghee (clarified butter) and sugar while a hundred pairs of eyes are focused on them and the assembled women giggle and make merry. The couple then hold hands and do seven rounds of grain pounding with pestles.

The whole place echoes to the sound of music sung by the women in chorus. The shy bride is taunted all the while: There is no good in your boasting

You have eaten the pudding,

Walk girl, walk without your boasting,

You sat on the plank with the

Bridegroom’s thigh on yours!

All eyes are misted when the bride leaves her parent’s home to go to her husband’s in another tanda. Tears roll down from her eyes as she begins to sing a sad yet meaningful melody:

Let my tanda grow like grass near the tank bund,

Let both families live like a mixture of milk and honey,

Let our two families grow like the peepal and banyan,

I seek your blessings while I take leave of you.

A stunning silence descends on the tanda as the bejwewelled bride worships the family cow as a parting customs and walks slowly with her husband to her new home.


Araku Valley – the moment one thinks of it, a series of pleasing images of lush green hills, bubbling streams, colourful people and their countless fairs, festivals, songs and dances rush through one’s mind. Nestled a 1000 metres high up in the lap of the gorgeously wooded Eastern Ghats, the enchanting Araku Valley is the home of at least a dozen tribes who, in spite of the winds of change sweeping across, still retain their centuries old traditions and folklore. They seem to lead a happy like quite like their ancestors did, miles away from modern day life. I revisited the valley recently and my brief trip left me greatly enriched.

Araku is about 1000 kilometres from the coast of Visakhapatnam district headquarters – Vizag. It is connected by road and also by the world’s highest broad gauge railway laid long ago for transporting iron ore. It happened to be a Friday when I visited the valley. It was still early morning when I arrived. The predawn mist was hanging in the air. There were groups of people gathered by the roadside along the highway. As I walked on I passed a train of gaily attired tribal belles hauling headloads of vegetables, grains and other farm produce. Fridays are market days here where the hum of life echoes as the inhabitants gather to sell or barter their ware – baskets, pottery, farm produce. In exchange they buy kerosene, cloth and imitation jewellery. Apart from the usual buying and selling, the markets also serve as an occasion for prospective brides and grooms to meet. Hence they come in al their traditional finery and colourful apparel. A stroll through these Friday markets is tantamount to walking through a cross section of ancient Indian bazaars. Araku women have a great passion for traditional jewellery which usually consists of a pair of earnings, pendants, three nose rings, silver anklets and bracelets. They are also fond of modern beauty aids as evident from a number of wayside stalls selling a mindboggling variety of cheap synthetic plastic beads and hair clips.

Now, come out of the hub bub of the market and take a walk down through the valley’s undulating landscape chequered with acres and acres of coffee plantations, swaying eucalyptus and gurgling mountain streams. The valley looks like a green carpeted saucer with rows of haystack houses marking the slopes of hills.

Most of the tribal homes are one-roomed structures with a small verandah attached to the front. Walls are brightly painted and beautifully decorated with animals, gods and goddesses drawn in indigenous colours. Every hut has its hearth around which the household relaxes and drinks homemade wine and dines on their farm produce.

Life is a succession of festivals and fairs, song and dance for the people of this valley. They celebrate everything from the onset of the monsoon to the simple toils of daily life. During March-April, for about a month, the people stop all their agricultural activities and undertake hunting expeditions to nearby forests using spears, bows and arrows. On their return the hunters are accorded a hero’s welcome by the women. The entire village revels through the night drinking and dancing. Araku has a well furnished forest resthouse by the side of a railway line overlooking the sylvan valley and the trickling tributary of the river Pathal wends its way through the terraced fields not very far from the resthouse.

The best time to visit the valley is during March-April when the silent night echoes to the sound of music and dance. But naturalists and anthropologists flock here throughout the year to explore the unending beauties of the valley that open up one after the other…endlessly.