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
Hyderabads 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.
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 Somlis attire was gorgeous by any
standards, her husbands 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.
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
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
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
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
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.
distributed freely on the first day of the wedding when the
bridegroom and his relatives are welcomed at the brides 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
Bridegrooms thigh on yours!
All eyes are misted when
the bride leaves her parents home to go to her husbands
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
Let our two families grow like the peepal and
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
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 ones 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 worlds 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 valleys
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 heros 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