Who are the Agaria?
Traditionally, the Agaria are iron-smelter workers and miners. The name Agaria is derived from the Hindi word aag, meaning fire, and from the association with the furnace used for smelting iron ore. They also call themselves Lohar (or blacksmith from the word loha, meaning iron) and believe that their caste has existed from the beginning of the world. Their traditions teach them that the first Agaria made the ploughshare with which the first bullocks furrowed the primeval soil.
They live in the northern and central states of India – Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Jharkhand.
The Agaria are known by different names, depending upon the district in which they live. For instance, those from the Maikal hill ranges of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are of Dravidian origin and are considered an offshoot of the Gond tribe that is numerically the most dominant tribe of India. Dravidian describes anyone of dark-complexioned, intermixed races chiefly in Southern India and Northern Sri Lanka.
They are also referred to by such names as Patharia (pathar – stony or stone in the rugged Rewa district, and Khuntia (khunta – peg), as well as Chok and Mahali and Asur Agaria in the Bilaspur district. In Uttar Pradesh, where they number around 200,000, they are migrants from Rewa in adjoining Madhya Pradesh. In the newly created state of Jharkhand, carved out of Bihar, they live in the thinly forested areas of the mineral-rich Chotanagpur plateau while in Bihar they inhabit the district of Rohtas.
Though all Agaria are conversant with Hindi, they speak 21 mother tongues in the different regions they inhabit. For instance, the mother tongue of the Agaria of Uttar Pradesh belongs to a group of the Austro-Asiatic family of languages and has affinities with the language used by the Australian aborigines.
What are Their Lives Like?
The traditional occupations of the Agaria are iron smelting and manufacturing of agricultural implements like axes and ploughshares, mattocks, and sickles. Today, the metal for making these implements is purchased from the market. Iron implements are readily available too which has caused a good number of Agaria to turn to agriculture, animal husbandry and unskilled wage labour as nearly every family possesses some land. Some Agaria, like those of Madhya Pradesh, are proficient in making wooden masks as toys for children. Hunting and collecting forest produce are their subsidiary occupations.
Children begin working with their parents at an early age. Literacy amounts to only 10% among this rural community, though more recently they have begun sending their children to school. The Agaria prefer to use ancient remedies and visit hospitals only occasionally. The Agaria of Uttar Pradesh is quite open to modern methods of family planning, unlike those in other regions.
Under the Indian Constitution of 1950, the Agaria were granted certain privileges relative to their caste such as fixed quotas in government jobs and higher-education institutions, as well as reserved seats in Parliament and State Legislatures. They benefited from India’s proactive affirmative action policy for castes and tribes that had been deprived of basic rights in times past. Despite the fact that development programs are available to them, they are prey to money-lenders. Currently, most Agarian families cannot afford such basic amenities as electricity.
The Agaria are not strictly vegetarian and relish pork but abstain from eating beef for religious reasons. Wheat and rice are staple cereals, with additions such as maize and indigenous cereals along with a variety of pulses and vegetables. Mustard oil is used for cooking. Alcohol is mostly home-brewed and consumed by both men and women. They make a rice beer and liquor brewed from the mahua flower. They also smoke bidis, chew tobacco and use snuff.
Like most Hindus, the Agaria are restricted by custom or law to marry within a specific caste but within this grouping they are divided into several clans known as gothiar, kuri and got. Marriages are permissible between these units or clans. Commonly, couples will live together in the home of one of the fathers (extended family) but there is an increase in a husband, wife and their children living apart. Family property is divided only among the sons. The eldest son receives the larger share and succeeds his father as the head of the family.
Although adult marriage is becoming the social norm, arranged child marriages still occur. Couples who fall in love will sometimes be permitted to marry, but they usually elope. A partner may also be acquired by mutual exchange (two families give brides to each other in marriage), by working to obtain a partner, or by forcing themselves into the home of their intended partner. This is a custom where a prospective bride intrudes on the household of an unmarried man who she fancies and stays on even if she is unwelcome, abused and refused food and shelter. After some time, she is accepted as a member of the family.
The Agaria are monogamous, but polygamy is permitted. Close marriages are permitted between cousins, or between an uncle and his niece, as are junior sororate and junior levirate. Divorce is allowed but compensation has to be paid to the caste council. A widow, widower or divorcee is free to remarry without any social stigma attached.
Vermilion (sindur) and glass bangles are some of the symbols of marriage for women. A nominal bride price, in both cash and kind, (a bartered settlement between families using whatever is considered appropriate value in animals or other items of trade) are given to the bride’s father before marriage along with some food items. However, among the Agaria of Uttar Pradesh dowry is also paid.
The Agaria women take part in managing family affairs and participate in social and religious functions. They work on the farm; collect firewood, drinking water, besides domestic chores.
The Agaria folk songs tell about their lives as artisans and farmers. They also have many folk tales and dances. Many tribal Agaria women are tattooed with flowers and scorpions. Jewelry is made of pewter as gold and silver is beyond their means.
The Agarian social control mechanisms vary regionally. In Uttar Pradesh when an intercommunity feud is to be resolved, a responsible person is selected as Choudhury (headman) for the occasion. In Jharkhand and Bihar, a community council is presided over by a man elected by community members, while in Madhya Pradesh the elderly members of a village or cluster of villages exercise leadership over social matters.
What are Their Beliefs?
In each general census, the Agaria claim to be Hindu. Their form of Hinduism is mixed with ancient tribal and animistic beliefs. A Brahmin (highest priestly caste) performs all sacred rites for weddings, funerals and other rituals. However, a village priest from their own caste also performs rituals on their behalf. As they believe in witchcraft, sorcerers are called upon to perform healings.