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Who are they?
The Bania, or Baniya, are a large trading community. The word Bania is a generic term derived from the Sanskrit word vanij meaning merchant or trader.
They believe that the community originated 5000 years ago when an ancestor Maharaja Agrasen (or Ugarsain) of Agroha, Haryana divided the Vaishya (third in the Hindu caste system) community into eighteen clans. They surnames include Aggarwal, Gupta, Lala, Seth, Vaish, Mahajan, Sahu and Sahukar.
There are six subgroups among the Bania – the Bisa or Vaish Aggarwal, Dasa or Gata Aggarwal, Saralia, Saraogi or Jain, Maheshwari or Shaiva and Oswal. The Bisa believe that they are the descendents of the seventeen snake daughters of Bashak Nag (cobra) who married seventeen sons of Ugarsain. The husbands slept with the handmaidens of the snake daughters resulting in Dasa offspring. The Bisa (twenty) consider themselves of a higher status to the Dasa (ten). The Saralia are an offshoot of the Bisa who migrated to Saralia, near Ambala in Haryana.
The Bania are Vaishya according to the Hindu caste system and third in hierarchy below Rajputs and Brahmins but higher than all other castes. They will accept food and water from higher castes but will not offer food and water in return, but they will give to lower castes, but will not accept food from them, due to their caste status. They speak Hindi amongst themselves as well as the regional language of the states they reside in.
The Bania number approximately 25 million and live in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, West Bengal, Haryana, Bihar, Karnataka, Punjab, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Chandigarh and Assam.
Uttar Pradesh has 4.2 million, Rajasthan 4.5 million, Gujarat 2.3 million, Andhra Pradesh 2 million, Maharashtra 1.8 million, Madhya Pradesh1.5 million, Delhi1.4 million, West Bengal 1.3 million, Haryana 950,000, Bihar 790,000, Karnataka 280,000, Punjab 270,000, Orissa 250,000 and Tamil Nadu 220,000.
What Are Their Lives Like?
The Bania are traders of grain, groceries and spices and also work as shopkeepers, grocers and money lenders. They have a reputation of being shrewd and mercenary. Money is loaned at very high interest rates with secured collateral, usually against land or gold. They also work in government departments, private enterprise and agriculture. There are administrators, engineers, doctors, advocates, judges, teachers, scholars, stockbrokers and industrialists among them. They are active in politics at local, regional and national levels and have a powerful presence.
Traditionally, the Bania are strict vegetarians whose diet consists of wheat, rice, maize, pulses, lentils, vegetables, fruit and dairy products. Many younger men eat meat at social events outside their community. They do not drink alcohol but smoke and chew tobacco and paan (betel leaf.)
Literacy levels are high as both boys and girls are encouraged to study further and attain university degrees. They visit clinics and hospitals as well as alternative indigenous medicine. Family planning is practiced to limit family size. They have made good use of media and communication and benefited from the government’s development programs. They have embraced progress and developments. Agriculturists use fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation to increase crop yields. Loans provided by banks have enabled the Bania to expand or set up new businesses.
The Bania are endogamous at community and subgroup level, but strictly exogamous at the clan level though this is changing. Each of the six subgroups is divided into eighteen clans, with distinct surnames namely: Bansal, Bindal, Dhalan or Dheran, Eran, Garg, Goel, Gondal, Jindal, Kanchal, Kansal, Makukal, Mangal, Mittal, Nagal, Singhal, Tayal, Teran and Tungal. These clans regulate marriages. The Gondal, (from Chandigarh and Haryana) are known as Gond, Gand or Gharan, and are only given a half status.
The Bania are monogamous and marriages are arranged by negotiation between parents and elders on both sides. Child marriages were common earlier but that has changed. Marriage symbols for women include sindur (vermilion mark), bindi (coloured dot on the forehead), glass bangles and finger and toe rings. A large dowry in both cash and goods is a prerequisite. Divorce is not socially permitted but does occur rarely. Widower remarriage is allowed and becoming acceptable for widows except in Karnataka, where it is definitely not. Levirate and junior sororate are permitted.
Joint families are common among the Bania, though smaller families also exist. Inheritance is patrilineal – all sons inherit an equal share of parental property and the eldest son succeeds his father as head of the family. Daughters do not inherit anything. Bania families are known for the extreme loyalty towards their own community, caring and giving financially when needed.
Bania women have a low status and are usually confined to their homes though some help their husbands in the family shop and city women work. The women take part in social and religious functions only. They do decide on financial matters relating to the family. The women sing folksongs and dance at marriages, births and festivals. They are known for their cooking and make rich dishes and sweets on special occasions.
The Bania elect a caste council by a voice vote or secret ballot. Some states may be better organized than others. In Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh, the Aggarwal Maha Sabha (great assembly) plays a vital role in community matters. These councils promote welfare, handle family disputes and provide financial assistance and honour members of their community. Ostracism and fines are imposed on members who violate community regulations.
The Bania are a wealthy and influential community. They control the economy of the country, as a majority of industrialists belong to this community.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The majority of Bania are Hindu (88%) while 11% are Jain. There are a few Sikhs in Punjab and Haryana.
The Hindu Bania worships all main Hindu gods and goddesses like Shiva (Destroyer), Parvati (his wife), Vishnu (Preserver), Krishna, Rama, Durga (a militant goddess) and Hanuman (the monkey god who wards off evil spirits and danger). Lakshmi (goddess of wealth and prosperity; Vishnu’s wife) is held in special reverence and so is Ganesh or Ganpati (elephant-headed god of good luck and remover of obstacles; Shiva’s son). These deities are prominently displayed and worshiped in their work places and homes. On the festival of Diwali (festival of lamps) the Bania close their old account books and open new ledgers which they dedicate and adorn with Ganesh’s image and an invocation to him on the front page. A silver or gold rupee is worshipped as an emblem of Lakshmi.
Village and regional deities include Khera Devta in Haryana and Kalka Devi in Delhi and Vaishno Devi near Jammu. The Bania celebrate all major Hindu festivals like Diwali, Holi (festival of colour), Janamashtami (Krishna’s birthday), Dussehra, Ramnavmi (Rama’s birthday), Maha Sivaratri (great night of Shiva) and others. The Bania like to gamble on Diwali as an omen of good luck. No money is loaned on this day. The Jain Bania celebrates Mahavir Jayanti (birthday of Mahavir, the founder of Jainism), while Sikh Bania’s observe Guruparbs (birthdays of their Gurus) and harvest and spring festivals like Lohri and Baisakhi.
The Bania cremate their dead and the ashes are immersed in a river, preferably the sacred Ganges at Haridwar. Brahman priests perform all religious rituals for births, marriages and death. Specific periods of birth and death pollution are observed. Ancestor worship is prevalent. The main centers of pilgrimage are Haridwar, Varanasi, Allahabad, Gangotri (source of the Ganges) and Badrinath.