Who are they?
The Barai grow and sell paan or betel vine leaf. They are also known as Tamboli (Sanskrit tambul meaning betel), Panwari (panwara, derived from the Sanskrit parna, meaning leaf) and Chaurasia (meaning four sages). Since the betel leaf is a luxury item and favored by upper castes in North India, the Barai have a good social standing.
They number around 450,000 in Uttar Pradesh and also live in Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Chhattisgarh. They rank third in the four fold caste system, and are Vaishyas who are mainly peasants and traders.
Russel and Hiralal (1916), tell of a legend that the first Barai was a Brahmin (the highest Hindu caste) but as a consequence for telling lies, his sacred thread was confiscated and planted into the ground by a god. It grew into the first betel vine, which the Barai was made to tend.
In Madhya Pradesh, the Barai speak Hindi and use the Devanagari script. In Uttar Pradesh, the Awadhi-Hindi dialect is used. In Bihar they speak Maithili and Chhattisgarhi in Chhattisgarh, both of which are Indo-Aryan languages. They use Hindi to communicate with other groups. They maintain a good relationship with local artisans, Muslim communities and take an interest in the ceremonies of other communities.
What are their lives like?
Most Barai own small plots of land, bought on government loans. They mainly grow betel leaves which are sold locally. They also grow vegetables under the sheds on which the betel vines climb. Barai women and children also work in the fields—picking and arranging betel leaves. Some Barai rear animals, own grocery or chemist shops and work for the government or private sector. Some sell areca or betel nut, zarda (flavoured tobacco) and kaththa (catechu).
The Barai eat all meat except beef and pork. In Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh they are vegetarians. Their staples are wheat, rice, millets, maize, pulses, seasonal vegetables, fruit and milk and dairy products. They like to drink chai and khawa (a sweet made from milk), chew tobacco and paan (a mixture of spices wrapped in betel leaf). Alcohol is generally avoided.
The Barai approve of education for boys but not for girls, but cannot afford to send them especially for higher studies. The Barai go to doctors but also use indigenous medicine. They practice family planning, usually having two or three children. They have access to government schemes and irrigation facilities. They make use of subsidized loans for agriculture and to set up businesses.
At a community level, the Barai marry within their social group, however, at village and lineage levels they can marry outside their social group. Marriages are arranged and conducted by a Brahmin according to Vedic rites. Child marriages are prevalent—the bride going to her husband’s home only after she reaches puberty. This is celebrated with a ceremony called gaona. They only have one wife and a second is only allowed under certain conditions.
Symbols of marriage include a vermilion mark in the middle of the hair-parting (sindur), lacquer bangles, anklets and toe-rings. Dowries can be cash or paid in goods. It is acceptable for a wife to seek a divorce. After a divorce, children remain the father’s responsibility. Junior levirate and sororate are permitted. Widows and widowers can remarry, but the ceremonies are kept simple.
The Barai live in both small and extended families, with an increase of in families living apart. Property is divided among sons only, the eldest receiving a larger share under a system called jetha-bahai. Women have a lower status to men. The Barai’s oral traditions include folklore, folktales, and folksongs. Folksongs are sung by men and women separately accompanied by an indigenous percussion instrument called the dholak.
The Barai have a council that looks after their welfare. They also host community feasts. In Madhya Pradesh, an apex council, called the Adhaksha Chaurasia Sangh, with a president and executive members, works to improve their status.
What are their beliefs?
The Barai are Hindu, and worship family deities as well as all Hindu gods such as Shiva (god of destruction), Durga (ten-armed goddess who rides a tiger and slays demons), Kali (Shiva’s wife), Vishnu (preserver) and Lakhshmi (goddess of prosperity and wife of Vishnu) among others. Each morning, incense is burnt and prayers offered to Lakhshmi before the bamboo baskets of betel leaves, to obtain favor for the day.
The Barai also worship Nag Devta (King Cobra) and observe the Hindu festival Nag Panchami. Legend has it that the five Pandava brothers, heroes of the ancient epic, the Mahabharata, celebrated the Ashwamedha Yagna (great horse sacrifice). They needed betel vine, but there was none found on earth. Royal messengers were sent to Vasuki, king of serpents, in the underworld. Vasuki cut the top joint of his little finger and the messengers took it back to earth and planted it. Betel vines grew from the dismembered joint. From this legend, the Barai explain why betel vines grow from cuttings and do not have any blossoms or seeds. The betel vine is called nagbel or the serpent-creeper.
On the day of Nag Panchami, in July or August, the Barai fast and offer prayers at the betel shed with flowers, coconuts and food. There they bathe and worship a stone cobra and a fowl, sheep or goat is sacrificed. No betel leaf is touched that day. A jug of milk is left near snake holes for the cobra deity to drink. The Barai also pray before pictures of Shesa Naga (thousand-headed cobra on which Vishnu reclines), and other snake deities like Ananta (infinite) and Takshaka. Killing snakes is not allowed. The Barai believe they are never bitten by cobras.
Barai participate in Hindu festivals like Holi (festival of colours), Diwali (festival of lamps), Durga Puja (Durga worship) and Chhath (Sun worshipping festival).
Their religious leaders are from the Barai and the Brahmin community. Community priests lead worship of Sokha, a regional deity. Some Barai recognised Pirs (Muslim Sufi saints) and visit their tombs to pay homage and pray for blessings. The dead are cremated. Children, persons dying of infectious diseases, and, in Uttar Pradesh, unmarried persons are buried. Purification ceremonies are performed after periods of uncleanness for deaths and births. Other important childhood ceremonies are the first feeding of the child (annaprashan), naming (namkaran) and tonsure (mundan) of both boys and girls. They also worship ancestors.