Who are they?
The Bari, also known as Rawat and Paanwale (betel-leaf sellers), are a community of household servants and makers of leaf-plates.
They live in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar. In Bihar they are also known as Donwar. Ethnologists, Russel and Hiralal, describe the Bari as an offshoot of semi-savage, forest tribes known as the Banmanush (wild man of the woods) and Musahar.
This community emphasizes their kinship with the brave hero Rupana Bari, who is mentioned in the folk epic Alha, and offers the following legend about the origin of their community. One day when Vishnu was offering rice-milk to the spirits of his ancestors, he also offered a gift called vikraya dan to some Brahmin priests who did not accept his gift. Vishnu made a man of clay, blew on the image and gave it life. He named his creation Sundar (handsome one) and offered him the same gift. Sundar was the first Bari, and he agreed to accept the gift on condition that all men should drink with him and recognize the purity of his caste. Vishnu asked him to bring a cup of water which he drank in the presence of all castes, thereby establishing the Bari’s pure status.
According to another legend from Maharastra, at the time of the sagar manthan (churning of the sea) – a huge white elephant was birthed with a betel creeper around its leg. This was the first betel-leaf plant and it was given to the Bari for cultivation, and has since then remained a source of livelihood for them.
The Bari place themselves in the middle of the Hindu social caste order but higher castes, however, consider them a low caste, though not ‘untouchable’.
The Bari speaks the languages of their regions. They speak Marathi in Maharashtra, the dialect of Awadhi in Uttar Pradesh and Bhojpuri in Bihar. In Rajasthan Mewari is their mother tongue. In all these states, they are also conversant with Hindi and use the Devanagari script.
What Are Their Lives Like?
The traditional and present occupation of most Bari is making leaf-plates and leaf-cups. In Madhya Pradesh they also serve as household servants and have a reputation for loyalty. There is a saying about them – the Bari will die fighting for his master.
In western Maharashtra, they are mostly betel-leaf growers. In Rajasthan, they were once employed as servants to royal families but they now trap and catch birds in the forests, make reed chairs and stools, wire cages, glass temples, paper flowers, as well as leaf plates and cups. In Bihar, they carry gas or electric lights at wedding celebrations.
A few Bari practice agriculture, but most are landless. Many Bari now live in urban slums and are engaged in small business, tailoring, rickshaw-pulling, cart driving, and accepting such work as they can find from day to day. Child labour is prevalent and wages are paid in cash as well as kind.
The Bari people are not vegetarian but they do not eat beef due to their Hindu beliefs. Wheat, rice and jowar (a kind of millet that is more affordable than wheat or rice) are their staple cereals which are supplemented by a variety of lentils. When they can afford them, they enjoy fruit and vegetables. Alcoholic drinks are taken, as are cigarettes, chewing tobacco and paan (rolled betel-leaf with a filling of areca nut, rose root and lime).
Literacy levels are very low, except in Maharashtra, and they have only recently begun sending their children to school. For minor ailments they use indigenous medicines, otherwise they prefer to go to clinics. They are aware of family planning but it is usually the women who undergo sterilization to limit the family size.
The Bari is endogamous, i.e., they marry only within their community. They are divided into a number of subdivisions depending on the region they inhabit. For example in Maharashtra there are five subdivisions among them, namely, Golait, Suryabansi, Kumardag, Lingayat and Gondhli, while in Rajasthan there are four, Moonjiya, Teliya, Suwar and Salat Bari. There are also a number of clans of equal status among the Bari which serve to regulate marriage alliances. They are strictly exogamous, i.e. no one can marry within his or her clan.
Marriages are arranged by negotiations among the seniors of both families and monogamy is the prevalent form. Both adult and child marriages are practised. In the case of the latter gaona – the ceremonial departure of the bride to live with her husband at his house takes place after the girl reaches puberty. She wears symbols of marriage which are sindur (vermilion), kalipot (black-bead necklace), and bichua (toe-ring). Divorce and remarriage are socially approved but rare. Dowry is given in goods, and is a recent trend.
The Bari community lives in both joint and nuclear families. The parental property is inherited equally by all the sons, of whom the eldest succeeds to the father’s authority. The daughters traditionally do not get any share in the inheritance.
In addition to attending to all the housework such as cooking, and carrying drinking water, as well as looking after the children, the Bari women contribute to the family income by taking additional jobs or helping their men in their trade. Their status is low as compared to the men. They perform specific roles in the social and religious spheres especially during festivals, domestic worship and in marriage rituals.
The Bari has formed community welfares associations in the different states they reside in. In Uttar Pradesh their associations are the Akhil Bharatiya Bari Samaj (All Indian Association) and Janapad Bari Sabha (District Council) which are involved in initiating social reforms in the community. In Maharashtra the association is called the Chandrapur Zila Bari Samaj (District Association), while the council in Madhya Pradesh is controlled by their educated elite.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Bari profess Hinduism and worship most of the deities of the Hinduism such as Shiva (Destroyer in the Hindu trinity), Vishnu (the benign Preserver of the Hindu trinity), Rama (seventh incarnation of Vishnu), Hanuman (celibate monkey god, protector from all dangers and devoted follower of Rama) and Nag Devta (serpent god). In addition, they worship family and village deities. In Rajasthan the Baris are Shakti (power – signifying the dynamic female counterpart of a male deity) worshippers. They worship Kali and Durga. In Uttar Pradesh, goddess Durga is one of their main deities.
The Bari celebrate Hindu festivals like Holi (spring festival of colors) and Dussehra (which celebrates Rama’s victory over the demon king Ravana), Diwali (Festival of Lights) and Navratri (Festival of Nine Nights honouring Durga). They also celebrate Makar Sankranti, a New Year festival observed around the winter solstice. In Rajasthan, on the day after Holi, the Bari sacrifice a goat on Kali’s altar while on the ninth day of Navratri they sacrifice on Durga’s altar. On Makar Sankranti, sesame seeds mixed with jaggery are exchanged among the people of the Bari community.
The Bari cremates their dead and the ashes are immersed in a river, preferably the sacred Ganges. Small children up to five years of age are buried. They observe death pollution for a specific period, usually twelve days, and a feast is given at the end of it. Ancestor worship is also prevalent.