Who are they?
The Bharbhunja, Bharabhunja or Bhurji are a community of grain-parchers spread across the states of Uttar Pradesh (1 million), Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Punjab, Haryana and Chandigarh.
They are almost exclusively Hindu by faith in the states of UP, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Punjab, Haryana and Chandigarh have many Sikh believers. In Gujarat the Bharbhunja are Muslim and belong to the Sunni sect of Islam, while Delhi has a mix of all three religions.
Also known as Mehre, Bhunja, Bhunji, Bhujari, or Bhade, the Bharbhunja derive their community name from the Sanskrit words bhrastra, meaning frying pan, and bharyaka, meaning the one who fries. According to some, it is a derivative of the word bhunjna, meaning to cook over dry heat.
Legends about the origins of their caste vary according to where they live. In Chhattisgarh they believe that they are descended from a Kahar (palanquin bearer) father and a Sudra (lowest class of peasants and labourers) mother. In Madhya Pradesh the Bharbhunja claim that their ancestors were Kanyakubja Brahmins (highest Hindu priestly class) who were ordered to roast rice on a griddle at the wedding of Rama. In these states they occupy a social position similar to the Barai (betel-vine grower), Kahar and other serving castes.
The Bharbhunja of Delhi and Haryana claim to be Kshatriya (2nd highest class of warriors), but the other castes place them at the Sudra level. In Chandigarh, the community considers the name “Bharbhunja” derogatory and identifies itself as Rajput.
The language of this caste varies from state to state. They speak Bhojpuri in Uttar Pradesh, Mewari in Rajasthan and Hindi in Madhya Pradesh. Punjabi is spoken in Punjab, Gujarati in Gujarat and Maharashtra. Hindi or Punjabi is spoken in Delhi, Haryana and Chandigarh. In all these states, the Bharbhunja are also conversant in Hindi. The Muslim Bharbhunja speaks Urdu and writes with the Persian-Arabic script.
What Are Their Lives Like?
The traditional occupation of the Bharbhunja, a non-agricultural community, is roasting and selling different types of grain, maize and groundnuts, which they still depend on mainly. They also work in other occupations, selling tobacco and make fireworks. Some are hawkers, petty grocers, fruit sellers, tailors, cycle repairers or rickshaw pullers. Some run dhabas (roadside restaurants serving simple cheap meals) while some are kabaris (collecting and selling waste, used and recyclable items). Children often help and work alongside their parents.
Some educated Bharbhunja’s work as professionals in banks, railway and the defense forces. Political leadership is limited to the village or neighborhood level only. The Bharbhunja, except those of Gujarat, have begun to realize the importance of education and send boys especially, to school. Both modern and indigenous medicines are used. Family planning is acceptable to them.
Most Bharbhunja eat meat but beef remains taboo for Hindus. The Bharbhunja of Madhya Pradesh does not eat pork or beef. Wheat, rice and maize are their staple cereals which are supplemented by a wide variety of pulses, seasonal vegetables and fruit and dairy products. It is acceptable for men to drink alcohol, except those in Rajasthan. They mostly drink country liquor. They smoke cigarettes, chew tobacco and may also use drugs.
The Bharbhunja marry only within their caste. The community is divided into a number of gotras (clans) that vary in number and name regionally. The clans regulate marriages and indicate descent and ancestry.
As a rule, marriages are monogamous but a second wife is permitted if the first wife is barren. Marriages are arranged by parents and marriage symbols for women include vermilion, glass bangles, nose-rings, ear rings, and bindi (coloured dot on the forehead). Previously, child marriage was common and bride-price was accepted by the bride’s parents. However, adult marriage with dowry has largely replaced this custom except in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat where child marriages are still performed. Divorce and remarriage is permissible, except in Haryana, where it is socially unacceptable. Widow and widower remarriage is allowed though widow remarriage is quite rare. Junior sororate and junior levirate are allowed.
The Bharbhunja live in both nuclear and joint families. Only sons inherit parental property equally, while the succession to the father’s authority goes to the eldest son. Traditionally, women, inherit nothing. They have a lowly status and in some states, such as Rajasthan, the women have to sit at a lower level in the presence of male members.
The Bharbhunja women perform all housework, fetch water, participate in religious and social ceremonies as well as contribute to the family income by working and at times work as maid servants or midwives. Usually, the work of roasting grain is actually done by the women. In order to help themselves the women of Chandigarh have formed a Mahila Mandal to work out how they can free themselves from the social and economic difficulties faced by them and their families.
The Bharbhunja have a rich oral tradition and folksongs which they sing at special celebrations. Bharbhunja, of both sexes, have their hands and arms tattooed.
The Bharbhunja’s traditional community council is known as Kashyap Rajput Sabha in Delhi and Chandigarh which deals with issues relating to marriage, divorce, family disputes in addition to raising funds for temple building and helping very poor families. In Rajasthan five elderly members called panch meet to settle disputes, while in Madhya Pradesh a leader from a cluster of villages maintains social order with the help of a chosen member from each village.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The majority of the Bharbhunja are Hindus. They worship all the major Hindu gods and goddesses as well as other minor gods in various incarnations, spouses or offspring. A belief in reincarnation (continual cycle of death and rebirth) is one of the few unifying features of Hinduism. Regional deities, family, clan, and village deities are also worshipped. In Maharashtra the Bharbhunja worship their account books at least once a year.
The Muslim Bharbhunja adheres to the tenets of Islam while the Sikhs follow Sikhism and venerate their scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib. The major festivals observed by Hindu Bharbhunja are Holi, Diwali, Dussehra, Navratri and Maha Sivaratri, while Lohri, Guruparab and Baisakhi are prominent Sikh festivals. The Muslim Bharbhunja celebrates Id and Bakr-Id.
The Hindu and Sikh Bharbhunja cremate their dead, and for Hindus, Brahmin priests perform religious rites and a granthi, Sikh priest, performs ceremonies for the Sikh Bharbhunja. The Muslim Bharbhunja buries their dead, and their priest, a maulvi or qazi imparts religious teaching and performs rites.
What Are Their Needs?
Education is a necessity to enable this community to move forward as well as better health, hygiene and increased freedom for women.