Who are they?
The Bhat are a poetic community known for their phakra (speaking poetically in praise of others) who are found in the states of Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Haryana, Punjab, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. They were genealogists and chroniclers to the rulers of India. They kept records of genealogy and wrote about the exploits and heroic deeds of their masters.
In a way, the Bhat were expert historians, and the literature of India owes the preservation of its oldest treasures to these people. They recited poems and ballads (in a typical high-pitched sing-song tone) in the courts of rulers and chiefs. The Bhat were known to ridicule those who offended them with sarcastic wit. In some cases, an effigy of the offender would be hung on a pole with a slipper also attached to it as a mark of disgrace. This would then be paraded around with the accompaniment of a humiliating song until the offender paid to shut them up!
According to Russel and Hiralal (The Castes and Tribes of the Central Provinces of India) their community name is derived from the Sanskrit word bhatta, meaning a lord. They further state that the Bhat “are an offshoot of Brahmins, their name being merely a corruption of the term Brahmin.” The ancient epic, the Mahabharata, speaks of a band of Brahmin bards marching in front of the victorious king. The Bhat originated in Rajputana (an old name for Rajasthan) and later migrated to the adjoining states after the downfall of the kingdoms. Rai, Bandh and Bharata are some of their titles.
They speak different languages depending on where they live. In Uttar Pradesh they speak Hindi, while in West Bengal they speak Bengali. In Himachal Pradesh they speak Pahari; Churasi in Maharashtra, Mewari in Madhya Pradesh and Marwari in Rajasthan. The Bhat of Haryana speaks Haryanvi.
The Muslim Bhats (making up 10%) live in Jammu & Kashmir and Bihar. They speak Kashmiri and Urdu, both of which are written in the Persian Arabic script. The Bhat are also conversant in Hindi.
What are their lives like?
The Bhat are mainly landowners, the land given to them by their patrons. Some landless Bhat have taken to begging like the religious mendicants who lead nomadic lives. The landowners cultivate their land. Some Bhat work in government jobs, the army and the police, or are small businessmen running grocery, vegetable and sweet shops and tea stalls. Some are also engaged in making and selling country liquor. Many work as daily wage labourers in industrial areas, the agriculture sector and in road and bridge construction. In Jammu & Kashmir and Bihar many Bhat are weavers and embroiderers. In West Bengal some are temple priests.
A small few are scholars, teachers, professionals and artists, especially the younger generation. Although this community approves of formal education, literacy levels are very low, especially among girls and women. Poverty, household chores and work deny them the opportunity. The women of this community are increasingly receptive to family planning. Traditional cures are more commonly used. The Bhat make good use of the facilities provided for irrigation, electricity, banking and the take part in the Public Distribution System (PDS) offered by the government.
The Hindu Bhat people are strict vegetarians. Most others of this people group do eat mutton, poultry, and fish but do not eat beef due to their Hindu beliefs. The Muslim Bhats eat beef and buffalo meat but their religion does not permit them to eat pork. Rice, wheat, millet and maize are staple cereals. Pulses, seasonal vegetables and fruit, milk and dairy products supplement their diet. Though alcohol consumption is not encouraged many Bhat do drink occasionally.
The Bhat marry only within their community. The Bhat are divided into subgroups and clans and will marry outside their own clan. The Hindu Bhats are monogamous but Muslim Bhats permit polygamy. Adult marriages are more common and are arranged by parents and family elders from both sides, though marriage by exchange is also observed. The practice of marrying one’s deceased wife’s younger sister and, to a lesser degree, that of marrying one’s deceased husband’s younger brother is prevalent and cross-cousin marriages are also acceptable. The women have sindur (vermilion mark), nose stud, glass and iron bangles, toe-rings and bindi (coloured dot on the mid forehead) as the symbols of matrimony.
The custom of giving dowry in cash and kind remains prevalent everywhere else except in Maharashtra where the groom pays a cash bride-price. Divorce is permitted on grounds of adultery, maladjustment, impotency and insanity. Remarriage of widows, widowers and divorcees is socially allowed.
Both extended and nuclear families exist among the Bhat with the trend for living apart becoming more popular. The Bhats of Madhya Pradesh still prefer to live in joint families. Parental property is usually divided equally among all the sons only; in Maharashtra the daughters can inherit a lesser share. Islamic law also grants inheritance rights to both males and females to those in Maharashtra. The sons receive two-thirds and the daughters’ one–third of the inheritance.
In addition to doing all household chores, the women collect fuel wood and water and also look after the domestic animals. They have specific roles in the social, religious and ritual spheres and also contribute to the family income by doing various jobs. They are generally accorded a status equal to men and are as bold, voluble and ready in retort as the men. They also have a say in the family finances. The Bhat have oral traditions about their migration and glorious past. Folk songs are sung to the accompaniment of music by both men and women, who also dance at weddings. Common musical instruments are khartal, dholak (double-headed, cylindrical drum), flute, harmonium, and chimta (tongs). Some Bhat are good poets and have composed folk songs like the jhumur of West Bengal. They also perform the famous chhou folk dance here.
The Bhat of some regions have a panchayat (council) that is headed by five members. In Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh the community council is called the Kshatri Bhat Samaj which deals with cases of adultery, quarrels and social irregularities. The West Bengal council is called Pancha Bhadran. Political leadership has emerged among them – even to the state level as in Jammu & Kashmir.
What are their beliefs?
Over the centuries the Bhats have taken on the belief systems of the patrons they have served and added it to their own. Those who are Muslim adhere to the tenets of Islam. The Hindu Bhat worship all the major gods and goddesses of Hinduism like Shiva (the Destroyer), Vishnu (the Preserver), Krishna (8th incarnation of Vishnu), Radha (Krishna’s consort), Rama (7th incarnation of Vishnu), Ganesha (elephant-headed god of good luck; Shiva’s son), Kali (black goddess; Shiva’s wife), Durga (ten-armed goddess who slays demons) and a host of regional and village deities.
The Hindu Bhat celebrates fairs and festivals common to other Hindus and attaches similar significance to them. These include Holi, Diwali, Janamashtami, Ramnavmi and others. The Muslim community observes Id and Muharram. They also revere Muslim saints and pay homage at their tomb shrines.
The Hindu Bhat cremates their dead and immerses the ashes in a river, except children under five years who are buried. The Hindus have sacred specialists from their own and the Brahmin community to perform all rites and rituals. Ancestor worship and a belief in the occult is prevalent among them. Muslims bury their dead.