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Who are they?
The Dosadh, also known as Dusad or Dusadh, are a large community of more than three million people distributed across the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. They were palanquin bearers a long time ago. There are about 200,000 living in the districts of Varanasi, Mirzapur, Ghazipur, Ballia, Gorakhpur and Azamgarh of Uttar Pradesh.
H.H. Risley in The Tribes and Castes of Bengal (1891) describes the Dosadh as a degraded cultivating caste of Bihar and Chotanagpur, the members of which are largely employed as village watchmen and messengers. It is said that the army of Robert Clive, which won the decisive battle of Plessey in1757 and laid the foundation of the British Empire in India, consisted of the Dosadh. The Dosadh were known for their criminal behavior, looting and robbing travelers.
The Dosadh are registered as a Scheduled Caste under the provision of the Indian Constitution. These former ‘untouchables’ receive allowances such as reserved quotas in government jobs and higher educational institutions, lower qualifying criteria in open examinations and reserved seats in Parliament.
These people claim descent from the Kaurava prince, Dushasan, the younger brother of the main villain in the ancient and very famous Hindu mythological epic, the Mahabharata. Another account refers to their descent from Bhima, the giant brother among the heroic and noble of the five Pandava brothers ranged against the evil Kauravas in the same grand epic. Bihari Dosadh claim to be descendants of another Pandava brother, Arjuna.
They speak the Indo-Aryan language, Bhojpuri, as their mother tongue and are also conversant with Hindi, using both these languages for inter-group communication. In West Bengal they have two main subgroups, namely Patwar Dosadh, whose mother tongue is Hindi, and Gope Dosadh, who are largely concentrated in the Purulia district and whose mother tongue is the Indo-Aryan language Sadri. Also, in the southern parts of Bengal they have a comparatively better social status as they are the traditional priests of Sitala Mata (literally, “cool mother”, the goddess of smallpox).
The Dosadh accept raw and cooked food from higher castes like Brahmin, Rajput (warrior), Baniya (trader), Yadava (pastoralist) but this is not reciprocated. In fact, they cannot even participate with the Brahmin and the Rajput in Holi festivities (the spring festival of colours and general revelry). In their turn, they do not accept food and water from certain castes considered lower than them like the Dom (scavenger), Chamar (tanner) and Dharkar (rope-maker). However, a considerable degree of relaxation in inter-caste relations is gradually being discerned under the impact of constitutional safeguards as well as the processes of urbanization, democratization and secularization.
What Are Their Lives Like?
The Dosadh are economically backward and are mostly landless, with only a few having small landholdings. In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar most of them work as wage labourers in forests, and industries and as agricultural labourers, with the latter being their dominant vocation in Bihar. Some eke out a living by woodcutting, collecting forest produce and selling cow-dung cakes used as fuel.
In West Bengal their primary vocation is to seek alms while singing Kapila Mangal and Sitala Mangal songs. They can be identified when they are out seeking alms for they carry a special type of a small metal idol of Sitala and Lakshmi (goddess of prosperity) in a small bamboo pot, smeared with vermilion. In some families both men and women work as wage labourers but the local peasants hesitate to employ them in agricultural work because they do not have the skill to do such work; sometimes they earn their livelihood by searching for insects in the cattle of the peasants.
The literacy rate of the Dosadh is greatly below the national average. Most of the elderly members of the community are illiterate. However, they have made moderate progress in education since the independence of India. Increasingly, they now send their children to school – primarily the sons. Usually the boys drop out after the secondary level and those girls who do manage to go to school, tend to drop out after the primary level.
The Dosadh people have strong faith in the efficacy of traditional medicine for both humans and animals. They even extend their help to other communities in treating bovine diseases. However, they also use modern medicine when necessary. In general they accept family planning. Facilities like self-employment schemes under government-sponsored development programmes, electricity, banks and fair-price shops are available to them, but in areas like West Bengal they do not take advantage of this assistance.
The Dosadh eat meat but abstain from beef, while those living in West Bengal do not take pork also. Rice is their staple cereal which is supplemented with wheat, maize, barley, bajra (millet) and pulses. Seasonal vegetables and fruits as well as milk and milk products are taken. Sweets and curds are served on ceremonial occasions such as marriage ceremonies. Men consume alcoholic drinks that are either available in the local market (mostly cheap country liquor) or made at home. They are fond of rice beer, smoke bidis, and chew tobacco mixed with lime and betel leaf.
The Dosadh are an endogamous community (they do not marry outside their community) and are divided into a number of subgroups: two in West Bengal, four in Bihar and seven in Uttar Pradesh. These subgroups are further divided into exogamous clans or lineages serving to regulate marriage alliances. However, nowadays marriage within the same clan is allowed among many Dosadh, as those of West Bengal, but relatives up to four generations are avoided. Spouses are acquired through negotiation or exchange of sisters and monogamy is the norm, though a second wife is taken if the first is barren.
Married women wear a vermilion mark (sindur) and iron bangles as marriage symbols. Junior sororate and junior levirate are permitted, as is the keeping of a concubine. Both bride price and dowry are popular and are paid in cash and kind. Divorce and remarriage are allowed except in Bihar where divorce is not permissible.
The Dosadh follow the rule of male equigeniture, i.e. all the sons inherit the patrimony equally; hence succession devolves upon the eldest son. The status of women, who attend to all household chores in addition to collecting drinking water and fuel, is invariably secondary to that of men in all spheres of life. Often, the women also support the family through different domestic jobs.
The Dosadh have a traditional village caste council, in which all male members of the community participate and exercise social control. This council has a headman who is known variously as Sardar, Mahajan or Chaudhari in Uttar Pradesh. In West Bengal the village headman is known as Majhi or Mahato, where the head of the regional caste council is called Deshmandal. These positions are usually hereditary.
What are Their Beliefs?
The Dosadh are Hindus but mixed with other beliefs. There s a sacred place of their own called ‘place of Goriya’. Though they worship prominent deities like Shiva (Destroyer in the Hindu trinity), Durga (ten-armed, goddess and wife of Shiva) and Manasa Devi (snake goddess) they also worship very little known, lesser deities. Rahu (seizer) is a sinister four-armed demon that swallows the sun and the moon during eclipses. According to Hindu belief, his body was severed in two by an angry Vishnu and the lower part of Rahu’s body became a corresponding demon called Ketu, who gave birth to comets and fiery meteors. Rahu and Ketu have to be appeased to ward off evil consequences.
Goriya or Bandi Goriya is a local divinity who is worshipped in the form of little mounds or platforms of clay. Pigs and alcohol are sacrificed to the deity. Tigers are also prayed to.
The Dosadh observe festivals like Holi, Diwali (festival of lamps) and Dussehra (festival commemorating Rama’s killing of the demon king Ravana). There is a belief in evil spirits and witchcraft. A priest known as Bhagat (devotee) cures diseases using spells and charms, and protects them from harmful spirits. Family deities like Rahu and Jagdamba are also appeased by the Bhagat in the month of Aswin (sixth month of the Hindu calendar, September-October). During this time flowers and kheer (sweet and milky rice pudding) are offered to these deities.
A Brahmin priest performs rituals for births, marriages and deaths. The dead are either cremated or buried, but the Dosadh of Uttar Pradesh cremates and scatters the ashes in a river, preferably the holy Ganges River.