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Who are they?
The Halwai are a caste of confectioners and sweet-makers. The name is derived from the Hindi word halwa, a popular sweet made of flour, clarified butter (ghee) sugar, almonds, raisins and pistachio nuts and saffron.
The Halwai are known by different names in each state. They are known as Mithaiha (meaning sweet) in Madhya Pradesh and have the surname Aggarwal. In eastern Bihar, they are called Madhesia and Vaisya and their surnames are Sah, Sahu, Saw and Gupta. In Uttar Pradesh they are known as Yogyaseni, Modanwal, Halwai, and Gupta. In Punjab they are known as Kamboj and Arora. In Orissa, the Halwai are known as Guria (jaggery) while in West Bengal they are known as Mayara, meaning confectioner.
There are large numbers living in the fertile eastern districts of Barabanki and Bahraich of Uttar Pradesh. They trace the origin of the term from the Hindi halwai, or “one who ploughs”.
The Halwai give no specific mythological account of the origins of their community. The Madhya Pradesh Halwais migrated from northwestern India – Rajasthan and Gujarat, during the medieval period. It is believed that Muslim rulers and feudal lords employed them to make sweets. The Halwai is regarded with respect socially as their services are of social and ritualistic importance. Every caste in India, even the Brahmin (highest Hindu priestly caste) does not consider itself too pure to eat what a Halwai has made. Considering that sweets have a special significance in religious rituals and social events, this community plays a very specific role in all festivals and celebrations such as marriages and childbirths.
The Halwais of Uttar Pradesh speak Hindi along with the Awadhi dialect. The Madhya Pradesh Halwais also speak Hindi and a Bundelkhandi dialect. The Devanagari script is used in most states. In Bihar their first language is Maithili, but they are also conversant with Hindi. In West Bengali is spoken in Bengali and Oriya in Orissa; both have their own distinct scripts.
What Are Their Lives Like?
The Halwai’s traditional occupation is making and selling sweets. These shops are scattered throughout northern India’s towns and bazaars. They also make savoury snacks like samosas and pakoras and chai (spiced tea). Their crowded shops are India’s version of fast food. The shop-owners employ helpers mostly from their own Halwai community. Though most Halwai continue in making and selling confectionary, some find alternate employment in private and government sectors in various capacities. A few of them are also professionals such as doctors and engineers, while some others practice agriculture.
As they are mostly vegetarian, wheat and rice are their staple cereals, supplemented by a variety of lentils, pulses and seasonal fruits and vegetables. However, in Bihar both men and women eat mutton and chicken occasionally, but beef is taboo. Milk and dairy products are favourite foods. Alcohol is frowned upon. On ritual occasions they enjoy puri (deep fried wheat bread) and potatoes and rice pudding. This community believes in educating both boys and girls. They also use modern medicines and practice family planning. Traditional medicines are used only for minor ailments. They make use of subsidised loans that national banks offer under developmental schemes, to set up or expand their businesses.
The Halwai are endogamous, i.e. marriages take place only within their community. There are a different number of sub castes residing in different regions. In Uttar Pradesh the Halwai have nine subgroups namely Modansevi or Modanseni, Kanyakubja, Yogyasevi or Yogyaseni, Jaunpuri, Madhesia, Kanbo, Kaithiya, Nagari, Rawatpuriya and Badshahi, while in Bihar there are two sub castes, Madhesia and Kannaujia. Marriages are arranged by the elders on both sides. They practice monogamy. The symbols of marriage for women are traditional to the Hindu religion: the bride smears vermilion powder along her headline, wears glass bangles, toe-rings, a nose-ring or stud, a coloured dot on the forehead and decorates her hands and feet with henna. Divorce is allowed and remarriage of divorcees, widows and widowers is permissible. The practice of dowry is prevalent.
Parental property is shared equally by all the sons. Daughters have no inheritance. The eldest son succeeds his father as head of the family. Extended families are becoming less common as younger males use their inheritance to move away to set up their own businesses. In Uttar Pradesh some Muslim Halwai called Mithaiwale are known by their location, as in Purabi (of the eastern district) and Pachaon (of the western district). They are non-vegetarian, speak Urdu which is their native language, use the Persian-Arabic script to write it but are also fluent in Hindi. They are a monogamous people. Some of them sell tobacco, work as dyers and daily wage labourers.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Halwai are mainly Hindu and worship all the major deities such as Shiva (the Destroyer), Durga (Shiva’s wife – a powerful goddess who rides a tiger and slays demons), Rama (virtuous warrior king of Ayodhya) and Hanuman (celibate monkey god; protector from danger and evil spirits; attendant of Rama). Krishna (literally, “black”), who is worshipped as the eighth and most popular incarnation of Vishnu, comes in for special reverence because of his pastoral attributes. He is, in fact, also the family deity of a large number of Halwai. The legend of Krishna as a prankish child pinching butter and curds and as an amorous young flautist frolicking among the besotted milkmaids, contribute in no small measure to this devotion.
Ancestor worship is observed during pitra paksha (or, ‘ancestor fortnight’) which is the ‘dark fortnight’, or Krishna paksha, of Aswin – the 6th month of the lunar Hindu calendar, September-October. The Halwai requisition the services of Brahman priests to perform their birth, marriage and death ceremonies. The dead are cremated and the ashes immersed in a river preferably the sacred Ganges. Death pollution is observed for a specified period, as is post-delivery birth pollution.
The Halwai celebrate all major Hindu festivals such as Holi (spring festival of colours and revelry), Diwali (Festival of Lamps), Ramnavmi (Rama’s birthday), and Janamashtami (Krishna’s birthday). Some of the prominent pilgrimage spots are Vrindavan, Haridwar (Gateway to God), Dwarka – the port city sacred to Krishna on the Arabian Sea and Gangotri, the source of the Ganges River in the Himalayas. The Muslim Halwai belongs to the Sunni sect of Islam and their sacred specialist is the priest who is from other Muslim communities. They celebrate Islamic festivals like Id-Milad (Prophet Mohammed’s birthday), Id-ul-Fitr (Feast of Alms) and believe in and visit the mausoleums of Muslim saints. Their dead are buried.
What Are Their Needs?
Most Halwais are financially well off and many are quite wealthy, especially those who live in urban areas.