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Who are they?
The Kachchi are an agricultural community distributed in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Delhi. Ethnologist, William Crooke, in his Tribes and Castes of North-Western India (1896) describes them as a tribe of opium growers and market gardeners. R.V. Russel and Hiralal write, “Kachchi are an important cultivating caste of the northern districts who grow vegetables and irrigate crops requiring intense cultivation.” They also consider them to be an offshoot of the Kurmi, a populous agrarian caste of northern and eastern India.
The Kacchi are known by different names in the regions they live in. The etymology of the word kachchi has been variously explained. Some say it is derived from the Sanskrit word kakaha (a flank or enclosure), or karsha (a furrow), or kachhna (term for collecting the opium pods of the poppy plant) or from kachhar (the low, rich alluvial lands by the river banks which they usually cultivate.
The mythical origins of their caste vary from region to region. Those living in Uttar Pradesh believe themselves to be the descendants of the legendary king Icchvaku who was the ruler of Kapilavastu situated in the foothills of Nepal, while those in Rajasthan, Delhi and Madhya Pradesh claim to be Rajputs (second highest Hindu caste of warriors) descended from Kush, the younger son of Rama (warrior king of Ayodhya, revered as the 7th incarnation of Vishnu, the Preserver in the Hindu trinity). They also claim a connection with the Kacchwaha section of Rajputs in Rajasthan who ruled over Jaipur.
They speak Hindi as their mother tongue and write in the Devanagari script. However the Kachchi are also conversant in the local languages of the regions they inhabit such as Marathi in Maharashtra and the Brij dialect of Hindi in Rajasthan.
In Uttar Pradesh, where they number around 2.5 million, they are distributed in the districts of Farrukhabad, Agra, Mainpuri, Etah and Etawah; in Madhya Pradesh (2 million) in the districts of Jabalpur, Damoh, Sagar, Narsinghpur, Bhopal and Indore; and in Rajasthan (250,000) in the districts of Bharatpur, Dholpur and Sawai Madhopur.
What Are Their Lives Like?
The Kachchi are traditionally and primarily farmers. They cultivate vegetables, sugarcane, turmeric and water nuts. Crops such as wheat, jowar (millet), cotton, groundnut, mustard, sesame and a variety of pulses are also grown by them.
They are also employed in agricultural and industrial businesses and work for both government and private sectors. In Delhi, where they are mostly landless, a majority of them are self-employed selling vegetables, running small scale industries like printing presses, book-binding, or those manufacturing plastic toys or electric spare parts. A few send their male children to work in tea stalls or factories to help the family income. The Kachchi also have some doctors, engineers, musicians, politicians and artists.
Education is provided for both sexes though daughters are not encouraged in further studies. Many leave school after secondary school for economic reasons or lack of interest and social constraints upon the girls. In states like Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh their literacy levels are low.
The Kachchi use both modern medicine and traditional indigenous drugs. Increasingly, younger couples opt for family planning methods to restrict family size. Many of the official developmental programmes have influenced their lifestyle in varying degrees.
In the states of Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, they are mainly vegetarian. Some males eat meat socially or when away from home. Wheat, maize, rice and millets like jowar, bajra, seasonal fruits and vegetables, lentils and dairy products supplement their diet. Alcoholic drinks are consumed occasionally by the men, while both men and women often take tobacco in various forms.
The Kachchi are endogamous, i.e. they marry only within their community. Each subgroup is comprised of a number of clans which, in states like Delhi, play no role in marriage alliances. However, in Rajasthan the clans are exogamous, of equal status and are generally named after villages. Some of the clans are Piproniya, Agahpuriya, Taroliya, Mewaliya and Dengaiya.
Many subgroups take their names from plants which they grow. In Delhi, out of the four subgroups namely Kanaujia, Kachhwaha, Hardiya and Murao, the last two are named after turmeric and radish respectively. In Maharashtra there are a number of subgroups like Kushwaha (from Kush, the son of Rama), the Moura or Mor who prepare marriage crowns, the Shakya, named after the Shakya dynasty, the Alia, the cultivator of al or Indian madder, the Phulia, the phul (flower) growers.
Marriages are settled by negotiation among elders on both sides. The custom of child marriage followed by gaona (departure of the bride to her husband’s house after attaining puberty) is still prevalent among many Kachchi of states like Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. However, in other states, like Delhi, adult marriages are preferred and have virtually become the norm. Monogamy is the common form of marriage, but a second wife is allowed under exceptional circumstances such as barrenness of the first wife and only with her prior permission. Dowry, which was once looked down on, is now demanded in both cash and kind. Divorce is permitted and so is the remarriage of widowers, widows and divorcees.
The Kachchi live in joint families but they also live part depending on their circumstances. Traditionally, only sons inherit the ancestral property equally and daughters have no share in it. Modern laws have changed this, but the practice remains largely the same due to social pressures. The eldest son succeeds the late father as the head of the family.
Although the Kachchi women are not given equal status with men, they actively participate in social, religious and ritual activities and contribute to the family finances by doing stitching, embroidery and other crafts. Folk songs accompanied by the dholak – an indigenous, barrel-shaped, double sided drum – are generally sung by the Kachchi women on the occasions of births and marriages, and only they participate in folk dances.
The Kachchi have traditional community councils (panchayat) to resolve social disputes. In Rajasthan this village council is presided over by a hereditary headman known as lambardar who is assisted by senior members of the community. In Delhi there is a community association named Young Men Community Improvement Committee, the main objectives of which are to introduce social reforms and to look after the welfare of the community. In 1918, the Kachchi of Maharashtra also established an All India Great Assembly at the national level for similar reasons, as well as to maintain links with the community members spread across the country.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Kachchi religion is Hindu. They worship gods and goddesses like Rama, Krishna (eighth, and most popular, incarnation of Vishnu with pastoral attributes), Hanuman (the monkey god, revered as a protector from danger and evil spirits), Shiva (the Destroyer in the Hindu trinity with ascetic attributes), Kali (wife of Shiva), and Durga (literally, “inaccessible,” a form of Kali).
The Kachchi of Delhi and neighbouring areas have great reverence for Vaishno Devi who is worshipped along with two other mother goddesses, Lakshmi (goddess of wealth, wife of Vishnu) and Saraswati (goddess of knowledge, wife of Brahma, the Creator in the Hindu trinity) at a famous hilltop cave-shrine near Jammu. In Madhya Pradesh village deities like Bajrang (synonym of Hanuman) and Khermai and family deities like Kankali and Bhalera Devi are venerated. In Uttar Pradesh, Vishahari (literally, “poison destroyer,” goddess of snakes) is their main village deity who is worshipped as the protector of men and women from venomous snakes, while in Rajasthan, Sitala Devi (“cool goddess,” the goddess of smallpox) is especially worshipped on the eighth day after Holi (spring festival of colours).
There are also some Buddhists among the Kachchi in Uttar Pradesh, while in Delhi some have joined religious sects like the Arya Samaj and Radhasoami. These sects, while non-idolatrous, have most of their conceptions drawn from Hinduism.
The Kachchi celebrate major Hindu festivals like Janamashtami (Krishna’s birthday), Diwali (festival of lamps), Shivaratri and Holi. Some of the sacred places visited prominently by them are Vaishno Devi shrine, Vrindavan, Ganges River and the temple of Lakshman (Rama’s younger brother) at Bharatpur in Rajasthan.
They cremate their dead and immerse the ashes preferably in the holy Ganga River or its tributaries. However, corpses of children below 6-7 years are either buried or disposed of in flowing water. Ancestor worship is also observed. There is a belief in evil spirits and exorcism.