Who are they?
The Kahar were once palanquin bearers. As the palanquin is not used anymore, the Kahar carry water for upper castes for weddings, funerals and grow water nuts in ponds and lakes.
This large community is distributed throughout the North Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Delhi, Rajasthan and West Bengal and the union territory of Dadra and Nagar Haveli. In Uttar Pradesh, they number more than 3.5 million. They are also found in the remote northeastern state of Tripura.
One anthropologist observes about them, “they are a large cultivating and palanquin-bearing caste of Bihar…the Brahminical genealogists represent the Kahar as a mixed caste descended from a Brahmin (highest priestly caste) father and a Nishada (hunter) or Chandala (cremator) mother, but it seems more likely that they are a remnant of one of the primitive races who occupied the valley of the Ganges before the incursion of the Aryans.”
Those living in Rajasthan and Delhi prefer to be called Kashyap Rajput. They claim ancestry from the Kashyap Rajput of Rajasthan who, in turn, believe that they have originated from the divine sage Kashyap, one of the ten sons of the god Brahma, creator in the Hindu trinity. However, this claim of descent from the Rajput – the second highest Hindu caste of warriors – is obscure, and the rest of society places them somewhere in the middle of Indian social hierarchy.
Those living in Bihar, West Bengal and Tripura claim their descent from the mythical king Jarasandh of Magadh, which is the ancient name of Bihar. According to Risley, the name ‘Kahar’ is derived from the Hindi words kandha (shoulder) and bhar (burden), and denotes ‘one who bears burdens on his shoulders’, pointing to their traditional occupation of palanquin bearing. Another version states that their community name is derived from the Hindi words, kandha (shoulder) and ahar (food), meaning, ‘earning of livelihood by the shoulder’ – another description of their traditional occupation.
In Bihar these people are also known as Ravani, Ramani, Kamkar or Chandrabansi and speak the Indo-Aryan tongue of Magahi. In Uttar Pradesh they are known as Dhimar and use the Indo-Aryan language, Bhojpuri. In Rajasthan they are called Mehra and speak Shekhawati and Marwari. In Dadra and Nagar Haveli, where they speak Gujarati, they are known as Raj Bhoi. The Kahar synonym in West Bengal is ‘Kahal’. There they speak Bengali. Almost all the Kahar speak Hindi along with their native tongue.
What Are Their Lives Like?
The Kahar are farmers and are engaged in small businesses – restaurants, fabric shops, fruit and egg stalls. They can be found working for Indian Railways, state transport corporations and state-run primary schools. They also work as rickshaw-pullers, carpenters, basket weavers, boatmen and fishermen. In Dadra and Nagar Haveli, they primarily sell fish.
There are some professionals and politicians among them. The women are employed as domestic helpers and agricultural labourers. Women from Rajasthan and Tripura make baskets of mulberry sticks or bamboo.
Child labour is prevalent. In Bengal, the children work as cowherds and servants on annual contract, while in Delhi the poorer Kahar send their sons to work at tea stalls, motor garages or factories. Daughters assist their mothers in cleaning dishes for others.
The Kahar eat meat except pork and beef as it is forbidden by Hinduism. Their diet consists of rice, wheat, lentils, vegetables and fruit, as well as milk and dairy products. Most men smoke bidis (dried and rolled tendu leaves) and cigarettes. Both men and women chew tobacco. Alcoholic beverages are accepted mainly by the men folk.
The Kahar people approve of formal education for their children and a majority study to tertiary levels. Modern medicine, immunization and family planning programmes are well received. They utilise the facilities provided by government-sponsored development programmes such as those assisting them in self-employment.
The Kahar community has many subgroups and clans. In Uttar Pradesh, there are four subgroups, namely Kharwar, Batham, Rawani and Jaiswar and other clans like Kashyap and Madgolla; in Rajasthan there are three subgroups, namely Budana, Turaha and Mahara, and eighty-four clans. As a rule they, they observe endogamy at the community and subgroup levels and exogamy at clan level. Increasingly, inter-subgroup marriages are also being practiced.
Both child and adult marriages are considered acceptable, though adult marriages are becoming popular. Marriages are arranged by negotiation among parents and elders, and in very few cases (mostly in cities) it is by mutual consent of the couple. Monogamy is common though polygamy is allowed in some cases. Junior levirate and junior sororate are practiced and preferred if such a match is available.
Vermilion, glass or lac bangles and toe-rings are symbols of marriage which are strictly observed. Divorce is permitted as are remarriage for widows, widowers and divorcees.
The community lives in extended families. Property is inherited by males and is equally divided among the sons; the eldest son succeeds as head of the household.
Although the Kahar women have a secondary status to the men, they help out in the fields and animal husbandry by collecting fuel, fodder and water and managing all of the household chores. They also contribute directly to the family income and have an active role in social, ritual and religious spheres. Folksongs are sung by men and women separately during festive occasions.
The Kahar have community councils that function at various levels. In Bihar they are called panchayats and are headed by a council chief. In Rajasthan these councils have been transformed into temple organisations with a president, vice president and treasurer as their office bearers. If there is any violation of community norms, a meeting is held in the temple courtyard and corrective measures decided upon. In Rajasthan, a number of similar communities, including the Kahar, have formed an umbrella organisation called Kashyap Nishad Samaj to form a united front for their welfare and progress. In Dadra and Nagar Haveli there is the Kahar Samaj which exercises social control at the village level and is headed by a chief elected by vote. Delhi has an ad hoc council of elderly persons that has replaced a strong caste council.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Kahar’s religion is Hinduism. They worship the gods and goddesses of Hinduism like Shiva (Destroyer in the Hindu trinity), Vishnu (Preserver), Lakshmi (goddess of wealth and Vishnu’s wife), Kali and other regional and local deities. In Bihar they worship Vishnupad, Mangalagouri, Kalesari Devi and Dhakarni Mai, as their regional deities, while Manasa Devi, a regional goddess associated with snakes, is very popular, especially among the Kahar of Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. In Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Gotrej is their clan deity while Amba Mata is the village deity. The Kahar of Delhi have great reverence for Sant Kalu Baba (Saint Black Father) whose birthday they celebrate yearly.
In Rajasthan, Rani Sati (Queen Virtuous, who immolated herself on her husband’s funeral pyre), Sakhambari Devi, Jeen Mata, Jobner Ki Mata and Bheru Deo are worshipped. Here the Kahar have constructed many temples dedicated to Balaji, Hanuman (monkey god) and Shiva. Tomb shrines of Muslim saints are also venerated. A few Kahar have joined Guru-dominated sects like the Arya Samaj and Radhasoami that lay stress on pious and simple living to achieve salvation.
The Kahar celebrate all major Hindu festivals like Maha Sivaratri (Great Night of Shiva), Janamashtami (Krishna’s birthday), Holi (festival of colours), and Navratri. This is a nine-day-long festival connected with the autumnal equinox during many rituals are performed.
The Kahar seek the services of Brahmin priests for their birth, marriage and death rituals. They cremate their dead and immerse their ashes in a river, preferably the Ganges which is considered to be holy. Animal sacrifices and ancestor worship are also prevalent.
They are deeply religious, seeking salvation through the worship of many gods, goddesses, worship at shrines and temples, offer blood sacrifices, worship of ancestors, pilgrimages and even in their guru-dominated sects or the rituals of the Muslim Kahar, their lives are spent in service as a means of finding peace and freedom from fear.