Who are they?
The Kalwar, also called Kalar or Kallar, Sehore and Kalal, are traditionally a community of distillers and traders of country liquor. They are spread across the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, as well as Madhya Pradesh.
The name of the community is derived from the Sanskrit word kalyapala, meaning distiller of liquor; from ancient times until the British period the Kalwar were predominantly engaged in making fermented liquor in small pot-stills.
Sir Denzel Ibbetson describes them as “notorious for enterprise, energy and obstinacy.” During British rule the right to manufacture and sell in specified circles or regions was annually auctioned at the District headquarters and the Kalwar assembled to bid for it. It was here that instances of their perseverance could often be noticed; a Kalwar brewer would bid up a license far in excess of the profits which he could hope to realise from it, rather than allow himself to be deprived of a still which he desired to retain.
William Crooke in the Tribes and Castes of North-Western India (1896) states that the Kalwar may be an offshoot of the Baniya (trader) or other similar castes belonging to the Vaishya class, the third-highest class of traders and merchants in the traditional four-fold division of Hindu society. Also, a slight physical resemblance may be traced between the Baniya and the Kalwar. The fact that some of the Kalwar are followers of Jainism – a religion, to which mainly the Baniya adhere to, adds weight to this theory.
In Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal the Kalwar speak Hindi as their mother tongue and use the Devanagari script to write it. In the latter state they also speak Bengali while in Bihar they speak the Indo-Aryan language Magahi as their mother tongue and are conversant with Hindi as well.
What Are Their Lives Like?
The Kalwar are mostly engaged in farming, forestry, business, trade, government and private service, industrial and agricultural labour, and, to a much diminished extent, in their traditional calling of manufacture of country liquor. Quite a few of the younger educated generation, especially in West Bengal, have taken up professions in medicine, engineering, chartered and cost accountancy, teaching and administration.
The Kalwar will eat mutton, chicken, venison, fish but not beef and pork; wheat and rice are the staple cereals consumed as well as vegetables, fruits, pulses, milk and dairy products. Not surprisingly, alcoholism is a problem among their community.
The Kalwar tend to favour formal education and their literacy level on the whole is moderate. Though most of the elderly members of the community have not received any formal education the younger generation is pursuing it and in states like West Bengal their literacy levels are high. They favour modern medicine and family planning techniques as well as the use of indigenous medicines. They take part in various benefits provided by the government, like self-employment schemes, agricultural loans, as well as subsidized food grains and cooking fuel to improve their lot in life.
The Kalwar are an endogamous community (they do not marry outsiders) divided into exogamous clans, i.e. marriage outside the clan is permitted. Some of their clans or gotras in Uttar Pradesh are Durga, Batham, Gulor, Padhouya, Chamiki and Gungwar. In Bihar and West Bengal a number of lineages have been identified which indicate one’s ancestry and regulate marriage alliances.
H.H. Risley (1891) mentions no less than 140 such sections among the Kalwar of Bihar like Biyahut or Bhojpuri, Jaiswar or Ajodhyagari, Banodhia, Khalsa and Deswar. In the new state of Chhattisgarh (which was carved out of Madhya Pradesh in 2000) the principle division of the Kalwar is that of the Dandasenas or “Stick Carriers.”
Adult marriages and monogamy are the rule within the community. Consanguineous marriages, (marriages between closely related persons) are forbidden, but junior levirate and junior sororate are permitted. Among the Kalwar of Bihar marriage alliances within the same village are not allowed. Most marriages are arranged by negotiation and a Brahmin (highest Hindu priestly caste) officiates at the ceremony. The rule of residence after marriage is patrilocal – i.e. the couple resides with or near the husband’s family. The symbols of marriage for women are vermilion in the mid-head hair parting, toe rings, coloured dot on the forehead (bindi) and black bangles. Divorce and remarriage are socially permissible except among the Biyahut Kalwar.
An interesting marriage custom prevalent among the Kalwar, particularly those living in Madhya Pradesh, is the ceremony known as “marrying the well”. This is performed before the wedding procession departs for the bride’s residence. In this ceremony, the mother or aunt of the bridegroom goes to a well and sits in its mouth with her legs hanging down inside it. She then asks the bridegroom what he will give her. In response, the bridegroom goes around the well seven times, thereby imitating the marriage ritual of circling around the sacred fire, and throws a stick of a local grass in it at each turn. Afterwards he promises her a handsome present and, being satisfied, she returns to her house.
The Kalwar mostly live in mixed-extended families. The parental property is inherited equally by all the sons, while the eldest succeeds to the deceased father’s authority. Women are relegated to a position secondary to the men but they have their specified roles in ritual, domestic and social spheres. The Kalwar have a regional caste council known as Behaut Sangh or Sammelan with a number of branches in northern and southern parts of India, as well as in Calcutta, the capital of West Bengal.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Kalwar are predominantly Hindu and worship all the deities of the wider Hindu pantheon like Vishnu, Kali, Lakshmi (goddess of wealth and Vishnu’s consort) and many others.
Many Kalwar belong to the Vaishnava sect of Hinduism that is devoted to the worship of Vishnu and his two incarnations, Rama and Krishna, with their consorts as its main deities. Rama is the seventh incarnation of Vishnu as a divine prince and icon of morality; he is also the hero of Hindu India’s most popularly revered religious epic, the Ramayana.
Some Kalwar, like the Jaiswar section, venerate a group of Muslim saints collectively known as Panch Pir (literally, “five saints”) who are also invoked by boatmen at the beginning of a voyage. In order to vex them, other sections of the Kalwar like the Biyahut and the Khairdaha take a delight in going directly against the fundamental points of the Islamic faith, by offering pigs and wine to a local deity called Goriya who is worshipped in the form of little mounds or platforms of clay and is the presiding deity of gors, meaning ‘tombs’. The pigs and wine offered at the Goriya shrines are but given to people belonging to some very low castes. They also worship Brahma Deos (the spirits of unmarried Brahmins.)
A priest from their own community performs worship, cures diseases and protects them against evil spirits, while the Brahmin priests are their sacred specialists who perform religious rites and conduct marriages. Both birth and death pollution is strictly observed for specified periods. Tonsure and first feeding of cereals are some of the birth rituals. The dead are cremated and death rituals observed. The ashes are immersed in a river, preferably the holy Ganges River.
The Kalwar observe major Hindu festivals like Janamashtami (birthday of Krishna), Navratri (festival of nine nights dedicated to the worship of various devis or goddesses, especially Durga, a form of Kali), Ramanavmi (birthday of Rama), Holi (spring festival of colours symbolising the victory of good over evil.) During Holi those who sell liquor pay homage to an earthen jar filled with the alcoholic beverage. Some Kalwar follow the atheistic religion of Jainism, while a few are adherents of Sikhism.