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Who are they?
The Khangar claim that they are of the same status as Rajputs who are of the Kshatriya caste (second highest class of warriors). They trace their ancestry from Khet Singh and Bhopat Singh of the Grah Kundal princely state of Tikamgarh (Russel and Hiralal, 1916). There is a print of the caste genealogy that establishes their Kshatriya identity. However, this status is not accepted by the higher castes and they are considered to be middle or low in hierarchy.
They are called Khangar Thakur (a title used by Rajputs) in Uttar Pradesh where they number around one hundred and fifty thousand. In Bihar they are known as Raj Thakur and in Kota, Rajasthan, as Gohenja. Other names they are known by are Khengor, Khand, Kharal, Khara, Kharwal, Kotwar, Kotpal, Rao Khangad, Rawat and Roy.
The term Khangar has been derived from the words khang and dhoran meaning sword-holder or sword-bearer. They are thought to be a courageous people and were in the past employed by local chiefs and kings to fight in their armed troops. However, colonial anthropologist, William Crooke (1896), describes the Khangar as “landless laborers, servants, village watchmen and prone to commit thefts and burglaries.”
They are listed as a Scheduled Caste in the states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. This status is given to lower castes that have been oppressed and inhumanely treated by the society over centuries. Under India’s affirmative action programs, this new status grants the Khangar many special benefits such as fixed quotas in government jobs and colleges, reserved seats in all legislative bodies and other opportunities.
The Khangar speak local dialects of the regions they live in as well as Hindi and use the Devanagari script. In Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh the Bundelkhandi dialect of Hindi is used, in Bihar their mother tongue is Angika, while in Rajasthan Hindi is used. They accept food and water from the communities considered higher in the social rank, but usually food cooked by them is not accepted by the higher castes.
The Khangar’s are widely distributed in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar. They originated from the rugged Bundelkhand region which is spread over parts of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh and migrated to neighboring states.
What Are Their Lives Like?
The traditional and primary occupation of the Khangar is agriculture. The exception is the vast central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh where their traditional vocation is weaving. However, at present only a few Khangar pursue weaving, having given it up in favour of more profitable enterprises such as selling cloth, manufacturing and sales of perfumed oil and cosmetic goods, or masonry. Among the Khangar who farm, almost all families own at least small plots of cultivable land except in the state of Bihar where the majority is landless and works as farm labourers. Even in Rajasthan where land is scarce and unsustainable, they resort to farming. During lean periods they migrate to neighboring places in search of work. Some Khangar work for the government or private sector; some build roads and construct houses, collect and sell firewood or are tailors. Political leadership has emerged at a village level – that executes development programs at grass-roots level.
Overall, the Khangar’s attitude to education is favorable in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The reality is that the literacy rate is still below the national average. Both boys and girls study up to college level. In Rajasthan and Bihar, girls especially are not sent to school and the literacy levels are poor.
The Khangar practice family planning and do believe in modern medicine, avail of official development programs and agricultural loans from nationalized and cooperative banks. Bihari Khangars however do not.
The Khangar eat meat such as chicken, mutton, fish and pork, but not beef, which is religiously unacceptable. Those living in Madhya Pradesh do not eat pork as well. Their staple cereals are wheat, rice, millet, lentils, seasonal vegetables, fruit and milk and milk products. Alcoholic drinks, mostly country liquor purchased from the local market, are also consumed by them. They smoke bidis (rolled and dried tendu leaves) and cigarettes and relish zarda (flavoured chewing tobacco) and paan (betel leaves with aromatic ingredients).
The Khangar are endogamous at the community level and exogamous at the clan level. Marriages are arranged by relatives and adult marriages are more common now though child marriages are still common in the desert state of Rajasthan. The marriageable age varies from ten to sixteen years for girls and from twelve to twenty years for boys.
The Khangar are largely monogamous and polygamy is observed in rare cases.
Marriages are performed by a Brahmin priest in the bride’s home and after marriage the couple lives with or near the husband’s family. Bangles, vermilion mark in the hair parting, toe rings and nose rings are the symbols of a married woman. Both dowry and bride-price are paid in cash and kind. However, dowry is preferred to bride-price now. Divorce is socially acceptable and either spouse can instigate it, and compensation is given to the aggrieved party. Widow, widower and divorcee remarriage is permitted but the marriage ceremony is kept simple. If a married woman elopes with her lover, he has to pay compensation to her humiliated husband. Junior sororate and junior levirate are practiced by them.
Traditional extended families as well as nuclear families exist among the Khangar. Only males receive an inheritance. Some portion is saved as dowry for unmarried daughters. The eldest son succeeds his father as head of the home. Women are subordinate to men and have a low status in every aspect of their lives. They perform specific roles in social, religious, domestic and economic activities.
The Khangar have traditional Jati Panchayats (caste councils) with their members, who are usually senior in age and experience, being generally elected by voice vote. These councils resolve minor civil and criminal matters concerning the community members such as those relating to marital breakdown, elopement, divorce, hooliganism and property squabbles. Punishments in the form of cash fines, social boycott and/or excommunication are imposed by the councils on the guilty.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Khangar are Hindu by faith. They worship various clan, family, village and regional deities. Many temples have been constructed by them for Radha, Krishna, Shankara and Gopala. Radha was Krishna’s favorite mistress as well as an incarnation of Lakhsmi, the goddess of wealth.
Worshippers of Radha Krishna celebrate the divine and carnal love of this couple. Their love is a popular theme with poets and artists over centuries. Shankara (beneficent) is one of Shiva’s 1008 names and Gopala (cowherd) is a name given to Krishna. The Khangar also worship many other gods and goddesses such as Balaji (another version of Krishna), Rama, (hero of the Ramayana, a religious epic), Durga (savage demon slayer) and Ganesh (elephant-headed son of Shiva, remover of obstacles and god of good luck and wisdom).
The Khangar believe in evil spirits and witchcraft. They rely on local sorcerers and witchdoctors called bhopa and bhagat to ward off evil spirits and evil eye and to cast spells for them. Ancestor worship is prevalent among them, and ancestors are appeased during marriages and pitra paksha (manes’ fortnight). This is the dark half of the month of Asvina (September-October) in the lunar Hindu calendar during which spirits are supposedly active.
The Khangar engage a Brahmin priest to conduct religious rituals and to cremate their dead. Birth and death pollution for specified periods is observed. Varanasi and Gaya are important places of pilgrimage. They celebrate the festivals of Janamashtami (birthday of Krishna), Holi (spring festival of colours), Diwali (festival of lamps), Rakshabandhan (when girls/women tie a thread around their brothers’ wrists who in turn pledge to protect them).