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Who are they?
The Koeri, also spelled Koiri or Koiry grow fruit, vegetables, tobacco and opium for the local market. They are a large community of around 5.5 million people distributed throughout the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand and West Bengal with the smallest number (100,000). In Uttar Pradesh, where they inhabit the eastern and central districts, they are also known as Mauriya and Murao, while in Bihar they are called Kushwaha. In West Bengal they live mainly in the southwestern border district of Purulia and are immigrants from the neighbouring states of Bihar and Jharkhand and were invited there by the tribal chiefs of those days.
The term Koeri denotes ‘those who cultivate the earth’. H.H. Risley, an ethnologist (1891) describes them as “a very numerous cultivating caste of Bihar and Chotanagpur.” Another ethnologist, William Crooke, wrote, the Koeri believe that they are the descendents of Kush, one of the twin sons of the much-revered Hindu god Rama. This deity, whose life story is detailed in the immensely popular and ancient Hindu epic, the Ramayana, was the divine king of Ayodhya in present-day eastern Uttar Pradesh. He is worshipped as the seventh incarnation of Vishnu, the Preserver in the Hindu trinity. He is also regarded as an unparalleled icon of moral uprightness.
Despite their attempts to trace a Kshatriya or Rajput lineage – second highest caste of warriors – the Koeri are placed in the bottom fourth caste of peasants and serfs. A social movement was initiated by a prominent leader called Manmath Koeri to identify them as Kushwaha Kshatriya but their status remains the same.
Similar to the Kurmi, also a cultivating caste, who claim descent from Rama’s other son, Luv, the Koeri have benefited immensely from laws of land reforms. Beginning in the 1950s, these reforms abolished the age-old landlord or feudal system and turned the cultivating castes into landowning castes, giving them economic independence and freeing them from subservience to Rajput castes who were their landlords.
Many Koeri are among the middle class of India today. They are a politically aggressive force in India’s caste-based politics. Under the provisions of the Indian Constitution, the Koeri have been listed in the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category, a listing that provides all such designated castes with affirmative action benefits such as fixed quotas in government jobs and higher education and relaxed qualifying criteria in open competitive examinations.
In Uttar Pradesh the Indo-Aryan language of Bhojpuri is the mother tongue of the Koeri, while in Bihar and Jharkhand, they speak Magahi. They also speak Hindi and use the common Devanagari script to write all three languages. In West Bengal the Koeri speak a local dialect of the Bengali language and use the Bengali script.
What Are Their Lives Like?
Traditionally, the Koeri have been engaged in agriculture and horticulture. Many are landowners and also work in agriculture, industry, business and in a variety of jobs and are teachers, administrators, engineers and employed in the defense services. In fact, benefited by the reservation policies of the state governments such as Bihar and Jharkhand, the Koeri have not only become quite conspicuous in government bureaucracy, but also form significant caste clusters in many modern day professions.
The Koeri eat all meat except beef. Rice and wheat are their staple cereals, supplemented by a variety of vegetables, pulses, fruit and dairy products. Alcohol and tobacco products are consumed by men occasionally.
The Koeri have a higher literacy rate in most regions except in West Bengal where the majority remains illiterate. Both sons and daughters are educated, many to graduate and post-graduate levels. They use modern medical facilities and practice family planning. Some have benefited from rural employment generation programs sponsored by the state and central governments.
The Koeri are endogamous at the community and subgroup level and exogamous at the clan level. Where the clan distinctions are not maintained, as in Uttar Pradesh, the rule of exogamy is applied to the prohibited degrees of three ascending generations from both the father’s and mother’s sides. Some of their endogamous subgroups are the Barki Dangi, Chotki Dangi, Banaphor or Banafar, Jaruhar, Kanaujia and Gaita. The Barki Dangi holds the highest status among the subgroups. There is a trend for all these subgroups to intermarry, indicating a change to new customs. In Uttar Pradesh, in addition to the subdivisions mentioned, there is another division of the Koeri into two sects, the Vaktiwan or Baktiwan (possessing devotion) and Saktiwan (possessing power), the Vaktiwan claiming superiority.
The Koeri do not practice child marriage. Marriage is arranged by parents or elders on both sides, with the groom’s family initiating the proposal. Monogamy is the common practice and dowry is paid in both cash and kind. Residence after marriage is with or near the groom’s parents. Women apply vermilion (sindur) in the mid hair-parting and wear toe-rings as symbols of marriage. Divorce is allowed and a divorcee or widow or widower may remarry a person belonging to any group except the Barki Dangi and Chotki Dangi. Marrying one’s deceased wife’s younger sister and marrying one’s deceased husband’s younger brother is also permitted. Nuclear families are now common among the Koeri.
Only the sons inherit parental property which is shared equally, but the father’s authority is inherited either by the eldest male member in the family (as in Uttar Pradesh) or the eldest son in other states.
The Koeri have social control council in each region. In West Bengal, the caste council is divided into six smaller divisions. The Majhi is the headman of a village council while the Mahato is the presiding officer. An office bearer, called chaddar, assists the headman and the presiding officer. Punishments such as fines and excommunication are levied on those found guilty of violating established community norms. In Uttar Pradesh they settle problems within the village on an ad hoc basis.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Koeri worship most Hindu deities like goddesses Kali, Durga, Lakshmi (goddess of wealth) and Shiva, Rama, Mahabir (monkey god Hanuman) and others. The Koeri of West Bengal also worships other deities. They receive spiritual guidance from Vaishnavas (members of a Hindu sect devoted entirely to a highly personalised worship of Vishnu only). Some Koeri, notably those of Bihar and West Bengal, also worship Panch Pir (five Muslim saints) and offer sacrifices of crushed grain, fowl, goat and pigeon to them. They believe in witchcraft, evil spirits and superstition.
The Koeri observe most Hindu festivals like Holi (spring festival of colours), Maha Shivaratri (great night of Shiva) and Diwali (festival of lamps) and a Brahmin priest performs all sacred rituals and religious ceremonies. They cremate their dead and immerse the ashes in a river, preferably the Ganges River, but stillborn babies and children up to one year of age are usually buried. Both death and birth pollution for specified periods are observed. Ancestor worship is also common.
What Are Their Needs?
The Koeri community has made substantial progress in the improving their lives since India’s independence. They have emerged from their inherited backward class status and made good use opportunities to raise their social, economic and political standing. Some Koeri still need education, health and economic assistance.