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Who are they?
The Kori are a caste of traditional weavers of North India who are Hindu. The Kori, numbering around two-and-a half million, are distributed throughout the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa and the union territory of Chandigarh.
The Kori derive their name from the Hindi word kora, meaning coarse cloth, which refers to their traditional occupation of weaving such cloth. William Crooke, author of The Tribes and Castes of the North-Western India, states that the name Kori has been derived from that of the tribal Kol caste, and they are assumed to be an offshoot of the same populous caste.
According to ethnologists Russel and Hiralal (The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India, 1916) the Kori caste in Madhya Pradesh “appears to be almost entirely a functional group, made up of members of other castes who were either expelled from their own community, or of their own accord adopted the profession of weaving.”
Depending upon what region they live in, they have different legends about the origins of their caste. In Uttar Pradesh the Kori claim their origin from a Brahmin ruler, the highest Hindu priestly caste. In Maharashtra they assert that they have descended from Maharishi Kashyap, who is regarded as one of the seven great Rishis (sages) of Hinduism.
The Kori living in Madhya Pradesh trace their origin from the poet saint Kabir, a famous, medieval apostle of the weaving castes. They say that he met a Brahmin girl at a dam or well, and on being greeted by her, replied, “May God give you a son.” She objected that she was an unmarried virgin, but Kabir proclaimed that his words could not fail; and a boy was born out of her hand at that moment. She ran away, deserting the baby. The baby was rescued by a heifer who suckled him, and was subsequently adopted by a weaver and became the ancestor of the Kori.
In Uttar Pradesh they speak Hindi. In Madhya Pradesh they speak Hindi as well as a regional dialect Malwi and Nimadi language. The Koris of Maharashtra speak the Bundelkhandi dialect of Hindi and are also conversant with Marathi. They use the Devanagari script. Oriya is spoken in Orissa, using the Oriya script.
The Kori are listed as a Scheduled caste (SC) under the provisions of the Indian Constitution. The SC status grants them many benefits under India’s affirmative action programme. This initiative was intended for the welfare of the lower castes of the Hindu social hierarchy. Over centuries they have been discriminated and abased by the higher castes.
The social status of the Kori is low and socially and economically backward. They are not regarded as lowly or “untouchable” like the Chamar (tanner) or Bhangi (sweeper). The weaver is often the target of ridicule, which is partly due to weaving being considered more appropriate for a woman.
What Are Their Lives Like?
The traditional occupation of the Kori is weaving which is still practiced by the majority. The exception is the state of Maharashtra where their traditional occupation was to sell grass for fodder. At present, the Kori here are daily-wage labourers, practice agriculture and sell fruit.
A few Kori families work on power looms and sell their products through middlemen. Others have acquired hand-looms with subsidised loans secured through the government’s rural development projects.
Those with land are farmers. Many, however, are landless and therefore work as hired field labourers, or as in Orissa, they can be found driving bullock carts. They are also among the skilled and unskilled labour force in the industrial or construction sectors and in different government and private services.
Being Hindu, the Kori abstain from beef but eat eggs, mutton, chicken and pork. Maharastran Kori do not eat pork. Their staple cereals are wheat, rice, jowar (millet), along with pulses, seasonal fruits and vegetables and dairy products. Alcoholic drinks are not prohibited.
Their literacy rates are well below the national average. Boys are better educated than girls who may study to primary level at best.
This community makes use of both traditional and modern medicines and they favour official family planning programmes. Younger couples are more accepting of family planning to restrict the number of children; except in Orissa.
The Kori also avail themselves of the facilities of the Public Distribution System (PDS), and other government-sponsored developmental programs. Many still depend on local moneylenders and shopkeepers rather than use banks.
This is an endogamous community, i.e. they marry only within their community. At times they are also endogamous at the subgroup level, as in Uttar Pradesh where they have twelve endogamous subgroups of equal status. Each of these subgroups is further divided into exogamous clans. In Madhya Pradesh the Kori have six clans while in Orissa the number of clans is five.
The Kori are monogamous and adult marriages are normal. Marriages are arranged by family elders on both sides. Cross-cousin marriages, as well as junior sororate, and junior levirate are permissible and practiced, except in Madhya Pradesh where they are prohibited. The vermilion mark on the forehead, bangles of glass, shell, silver or gold, toe-rings and a mangalsutra (gold and black beaded necklace) are some of the symbols of marriage for women.
Dowry is prevalent among the Kori except in Maharashtra, and it is given in cash and kind. In Orissa, however, a bride price is paid to the parents of the bride by the groom’s family. Divorce is permissible with social approval. In Maharashtra only the husband can initiate divorce proceedings. Remarriage of widows, widowers and divorcees is allowed.
Increasingly, the Kori live in nuclear families. All the sons inherit the father’s property equally and the eldest son succeeds to the familial authority. Women are responsible for all domestic chores. They actively participate in social and ritual activities together with their men-folk, as well as supplement the family income by helping in the weaving and agricultural operations. Despite this, women are considered socially inferior to men.
The Kori have traditional caste councils that deal with offences like adultery, rape and divorce. Punishment is in the form of fines, while excommunication is the final resort. In Madhya Pradesh, the Kori have the Chattri Kori Samaj, their regional organisation which plans and implements community welfare activities and settles disputes.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Kori are Hindu by faith and worship all the deities of Hinduism like Vishnu (benevolent Preserver in the Hindu trinity), Rama (7th incarnation of Vishnu), Shiva (Destroyer), Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth, wife of Vishnu), and Durga (ten-armed, martial goddess who slays demons, wife of Shiva). The Kori also have other region-specific community deities. They observe all major Hindu festivals like Holi (spring festival), Diwali (festival of lights) and Ramanavmi (Rama’s birthday.) During the Jawara festival of Madhya Pradesh the local Kori become so overcome by a Devi (goddess) that they pierce their cheeks with iron needles and tridents feeling no pain.
The Kori employ the services of a Brahmin priest to perform their life-cycle rituals associated with birth, marriage and death. In case of suicide or death from snakebite, cholera or leprosy they bury the dead, otherwise they cremate them and immerse the ashes in a river, preferably the Ganges, which they consider to be holy. Infants and very young children are buried. The Kori also observe specified periods of death and birth pollution, the duration of which varies from state to state. .
What Are Their Needs?
Although the Indian government provides various forms of assistance to encourage them economically, the majority remain poor. If they would make good use of the assistance offered by the government, they would be much better off. Education for their children would ensure a better future.