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Who are they?
The Kumhar are potters who make earthen vessels, water pots, decorative home wares, toys and idols of gods and goddesses. The name Kumhar denotes a maker of pots and pitchers or someone who creates. They are an integral part of Indian society because their creations are an integral part of an Indian’s daily life rituals.
They make idols, statues of famous people and folk deities and animals. They can be found at local markets selling their wares on most days. They have started using terracotta instead of red clay as it can be painted and is less fragile. There is a growing demand for their products in the urban market. This trend is beneficial to the Kumhars as long as they are not exploited by middlemen.
One of the largest castes, they are reportedly spread across 212 districts of India, predominantly in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Gujarat, Maharashtra, parts of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. They are known by different names in each state.
Each state has its own legend of the Kumhar’s origins. The Maharashtra Kumhar claim that they emerged on earth with the blessing of the Hindu trinity – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Brahma the creator gave them his art, Vishnu the preserver his wheel and Shiva the destroyer, his form. Their first product was a water pot.
In Madhya Pradesh & Uttar Pradesh, they are listed as a scheduled caste (previously called untouchables.) They themselves do not consider themselves as such.
This community has a number of subgroups that vary depending on where they come from. In Uttar Pradesh, there are the Baradia or Baradiya sub-group who carry clay on oxen; the Gadhere subgroup who carry clay on donkeys and the Chakbai (wheel) subgroup.
What Are Their Lives Like?
The Kumhar are a landless community who continue in their traditional occupation as potters, with some engaged in animal husbandry and crop farming on a share-cropping basis. Some work as masons and manual labour for a daily wage. Many Kumhar have abandoned their traditional occupation and are employed in government service – as teachers, engineers, doctors, police and armed forces; while others work for private enterprises. Political leadership at various levels is also emerging among them.
When we compare the accounts of 19th and early 20th century ethnographers, we can see that the Kumhar’s traditional occupation has diversified considerably. In addition, there has been a devolving of subgroups and an increasing identity-consciousness across states.
Wheat and rice are staple cereals supplemented by barley, maize and lentils and pulses. Fruit intake is occasional and seasonal. Non vegetarians do not eat beef or pork. Those who follow the Radhasoami sect are strict vegetarians. Alcohol is consumed occasionally.
What Are Their Customs?
Endogamy is practiced at community and subgroup level. Exogamy is practiced among clans as a rule for marriage. However, marriages between subgroups are becoming common. Marriages are arranged by negotiation between the elders of both parties.
Child marriage is becoming less prevalent among the Kumhar. In child marriages, consummation takes place only after the girl has attained puberty at the age of twelve to fifteen. In many cases, especially in rural areas, the bride and groom do not see each other before marriage. Bride price used to be the norm but it has been replaced by a dowry which is in both cash and goods.
The Kumhar are monogamous though polygamy is permitted if the first wife is barren, but such cases are very rare. Junior levirate and junior sororate are recognised and preferred. Remarriage is permitted for widowed persons; remarriage is performed simply by exchanging garlands without the ritual encircling the sacred fire. Though divorce is permissible, it is uncommon as it is looked down upon by their society. Only male heirs have an equal share of the inheritance and the eldest son succeeds as the head of the family.
The literacy rate is very low and child labour is common. Response to developmental aid is mixed – they are encouraged to educate their children, but boys are favored over girls and the dropout rate is high due to social and economic reasons. They use both modern and indigenous medicine and are open to family planning.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Kumhar are predominantly Hindu. They worship the gods and goddesses of the wider Hindu pantheon and participate in all Hindu religious festivals. Although quite low in the Hindu caste hierarchy, they have access to all the sacred shrines of pilgrimage for Hindus. Families may choose to give importance to a deity. All Hindu workmen, including the Kumhar, regard the tools of their trade as the cause of their prosperity and worship them as such.
Collectively, the Kumhar worship an overwhelming number of local and regional deities for an equally amazing variety of reasons. For example, in Himachal Pradesh a provincial deity called Guga is propitiated for eight days all over the state. Nahar Singh – the whistling deity who lives in the pipal (Indian fig tree) is considered to be a great benevolent god and benefactor of all. In Haryana a regional deity is worshipped for the fulfillment of wishes. In Uttar Pradesh the Kumhar revere Mahadeva, another form of Shiva and worship the potter’s wheel on Diwali (Festival of Lights). In Himachal Pradesh, the god of their choice is Vishwakarma (the great architect of the universe.) They observe a three day fast when they do not make any pots. In Maharashtra the Kumhar worship Sant Gora Kumbhar (White Saint Kumhar), the god Vitthala (an aspect of Vishnu) and goddess Yellamma. In the desert state of Rajasthan the main deity of the Kumhar is Surya Deva (Sun god) as well as Bhairava (a particularly fearsome incarnation of Shiva).
Some Punjabi Kumhar are Sikh while a few, as in the Union Territory of Chandigarh, are Muslims. There are Catholic Kumhars in the state of Goa which is chiefly Christian.
What Are Their Needs?
Practical needs are literacy, economic self-sufficiency and health care.