Who are they?
The Kurmi are a large peasant community of farmers widely distributed in the states of Uttar Pradesh (more than 5 million), Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Assam. Successive waves of land reform legislation all over India since the 1950s abolished the landlord system which enabled the cultivating caste of Kurmi, who were tenant farmers, into a landowning caste. Among the Kurmi there are also businessmen, government servants at various levels, engineers, doctors and defense personnel. In Delhi they are mainly engaged as industrial workers, daily-wage laborers or are self-employed, running shops or dairies.
The name Kurmi is the Sanskrit word Krishi meaning ‘cultivation’. Some authors attempt to trace the divine origin of the Kurmi from the tortoise (kurm) – believed to be an incarnation of Vishnu. These authors further relate the Kurmi to the gods Rama and Indra, the established symbols of the Kshatriya (second level in caste hierarchy) and thereby attempt to claim a higher caste origin.
They are believed to be the direct descendants of the earliest Aryan tribes.
The Kurmi genealogists and historians maintain that the Kurmi are divided into more than 1500 sub-castes. The more rational view is that the Kurmi have eleven main divisions and these are endogamous, i.e. they do not marry outside their division. Some Kurmi are distinguished by the regions from which they hail. Hence, those from Uttar Pradesh are known as Purabia Kurmi, those from Bihar, Bihari Kurmi, and those from Madhya Pradesh as Manwa Kurmi.
The Kurmi are listed among the Other Backward Classes (OBC) in the Indian Constitution. This provides them many benefits such as quotas in government jobs and development schemes, reserved seats in medical and engineering colleges, all of which are intended to assist them in improving their lives.
What Are Their Lives Like?
The Kurmi are farmers except in Punjab where they are a landless community who mainly work as gardeners for private and government institutions. Some are sharecroppers, rear buffalo such as those in Bihar, while a few poorer Kurmi work as farm laborers. These days they can be found in all professions including politics, films, medicine, law, administrative services, and business as well as the traditional occupation of agriculture. In Delhi they are employed as industrial workers, daily-wage labourers or are self-employed and own shops or dairies.
These are a progressive community who make good use of the benefits provided by the government. The Kurmi of Bihar in particular have improved their circumstances and are doing well in better paying jobs, as professionals and in government bureaucracy and are now part of the middle class. They have taken advantage of loans to purchase time saving implements and changed the way they farm, using new technology for improved efficiency. They still use indigenous medicine as well as visiting clinics. Family planning is becoming more acceptable as well as formal education for their children. Children of the poor Kurmi are less fortunate. The staple food consists of meat, wheat, rice and pulses. They eat seasonal vegetables, fruit, milk and dairy products. Alcoholic drinks are socially prohibited; nevertheless some of them are addicted to alcohol.
Marriages are usually governed by the rule of sub-group endogamy and clan exogamy. The trend is changing, extending marital restrictions by considering the entire Kurmi community as an endogamous group. Marriages are arranged by elders of the families. Child marriages are still quite common in some rural areas of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Adult marriages are becoming increasingly preferred. In case of child marriage the gaona (bride’s departure to the husband’s house) takes place after she attains puberty.
The Kurmi believe in monogamy. A dowry is paid in cash and kind. Glass bangles, sindur (vermilion mark) and a nose-ring are the strictly observed symbols of marriage. Divorce is socially permitted and may be sought on grounds of adultery, impotence and maladjustment with compensation given to the aggrieved party. Generally, the caste Panchayat’s (council) decision is binding on both parties. Community custom allows for remarriage of widows and widowers.
Nuclear families exist in urban areas, while extended families are still common in the rural areas. The daughter-in-law observes purdah (veil) and avoids direct conversation with her father-in-law, husband’s elder brother, elder male relatives and strangers. However, lighthearted humorous relationships are allowed between a man’s wife and his younger brother, as well as between the man and his wife’s sister. When the family property is divided all the sons receive an equal share and the eldest son succeeds as head of the family. Although women contribute in the agriculture sphere and perform all the household chores as well, they have a lower status than the men and are dependent on them.
The Kurmi have a rich oral tradition of folklore and folktales passed down over the generations. Women sing folk songs on auspicious occasions like marriage and childbirth. The musical accompaniments are usually the dholak, a cylindrical or slightly barrel-shaped double-headed drum, and the manjira, a pair of small cymbals.
The All India Kshatriya Kurmi Mahasabha is the Kurmi’s national level council that looks after their welfare. Since India’s independence this organization has become a pressure group for politics. Kurmi Politicians have also grown in number and status and there are Kurmi ministers at Central and State levels practicing at this time. Regional and local councils come under the Mahasabha and they exercise social control over the areas under their jurisdiction. Instances of adultery, rape, elopement, disrespect for traditional norms, contempt towards the caste council and matrimonial disputes are handled by these councils.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Kurmi are Hindus and worship Ram and Vishnu (preserver) as their family deities. The goddesses Kali (goddess of destruction) and Durga (another form of Kali), and the monkey god Hanuman are regional deities. They celebrate prominent Hindu festivals like Diwali (festival of lights), Holi (festival of colours), Shivaratri (Shiva’s Night – the celebration of Shiva’s marriage with goddess Parvati) and Dussehra (celebrating the victory of Rama over the demon king Ravana).
The Kurmi’s rites and rituals are performed by Brahmin priests. Mundan (shaving the head) is a ritual performed in childhood while adolescent boys go through the rite of wearing the sacred thread (genoi). The dead are cremated, but the bodies of children are buried. The ashes are immersed in a river, preferably the sacred Ganges River.