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Who are they?
The Mali is a caste of gardeners and vegetable-growers. The word Mali is derived from the Sanskrit mala, meaning garland. There are about 8 million Mali. They are a Backward Class (OBC) spread across 89 districts in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh.
According to H.H. Risley, the Mali traces their descent from a garland-maker of Mathura, Uttar Pradesh. Legend has it that Krishna asked the garland-maker to make a garland for him. The garland maker ran out of string and used his genoi (cord signifying Brahmin status) to thread it; at this, Krishna rebuked him for parting with the sacred thread and declared that he would be ranked as Sudra, among the lowest of the social hierarchy. According to ethnologist William Crooke, Parvati, Shiva’s wife, was picking flowers in her garden when a thorn pierced her hand drawing blood, and from this was created the first Mali to tend the garden.
The Mochi speak the language of the region they live in which means that they speak Bengali in West Benga, Oriya in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, Gujarati in Gujarat. Those living in Bihar speak Maithili, Awadhi in Uttar Pradesh and Mewari in Rajasthan. They also speak Hindi as a second language.
What are Their Lives like?
Mali cultivate flowers like marigolds, roses, lotus, jasmine, basil and tulsi plants, which are daily essentials for rituals and worship of the gods. The demand for fresh flowers at every temple enables the Mali to do a profitable trade. Elaborate flower arrangements, garlands, flowers are always in demand for religious ceremonies, festivals, marriage and other events. The Mali also makes the mukut, a decorative floral headgear worn by Hindu bridegrooms. As well as flowers, vegetables are also grown by the Mali, which they sell at local markets. Not all Mali own land.
In Bihar and Maharashtra, their ancestral occupation includes farming crops like sugarcane, lentils and cereals alongside flowers. In Madhya Pradesh, many are engaged primarily as daily-wage labourers. In Andhra Pradesh the Mali act as temple priests and make beautiful garlands that are offered to the god Shiva; they also seek alms. In West Bengal, some make the tinsel with is used to decorate clay idols. Mostly though, Mali’s are gardeners for people in towns and cities.
The literacy level of the Mali is poor. It is mainly boys that make it to secondary school; girls may be educated to primary school. Even so, many remain illiterate due to lack of finances. Despite this, there are some exceptions and doctors and teachers ca be found among them.
They use both modern medicine and traditional cures. Some Mali, like from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, offer cures for jaundice, chicken pox and scorpion and snake bite. They are responsive to family planning. They make some use of services offered by government schemes to improve their welfare, like irrigation.
Traditionally, the Mali has been rigidly endogamous at community and subdivision level. There are a number of exogamous gotras (clans) that regulate marital alliances, insisting that one must marry outside one’s gotra. Marriages are arranged by elders and adult marriages are common. They are monogamous. A married woman can be identified by the symbols of marriage which include sindur (vermilion), conch shell or lacquer bangles, anklets and a bor – a conical ornament worn on the forehead, especially in Rajasthan. A man may marry his paternal aunt’s daughter or his maternal uncle’s daughter. Divorce and remarriage of widows, widowers and divorcees are permitted, performed with a simple ceremony. Dowry, given by the bride’s parents, is prevalent.
Mali families live as smaller units with a few exceptions living in extended families. The inheritance is equally shared among sons only, with the eldest becoming the head of the family. According to Hindu beliefs, women are inferior to men but play a significant role in the social, domestic and religious life of the family. They work along with the men in growing and selling the produce; in fact, the Mali girls are known for their skill at selling flowers. They sing folk songs on festive occasions.
Caste councils settle community disputes and maintain social control. In addition there are regional level associations that provide for the welfare of the community.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Mali are mostly Hindu by faith and worship the wider spectrum of gods and goddesses but also a specific family deity, like Lakshmi (goddess of wealth & fortune) and Sitala Devi (goddess of smallpox).
Some Mali of Rajasthan and Gujarat are Muslim. The Mali make pilgrimages to holy places like Hardwar, on the banks of the ‘sacred’ Ganges River, Allahabad, in Uttar Pradesh and Pushkar, Rajasthan. The Mali celebrate all major festivals like Shivaratri, Holi, Ganesha Chaturthi and Diwali, as well as Makar Sankranti – a festival celebrating the beginning of the sun’s northern journey according to the Hindu zodiac.
A Brahmin priest performs all rites for births, marriages and deaths. Sometimes, they perform their own ceremonies. The dead are cremated and ashes immersed in a river, preferably the Ganges. Death and birth pollution are observed for specific periods, usually eleven or twelve days. Ancestor worship is prevalent. During the latter half of the 19th century, Jyotiba Phule, a Mali from Pune in Maharashtra, was instrumental in pioneering a social reform movement that, among other things, challenged the domination of higher castes. His teachings and writings reflect Christian beliefs.