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Who are they?
Mallah is a generic term for a group of people, whose lives revolve around boating and fishing. Residing mainly in the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and West Bengal, they are also known as Nishad, Kewat, Malso and Mallahi. In Bihar the Mallah, also known as Gonrhi, are referred to as Mandal.
According to the anthropologist William Crooke, the word Mallah comes from an Arabic word meaning `to be salt,’ or ‘to move the wings as a bird.’ It is believed that a long time ago, when there was no other means of transport, merchandise was transported by boats, and the boatmen came to referred to as Mallah, or Mal- la which literally means, ‘bringer of goods or merchandise’ in Hindi.
While Crooke describes them as descendents of Nishada, a mountain tribe of the Vindhya Range, another anthropologist, Sherring, says that they are descended from a common father whose name was Nikhad, but only the Kewat, one out of ten sub-groups, was born through a lawful marriage.
The Mallah themselves believe that they are descended from a boatman called Bali or Baliram. It is said that he was so strong that he could carry his boat to the river and back under his arm. At one time, Baliram ferried Lord Rama and his wife Sita across the Ganges River in Varanasi, and was given a horse as a token of their gratitude. Baliram did not know much about horses and so he placed the bridle on the horse’s tail instead of the head. From this act arose the custom of having the rudder at the stern and not the bow of a boat. This legend is similar to one narrated in the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, in which Nishada Raja did the same to Rama and Sita.
The Mallah people are classified as a Scheduled Caste in Delhi and West Bengal. This makes them eligible to benefit from development initiatives that were put into action in 1950. In Uttar Pradesh, where the Mallah number more than a million, they have been designated a recently created category, known as the Most Backward Classes or MBC’s. This new designation will give the Mallah, along with seventy other similar background castes, an exclusive 14% reservation in government jobs and admissions to various colleges and professional courses.
What Are Their Lives Like?
Fishing and transporting people on their boats are the primary traditional occupations. Agriculture and laboring in farms is a secondary occupation. In Madhya Pradesh the Mallah grow a type of jute fibre known as sone. They only sow and cut jute on Sundays or Wednesdays as these are auspicious days. They also grow melons, and will not enter a melon field with their shoes on or allow a woman during her monthly cycle to approach it. Many urban Mallah work in factories, pull rickshaws, or are low paid office workers and watchmen.
They are very poor people, especially in rural ones. Where the Mallah sit, there a fire is always, is a local saying in their dialect. This refers to their custom of lighting a fire on the riverbank to keep warm. Another type of work the Mallah have been known for is armed robbery (dacoit). They are listed in the Criminal Tribes Act of 1924 which was passed by the British as criminals. Sociologists have long contended that criminals are not born with criminal tendencies but they become outlaws due to poverty, hardship, social stigma and oppression. These are the conditions that have contributed to the Mallah’s antisocial behaviour. Until recently, bandit gangs would rob, kidnap and murder along the ravines of the Chambal River, on the border of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The members of these gangs were recruited from the Mallah, Rajput and Gujjar castes.
Phoolan Devi, the famous ‘Bandit Queen’ is a Mallah by caste, and was a terror in these parts during the early 1980s. She massacred 22 upper-caste Thakurs in the village of Behmai in Uttar Pradesh to avenge her humiliation and repeated gang rape over a period of three weeks at their hands. She became a legend, an anti-establishment icon, who later surrendered to the authorities. Phoolan Devi ironically went on to become a Member of Parliament in 1996. She was in her second term as MP when she was gunned down in New Delhi in August 2001. Devi remains a heroine to the Mallah, and her immediate family has continued to be involved in politics, capitalizing on the wave of sympathy in her favor, especially in eastern Uttar Pradesh.
The literacy levels among the Mallah are low, except for those living in the Delhi area. However, they are not against using modern medicine, along with local cures. The Mallah of Madhya Pradesh do not practice family planning. Only a few get loans from banks though many do take advantage of government welfare schemes.
The Mallah eat meat except beef. Some Mallah also eat tortoises. Their diet consists of rice, wheat, pulses and vegetables. Those who can afford it occasionally eat seasonal fruit, milk and dairy products. They cook with mustard oil. Both men and women like to chew betel nut, while men are habitual bidi smokers and drink country liquor.
They live in nuclear families. Only sons have an equal share of the inheritance and the eldest son succeeds as head of the family. Women are consulted in social, economic and religious spheres and also help in selling fish. In urban areas a few women work in factories.
The Mallah have a rich tradition of folksongs and folk tales and sing and dance at special occasions. The image of a solitary boatman on a river singing a sorrowful song is one used in Bollywood movies.
There are a number of exogamous gotras or clans among this community. Within the clans they remain strictly endogamous, (that is, they do not marry outsiders) at the community level. Adult marriages are generally preferred, but in Madhya Pradesh both boys and girls are married at around 10-12 years of age. Though marriages are usually arranged by parents and family elders, a few ‘love’ marriages where the couple elope, do occur. Previously, the custom of paying bride price was in vogue; today the dowry has taken its place.
As a rule, the Mallah are monogamous, but in extraordinary circumstances polygamous marriages do take place. In the case of death of a spouse, junior sororate and junior levirate marriages are practiced. Divorce is permissible and can be sought by either spouse on grounds of barrenness, immorality and incompatibility. Remarriage by widows, widowers and divorcees is socially sanctioned.
The Mallah have caste councils that resolve petty crimes and other issues within the community. These councils are called by different names. The council in Bihar is known as jati panch. The council comprises of a marhar (head of five villages), baraik (five members of five villages) and sepahis (24 elected members from five villages). In Madhya Pradesh the leader is elected and has jurisdiction covers ten to fifteen villages. Each village is led by a dewan who is assisted by five elderly villagers known as the panch. Recently, an umbrella organisation called Mallah Mahasabha (Great Council) has also been set up to promote the community’s broader interests.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Mallah are Hindus. They worship deities such as Rama, Shiva, Krishna and many other regional gods and goddesses such as Bhoomiya Mata (mother earth) and Kalka Devi (another form of Kali). Bisahari (poison remover) is the chief goddess of the Mallah of Bihar. The Mallah pray to these deities to prevent bad things happening to them and to get relief from their many problems. Some consider the aromatic Tulsi plant as sacred and venerate it.
The Mallah use the services of Brahmin priests to perform rites for births, marriages and deaths. They cremate their dead, but infants and young children are buried. The Dhobi (washer man) and the Nai (barber) are paid to help in conducting some socio-religious ceremonies. They do not accept food from some low castes like the Chamar (tanner) and the Bhangi (sweeper) or from Muslims. They celebrate most Hindu festivals like Holi (festival of colours), Diwali (festival of lights), Navratri (festival of nine nights) and Janamashtami (birthday of the god Krishna).
What Are Their Needs?
Education, health, improved living standards, and basic amenities like clean drinking water.