Who are they?
Traditionally, the Musahar of Uttar Pradesh are bee keepers (honey collectors) and stitch leaf plates for local sale. The Musahar also cultivate land. Some other occupations include wage-labour in industry, forestry, fishing, pulling hand carts and rickshaws, working as laborers in brick kilns. Some Musahar are involved in sericulture and pig rearing while a few are employed in government and private services. In Assam they work in tea plantations and in Tripura they collect snake skins as a subsidiary occupation.
The Musahar are a community distributed in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Tripura and Assam. In Uttar Pradesh, where they are also known as Banmanus, (ape-man) Banraja or Gonr, they number around 1.7 million people and live mainly in the central and eastern districts.
According to some the term Musahar is derived from the words masu (flesh) and hera (seeker). H.H. Risley (1891) who studied them in some detail, believe that the word relates to being rat-eaters as they would smoke or dig rats out of their holes in the fields and eat them. They use an implement known locally as gahdala for digging and hunting.
There are many legends regarding their origin, some of which are unreliable yet give valuable insights to their status in society. According to one such legend, when God created the first man of each caste he gave him a horse to ride on and a tool to work with. Each one mounted their horses except for the Musahar who started to dig holes in the belly of his horse where he could place his feet as he rode. God marveled at his foolishness and declared that his descendants would live on rats, which they had to dig out of the earth. Another belief is that the Musahar licked the leaf plate from which God had eaten from, at which he said, “These are low people who shall always lick the plate.” Therefore they have been degraded ever since.
In all other states, except Assam, they are constitutionally listed as a Scheduled Caste. These SCs have been denied basic human rights and dignity over centuries of oppression by the higher castes. This classification grants many benefits which include reserved quotas in government jobs, medical and engineering colleges, reserved seats in all legislative bodies, relaxed qualifying marks in competitive examinations and other such assistance.
The Musahar speak the languages and dialects of the regions they live in. In Uttar Pradesh, they speak a dialect of Hindi called Awadhi. In Bihar, an Indo-Aryan language, Angika, is used at home. In West Bengal and Tripura their mother tongue is Hindi but they are also conversant with Bengali. They speak Assamese and also fluent in a dialect known as Sadni in Assam.
What Are Their Lives Like?
The Musahar do many types of work. Some own land and cultivate it while others work as agricultural laborers. The Musahar eat meat and like to eat pork. Rice is their staple cereal supplemented by wheat and pulses. Consumption of alcohol, smoking, chewing tobacco and use of snuff are common. Home-brewed rice beer is an essential item at every festival and social gathering. There are a few vegetarians in Uttar Pradesh.
The literacy rate of the Musahar is extremely poor, at 3 – 6 % and zero for girls in most states. The children who do go to school usually give up after primary or secondary levels because they cannot afford it. They use a mixture of modern and mostly indigenous medicine. Official development programs have had little impact on them as they are ignorant of the benefits available to them. Likewise, family welfare schemes, electricity, irrigation and savings facilities are not known or used due to lack of knowledge.
The Musahar people have three hierarchical sections or sub-castes, the Bhagat, followed by the Sakatiya and Turakhia. Endogamy is practiced at the community and sub-caste levels but exogamy exists at the lineage or clan level. Some prominent clans are Balakmuni, Rishimuni, Pail and Danharia.
Both child and adult marriages are common. Monogamy is preferred and marriages are arranged by parents and elders on both sides. Vermilion mark in the middle hair parting (sindur), nose stud, iron bangles or conch-shell bangles and toe rings are the marriage symbols for women and are rigidly observed. Dowry is generally given in both cash and kind, however, the Musahar of West Bengal do not practice the dowry system, while those of Uttar Pradesh give dowry in goods. Divorce is permissible and so is the remarriage of a widow, widower or divorcee in a simple ceremony. A widow, if she wills, can marry her deceased husband’s younger brother.
Both nuclear and extended families are common among the Musahar. All the sons inherit the ancestral property equally and the eldest son succeeds the father to the family authority. However, unlike most other communities, the Musahar in West Bengal grant their daughters equal shares of a quarter of their father’s property, and, in addition, they are the sole heirs of the property of their mother. In addition to housework, which is their main responsibility, the Musahar women contribute to the family income by working as daily-wage labourers. They also have significant roles to perform in social and ritual spheres. The Musahar have a rich tradition of folk music and songs which they sing on festivals and other occasions like marriages and births.
The Musahar have a caste council which maintains social control. This council is presided over by a leader who is known as chaudhari in Uttar Pradesh, mandal in West Bengal, and marar in Bihar. Political leadership is emerging among them with an illiterate woman elected as an MP in Bihar.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Musahar are Hindus, though until recently in Uttar Pradesh, their religion was largely based on tribal beliefs. They believed only in Hanuman (monkey god) and Shiva (worshipped as the phallic deity in the form of Bhairava). As J.C. Nesfield (1885), an authority on the subject writes, “the great active power in the universe according to Musahar belief is Banaspati, Bansatti, or Bansuri, the goddess who personifies and presides over forests.” The Musahar of Uttar Pradesh has also begun to worship the family, village deity and other gods and goddesses of Hinduism. The Musahar also believe in spirits and ghosts and practice exorcism. Those living in Uttar Pradesh believe in five types of ghosts and worship Baghaut, the ghost of a person killed by a tiger.
They celebrate traditional Hindu festivals like Holi (spring festival of colours), Diwali (festival of lamps), Surya Puja (sun worship) and Naga Panchami (festival for the worship of snakes). They request the services of priests from other communities like the Brahmin to perform life cycle rituals like birth, marriage and death. They cremate their dead, but the corpses of young children are either buried or immersed in water. Specific periods are observed for both birth and death pollution.
What Are Their Needs?
The history of the Musahar has been one of chronic impoverishment, subjugation and marginalisation. They have struggled to make a living in a society that has classified them as ‘untouchables’. After generations of shame and rejection, they are still trapped in poverty and ignorance. They need help to make use of the government benefits that has already been provided, as well as increased access to education, medical facilities and provision of electricity, clean drinking water and self-employment schemes.