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Who are they?
The Nai are barbers. The name, Nai, is a corrupt form of the Sanskrit word napika, or ‘one who cleans nails’. The traditional occupation of the Nai is cutting hair, beard and nails, shaving, cleaning ears, extracting teeth, setting sprains right and lancing boils. They also perform some rituals and other important duties in connection with marriage, matchmaking and celebrations.
In states like Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh the Nai continue to thrive on their inherited calling and have established salons and beauty parlors as well practicing animal husbandry. As for the poorer Nai, it is a common sight in North India to see them on sidewalks with a rudimentary tool kit of scissors, razors, combs, soap, brushes, a mirror and cup. They cater to poor people from a similar economic background.
According to myth, they are descended from a Kshatriya (warrior class) father and a Shudra (cultivator class) mother. Another version proposes that the god Shiva, (god of destruction), created them from his navel to cut and clean the nails of his consort Parvati.
Though they interact closely with all other communities, and despite a patron-client relationship, they are still regarded as a low caste community due to their occupation. Higher castes generally do not accept food and water from the hands of the Na and they in turn do not accept the same from some lower castes such as the Chamar (tanner), Balmiki (sweeper), Mochi (cobbler) and Bazigar (acrobat).
Each region has a distinct name for the Nai. The Nai are fondly called Raja in Punjab; Kuleen in Himachal Pradesh; Khawas in Rajasthan, Sen Samaj or Napit in Haryana, Raja or Ustad (expert); and Nai-Thakur or Savita Samaj in Delhi. Muslim Nai is called Hajjam.
What Are Their Lives Like?
They work as barbers and keep animals but a large-scale occupational change is taking place. In the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, many Nai have taken up employment in other trades or have chosen to work as agricultural labourers. Similarly, in Rajasthan, many educated Nai have taken to business and government and private service; some cultivate their land. In Delhi, they work as traders, contractors, in government service and in the private sector; some have gone on to become doctors and engineers. In Assam tailoring and carpentry are their subsidiary occupations. There are also some politicians and considering their numbers (more than 2.3 million in Uttar Pradesh alone) their role in regional politics is of some importance.
Theirs is a simple diet consisting of wheat, rice, dhal, maize and some seasonal fruit. Root, green vegetables and potatoes are eaten daily and for those who eat meat – occasionally fish, mutton or chicken and eggs. Beef is never eaten. Men and some women drink country liquor though alcohol is not socially acceptable. Men smoke cigarettes and bidi (dried and rolled tendu leaves), and also smoke tobacco from a hookah.
The literacy rate of the Nai is quite low although it has improved a lot in the past few decades. Formal education is accepted and a few boys study up to graduation level. Many continue to leave school due to poverty or from a lack of schools or colleges near where they live. Girls may study up to high school level, but it is common for them to drop out of primary or high school due to social reasons. There are several government incentives and development programs (education, medical and family planning) available to them that have benefitted those who have utilized them. Despite this, many remain socio-economically poor. They use both modern medicine as well as traditional medicines.
Among the Nai, spouses are acquired through negotiation through family contacts. Adult marriages are performed these days though child marriage was once practiced. Vermilion, glass bangles, bindi (red dot in the middle of the forehead) and a nose-ring are the symbols for married women. Monogamy is practiced and polygamy only allowed in some circumstances. Junior levirate and junior sororate forms of remarriage are allowed and preferred. Dowry is given in cash and kind. In marriage alliances, three gotras (clans) are usually avoided – from their own, their mother’s and paternal grandmother’s clans. Divorce, although permitted, is not encouraged and is rare. Widow, widower and divorcee remarriage is allowed. In Punjab though, they do not allow divorce or widow remarriage.
The traditional extended family is still common with some exceptions. Sons inherit equal shares in the family property and the eldest succeeds as head of the family. Nai women (known as nain) are secondary in status to males in all aspects of life; their husbands command maximum respect and authority. Women do household chores as well as help with agriculture and animal husbandry. In rural areas Nai women are attendants at the birth of babies, assisting mothers and their newborn babies with massages and pedicures and manicures for which they are paid in cash and kind. The women also decorate bride’s hands and feet (with henna and red dye.) and at other celebrations. At these celebrations, and at the birth of a male child, the women sing folk songs to the accompaniment of the dholak- a cylindrical or slightly barrel-shaped double-headed drum. During the spring festival of colours, Holi, both men and women sing and dance. The Nai are very social people, which is important to their trade.
A caste council (panchayat) maintains social control over the community. They settle communal disputes regarding marriage, rape and other such matters. These councils have power to impose fines or excommunicate individuals. In Delhi, this caste council has been replaced by a registered society known as Savita Parivar (family). Its members are elected by a voice vote and its main objective is to look after the welfare and advancement of the community. A similar body also exists in Himachal Pradesh.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Nai are Hindus and worship all Hindu gods and goddesses. They have great reverence for Shiva and Sen Bhagat, a saint from their own caste. In addition, families give importance to a particular deity of their choice. Ganesh (the elephant-headed god), Hanuman (monkey god), Sitala mata (goddess of smallpox), Lakshmi (goddess of wealth) are deities worshipped regularly.
The Nai also give special prominence to their regional deity. For example the Nai of Delhi and Haryana worship Gurgaon Wali Mata (goddess of Gurgaon city), Kalkaji (a form of Kali, goddess of devastation) and Baba Mohan Dass, who is worshipped and invoked for begetting a child. Another important regional Rajasthani deity is goddess Naraini, who was a sati (a virtuous woman who killed herself on her dead husband’s funeral pyre). The Nai of Himachal Pradesh revere Jwalamukhi (volcano goddess), Vaishno Devi, Santoshi Mata (goddess of satisfaction). The shrines of these deities are visited at festival times (especially during the Navratras) and at the fulfillment of a wish.
The Nai believe in evil spirits who, along with local deities, are believed to cause trouble and diseases. Exorcists-cum-witch doctors from their own community are called on. The Nai, like most other Hindus, hold a variety of scriptures in awe either as words of gods and goddesses or divinely inspired utterances.
The major festivals observed by them include Navratri (nine sacred nights) and Dussehra, (festival honouring, in eastern India, the killing of a demon by goddess Durga, a form of Kali, or, in North India, the killing of demon king Ravan by the god Rama.) They also celebrate Diwali (festival of lights) and Holi (spring festival of colors). The Nai utilize the services of a Brahmin priest to perform all birth, marriage and death rituals.
They share all the major centres of pilgrimage with other Hindu castes. These are Haridwar, Varanasi, Prayag (Allahabad), Vaishno Devi, Dwarka, Badrinath in Uttar Pradesh and Jagannath Puri, in Orissa. Some Nai have embraced Sikhism while some follow the egalitarian but guru-lead Nirankari and Radhasoami sects.
What Are Their Needs?
This community needs economic independence as well as increased access to education for girls.