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Who Are They?
The Sonar are gold and silversmiths. They make jewelry and ornaments that are elaborately designed and inlaid with precious and semi-precious stones. Some Sonar cut and polish diamonds, while others engrave deities on pendants and gold and silver plates. Most Sonar own their jewelry shops and showrooms while others work as paid skilled workers making delicate filigree designs. Gold jewelry is considered a good investment option for most Indians, and is in great demand for marriages, making up part of the dowry.
Some wealthier Sonar are money-lenders as well. They charge higher interest rates than banks do from their clients who are from the poorer sections of society. In cities like Delhi and Chandigarh, they have secondary occupations like tailoring, electroplating and car repairs, retail shops dealing with books and stationery, motor and tractor parts. The ones who have done tertiary education are professionals. There are some politicians at village, regional and national levels.
They are also known as Suvarnakar, Swarnakar, Sonkar, Soni, Potdar, Hemkar, Jargar, Zargar, Kapila, Tank, Verma or Saraf and Maipotra. The Muslim Sonar in Jammu & Kashmir are known as Sanur or Shakish. In Uttarakhand, they are called by the surnames Verma or Choudhury.
Their population numbers around 6.5 million and they are spread over one hundred and twenty-five districts of North, Central and East India.
The Sonar are distributed in large concentrations in Varanasi, Allahabad, Deoria districts of Uttar Pradesh (970,000), and Barakot, Gangolihat, Pithoragarh, Champawat, Pulhindola, Almora, Nainital and Ranikhet in Uttaranchal
There are 57,000 in Delhi, 160,000 in Punjab, 580,00 in Bihar , 70,000 in Orissa, 170,000 in Haryana, 300,000 in Rajasthan in the districts of Udaipur, Bikaner, Jodhpur, Jaipur, Ajmer and Alwar. They also reside in Chandigarh, Bilaspur, Kangra, Hamirpur, Mandi, Solan, Shimla and Una districts of Himachal Pradesh and the Srinagar district of Jammu and Kashmir.
Sonar or Sunar (also spelled Suniar) is from the Sanskrit suvarnakar, meaning worker in gold. According to records from the Vishnu Purana (writings about Vishnu) the Sonar are the descendents of the youngest of five sons created by Vishnu‘s incarnation, Vishwakarama, the architect of the universe.
Another legend states that the first Sonar was used by the goddess Devi to destroy a giant demon called Sonwa Daitya, who was made of gold. The Sonar appealed to the giant demon’s vanity by suggesting that his appearance would look much better if it was polished. This meant that he had to be melted down. As a reward, Devi gave the body to the Sonar and kept his head. (This is similar to the Greek legend of Medea, who was melted down.)
They are categorized as Vaisya (traders and merchants) and rank third in the four-fold Hindu caste system. They are accepted by other castes as such. In Delhi, Himachal Pradesh and Chandigarh, they classify themselves as Kshatriya, second in the hierarchy.
The Sonar speaks the languages of the region they live in. Hindi is spoken in Madhya Pradesh, Chandigarh, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. In Bihar and Rajasthan, they speak Mewari or Marwari. All these are written in Devanagari script. Oriya is spoken in Orissa and Kashmiri in Jammu and Kashmir, using the Oriya and Persian-Arabic scripts, respectively. In Delhi, they speak Hindi, Punjabi or Mewari depending on the place where they migrated from. The Punjabi Sonars speak Punjabi and write with the Gurumukhi script. Regional dialects are spoken in Himachal Pradesh, and Kumaoni is spoken. They are also conversant in Hindi and some also speak Urdu.
In the traditional four-fold Hindu caste system the Sonar generally place themselves under the category of Vaisya (3rd highest class of traders and merchants) and are accepted by other castes as such. But in some states, as in Delhi, Himachal Pradesh and Chandigarh, they classify themselves as Kshatriya.
What Are Their Lives Like?
Being Hindu, beef is excluded from the mainly non-vegetarian diet. In rural Bihar, eggs and chicken are also excluded but they eat fish. Some vegetarians among the Sonar, mainly those of Orissa and Haryana, do not eat onions and garlic. Their diet consists of wheat, rice, maize, millet, a variety of lentils and vegetable, along with seasonal fruit and dairy products. Only men smoke and drink alcohol. They believe that drinking liquor is beneficial in neutralizing the poisonous, acidic fumes inhaled while making ornaments. However, in Madhya Pradesh alcohol is socially prohibited.
This community encourages literacy for both boys and girls and many go on to complete tertiary education. They are also favourably inclined to modern medicine, along with indigenous cures. They practice family planning methods including sterilization, except in Jammu & Kashmir. Generally, the Sonar are better money-managers, saving and investing wisely.
Adult marriages are arranged by negotiation among family members within the Sonar community only. The common symbols of marriage include sindoor (vermilion), bindi (dot on forehead), gold bangles, black-bead and gold necklace (mangalsutra), toe and finger rings. Dowry is paid by the bride’s family in cash and goods. Most Sonar are monogamous but divorce is permitted but rare. Widows, widowers and divorcees are permitted to remarry. Junior levirate and junior sororate are permissible and at times preferred.
Nuclear families are most common among the Sonar, though joint families also exist. Parental property is divided among all the sons equally and the eldest son succeeds as the head of the family. The daughters don’t get receive a share. The status of women is secondary to that of men though they participate actively in ritual, religious and social activities. Sometimes they help their men by cleaning the ornaments. The folksongs sung by the women to the accompaniment of the dholak (barrel-shaped drum) are their oral tradition. They also dance on occasions of birth and marriage.
The Sonar are an endogamous community who very often observe endogamy at the subgroup level as well. They have different number of subgroups in the different regions they inhabit and often they are territorial in origin. There are also a number of exogamous clans among the Sonar.
There are several community associations for the Sonar community at a local, regional and national level. These regulate social control, settle disputes and initiate welfare activities.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Sonar are mostly Hindu (95%) though there are some Sikh, Muslim and Jain Sonar. The Hindu Sonar worship Shiva, Vishnu, Rama, Krishna (8th incarnation of Vishnu), Durga, Kali, Ganesh, and Lakshmi (goddess of wealth, wife of Vishnu.)
They also have family, clan and regional deities like Jwaladevi (Flame goddess), Mansadevi (Wish-fulfilling goddess), Vaishnodevi, Ambadevi (form of Durga), Gurgaonwali Mata, Jagannatha (lord of the world), Mangala and Patheswari. The Sonars have special reverence for a saint known as Sant Narhari Sonar.
The Sonar celebrate all Hindu festivals like Dussehra, Diwali, Holi, Janamashtami, Navratri, Ramnavmi, Navratri and Rathyatra. The dead are cremated, except small children whose bodies are either buried or disposed of in flowing water. The ashes of the dead are preferably immersed in the Ganges River at Haridwar; a thirteen days’ death pollution is observed. A Brahmin priest performs all sacred rites. In Uttarakhand, Dangaria (shaman) and fortune-tellers are also consulted for ailments and demon possession.
Some Sonar are Sikh followers; Muslim Sonar belong to the Sunni sect and adhere to the tenets of Islam.