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Who are they?
The Tamboli are also known as Tambuli, Tamuli or Tamli. Tamboli has been derived from the Sanskrit word tambul meaning betel leaf which the Tamboli have cultivated and sold for generations along with areca nuts. They live in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa and Maharashtra. In Rajasthan, they are known as Chaurasia.
According to their oral tradition, they are descendants of a Vaisya father and a Brahmin mother. An acclaimed Indian authority, Mitra, refers to an ancient Hindu genealogical text called Brahmavaivarta Purana which relates this story. However, another anthropologist, Risley (1891) regards the Tamboli as an offshoot of one of the trading castes, whose status has been transformed by contact with Brahminical influences. Many Tamboli call themselves Suryavanshi (of the line of Surya, the Sun god) and thus claim descent from the privileged Rajputs – the second highest class of warriors.
The Tamboli speak the language of the regions they live in. In Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, they speak Hindi and use the Devnagari script. In West Bengal, Bengali is spoken and Oriya in Orissa. In Bihar, they are bilingual in Hindi and the Indo-Aryan language Magahi and write with the Devnagari script. The Tamboli of Maharashtra are Muslim, speaking Urdu with its Perso-Arabic writing script. They speak Marathi and Hindi and use the Devnagari script for communicating with other communities.
The Tamboli maintain relationships with all the “clean” castes and visit each other on auspicious occasions and festivals. The upper castes accept water from the Tamboli, but the Tamboli themselves do not accept food and water from the low, “unclean” castes such as the Chamar (tanner) and Bhangi (scavenger).
What Are Their Lives Like?
The Tamboli cultivate and sell betel nuts and areca nuts. Some have businesses selling hardware, clothing and bicycles, while others work in the private and government sectors. Those with education hold white-collar jobs and have even reached upper government echelons. Others are wage labourers. Children, nine to ten years old, often start work on family farms doing light work such as tying and arranging betel creepers. A few Tamboli are involved in politics, mostly at local and regional levels.
Most Tamboli are non-vegetarian, eating mutton, chicken, fish, but abstain from beef and pork. The exceptions are those in Rajasthan who are vegetarians; and Maharastran Tambolis eat beef. Staple cereals are wheat, rice and jowar. Their diet includes pulses, fruits and vegetables, milk and dairy products and occasionally, alcoholic drinks.
The literacy level is generally low. Boys often reach college, but most girls rarely go beyond primary or secondary school. They use modern medicines, although some still depend on their traditional medicines.
The Tamboli people are slowly gaining upward economic mobility through assistance from government development programmes. They use modern communication and the use of chemical fertilizers and insecticides is producing better crops for those on the land. Likewise, loans from national banks enhance their businesses. The public distribution system allows this community to purchase food such as grains, and other necessities such as kerosene and cooking oil at subsidised prices.
Tamboli marriages are restricted to partners within the community level and occasionally at sub caste levels, while they are permitted to marry between the gotras (i.e. clan level). The parents of both bride and groom negotiate the dowry and details of the marriage. Dowries are prevalent but not as oppressive as the custom is in most other communities; it is absent in Rajasthan. The common age for marrying is from age twenty to thirty for the young men, and sixteen to twenty five for the young women. Monogamy is the most common form of marriage, although polygamy does occur in exceptional cases. Female marriage symbols include the Sindur (vermilion mark in the hair-parting), glass, iron or shell bangles, and toe rings. Divorce is rare, in the Tamboli community but permissible for such reasons as maladjustment and adultery. Children below five years become the mother’s responsibility. Widows, widowers or divorcees are permitted to remarry.
Tamboli women have lower status than men, but do have a say in family management. They contribute to family income directly or indirectly, and perform domestic chores and social and religious activities. Some women, in urban and semi-urban areas work as teachers, while village women labour in betel vine plantations. Extended families are prevalent, although nuclear families are now becoming more common. The family property is divided equally among sons and eldest sons become the family head. Tamboli women traditionally cannot inherit property.
Relationships have strict guidelines in this community: there is no interaction between fathers-in-law and daughters-in-law, and between the wife of a younger brother and her husband’s elder brother. However, humorous teasing is acceptable between a younger brother-in-law and his older sister-in-law, and between a man and his younger sister-in-law.
The Tamboli traditional caste council in the villages adjudicates on issues such as marriage, adultery, divorce and theft. The guilty are fined or ostracized, with fines going to social welfare. At times the Tamboli meet at state level, such as in the city of Gaya in Bihar state which is the headquarters of the traditional panchayat called the Council for the Benefit of Magahi-speaking Tamboli.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Tamboli are Hindu, except in Maharashtra where Sunni Islam arrived in 1400 and 1500 A.D. These Muslims observe the Islamic chilla or hakika name-giving ceremony for newborn children, and circumcision.
The Hindu Tamboli worships all the major Hindu deities. These include: Shiva, Ganesh (Shiva’s son, the elephant-headed god of good luck and wisdom, a remover of obstacles and patron of learning), Lakshmi (Vishnu’s wife, goddess of wealth and prosperity) and Hanuman (the celibate monkey god, son of Vayu the wind god and protector against danger).
Some Tamboli in West Bengal are of the Vaishnava Hindu sect. This sect worship Vishnu and his two chief incarnations Rama and Krishna. Rama is believed to be the Prince of the Ayodhya kingdom and hero of the epic Ramayana. Krishna is the main character in Hinduism’s other famous epic, the Mahabharata. The chief tenet of this sect is devotion to a personal god of grace. It emphasises absolute faith and complete self-surrender to the god.
The Tamboli of different regions also worship local deities for specific purposes. For example in Rajasthan they worship Nagbal for success of their betel trade, and have elaborate worship rites for Nanadevi (a local form of Durga). These rites are held during Baisakhi when lamps are lit in the betel fields in her name. On Kartika Purnima the Tamboli worship areca nuts, betel leaves, lime and scissors as symbols of their trade.
Many Tamboli, both Hindu and Muslim, visit and venerate the shrines of Muslim holy men. The major sacred pilgrimage centres, shared with other Hindus, include Haridwar, Rishikesh, Pushkar, Badrinath and Gangotri. The Tamboli celebrate most Hindu festivals like Holi (festival of colours symbolising victory of good over evil), Diwali (honouring Lakshmi and celebrating Rama’s return from a 14 year exile), Janamashatmi (birthday of Krishna), and others.