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This article is an extract from


Ethnographic Glossary.

Printed at the Bengal Secretariat Press.
1891. .

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Traditions of origin

Aga1'zotilti, a wealthy trading caste of Behar and Upper India, who deal in grain and jewellery,

and are also bankers and usurers. Authorities differ regarding their origin and the etymology of the name thf'y bear. Following a tradition communicated to him by the chaudhl'i or headman of the caste in Benares, Mr. Sherring traces the Agarwals to the banks of the Godavery, in Madras, and derives their name from one Agar Nath or Agar Ren, who is believed to have preserved the customs of the caste inviolate when all his brethren joined themselves to the Sum'as. Agar Sen is supposcd to have Iived at A groha, a small town on the borders of the Riij¬putana desert, where his family expanded into the Agarwal caste. Another and more oommon version of the stor.Y describes Agar Sen as the Vaisya Raja of Agroha, and adds that the Agarwal caste spread over Hindustan after the taking of their original home by Shabab-ud-din Ghori in 1195. This is the view favoured by Sir Henry Elliot, who points out that the association of the Agarwals throughout the N orth-West Provinces with the worship of Guga Pll', the snake-king of Agroha, bears testimony to the historical accuracy of the tradition. Mr. Nesfield prefers to derive the name, both of this caste and of the cognate caste of Agrahri, from agal'i or agar (Sansk. agu1'u), the aromatic wood of the eagle wood tree (Aquilaria ngatioc/za, Roxb.), which is sold as a perfume. There seems, however, to be no evidence to connect either caste with the production or sale of this scent; and the fact that the best kind is extracted from the leguminous tree Aloexylun agaitochum, Loureiro, growing in Oamboja and South Oochin Ohina, may perhaps

be thought to support this view.

The Agarwals of Behar are divided into the following seventeen Internal structure. sections (gotras) :¬

(1) Garg, (2) Goil, (3) Gawal, (4) Batsil, (5) Kasil, (6) Singhal,

(7) Mangal. ( ) Bhaddal, (9) Tingal, (10) Airn.n, (11) Tairan, (12) Thingal, (13) Tittal, (14) Mittal, (15) Tundal, (16) Tayal, (17) Gobhil, (17!) Goin.

The section-names are said to refer to eighteen sacrifices per-formed by Raja Agar Nttth in honour of Lakshmi. By these saorifices, so says the legend current in Behar, he won from the goddess the boon that his descendants by Madhavi, a daughter of the Naga Raja Kumud, should bear the name of Agarwal, should never be in want, and should enjoy the protection of Lakshmi so long as they kept the diwdli festival. When the eighteenth sacrifice was half over, the Raja. was struck with horror at the slaughter of animals involved, broke off the ceremony, and enjoined his dE1scend¬aots never to take life. '1'he last, or "half-gotra" Goin, represents this inoomplete sacrifice. Another explanation is that some member of the caste by oversight married a woman of his own gotl'a, and that the gotra in question was divided into two by the heads of the caste in order to cover this breach of the rule of exogamy. There is nothing in the names themselves to throw light on their origin. The first certainly, and possibly the third and fourth, are names of Vedic saints. The second occurs among the Raj puts.

With the Agarwals, as with all castes at the present day, the seotion-names go by the male side. In other words, a son belongs to the same gotra as his father-not to the same gotra as his mother, and kinship is no longer reokoned through females alone. Traoes of an earlier matriarchal system ma.y perhaps be discerned in the legend already referred to, whioh represented Raj a Agar Nath as sucoessfully contending with Indra for the hand of the daughters of two Naga Rajas, and obtaining from Lakshmi the speoial favour that his children by one of them should bear theil' father's name. The memory of this Naga Princess is still held in honour. "Our mother's house is of the race of the snake" (Jcit 'at naniluit

Nagoallsi !wi), say the Agarwals of Behar j and for this reason no Agarwal, whether Hindu or Jain, will kill or molest a snake. In Delhi, Vaishnava Agarw{ds paint pictures of snakes on either side of the out ide doors of their houses, and make offerings of frnit and flowers before them. Jain Agarwals do not practise any form of snake-worship.

Read in the light of Bachofen's researches1 into archaic forms of kinship, the legend and the prohibition arising from it seem to take us back to the pre hi torio time when the Naga race still main-tained a separate national existence, and had not been absorbed by the conquering Aryans j when Naga women were eagerly sought in marriage by Aryan chiefs j and when the offspring of such unions belonged by Naga custom to their mother's family. In this view the boon granted by Lakshmi to Raja Agar Nflth, that his children should be called after his name, marks a transition from the system of female kinship, characteri tic of the N agas, to the new order of male parentage introduced by the Brahmans, while the Behar saying about the Naniluit is merely a survival of those matriarchal ideas according to which the snake-totem of the race would necessarily descend in the female line.

In the last of the six letters, entitled "Ore tes-Astika, Eine Griechisch-Indische Parallele," Bachofen has the following remarks on the importance of the part played by the N aga race in the development of the Brahmanical polity :¬

"The connexion of Brahmans with Naga women is a significant historical fact. Wherever a conquering race allies itself with the women of the land, indigenous manners and customs come to be respected, and their maintenance is deemed the function of the female sex. Countless examples of all ages and countries bear witness to the fact. A long series of traditions corroborate it in connexion with the autochthonous Naga race. The respect paid to N aga women, the influence which they exercised, not merely on their own people, but also in no less degree on the rulers of the country, the fame of their beauty, the praise of their wisdom¬all this finds manifold expression in the tales of the Kashmir chronicle and in many other legends based upon the facts of real


All the sections are strictly exogamous, but the rule of unilateral exogamy is supplemented by provisions forbidding marriage with certain classes of relations. Thus a man may not marry a woman-(a) belonging to his own ,qotr'a; (b) descended from his own paternal or maternal grandfather, great-grandfather, or great-great-grandfather; (c) descended ITom his own paternal or maternal aunt; Cel) belonging to the grand-maternal family (naniluil) of his own father or mother. He may marry the younger sister of his deceased wife, but not the elder sister, nor may he marry two sisters at the same time. As is usual in such cases, the classes of relations barred are not mutually exclusive. All the agnatic descendants of a man's three nearest male ascendants are necessarily members of his own gotTO, and therefore come within class (a) as well as class (b). Again, the paternal and maternal aunt and their descendants are included among the descendants of the paternal and maternal grandfathers, while some of the members of the naniluil must also come under class (b). The ,qotl'Ct rule is undoubtedly the oldest; and it seems probable that the other prohibited classes may have been added from time to time as expe-rience and the growing sense of the true nature of kinship demonstrated the incompleteness of the primitive rule of exogamy.

Itis certainly remarkable that a caste so widely diffused as the Agarw6Js should not have broken up into endogamous divisions, based upon differences of locality, of the type so common in Bengal. In the N orth-West Provinces, indeed, it is stated that the Pachhainya or Western branch of the caste cannot intermarry with the Purbiya or Eastern Agarwals. Members of these groups, however, may eat together, and the prohibition on intermarriage is said to have arisen from a comparatively recent quarrel, which is now likely to be made up. In Behar the tendency is to ignore these distinctions and to represent restrictions on intermarriage between Purbiyas and Pachhainyas as matters of family prejudice rather than of caste oustom. This, however, may be due to the fact that most of the Behar Agarwals belong to the Purbiya branch, and are regarded as socially iroeriol' to the Pachhainyas. Both inter¬marriage and community of food are prohibited to the Dasa sub¬caste, who are illegitimate descendants of an Agarwal named Basu, and to the Biradari Raja, or Bisa, who are said to be descended from one Ratan Ohand, who was made a Raja by the Emperor Farokhsir in the early part of last century.


Agarwals usually marry their daughters after they have reached their ninth year, but if no suitableMarriage. match offers in infancy, it often happens that a girl is not married until she is grown up. In the latter case she goes to live with her husband at once. When married as an infant, the final ceremony (1'ukhsati), by which she is made over to her husband, may take place one year, three years, or five years after the regular marriage ceremony. That is to say, if the husband does not claim his wife at the expiration of one year, he must wait three ; and if he does not come forward then, he must wait five years. This oustom prevails among most of the higher castes in Northern India, and is believed to rest upon some obscure superstition regard¬ing lucky numbers. Whatever may be the origin of the practice, it contrasts favourably with the custom in force among many families of the higher castes in Lower Bengal, in so far as it tends on the whole to defer child-bearing to years of comparative maturity.

Polygamy is prohibited on pain of expulsion from caste, unless the first wife is barren. 'fhe Agarwals of Saharanpur, however, disregard the rule, and are nevertheless admitted to inter¬marriage with the Jain Agarwals of Delhi. A widower may marry again : a widow may not. Divorce is not recognised. If a woman goes wrong, she is turned out of the caste, and must either join some religious sect of dubious morality or become a regular prostitute.


The bulk of the Agarwals belong to the Vaisbnava form of

Hinduism, but a large proportion follow the tenets of the Digambara sect of J ains, and are stigmatised by orthodox Hindus as nastik or infidels. A few S'aivas and S'aktas are met with among the caste ; but in deference to the prejudices of the majority, these depart from their ordinary custom by abstaining from sacrificing animals and partaking of flesh or wine. Owing, perhaps, to this uniformity of practioe in matters of diet, these differences of religious belief do not operate as a bar to intermarriage; and when a marriage takes place between persons of different religions, the standard Hindu ritual is used. When husband and wife belong to different sects, the wife is formally admitted into her husband's sect, and must in future have her own food cooked separately when staying in her mother's house. . In matters of ritual the Agarwals do not differ materially from the average orthodox Hindus of Upper India.

Their sreoial goddess is Lakshmi, to wbose favour they attribute the general pros¬perity of the caste. Gaur Brahmans act as their priests, and do not forfeit their position by doing so. The dead are burned in the ordinary Hindu fashion, and the ashes thrown into the Ganges. The bodies of children under seven years are buried. Among the Agarwals of Behar it is thought right for a man's descendants to perform his sradh at Gya. On such occasions a separate cake, oalled bikra kG, pil1d, is presented before the propitiation of the other ances¬tors begins, for the benefit of those ancestors who may have died a violent death. The spiritual interests of the childless dead are supposed to be cared for by their heirs; but where these are distant relatives or merely members of the same gotra, the obligation comes to be very lightly regarded.


The Agarwals claim to be the modern representatives of the of Aryan Vaisyas, and profess to trace their descent from a mythical ancestor, Dhanpal, who was the recognised chief of the Vaisyas. and whose daughter, Mukuta, was married to Yajnavalkya. Theil' occupations have throughout been in keeping with these traditions. After the dis¬ persion of the caste by Shahab-ud-din their talent for business brought individual members to the front under the Mahommedan Emperors of Delhi. Two of Akbar's ministers-Madhu Sah and Todar Mal-are said to have been Agarwals.

To the latter was entrusted the settlement of the land revenue: the former held high financial office, and a variety of pice still bears his name. Among the Agarwals of Behar we find the largest proportion engaged in banking, trade, petty money-lending, and similar pursuits. A few are zemindars and holders of large tenures, but in most cases their connexion with the land may be traced to a profitable mortgage on the estate of an hereditary landholder, so that landholding cannot properly be reokoned among the characteristic pursuits of the caste.

The poorer members of the caste find employment as brokers, book¬ keepers, touts, workers in gold and silver embroidery, and servants, and take to any respectable pursuit except cultivation.

Social status

In the Hindu social system Agarwals stand at the head of the group of castes included in the term Baniya. Colonel Tod classes them among the" eighty-four mercantile tribes, chiefly of Rajput origin," enumerated by him, and their features and complexion stamp them as of tolerably pure Aryan descent. All Pachhainya and most Purbiya Agarwals wear the sacred thread. In Behar they rank immediately below Brahmans and Kayasths, and the former can take water and certain kinds of sweetmeats from their hands. According to their own account, they can tal{e cooked food only from Brahmans of the Gaur, Tailanga, Gujrati, and Sanath sub-castes: water and sweetmeats they can take from any Brahmans, except the degraded classes of Ojha and Mahabrahman, from Rajputs, Bais-Baniyas, and Khatris (usually reckoned as V aisyas), and from the superior members of the class of so-called mixed castes from whose hands Brahmans will take water.

Some Agarwals, however, affect a still higher standard of ceremonial purity in the matter of cooked food, and carry their prejudices to such lengths that a mother-in-law will not eat food prepared by her daughter-in-law. All kinds of animal food are strictly prohibited, Rnd the members of the caste also abstain from jovandd rice, which has been parboiled before husking. J ain Agarwals will not eat after dark for fear of swallowing minute insects. Smoking is governed by the rules in force for water and sweetmeats. It is noticed as remarkable that the purohits of the caste will smoke out of the same hookah as their clients.

The following table illustrates the distribution of the Agarwals in Bengal in 1872 and 1881 :¬

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