Bania/ Baniya (home page)

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(From People of India/ National Series Volume VIII. Readers who wish to share additional information/ photographs may please send them as messages to the Facebook community, All information used will be gratefully acknowledged in your name.)

Surnames: Sahoo, Saraf [Orissa]

Mayur, Nageswara [Orissa]

Gotra: Bharadwaj [Orissa]

In the Central Provinces

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From The Tribes And Castes Of The Central Provinces Of India

By R. V. Russell

Of The Indian Civil Service

Superintendent Of Ethnography, Central Provinces

Assisted By Rai Bahadur Hira Lal, Extra Assistant Commissioner

Macmillan And Co., Limited, London, 1916.

NOTE 1: The 'Central Provinces' have since been renamed Madhya Pradesh.

NOTE 2: While reading please keep in mind that all articles in this series have been scanned from the original book. Therefore, footnotes have got inserted into the main text of the article, interrupting the flow. Readers who spot these footnotes gone astray might like to send the corrections as messages to the Facebook community, All information used will be gratefully acknowledged in your name.

General notice.

Bania, Bani, Vani, Mahajan, Seth, Sahukar. –The occupational caste of bankers, moneylenders and dealers in grain, ghi (butter), groceries and spices. The name Bania is derived from the Sanskrit vanij, a merchant. In western India the Banias are always called Vania or Vani. Mahajan literally means a great man, and being applied to successful Banias as an honorific title has now come to signify a banker or moneylender; Seth signifies a great merchant or capitalist, and is applied to Banias as an honorific prefix. The words Sahu, Sao and Sahukar mean upright or honest, and have also, curiously enough, come to signify a moneylender. The total number of Banias in the Central Provinces in 1911 was about 200,000, or rather over one per cent of the population. Of the above total two—thirds were Hindus and one—third Jains. The caste is fairly distributed over the whole Province, being most numerous in Districts with large towns and a considerable volume of trade.

The Banias a true caste: use of the name.

There has been much difference of opinion as to whether the name Bania should be taken to signify a caste, or whether it is merely an occupational term applied to a number of distinct castes. I venture to think it is necessary and scientifically correct to take it as a caste. In Bengal the word Banian, a corruption of Bania, has probably come to be a general term meaning simply a banker, or person dealing in money. But this does not seem to be the case elsewhere. As a rule the name Bania is used only as a caste name for groups who are considered both by themselves and outsiders to belong to the Bania caste. It may occasionally be applied to members of other castes, as in the case of certain Teli—Banias who have abandoned oil—pressing for shop—keeping, but such instances are very rare; and these Telis would probably now assert that they belonged to the Bania caste. That the Banias are recognised as a distinct caste by the people is shown by the number of uncomplimentary proverbs and sayings about them, which is far larger than in the case of any other caste. [115] In all these the name Bania is used and not that of any subdivision, and this indicates that none of the subdivisions are looked upon as distinctive social groups or castes.

Moreover, so far as I am aware, the name Bania is applied regularly to all the groups usually classified under the caste, and there is no group which objects to the name or whose members refuse to describe themselves by it. This is by no means always the case with other important castes. The Rathor Telis of Mandla entirely decline to answer to the name of Teli, though they are classified under that caste. In the case of the important Ahir or grazier caste, those who sell milk instead of grazing cattle are called Gaoli, but remain members of the Ahir caste. An Ahir in Chhattisgarh would be called Rawat and in the Maratha Districts Gowari, but might still be an Ahir by caste. The Barai caste of betel—vine growers and sellers is in some localities called Tamboli and not Barai; elsewhere it is known only as Pansari, though the name Pansari is correctly an occupational term, and, where it is not applied to the Barais, means a grocer or druggist by profession and not a caste. Bania, on the other hand, over the greater part of India is applied only to persons who acknowledge themselves and are generally recognised by Hindu society to be members of the Bania caste, and there is no other name which is generally applied to any considerable section of such persons. Certain of the more important subcastes of Bania, as the Agarwala, Oswal and Parwar, are, it is true, frequently known by the subcaste name. But the caste name is as often as not, or even more often, affixed to it. Agarwala, or Agarwala Bania, are names equally applied to designate this subcaste, and similarly with the Oswals and Parwars; and even so the subcaste name is only applied for greater accuracy and for compliment, since these are the best subcastes; the Bania’s quarter of a town will be called Bania Mahalla, and its residents spoken of as Banias, even though they may be nearly all Agarwals or Oswals.

Several Rajput clans are similarly spoken of by their clan names, as Rathor, Panwar, and so on, without the addition of the caste name Rajput. Brahman subcastes are usually mentioned by their subcaste name for greater accuracy, though in their case too it is usual to add the caste name. And there are subdivisions of other castes, such as the Jaiswar Chamars and the Somvansi Mehras, who invariably speak of themselves only by their subcaste name, and discard the caste name altogether, being ashamed of it, but are nevertheless held to belong to their parent castes. Thus in the matter of common usage Bania conforms in all respects to the requirements of a proper caste name.

Their distinctive occupation.

The Banias have also a distinct and well—defined traditional occupation, [116] which is followed by many or most members of practically every subcaste so far as has been observed. This occupation has caused the caste as a body to be credited with special mental and moral characteristics in popular estimation, to a greater extent perhaps than any other caste. None of the subcastes are ashamed of their traditional occupation or try to abandon it. It is true that a few subcastes such as the Kasaundhans and Kasarwanis, sellers of metal vessels, apparently had originally a somewhat different profession, though resembling the traditional one; but they too, if they once only sold vessels, now engage largely in the traditional Bania’s calling, and deal generally in grain and money. The Banias, no doubt because it is both profitable and respectable, adhere more generally to their traditional occupation than almost any great caste, except the cultivators. Mr. Marten’s analysis [117] of the occupations of different castes shows that sixty per cent of the Banias are still engaged in trade; while only nineteen per cent of Brahmans follow a religious calling; twenty—nine per cent of Ahirs are graziers, cattle—dealers or milkmen; only nine per cent of Telis are engaged in all branches of industry, including their traditional occupation of oil—pressing; and similarly only twelve per cent of Chamars work at industrial occupations, including that of curing hides. In respect of occupation therefore the Banias strictly fulfil the definition of a caste.

Their distinctive status.

The Banias have also a distinctive social status. They are considered, though perhaps incorrectly, to represent the Vaishyas or third great division of the Aryan twice—born; they rank just below Rajputs and perhaps above all other castes except Brahmans; Brahmans will take food cooked without water from many Banias and drinking—water from all. Nearly all Banias wear the sacred thread; and the Banias are distinguished by the fact that they abstain more rigorously and generally from all kinds of flesh food than any other caste. Their rules as to diet are exceptionally strict, and are equally observed by the great majority of the subdivisions.

The endogamous divisions of the Banias.

Thus the Banias apparently fulfil the definition of a caste, as consisting of one or more endogamous groups or subcastes with a distinct name applied to them all and to them only, a distinctive occupation and a distinctive social status; and there seems no reason for not considering them a caste. If on the other hand we examine the subcastes of Bania we find that the majority of them have names derived from places, [118] not indicating any separate origin, occupation or status, but only residence in separate tracts. Such divisions are properly termed subcastes, being endogamous only, and in no other way distinctive. No subcaste can be markedly distinguished from the others in respect of occupation or social status, and none apparently can therefore be classified as a separate caste. There are no doubt substantial differences in status between the highest subcastes of Bania, the Agarwals, Oswals and Parwars, and the lower ones, the Kasaundhan, Kasarwani, Dosar and others. But this difference is not so great as that which separates different groups included in such important castes as Rajput and Bhat. It is true again that subcastes like the Agarwals and Oswals are individually important, but not more so than the Maratha, Khedawal, Kanaujia and Maithil Brahmans, or the Sesodia, Rathor, Panwar and Jadon Rajputs.

The higher subcastes of Bania themselves recognise a common relationship by taking food cooked without water from each other, which is a very rare custom among subcastes. Some of them are even said to have intermarried. If on the other hand it is argued, not that two or three or more of the important subdivisions should be erected into independent castes, but that Bania is not a caste at all, and that every subcaste should be treated as a separate caste, then such purely local groups as Kanaujia, Jaiswar, Gujarati, Jaunpuri and others, which are found in forty or fifty other castes, would have to become separate castes; and if in this one case why not in all the other castes where they occur? This would result in the impossible position of having forty or fifty castes of the same name, which recognise no connection of any kind with each other, and make any arrangement or classification of castes altogether impracticable. And in 1911 out of 200,000 Banias in the Central Provinces, 43,000 were returned with no subcaste at all, and it would therefore be impossible to classify these under any other name.

The Banias derived from the Rajputs.

The Banias have been commonly supposed to represent the Vaishyas or third of the four classical castes, both by Hindu society generally and by leading authorities on the subject. It is perhaps this view of their origin which is partly responsible for the tendency to consider them as several castes and not one. But its accuracy is doubtful. The important Bania groups appear to be of Rajput stock. They nearly all come from Rajputana, Bundelkhand or Gujarat, that is from the homes of the principal Rajput clans. Several of them have legends of Rajput descent. The Agarwalas say that their first ancestor was a Kshatriya king, who married a Naga or snake princess; the Naga race is supposed to have signified the Scythian immigrants, who were snake—worshippers and from whom several clans of Rajputs were probably derived. The Agarwalas took their name from the ancient city of Agroha or possibly from Agra.

The Oswals say that their ancestor was the Rajput king of Osnagar in Marwar, who with his followers was converted by a Jain mendicant. The Nemas state that their ancestors were fourteen young Rajput princes who escaped the vengeance of Parasurama by abandoning the profession of arms and taking to trade. The Khandelwals take their name from the town of Khandela in Jaipur State of Rajputana. The Kasarwanis say they immigrated from Kara Manikpur in Bundelkhand. The origin of the Umre Banias is not known, but in Gujarat they are also called Bagaria from the Bagar or wild country of the Dongarpur and Pertabgarh States of Rajputana, where numbers of them are still settled; the name Bagaria would appear to indicate that they are supposed to have immigrated thence into Gujarat.

Image of Lord Ganpati in procession

The Dhusar Banias ascribe their name to a hill called Dhusi or Dhosi on the border of Alwar State. The Asatis say that their original home was Tikamgarh State in Bundelkhand. The name of the Maheshris is held to be derived from Maheshwar, an ancient town on the Nerbudda, near Indore, which is traditionally supposed to have been the earliest settlement of the Yadava Rajputs. The headquarters of the Gahoi Banias is said to have been at Kharagpur in Bundelkhand, though according to their own legend they are of mixed origin. The home of the Srimalis was the old town of Srimal, now Bhinmal in Marwar. The Palliwal Banias were from the well—known trading town of Pali in Marwar. The Jaiswal are said to take their name from Jaisalmer State, which was their native country. The above are no doubt only a fraction of the Bania subcastes, but they include nearly all the most important and representative ones, from whom the caste takes its status and character. Of the numerous other groups the bulk have probably been brought into existence through the migration and settlement of sections of the caste in different parts of the country, where they have become endogamous and obtained a fresh name.

Other subcastes may be composed of bodies of persons who, having taken to trade and prospered, obtained admission to the Bania caste through the efforts of their Brahman priests. But a number of mixed groups of the same character are also found among the Brahmans and Rajputs, and their existence does not invalidate arguments derived from a consideration of the representative subcastes. It may be said that not only the Banias, but many of the low castes have legends showing them to be of Rajput descent of the same character as those quoted above; and since in their case these stories have been adjudged spurious and worthless, no greater importance should be attached to those of the Banias. But it must be remembered that in the case of the Banias the stories are reinforced by the fact that the Bania subcastes certainly come from Rajputana; no doubt exists that they are of high caste, and that they must either be derived from Brahmans or Rajputs, or themselves represent some separate foreign group; but if they are really the descendants of the Vaishyas, the main body of the Aryan immigrants and the third of the four classical castes, it might be expected that their legends would show some trace of this instead of being unitedly in favour of their Rajput origin.

Colonel Tod gives a catalogue of the eighty—four mercantile tribes, whom he states to be chiefly of Rajput descent. [119] In this list the Agarwal, Oswal, Srimal, Khandelwal, Palliwal and Lad subcastes occur; while the Dhakar and Dhusar subcastes may be represented by the names Dhakarwal and Dusora in the lists. The other names given by Tod appear to be mainly small territorial groups of Rajputana. Elsewhere, after speaking of the claims of certain towns in Rajputana to be centres of trade, Colonel Tod remarks: “These pretensions we may the more readily admit, when we recollect that nine—tenths of the bankers and commercial men of India are natives of Marudesh, [120] and these chiefly of the Jain faith. The Oswals, so termed from the town of Osi, near the Luni, estimate one hundred thousand families whose occupation is commerce. All these claim a Rajput descent, a fact entirely unknown to the European inquirer into the peculiarities of Hindu manners.” [121]

Similarly, Sir D. Ibbetson states that the Maheshri Banias claim Rajput origin and still have subdivisions bearing Rajput names. [122] Elliot also says that almost all the mercantile tribes of Hindustan are of Rajput descent. [123]

It would appear, then, that the Banias are an offshoot from the Rajputs, who took to commerce and learnt to read and write for the purpose of keeping accounts. The Charans or bards are another literate caste derived from the Rajputs, and it may be noticed that both the Banias and Charans or Bhats have hitherto been content with the knowledge of their own rude Marwari dialect and evinced no desire for classical learning or higher English education. Matters are now changing, but this attitude shows that they have hitherto not desired education for itself but merely as an indispensable adjunct to their business.

Banias employed as ministers in Rajput courts.

Being literate, the Banias were not infrequently employed as ministers and treasurers in Rajput states. Forbes says, in an account of an Indian court: “Beside the king stand the warriors of Rajput race or, equally gallant in the field and wiser far in council, the Wania (Bania) Muntreshwars, already in profession puritans of peace, and not yet drained enough of their fiery Kshatriya blood.... It is remarkable that so many of the officers possessing high rank and holding independent commands are represented to have been Wanias.” [124]

Colonel Tod writes that Nunkurn, the Kachhwaha chief of the Shekhawat federation, had a minister named Devi Das of the Bania or mercantile caste, and, like thousands of that caste, energetic, shrewd and intelligent. [125] Similarly, Muhaj, the Jadon Bhatti chief of Jaisalmer, by an unhappy choice of a Bania minister, completed the demoralisation of the Bhatti state. This minister was named Sarup Singh, a Bania of the Jain faith and Mehta family, whose descendants were destined to be the exterminators of the laws and fortunes of the sons of Jaisal. [126] Other instances of the employment of Bania ministers are to be found in Rajput history. Finally, it may be noted that the Banias are by no means the only instance of a mercantile class formed from the Rajputs. The two important trading castes of Khatri and Bhatia are almost certainly of Rajput origin, as is shown in the articles on those castes.


The Banias are divided into a large number of endogamous groups or subcastes, of which the most important have been treated in the annexed subordinate articles. The minor subcastes, mainly formed by migration, vary greatly in different provinces. Colonel Tod gave a list of eighty—four in Rajputana, of which eight or ten only can be identified in the Central Provinces, and of thirty mentioned by Bhattacharya as the most common groups in northern India, about a third are unknown in the Central Provinces. The origin of such subcastes has already been explained. The main subcastes may be classified roughly into groups coming from Rajputana, Bundelkhand and the United Provinces. The leading Rajputana groups are the Oswal, Maheshri, Khandelwal, Saitwal, Srimal and Jaiswaal.

These groups are commonly known as Marwari Bania or simply Marwari. The Bundelkhand or Central India subcastes are the Gahoi, Golapurab, Asati, Umre and Parwar; [127] while the Agarwal, Dhusar, Agrahari, Ajudhiabasi and others come from the United Provinces. The Lad subcaste is from Gujarat, while the Lingayats originally belonged to the Telugu and Canarese country. Several of the subcastes coming from the same locality will take food cooked without water from each other, and occasionally two subcastes, as the Oswal and Khandelwal, even food cooked with water or katchi. This practice is seldom found in other good castes. It is probably due to the fact that the rules about food are less strictly observed in Rajputana.

Hindu and Jain subcastes: divisions among subcastes.

Another classification may be made of the subcastes according as they are of the Hindu or Jain religion; the important Jain subcastes are the Oswal, Parwar, Golapurab, Saitwal and Charnagar, and one or two smaller ones, as the Baghelwal and Samaiya. The other subcastes are principally Hindu, but many have a Jain minority, and similarly the Jain subcastes return a proportion of Hindus. The difference of religion counts for very little, as practically all the non—Jain Banias are strict Vaishnava Hindus, abstain entirely from any kind of flesh meat, and think it a sin to take animal life; while on their side the Jains employ Brahmans for certain purposes, worship some of the local Hindu deities, and observe the principal Hindu festivals. The Jain and Hindu sections of a subcaste have consequently, as a rule, no objection to taking food together, and will sometimes intermarry. Several of the important subcastes are subdivided into Bisa and Dasa, or twenty and ten groups. The Bisa or twenty group is of pure descent, or twenty carat, as it were, while the Dasas are considered to have a certain amount of alloy in their family pedigree. They are the offspring of remarried widows, and perhaps occasionally of still more irregular unions. Intermarriage sometimes takes place between the two groups, and families in the Dasa group, by living a respectable life and marrying well, improve their status, and perhaps ultimately get back into the Bisa group. As the Dasas become more respectable they will not admit to their communion newly remarried widows or couples who have married within the prohibited degrees, or otherwise made a mesalliance, and hence a third inferior group, called the Pacha or five, is brought into existence to make room for these.


Exogamy and rules regulating marriage.

Most subcastes have an elaborate system of exogamy. They are either divided into a large number of sections, or into a few gotras, usually twelve, each of which is further split up into subsections. Marriage can then be regulated by forbidding a man to take a wife from the whole of his own section or from the subsection of his mother, grandmothers and even greatgrandmothers. By this means the union of persons within five or more degrees of relationship either through males or females is avoided, and most Banias prohibit intermarriage, at any rate nominally, up to five degrees. Such practices as exchanging girls between families or marrying two sisters are, as a rule, prohibited. The gotras or main sections appear to be frequently named after Brahman Rishis or saints, while the subsections have names of a territorial or titular character.

Marriage customs.

There is generally no recognised custom of paying a bride— or bridegroom—price, but one or two instances of its being done are given in the subordinate articles. On the occasion of betrothal, among some subcastes, the boy’s father proceeds to the girl’s house and presents her with a mala or necklace of gold or silver coins or coral, and a mundri or silver ring for the finger. The contract of betrothal is made at the village temple and the caste—fellows sprinkle turmeric and water over the parties. Before the wedding the ceremony of Benaiki is performed; in this the bridegroom, riding on a horse, and the bride on a decorated chair or litter, go round their villages and say farewell to their friends and relations. Sometimes they have a procession in this way round the marriage—shed. Among the Marwari Banias a toran or string of mango—leaves is stretched above the door of the house on the occasion of a wedding and left there for six months. And a wooden triangle with figures perched on it to represent sparrows is tied over the door.

The binding portion of the wedding is the procession seven times round the marriage altar or post. In some Jain subcastes the bridegroom stands beside the post and the bride walks seven times round him, while he throws sugar over her head at each turn. After the wedding the couple are made to draw figures out of flour sprinkled on a brass plate in token of the bridegroom’s occupation of keeping accounts. It is customary for the bride’s family to give sidha or uncooked food sufficient for a day’s consumption to every outsider who accompanies the marriage party, while to each member of the caste provisions for two to five days are given. This is in addition to the evening feasts and involves great expense. Sometimes the wedding lasts for eight days, and feasts are given for four days by the bridegroom’s party and four days by the bride’s. It is said that in some places before a Bania has a wedding he goes before the caste panchayat and they ask him how many people he is going to invite. If he says five hundred, they prescribe the quantity of the different kinds of provisions which he must supply.

Thus they may say forty maunds (3200 lbs.) of sugar and flour, with butter, spices, and other articles in proportion. He says, ’Gentlemen, I am a poor man; make it a little less’; or he says he will give gur or cakes of raw cane sugar instead of refined sugar. Then they say, ’No, your social position is too high for gur; you must have sugar for all purposes.’ The more guests the host invites the higher is his social consideration; and it is said that if he does not maintain this his life is not worth living. Sometimes the exact amount of entertainment to be given at a wedding is fixed, and if a man cannot afford it at the time he must give the balance of the feasts at any subsequent period when he has money; and if he fails to do this he is put out of caste. The bride’s father is often called on to furnish a certain sum for the travelling expenses of the bridegroom’s party, and if he does not send this money they do not come.

Image of Lord Ganpati

The distinctive feature of a Bania wedding in the northern Districts is that women accompany the marriage procession, and the Banias are the only high caste in which they do this. Hence a high—caste wedding party in which women are present can be recognised to be a Bania’s. In the Maratha Districts women also go, but here this custom obtains among other high castes. The bridegroom’s party hire or borrow a house in the bride’s village, and here they erect a marriage—shed and go through the preliminary ceremonies of the wedding on the bridegroom’s side as if they were at home.

Polygamy and widow—marriage.

Polygamy is very rare among the Banias, and it is generally the rule that a man must obtain the consent of his first wife before taking a second one. In the absence of this precaution for her happiness, parents will refuse to give him their daughter. The remarriage of widows is nominally prohibited, but frequently occurs, and remarried widows are relegated to the inferior social groups in each subcaste as already described. Divorce is also said to be prohibited, but it is probable that women put away for adultery are allowed to take refuge in such groups instead of being finally expelled.

Disposal of the dead and mourning.

The dead are cremated as a rule, and the ashes are thrown into a sacred river or any stream. The bodies of young children and of persons dying from epidemic disease are buried. The period of mourning must be for an odd number of days. On the third day a leaf plate with cooked food is placed on the ground where the body was burnt, and on some subsequent day a feast is given to the caste. Rich Banias will hire people to mourn. Widows and young girls are usually employed, and these come and sit before the house for an hour in the morning and sometimes also in the evening, and covering their heads with their cloths, beat their breasts and make lamentations. Rich men may hire as many as ten mourners for a period of one, two or three months. The Marwaris, when a girl is born, break an earthen pot to show that they have had a misfortune; but when a boy is born they beat a brass plate in token of their joy.

Religion: the god Ganpati or Ganesh.

Nearly all the Banias are Jains or Vaishnava Hindus. An account of the Jain religion has been given in a separate article, and some notice of the retention of Hindu practices by the Jains is contained in the subordinate article on Parwar Bania. The Vaishnava Banias no less than the Jains are strongly averse to the destruction of animal life, and will not kill any living thing. Their principal deity is the god Ganesh or Ganpati, the son of Mahadeo and Parvati, who is the god of good—luck, wealth and prosperity. Ganesh is represented in sculpture with the head of an elephant and riding on a rat, though the rat is now covered by the body of the god and is scarcely visible. He has a small body like a child’s with a fat belly and round plump arms. Perhaps his body signifies that he is figured as a boy, the son of Parvati or Gauri. In former times grain was the main source of wealth, and from the appearance of Ganesh it can be understood why he is the god of overflowing granaries, and hence of wealth and good fortune. The elephant is a sacred animal among Hindus, and that on which the king rides. To have an elephant was a mark of wealth and distinction among Banias, and the Jains harness the cars of their gods to elephants at their great rath or chariot festival.

Gajpati or ’lord of elephants’ is a title given to a king; Gajanand or ’elephant—faced’ is an epithet of the god Ganesh and a favourite Hindu name. Gajvithi or the track of the elephant is a name of the Milky Way, and indicates that there is believed to be a divine elephant who takes this course through the heavens. The elephant eats so much grain that only a comparatively rich man can afford to keep one; and hence it is easy to understand how the attribute of plenty or of wealth was associated with the divine elephant as his special characteristic. Similarly the rat is connected with overflowing granaries, because when there is much corn in a Hindu house or store—shed there will be many rats; thus a multitude of rats implied a rich household, and so this animal too came to be a symbol of wealth. The Hindus do not now consider the rat sacred, but they have a tenderness for it, especially in the Maratha country. The more bigoted of them objected to rats being poisoned as a means of checking plague, though observation has fully convinced them that rats spread the plague; and in the Bania hospitals, formerly maintained for preserving the lives of animals, a number of rats were usually to be found. The rat, in fact, may now be said to stand to Ganpati in the position of a disreputable poor relation. No attempt is made to deny his existence, but he is kept in the background as far as possible. The god Ganpati is also associated with wealth of grain through his parentage. He is the offspring of Siva or Mahadeo and his wife Devi or Gauri. Mahadeo is in this case probably taken in his beneficent character of the deified bull; Devi in her most important aspect as the great mother—goddess is the earth, but as mother of Ganesh she is probably imagined in her special form of Gauri, the yellow one, that is, the yellow corn. Gauri is closely associated with Ganesh, and every Hindu bridal couple worship Gauri Ganesh together as an important rite of the wedding.

Their conjunction in this manner lends colour to the idea that they are held to be mother and son. In Rajputana Gauri is worshipped as the corn goddess at the Gangore festival about the time of the vernal equinox, especially by women. The meaning of Gauri, Colonel Tod states, is yellow, emblematic of the ripened harvest, when the votaries of the goddess adore her effigies, in the shape of a matron painted the colour of ripe corn. Here she is seen as Ana—purna (the corn—goddess), the benefactress of mankind. “The rites commence when the sun enters Aries (the opening of the Hindu year), by a deputation to a spot beyond the city to bring earth for the image of Gauri. A small trench is then excavated in which barley is sown; the ground is irrigated and artificial heat supplied till the grain germinates, when the females join hands and dance round it, invoking the blessings of Gauri on their husbands. The young corn is then taken up, distributed and presented by the females to the men, who wear it in their turbans.” [128] Thus if Ganesh is the son of Gauri he is the offspring of the bull and the growing corn; and his genesis from the elephant and the rat show him equally as the god of full granaries, and hence of wealth and good fortune. We can understand therefore how he is the special god of the Banias, who formerly must have dealt almost entirely in grain, as coined money had not come into general use.

Diwali festival.

At the Diwali festival the Banias worship Ganpati or Ganesh, in conjunction with Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. Lakshmi is considered to be the deified cow, and, as such, the other main source of wealth, both as mother of the bull, the tiller of the soil, and the giver of milk from which ghi (clarified butter) is made; this is another staple of the Bania’s trade, as well as a luxurious food, of which he is especially fond. At Diwali all Banias make up their accounts for the year, and obtain the signatures of clients to their balances. They open fresh account—books, which they first worship and adorn with an image of Ganesh, and perhaps an invocation to the god on the front page. A silver rupee is also worshipped as an emblem of Lakshmi, but in some cases an English sovereign, as a more precious coin, has been substituted, and this is placed on the seat of the goddess and reverence paid to it. The Banias and Hindus generally think it requisite to gamble at Diwali in order to bring good luck during the coming year; all classes indulge in a little speculation at this season.

Holi festival.

In the month of Phagun (February), about the time of the Holi, the Marwaris make an image of mud naked, calling it Nathu Ram, who was supposed to be a great Marwari. They mock at this and throw mud at it, and beat it with shoes, and have various jests and sports. The men and women are divided into two parties, and throw dirty water and red powder over each other, and the women make whips of cloth and beat the men. After two or three days, they break up the image and throw it away. The Banias, both Jain and Hindu, like to begin the day by going and looking at the god in his temple. This is considered an auspicious omen in the same manner as it is commonly held to be a good omen to see some particular person or class of person the first thing in the morning. Others begin the day by worshipping the sacred tulsi or basil.

Social customs: rules about food.

The Banias are very strict about food. The majority of them abstain from all kinds of flesh food and alcoholic liquor. The Kasarwanis are reported to eat the flesh of clean animals, and perhaps others of the lower subcastes may also do so, but the Banias are probably stricter than any other caste in their adherence to a vegetable diet. Many of them eschew also onions and garlic as impure food. Banias take the lead in the objection to foreign sugar on account of the stories told of the impure ingredients which it contains, and many of them, until recently, at any rate, still adhered to Indian sugar.

Mud images for the Holi festival

Drugs are not forbidden, but they are not usually addicted to them. Tobacco is forbidden to the Jains, but both they and the Hindus smoke, and their women sometimes chew tobacco. The Bania while he is poor is very abstemious, and it is said that on a day when he has made no money he goes supperless to bed. But when he has accumulated wealth, he develops a fondness for ghi or preserved butter, which often causes him to become portly. Otherwise his food remains simple, and as a rule he confined himself until recently to two daily meals, at midday and in the evening; but Banias, like most other classes who can afford it, have now begun to drink tea in the morning. In dress the Bania is also simple, adhering to the orthodox Hindu garb of a long white coat and a loin—cloth. He has not yet adopted the cotton trousers copied from the English fashion. Some Banias in their shops wear only a cloth over their shoulders and another round their waist. The kardora or silver waist—belt is a favourite Bania ornament, and though plainly dressed in ordinary life, rich Marwaaris will on special festival occasions wear costly jewels.

On his head the Marwari wears a small tightly folded turban, often coloured crimson, pink or yellow; a green turban is a sign of mourning and also black, though the latter is seldom seen. The Banias object to taking the life of any animal. They will not castrate cattle even through their servants, but sell the young bulls and buy oxen. In Saugor, a Bania is put out of caste if he keeps buffaloes. It is supposed that good Hindus should not keep buffaloes nor use them for carting or ploughing, because the buffalo is impure, and is the animal on which Yama, the god of death, rides. Thus in his social observances generally the Bania is one of the strictest castes, and this is a reason why his social status is high. Sometimes he is even held superior to the Rajput, as the local Rajputs are often of impure descent and lax in their observance of religious and social restrictions. Though he soon learns the vernacular language of the country where he settles, the Marwari usually retains his own native dialect in his account—books, and this makes it more difficult for his customers to understand them.

Character of the Bania.

The Bania has a very distinctive caste character. From early boyhood he is trained to the keeping of accounts and to the view that it is his business in life to make money, and that no transaction should be considered successful or creditable which does not show a profit. As an apprentice, he goes through a severe training in mental arithmetic, so as to enable him to make the most intricate calculations in his head. With this object a boy commits to memory a number of very elaborate tables. For whole numbers he learns by heart the units from one to ten multiplied as high as forty times, and the numbers from eleven to twenty multiplied to twenty times. There are also fractional tables, giving the results of multiplying 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, 1 1/4, 1 1/2, 2 1/2, 3 1/2 into units from one to one hundred; interest—tables showing the interest due on any sum from one to one thousand rupees for one month, and for a quarter of a month at twelve per cent; tables of the squares of all numbers from one to one hundred, and a set of technical rules for finding the price of a part from the price of the whole. [129]

The self—denial and tenacity which enable the Bania without capital to lay the foundations of a business are also remarkable. On first settling in a new locality, a Marwari Bania takes service with some shopkeeper, and by dint of the strictest economy puts together a little money. Then the new trader establishes himself in some village and begins to make grain advances to the cultivators on high rates of interest, though occasionally on bad security. He opens a shop and retails grain, pulses, condiments, spices, sugar and flour. From grain he gradually passes to selling cloth and lending money, and being keen and exacting, and having to deal with ignorant and illiterate clients, he acquires wealth; this he invests in purchasing villages, and after a time blossoms out into a big Seth or banker. The Bania can also start a retail business without capital. The way in which he does it is to buy a rupee’s worth of stock in a town, and take it out early in the morning to a village, where he sits on the steps of the temple until he has sold it. Up till then he neither eats nor washes his face. He comes back in the evening after having eaten two or three pice worth of grain, and buys a fresh stock, which he takes out to another village in the morning.

Thus he turns over his capital with a profit two or three times a week according to the saying, “If a Bania gets a rupee he will have an income of eight rupees a month,” or as another proverb pithily sums up the immigrant Marwari’s career, ’He comes with a lota [130] and goes back with a lakh.’ The Bania never writes off debts, even though his debtor may be a pauper, but goes on entering them up year by year in his account—books and taking the debtor’s acknowledgment. For he says, ’Purus Parus’, or man is like the philosopher’s stone, and his fortune may change any day.

Dislike of the cultivators towards him.

The cultivators rarely get fair treatment from the Banias, as the odds are too much against them. They must have money to sow their land, and live while the crops are growing, and the majority who have no capital are at the moneylender’s mercy. He is of a different caste, and often of a different country, and has no fellow—feeling towards them, and therefore considers the transaction merely from the business point of view of getting as much profit as possible. The debtors are illiterate, often not even understanding the meaning of figures, or the result of paying compound interest at twenty—five or fifty per cent; they can neither keep accounts themselves nor check their creditor’s. Hence they are entirely in his hands, and in the end their villages or land, if saleable, pass to him, and they decline from landlord to tenant, or from tenant to labourer. They have found vent for their feelings in some of the bitterest sayings ever current: ’A man who has a Bania for a friend has no need of an enemy.’ ’Borrow from a Bania and you are as good as ruined.’ ’The rogue cheats strangers and the Bania cheats his friends.’ ’Kick a Bania even if he is dead.

’ “His heart, we are told, is no bigger than a coriander seed; he goes in like a needle and comes out like a sword; as a neighbour he is as bad as a boil in the armpit. If a Bania is on the other side of a river you should leave your bundle on this side for fear he should steal it. If a Bania is drowning you should not give him your hand; he is sure to have some pecuniary motive for drifting down—stream. A Bania will start an auction in a desert. If a Bania’s son tumbles down he is sure to pick up something. He uses light weights and swears that the scales tip up of themselves; he keeps his accounts in a character that no one but God can read; if you borrow from him your debt mounts up like a refuse—heap or gallops like a horse; if he talks to a customer he debits the conversation in his accounts; and when his own credit is shaky he writes up his transactions on the wall so that they can easily be rubbed out.” [131]

His virtues.

Nevertheless there is a good deal to be said on the other side, and the Bania’s faults are probably to a large extent produced by his environment, like other people’s. One of the Bania’s virtues is that he will lend on security which neither the Government nor the banks would look at, or on none at all. Then he will always wait a long time for his money, especially if the interest is paid. No doubt this is no loss to him, as he keeps his money out at good interest; but it is a great convenience to a client that his debt can be postponed in a bad year, and that he can pay as much as he likes in a good one. The village moneylender is indispensable to its economy when the tenants are like school—boys in that money burns a hole in their pocket; and Sir Denzil Ibbetson states that it is surprising how much reasonableness and honesty there is in his dealings with the people, so long as he can keep his transactions out of a court of justice. [132]

Similarly, Sir Reginald Craddock writes: “The village Bania is a much—abused individual, but he is as a rule a quiet, peaceable man, a necessary factor in the village economy. He is generally most forbearing with his clients and customers, and is not the person most responsible for the indebtedness of the ryot. It is the casual moneylender with little or no capital who lives by his wits, or the large firms with shops and agents scattered over the face of the country who work the serious mischief. These latter encourage the people to take loans and discourage repayment until the debt has increased by accumulation of interest to a sum from which the borrower cannot easily free himself.” [133]

The moneylender changed for the worse.

The progress of administration, bringing with it easy and safe transit all over the country; the institution of a complete system of civil justice and the stringent enforcement of contracts through the courts; the introduction of cash coinage as the basis of all transactions; and the grant of proprietary and transferable rights in land, appear to have at the same time enhanced the Bania’s prosperity and increased the harshness and rapacity of his dealings. When the moneylender lived in the village he had an interest in the solvency of the tenants who constituted his clientele and was also amenable to public opinion, even though not of his own caste. For it would clearly be an impossibly unpleasant position for him to meet no one but bitter enemies whenever he set foot outside his house, and to go to bed in nightly fear of being dacoited and murdered by a combination of his next—door neighbours. He therefore probably adopted the motto of live and let live, and conducted his transactions on a basis of custom, like the other traders and artisans who lived among the village community.

But with the rise of the large banking—houses whose dealings are conducted through agents over considerable tracts of country, public opinion can no longer act. The agent looks mainly to his principal, and the latter has no interest in or regard for the cultivators of distant villages. He cares only for his profit, and his business is conducted with a single view to that end. He himself has no public opinion to face, as he lives in a town among a community of his caste—fellows, and here absolutely no discredit is attached to grinding the faces of the poor, but on the contrary the honour and consideration accruing to him are in direct proportion to his wealth. The agent may have some compunction, but his first aim is to please his principal, and as he is often a sojourner liable to early transfer he cares little what may be said or thought about him locally.

The enforcement of contracts.

Again the introduction of the English law of contract and transfer of property, and the increase in the habit of litigation have greatly altered the character of the money—lending business for the worse. The debtor signs a bond sometimes not even knowing the conditions, more often having heard them but without any clear idea of their effect or of the consequences to himself, and as readily allows it to be registered. When it comes into court the witnesses, who are the moneylender’s creatures, easily prove that it was a genuine and bona fide transaction, and the debtor is too ignorant and stupid to be able to show that he did not understand the bargain or that it was unconscionable. In any case the court has little or no power to go behind a properly executed contract without any actual evidence of fraud, and has no option but to decree it in terms of the deed. This evil is likely to be remedied very shortly, as the Government of India have announced a proposal to introduce the recent English Act and allow the courts the discretion to go behind contracts, and to refuse to decree exorbitant interest or other hard bargains. This urgently needed reform will, it may be hoped, greatly improve the character of the civil administration by encouraging the courts to realise that it is their business to do justice between litigants, and not merely to administer the letter of the law; and at the same time it should have the result, as in England, of quickening the public conscience and that of the moneylenders themselves, which has indeed already been to some extent awakened by other Government measures, including the example set by the Government itself as a creditor.

Cash coinage and the rate of interest.

Again the free circulation of metal currency and its adoption as a medium for all transactions has hitherto been to the disadvantage of the debtors. Interest on money was probably little in vogue among pastoral peoples, and was looked upon with disfavour, being prohibited by both the Mosaic and Muhammadan codes. The reason was perhaps that in a pastoral community there existed no means of making a profit on a loan by which interest could be paid, and hence the result of usury was that the debtor ultimately became enslaved to his creditor; and the enslavement of freemen on any considerable scale was against the public interest. With the introduction of agriculture a system of loans on interest became a necessary and useful part of the public economy, as a cultivator could borrow grain to sow land and support himself and his family until the crop ripened, out of which the loan, principal and interest, could be repaid. If, as seems likely, this was the first occasion for the introduction of the system of loan—giving on a large scale, it would follow that the rate of interest would be based largely on the return yielded by the earth to the seed.

Support is afforded to this conjecture by the fact that in the case of grain loans in the Central Provinces the interest on loans of grain of the crops which yield a comparatively small return, such as wheat, is twenty—five to fifty per cent, while in the case of those which yield a large return, such as juari and kodon, it is one hundred per cent.

A Bania’s shop

These high rates of interest were not of much importance so long as the transaction was in grain. The grain was much less valuable at harvest than at seed time, and in addition the lender had the expense of storing and protecting his stock of grain through the year. It is probable that a rate of twenty—five per cent on grain loans does not yield more than a reasonable profit to the lender. But when in recent times cash came to be substituted for grain it would appear that there was no proportionate reduction in the interest. The borrower would lose by having to sell his grain for the payment of his debt at the most unfavourable rate after harvest, and since the transaction was by a regular deed the lender no longer took any share of the risk of a bad harvest, as it is probable that he was formerly accustomed to do. The rates of interest for cash loans afforded a disproportionate profit to the lender, who was put to no substantial expense in keeping money as he had formerly been in the case of grain. It is thus probable that rates for cash loans were for a considerable period unduly severe in proportion to the risk, and involved unmerited loss to the borrower. This is now being remedied by competition, by Government loans given on a large scale in time of scarcity, and by the introduction of co—operative credit. But it has probably contributed to expedite the transfer of land from the cultivating to the moneylending classes.

Proprietary and transferable rights in land.

Lastly the grant of proprietary and transferable right to land has afforded a new incentive and reward to the successful moneylender. Prior to this measure it is probable that no considerable transfers of land occurred for ordinary debt. The village headman might be ousted for non—payment of revenue, or simply through the greed of some Government official under native rule, and of course the villages were continually pillaged and plundered by their own and hostile armies such as the Pindaris, while the population was periodically decimated by famine. But apart from their losses by famine, war and the badness of the central government, it is probable that the cultivators were held to have a hereditary right to their land, and were not liable to ejectment on the suit of any private person. It is doubtful whether they had any conception of ownership of the land, and it seems likely that they may have thought of it as a god or the property of the god; but the cultivating castes perhaps had a hereditary right to cultivate it, just as the Chamar had a prescriptive right to the hides of the village cattle, the Kalar to the mahua—flowers for making his liquor, the Kumhar to clay for his pots, and the Teli to press the oil—seeds grown in his village.

The inferior castes were not allowed to hold land, and it was probably never imagined that the village moneylender should by means of a piece of stamped paper be able to oust the cultivators indebted to him and take their land himself. With the grant of proprietary right to land such as existed in England, and the application of the English law of contract and transfer of property, a new and easy road to wealth was opened to the moneylender, of which he was not slow to take advantage. The Banias have thus ousted numbers of improvident proprietors of the cultivating castes, and many of them have become large landlords. A considerable degree of protection has now been afforded to landowners and cultivators, and the process has been checked, but that it should have proceeded so far is regrettable; and the operation of the law has been responsible for a large amount of unintentional injustice to the cultivating castes and especially to proprietors of aboriginal descent, who on account of their extreme ignorance and improvidence most readily fall a prey to the moneylender.

The Bania as a landlord.

As landlords the Banias were not at first a success. They did not care to spend money in improving their property, and ground their tenants to the utmost. Sir R. Craddock remarks of them: [134] “Great or small they are absolutely unfitted by their natural instincts to be landlords. Shrewdest of traders, most business—like in the matter of bargains, they are unable to take a broad view of the duties of landlord or to see that rack—renting will not pay in the long run.”

Still, under the influence of education, and the growth of moral feeling, as well as the desire to stand well with Government officers and to obtain recognition in the shape of some honour, many of the Marwari proprietors are developing into just and progressive landlords. But from the cultivator’s point of view, residence on their estates, which are managed by agents in charge of a number of villages for an absent owner, cannot compare with the system of the small cultivating proprietor resident among tenants of his own caste, and bound to them by ties of sympathy and caste feeling, which produces, as described by Sir R. Craddock, the ideal village.

Commercial honesty.

As a trader the Bania formerly had a high standard of commercial probity. Even though he might show little kindliness or honesty in dealing with the poorer class of borrowers, he was respected and absolutely reliable in regard to money. It was not unusual for people to place their money in a rich Bania’s hands without interest, even paying him a small sum for safe—keeping. Bankruptcy was considered disgraceful, and was visited with social penalties little less severe than those enforced for breaches of caste rules. There was a firm belief that a merchant’s condition in the next world depended on the discharge of all claims against him. And the duty of paying ancestral debts was evaded only in the case of helpless or hopeless poverty. Of late, partly owing to the waning power of caste and religious feeling in the matter, and partly to the knowledge of the bankruptcy laws, the standard of commercial honour has greatly fallen. Since the case of bankruptcy is governed and arranged for by law, the trader thinks that so long as he can keep within the law he has done nothing wrong. A banker, when heavily involved, seldom scruples to become a bankrupt and to keep back money enough to enable him to start afresh, even if he does nothing worse. This, however, is probably a transitory phase, and the same thing has happened in England and America at one stage of commercial development. In time it may be expected that the loss of the old religious and caste feeling will be made good by a new standard of commercial honour enforced by public opinion among merchants generally. The Banias are very good to their own caste, and when a man is ruined will have a general subscription and provide funds to enable him to start afresh in a small way.

Beggars are very rare in the caste. Rich Marwaris are extremely generous in their subscriptions to objects of public utility, but it is said that the small Bania is not very charitably inclined, though he doles out handfuls of grain to beggars with fair liberality. But he has a system by which he exacts from those who deal with him a slight percentage on the price received by them for religious purposes. This is called Deodan or a gift to God, and is supposed to go into some public fund for the construction or maintenance of a temple or similar object. In the absence of proper supervision or audit it is to be feared that the Bania inclines to make use of it for his private charity, thus saving himself expense on that score. The system has been investigated by Mr. Napier, Commissioner of Jubbulpore, with a view to the application of these funds to public improvements.

Self-image as former rulers and warriors

Dipankar Gupta| Chatur Baniya And Chaturvarna |Jun 17 2017 : The Times of India (Delhi)

Almost every caste, in old fashioned India, claims some kind of martial status. For instance, the Baniyas are frequently presented as crafty , chatur, peace-seeking merchants, but many of their origin tales spin a different story . In these legends (or, jati puranas) Baniyas come through as heat-seeking warriors; brave and fearless, never dodgy peddlers.

For some reason, humans everywhere want to be remembered as fighters. Like our Ranjits and Vishwajeets, some of the commonest European names, such as Vladimir, Ludwig, Louis and Richard mean conqueror, brave, vanquisher, and so forth. Once we factor that in, it becomes easier to accept the Baniya version of the self as ruler and warrior, prone, on occasions, to recklessness too.

The Khandelvals and Maheshwaris, two major Rajasthani Baniya castes, notwithstanding their claimed Rajput ancestry, found the Kshatriya practice of animal sacrifice a real turn off. Their sensitivities were so repulsed that many of them went the distance and dumped Hinduism to become Jains. Yet, through all this they held on to their identity as rulers with high-order kingly qualities. In retrospect, they were probably the first to imagine non-violent leadership.

Many origin tales of North Indian Banyias also assert that they were once kings, and that too of civilisational hubs like Ayodhya, Kaushambi and Mathura.The Agarwals have a similar origin myth. They trace their descent from King Agrasen, hence Agrawal. This view received a contemporary fillip when the famous 19th century poet Bharatendu Harishchandra [himself an Agarwal] endorsed it and by the fact that in the early 1800s Jaisalmer actually had a Baniya king.

The Subornobaniks of Bengal consider themselves to be more Aryans than the usual Brahmins or Kshatriyas, because they once walked over the fire with Goddess Anayaka. Burnished thus, their skin colour became way lighter than the darker people in the neighbourhood, inspiring their enmity and ill will.In the west, Khandoba, the principal God of the Marathas, is always represented on horseback with both his wives. Of the two, the one in front is more valourous, and she is a Baniya.

It is roughly the same in South India too. The Kaikkoolars (also known as Segunthar Mudaliyar), who are otherwise identified as merchants and weavers, see themselves as creations of Shiva, with Murugan as their specific God. Legend has it that from the anklet of Parvati (Shiva's consort) nine jewels broke free out of which came the original nine Kaikkoolar warriors. They were blessed with such powers that even Shiva depended on them to tune out his arch rival Suurubatman.Incidentally , Murugan, the Kaikkoolar chief deity , was a reputed hunter, lived dangerously in the hills and possessed the `rajasik', or Kshatriya, trait, of keeping a large retinue of women.

From all of this it is very obvious that Baniyas find the chaturvarna classification unacceptable as it places them after the Kshatriyas and Brahmins. But subscribe to the Vedic hierarchy and the association of merchants with `cunning' is as commonplace as lentils and rice. On the other hand, if we were to seriously consider how Baniyas view themselves, then a completely different set of qualities will have to be served up. Why , in the South Gujarat district of Sabarkantha, the term `shahukar' does not signify a mean money lender (another caricature), but a large hearted, honest person.

Nor is it always a big deal to be a Brahmin either. From Punjab to Travancore, many communities consider this caste to be inauspicious. For example, Kuricchans, of West Kerala, had an established protocol to ward off evil should a Brahmin ever enter their homes. In Punjab, even minor misfortunes, like a tractor engine seizure, spontaneously leads one to a memory check. Was there a Brahmin somewhere along the way to the farm?

The Anavils of Gujarat believe that their ancestor was Chanakya, the instructorin-chief of Kshatriyas, and this places them well above the garden variety priests, who often pretend to be superior.

At the end of the day , consider this: was Gandhi, the Baniya, a crafty merchant or a noble ruler? Does the answer lie in some sacred text or should a person's life be an open book?

See also




Bania, Agrahari

Bania: Agarwala, Agarwal

Bania: Agrahari

Bania: Ajudhiabasi, Audhia

Bania: Asathi

Bania: Dhusar, Bhargava Dhusar

Bania: Dosar, Dusra

Bania: Golapurab, Golahre

Bania: Kasaundhan

Bania: Khandelwal

Bania: Lad

Bania: Lingayat

Bania: Maheshri/ Maheswari

Bania: Oswal

Bania: Parwar

Bania: Srimali

Bania: Umre

Baniya (Bengal)

Baniya, Banodhia


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