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This article was written in 1916 when conditions were different. Even in
1916 its contents related only to Central India and did not claim to be true
of all of India. It has been archived for its historical value as well as for
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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 shift them to their correct place.


LIST OF PARAGRAPHS I. General notice. 4. Funeral rites. 1. Exogamoiis divisions. 5. Caste panchdyat and social 3. Marriage custo/ns. penalties. 6. Occupation and social customs.


A small caste belonging to the Mandla District i. General and apparently an offshoot from one of the primitive tribes. "°'"=^- They have never been separately classified at the census but always amalgamated with the Dhobi or washerman caste. But the Mandla Dhobas acknowledge no connection with Dhobis, nor has any been detected. One Dhoba has indeed furnished a story to the Rev. E. Price that the first ancestor of the caste was a foundling boy, by appearance of good lineage, who was brought up by some Dhobis, and, marrying a Dhobi girl, made a new caste. But this is not sufficient to demonstrate the common origin of the Dhobas and Dhobis.

The Dhobas reside principally in a few villages in the upper valley of the Burhner River, and members of the caste own two or three villages. They are dark in com- plexion and have, though in a less degree, the flat features, coarse nose and receding forehead of the Gond ; but they are taller in stature and not so strongly built, and are much less capable of exertion. The caste has twelve exogamous septs, though the list 2. Exo- is probably not complete. These appear to be derived dhTstons. from the names of villages. Marriage is forbidden between the Baghmar and Baghcharia septs, the Maratha and Khatnagar and Maralwati septs and the Sonwani and ' This article is partly based on an F. R. R. Rudman in the Mandla Dis- account of the caste furnished by Mr. trict Gazetteer. II. F. E. Bell and drawn up by Mr.

3. Mar- riage customs. 4. Funeral rites. Sonsonwani septs.

These septs are said to have been sub- divided and to be still related. The names Baghmar and Baghcharia are both derived from the tiger ; Sonvvani is from Sona-pani or gold-water, and the Sonsonwani sept seems therefore to be the aristocratic branch or crime de la crime of the Sonwanis. The children of brothers and sisters may marry but not those of two sisters, because a man's maternal aunt or inausi is considered as equivalent to his mother. A man may also marry his step-sister on the mother's side, that is the daughter of his own mother by another husband either prior to or subsequent to his father, the step-sister being of a different sept.

This relaxation may have been permitted on account of the small numbers of the caste and the consequent difficulty of arranging marriages. The bridegroom goes to the bride's house for the wedding, which is conducted according to the Hindu ritual of walking round the sacred post. The cost of a marriage in a fairly well-to-do family, including the betrothal, may be about Rs. 140, of which a quarter falls on the bride's people. Divorce and the remarriage of widows are permitted. A pregnant woman stops working after six months and goes into retirement. After a birth the woman is impure for five or six days. She does not appear in public for a month, and takes no part in outdoor occupations or field-work until the child is weaned, that is six months after its birth.

The dead are usually buried, and all members of the dead man's sept are considered to be impure. After the funeral they bathe and come home and have their food cooked for them by other Dhobas, partaking of it in the dead man's house. On the ninth, eleventh or thirteenth day, when the impurity ends, the male members of the sept are shaved on the bank of a river and the hair is left lying there. When they start home they spread some thorns and two stones across the path. Then, as the first man steps over the thorns, he takes up one of the stones in his hand and passes it behind him to the second, and each man successively passes it back as he steps over the thorns, the last man throwing the stone behind the thorns. Thus the dead man's spirit in the shape of the stone is separated from

the living and prevented fioiu accoin[)anying them home.

Then a feast is held, all the men of the dead man's sept sitting opposite to the pancJidyat at a distance of three feet. Next day water in which gold has been dipped is thrown over the dead man's house and each member of the sept drinks a little and is pure. The head of the caste is always a member of the s- Caste bonwani sept and is known as Kaja. it is his business to ^^^i so(,ja^i administer water in which gold has been dipped {soiia-pdni) pt^naities. to offenders as a means of purification, and from this the name of the sept is derived. The Raja has no deputy, and officiates in all ceremonies of the caste ; he receives no contribution from the caste, but a double share of food and sweetmeats when they are distributed.

The other members of the Panch he is at liberty to choose from any got or sept he likes. When a man has been put out of caste for a serious offence he has to give three feasts for readmission. The first meal consists of a goat with rice and pulse, and is eaten on the bank of a stream ; on this occasion the head of the offender is shaved clean and all the hair thrown into the stream. The second meal is eaten in the yard of his house, and consists of cakes fried in butter with rice and pulse. The offender is not allowed to partake of either the first or second meal. On the third day the Raja gives the offender gold-water, and he is then considered to be purified and cooks food himself, which the caste-people eat with him in his house. A man is not put out of caste when he is sent to jail, as this is considered to be an order of the Govern- ment. A man keeping a woman of another caste is expelled and not reinstated until he has put her away, and even then it is said that they will consider his character before taking him back. A man who gets maggots in a wound may be readmitted to caste only during the months of Chait and Pus.

The Dhobas act as priests of the Gonds and are also 6. Occupa- cultivators. Their social position is distinctly higher than 5'°^,"^^"*^ that of the Gonds and some of them have begun to employ customs. Brahmans for their ceremonies. They will eat the flesh of most animals, except those of the cow-tribe, and also field-mice, and most of them drink liquor, though the more prominent

members have begun to abstain.

The origin of the caste is very obscure, but it would appear that they must be an offshoot of one of the Dravidian tribes. In this connection it is interesting to note that Chhattlsgarh contains a large number of Dhobis, though the people of this tract have until recently worn little in the way of clothing, and usually wash it themselves when this operation is judged necessary. Many of the Dhobis of Chhattlsgarh are cultivators, and it seems possible that a proportion of them may also really belong to this Dhoba caste.

The polite term for a washerman in Bengali is Sabha-sundar, and is in common use among the people; but in Sanskrit it is Rajaka.

In Eastern Bengal the caste has two great divisions (Sreni), Sita, and Rama; the former claiming to be the descendants of the washermen of Sita, the latter of the washermen of Rama. The two divisions eat and drink together, but never intermarry. There is only one title (Padavi) among them, Sakalya, derived from the name of a Muni, whose sons, owing to a curse, became degraded washermen. In Dacca, moreover, they have only one gotra, the Aliman.

The Dhobi is reckoned as vile, because he washes the puerperal garments, which, according to Hindu ideas, is the occupation of the outcast and most abandoned races. The Dhobu, notwithstanding, assumes many airs, and lays down a fanciful standard of rank to suit his pleasure. Thus in Bikrampur he declines to wash for the Patni, Rishi, Bhuinmali, and Chandal, but works for the Saha, because the Napit does so, and for all classes of fishermen. He further refuses to attend at the marriages of any Hindus but those belonging to the Nava-Sakha, or nine clean castes; and under no circumstances will he wash the clothes worn at funeral ceremonies.

The village Dhobi often holds Chakaran land, receiving presents at all village festivals.

The presence of the washerman is indispensable at marriages of the higher classes, as on the bridal morn he sprinkles the bride and bridegroom with water collected in the palms of his hands from the grooves of his washing board (Pat), and, after the bride has been daubed with turmeric, the Dhobi must touch her to signify that she is purified.

Dhobies have a Brahman of their own, who officiates at all religious ceremonies. As a class they are Varishnava in creed, a few only being Sakta.

Those resident in the city, numbering about two hundred and fifty families, intermarry freely with their brethren living in villages. Bright colours being admired by washermen, the fashionable bridal dress is either red or yellow, rarely white; while the bridal crown (Mukuta) is of the same colour as the dress. The marriage ceremonies are in every respect the same as those of other Sudra castes.

The city Dhobies have no permanent union (Dal); but whenever disputes arise, or their interests are endangered, they quickly form one, reserving for such occasions a headman, or Para-manik.

Among the natives of Bengal the washerman, like the barber, is proverbially considered untrustworthy, and when the former says the clothes are almost ready he is not to be believed. The Bengali Dhobi is not so dissipated as his Hindustani namesake, whose drinking propensities are notorious, but he is said to indulge frequently in Ganjha smoking.

The washerman is hardworking, regular in his hours of labour, and generally one of the first workmen seen in the early morning, making use of a small native bullock, as the donkey does not thrive in Bengal, for carrying his bundles of clothes to the outskirts of the town. He cannot, however, be said to be a careful washerman, as he treats fine and coarse garments with equal roughness, but for generations the Dacca Dhobies have been famous for their skill, when they choose to exert it, and early in this century it was no uncommon thing for native gentlemen to forward valued articles of apparel from Calcutta to be washed and restored by them. At the present day, Dhobies from Kochh Bihar, and other distant places, are sent while young to learn the trade at Dacca.

For washing muslins and other cotton garments, well or spring water is alone used; but if the articles are the property of a poor man, or are commonplace, the water of the nearest tank or river is accounted sufficiently good. The following is their mode of washing. The cloth is first cleansed with soap, or fuller's earth, then steamed, steeped in earthern vessels filled with soap-suds, beaten on a board, and finally rinsed in cold water. Indigo is in as general use as in England, for removing the yellowish tinge, and whitening the material. The water of the wells and springs, bordering on the red laterite formation, met with on the north of the city, has been for centuries celebrated, and the old bleaching fields of the European factories were all situated in this neighbourhood. Dhobies use rice starch before ironing and folding clothes, for which reason no Brahman canper form his devotions, or enter a temple, without first of all rinsing in water the garment he has got back from the washerman.

Various plants are used by Dhobies to clarify water, such as the "Nir-mali" (Strychnos potatorum), "Pui" (Basella), "Nag-phani" (Cactus Indicus), and several plants of the Mallow family. Alum, though not much values, is somtimes used.

The Dhobi often gives up his caste trade, and follows the profession of a writer, messenger, or collector of revenue (Tahsil-dar), and it is an old native tradition that a Bengali Dhobi was the first interpreter the English factory at Calcutta had, while it is further stated, that our early commercial transactions were rarely carried on through the agency of low caste natives. The Dhobi, however, will never engage himself as an indoor servant in the house of a European.


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