Dhobi: Central Provinces Of India

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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.


Dhobi, Warthi, Baretha, Chakla, Rajak, Parit

The professional caste of washermen. The name is derived structure from the Hindi dhotta, and the Sanskrit dhav, to wash, of the Warthi is the Maratha name for the caste, and Bareth or Baretha is an honorific or compHmentary term of address. Rajak and Parit are synonyms, the latter being used in the Maratha Districts. The Chakla caste of Madras are leather- workers, but in Chanda a community of persons is found who are known as Chakla and are professional washermen. In 191 1 the Dhobis numbered 165,000 persons in the Central Provinces and Berar, or one to every hundred inhabitants. They are numerous in the Districts with large towns and also in Chhattlsgarh, where, like the Dhobas of Bengal, they have to a considerable extent abandoned their hereditary profession and taken to cultivation and other callings. No account worth reproduction has been obtained of the origin of the caste.

In the Central Provinces it is purely functional, as is shown by its subdivisions ; these are generally of a territorial nature, and indicate that the Dhobis like the other professional castes have come here from all parts of the country. Instances of the subcastes are : Baonia and Beraria from Berar ; Malwi, Bundelkhandi, Nimaria, Kanaujia, Udaipuria from Udaipur ; Madrasi, Dharampuria from Dharampur, and so on. A separate subcaste is formed of

Muhammadan Dhobis. The exogamous groups known as khcro are of the usual low-caste type, taking their names from villages or titular or professional terms.

Marriage within the kJicro is prohibited and also the union of first cousins. It is considered disgraceful to accept a price for a bride, and it is said that this is not done even by the parents of poor girls, but the caste will in such cases raise a subscription to defray the expenses of her marriage. In the northern Districts the marriages of Dhobis are characterised by continuous singing and dancing at the houses of the bridegroom and bride, these performances being known as sajnai and birha. Some man also puts on a long coat, tight down to the waist and loose round the hips, to have the appearance of a dancing-girl, and dances before the party, while two or three other men play. Mr. Crooke considers that this ritual, which is found also among other low castes, resembles the European custom of the False Bride and is intended to divert the evil eye from the real bride.

He writes:^ "Now there are numerous customs which have been grouped in Europe under the name of the False Bride. Thus among the Esthonians the false bride is enacted by the bride's brother dressed in woman's clothes ; in Polonia by a bearded man called the Wilde Braut ; in Poland by an old woman veiled in white and lame ; again among the Esthonians by an old woman with a brickwork crown ; in Brittany, where the substitutes are first a little girl, then the mistress of the house, and lastly the grandmother. " The supposition may then be hazarded in the light of the Indian examples that some one assumes on this occasion the part of the bride in order to divert on himself from her the envious glance of the evil eye." Any further information on this interesting custom would be welcome.

The remarriage of widows is allowed, and in Betul the bridegroom goes to the widow's house on a dark night wrapped up in a black blanket, and presents the widow with new clothes and bangles, and spangles and red lead for the forehead. Divorce is permitted with the approval of the caste headman by the execution of a deed on stamped paper. 1 Folklore of Northern India, vol. ii. p. 8.

After a birth the mother is allowed no food for some 3. Other days except country sugar and dates. The child is given c°s[on^<; some honey and castor-oil for the first two days and is then allowed to suckle the mother. A i^it is dug inside the lying-in room, and in this arc deposited water and the first cuttings of the nails and hair of the child. It is filled up and on her recovery the mother bows before it, praying for similar safe deliveries in future and for the immunity of the child from physical ailments. After the birth of a male child the mother is impure for seven days and for five days after that of a female. The principal deity of the Dhobis is Ghatoia, the god of 4. Rdi- the ghat or landing-place on the river to which they go to ^'°"" wash their clothes. Libations of liquor are made to him in the month of Asarh (June), when the rains break and the rivers begin to be flooded. Before entering the water to wash the clothes they bow to the stone on which these are beaten out, asking that their work may be quickly finished ; and they also pray to the river deity to protect them from snakes and crocodiles.

They worship the stone on the Dasahra festival, making an offering to it of flowers, turmeric and cooked food. The Dhobi's washing-stone is believed to be haunted by the ghosts of departed Dhobis when revisiting the glimpses of the moon, and is held to have magical powers. If a man requires a love-charm he should steal a supdri or areca-nut from the bazar at night or on the occasion of an eclipse. The same night he goes to the Dhobi's stone and sets the nut upon it. He breaks an &gg and a cocoanut over the stone and burns incense before it. Then he takes the nut away and gives it to the woman of his fancy, wrapped up in betel-leaf, and she will love him. Their chief festivals are the Holi and Diwali, at which they drink a great deal. The dead are buried or burnt as may be convenient, and mourning is observed for three days only, the family being purified on the Sunday or Wednesday following the death. They have a caste committee whose president is known as Mehtar, while other ofificials are the Chaudhri or vice-president, and the Badkur, who appoints dates for the penal feasts and issues the summons to the caste-fellows. These posts are hereditary and their holders

receive presents of a rupee and a cloth when members of the caste have to give expiatory feasts. Before washing his clothes the Dhobi steams them/ hanging them in a bundle for a time over a cauldron of boiling water. After this he takes them to a stream or pond and washes them roughly with fuller's earth. The washerman steps nearly knee-deep into the water, and taking a quantity of clothes by one end in his two hands he raises them aloft in the air and brings them down heavily upon a huge stone slab, grooved, at his feet.

This threshing opera- tion he repeats until his clothes are perfectly clean. In Saugor the clothes are rubbed with wood-ashes at night and beaten out in water with a stick in the morning. Silk clothes are washed with the nut of the rltha tree {Sapijidus eniarginatus) which gives a lather like soap. Sir H. Risley writes of the Dacca washermen : ^ " For washing muslins and other coloured 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. 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 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 neighbour- hood. Various plants are used by the Dhobis to clarify water such as the nirniali {Strychnos potatoricvi), the piu {Basella), the Jidgphani {Cactus indicus) and several plants of the mallow family. Alum, though not much valued, is some- times used." In most Districts of the Central Provinces the Dhobi is employed as a village servant and is paid by annual contributions of grain from the cultivators. For ordinary washing he gets half as much as the blacksmith or carpenter, or I 3 to 2 lbs. of grain annually from each householder, with about another lo lbs, at seedtime or harvest. When he brings the clothes home he also receives a meal or a ckapdtiy and well-to-do persons give him their old clothes as a present. In return for this he washes all the clothes of the family two or three times a month, except the loin-cloths ' Sherring's Hindu Castes, i. 342-3. ^ Tribes and Castes, art. Dhobi.

and women's bodices which they themselves wash daily. The Dhobi is also employed on the occasion of a birth or a death. These events cause impurity and hence all the clothes of all the members of the family must be washed when the impurity ceases. In Saugor when a man dies the Dhobi receives eight annas and for a woman four annas, and similar rates in the case of the birth of a male or female child.

When the first son is born in a family the Dhobi and barber place a brass vessel on the top of a pole and tie a Hag to it as a cloth and take it round to all the friends and relations of the family, announcing the event. They receive presents of grain and money which they expend on a drinking-bout. The Dhobi is considered to be impure, and he is not 6. Social allowed to come into the houses of the better castes nor to p°^'^'°"- touch their water-vessels. In Saugor he may come as far as the veranda but not into the house. His status would in any case be low as a village menial, but he is speci- ally degraded, Mr. Crooke states, by his task of washing the clothes of women after child-birth and his consequent' association with puerperal blood, which is particularly ab- horred. Formerly a Brahman did not let the Dhobi wash his clothes, or, if he did, they were again steeped in water in the house as a means of purification.

Now he contents him- self with sprinkling the clean clothes with water in which a piece of gold has been dipped. The Dhobi is not so impure as the Chamar and Basor, and if a member of the higher castes touches him inadvertently it is considered sufficient to wash the face and hands only and not the clothes. Colonel Tod writes^ that in Rajputana the washermen's wells dug at the sides of streams are deemed the most impure of all receptacles. And one of the most binding oaths is that a man as he swears should drop a pebble into one of these wells, saying, " If I break this oath may all the good deeds of my forefathers fall into the washerman's well like this pebble." Nevertheless the Dhobi refuses to wash the clothes of some of the lowest castes as the Mang, Mahar and Chamar. Like the Teli the Dhobi is unlucky, and it is a bad omen to see him when starting on a journey or going out in the morning. But among some of the ^ Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan.

higher castes on the occasion of a marriage the elder members of the bridegroom's family go with the bride to the Dhobi's house. His wife presents the bride with betel- leaf and in return is given clothes with a rupee.

This cere- mony is called sohdg or good fortune, and the present from the Dhobin is supposed to be lucky. In Berar the Dhobi is also a Balutedar or village servant. Mr. Kitts writes of him : ^ " At a wedding he is called upon to spread the clothes on which the bridegroom and his party alight on coming to the bride's house ; he also provides the cloth on which the bride and bridegroom are to sit and fastens the kankan (bracelet) on the girl's hand. In the Yeotmal Dis- trict the barber and the washerman sometimes take the place of the maternal uncle in \he j'kenda dance ; and when the bridegroom, assisted by five married women, has thrown the necklace of black beads round the bride's neck and has tied it with five knots, the barber and the washerman advance, and lifting the young couple on their thighs dance to the music of the wdjantri, while the bystanders besprinkle them with red powder." In Chhattlsgarh the Dhobis appear to have partly aban- doned their hereditary profession and taken to agriculture and other callings. Sir Benjamin Robertson writes of them : ^ " The caste largely preponderates in Chhattlsgarh, a part of the country where, at least to the superficial observer, it would hardly seem as if its services were much availed of; the number of Dhobis in Raipur and Bilaspur is nearly 40,000. In both Districts the washerman is one of the recognised village servants, but as a rule he gets no fixed payment, and the great body of cultivators dispense with his services altogether.

According to the Raipur Settlement Report (Mr, Hewett), he is employed by the ryots only to wash the clothes of the dead, and he is never found among a popula- tion of Satnamis. It may therefore be assumed that in Chhattlsgarh the Bareth caste has largely taken to cultiva- tion." In Bengal Sir H. Risley states^ that "the Dhobi often gives up his caste trade and follows the profession of a writer, messenger or collector of rent {tahsilddr), and it is 1 Berdr Census Report (1881), p. 155. 2 Central Provinces Census Report {1S91), p. 202. ^ Loc. cit.

an old native tradition that a licn^^ali Dhobi was the first interpreter the English factory at Calcutta had, while it is further stated that our early commercial transactions were carried on solely through the agency of low-caste natives. The Dhobi, however, will never engage himself as an indoor servant in the house of a European." Like the other castes who supply the primary needs 7. Pro- of the people, the Dhobi is not regarded with much favour ^^^^^l^ t^e by his customers, and they revenge themselves in various Dhobi. sarcasms at his expense for the injury caused to their clothes by his drastic measures. The following are mentioned by Sir G. Grierson : ^ ' Dhobi par Dhobi base, tab kapre par sdbun pare', or ' When many Dhobis compete, then some soap gets to the clothes,' and ' It is only the clothes of the Dhobi's father that never get torn.

The Dhobi's donkey is a familiar sight as one meets him on the road still toiling as in the time of Issachar between two bundles of clothes each larger than -himself, and he has also become proverbial, ' Dhobi ka gadJia neh ghar ka neh ghat ka^ ' The Dhobi's donkey is always on the move ' ; and ' The ass has only one master (a washerman), and the washerman has only one steed (an ass).' The resentment felt for the Dhobi by his customers is not confined to his Indian clients, as may be seen from Eha's excellent description of the Dhobi in BeJiind the Bimgalozv ; and it may perhaps be permissible to intro- duce here the following short excerpt, though it necessarily loses in force by being detached from the context : " Day after day he has stood before that great black stone and wreaked his rage upon shirt and trouser and coat, and coat and trouser and shirt.

Then he has wrung them as if he were wringing the necks of poultry, and fixed them on his drying line with thorns and spikes, and finally he has taken the battered garments to his torture chamber and ploughed them with his iron, longwise and crosswise and slantwise, and dropped glowing cinders on their tenderest places. Son has followed father through countless generations in cultivating this passion for destruction, until it has become the monstrous growth which we see and shudder at in the Dhobi." 1 Bihar Peasant Life, s.v. Dhobi.

It is also currently believed that the Dhobi wears the clothes of his customers himself. Thus, ' The Dhobi looks smart in other people's clothes ' ; and ' Rdjdche shiri, Paritdche tiri,' or ' The king's headscarf is the washer- man's loin-cloth.' On this point Mr. Thurston writes of the Madras washerman : " It is an unpleasant reflection that the Vannans or washermen add to their income by hiring out the clothes of their customers for funeral parties, who lay them on the path before the pall-bearers, so that they may not step upon the ground. On one occasion a party of Europeans, when out shooting near the village of a hill tribe, met a funeral procession on its way to the burial-ground. The bier was draped in many folds of clean cloth, which one of the party recognised by the initials as one of his bed-sheets. Another identified as his sheet the cloth on which the corpse was lying. He cut off the corner with the initial, and a few days later the sheet was returned by the Dhobi, who pretended ignorance of the mutilation, and gave as an explanation that it must have been done in his absence by one of his assistants.

And Eha describes the same custom in the following amusing manner : " Did you ever open your handkerchief with the suspicion that you had got a duster into your pocket by mistake, till the name of De Souza blazoned on the corner showed you that you were wearing some one else's property ? An accident of this kind reveals a beneficent branch of the Dhobi's business, one in which he comes to the relief of needy respectability. Suppose yourself (if you can) to be Mr. Lobo, enjoying the position of first violinist in a string band which performs at Parsi weddings and on other festive occasions. Noblesse oblige ; you cannot evade the necessity for clean shirt-fronts, ill able as your precarious income may be to meet it. In these circumstances a Dhobi with good con- nections is what you require.

He finds you in shirts of the best quality at so much an evening, and you are saved all risk and outlay of capital ; you need keep no clothes except a greenish-black surtout and pants and an effective necktie. In this way the wealth of the rich helps the want of the poor without their feeling it or knowing it—an excellent arrange- ^ Ethnographic Notes in Soutliem India, p. 226. and sub- divisions.

ment. Sometimes, unfortunately, Mr. Lobo has a few clothes of his own, and then, as I have hinted, the Dhobi may ex- change them by mistake, for he is uneducated and has much to remember ; but if you occasionally suffer in this way ycm gain in another, for Mr. Lobo's family arc skilful with the needle, and I have sent a torn garment to the wash which returned carefully repaired."

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