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This article is an excerpt from
Castes and Tribes of Southern India
By Edgar Thurston, C.I.E.,
Superintendent, Madras Government Museum; Correspondant
Étranger, Société d’Anthropologie de Paris; Socio
Corrispondante, Societa,Romana di Anthropologia.
Assisted by K. Rangachari, M.A.,
of the Madras Government Museum.

Government Press, Madras


The Sondis or Sundis are summed up in the Madras Census Report, 1901, as “Oriya toddy-selling caste. They do not draw toddy themselves, but buy it from Siolos, and sell it. They also distill arrack.” The word arrack or arak, it may be noted en passant, means properly “perspiration, and then, first the exudation of sap drawn from the date-palm; secondly, any strong drink, distilled spirit, etc.” A corruption of the word is rack, which occurs, e.g., in rack punch.

According to a Sanskrit work, entitled Parāsarapaddati, Soundikas (toddy-drawers and distillers of arrack) are the offspring of a Kaivarata male and a Gaudike female. Both these castes are pratiloma (mixed) castes. In the Matsya Purāna, the Soundikas are said to have been born to Siva of seven Apsara women on the bank of the river Son. Manu refers to the Soundikas, and says that a Snātaka may not accept food from trainers of hunting dogs, Soundikas, a washerman, a dyer, pitiless man, and a man in whose house lives a paramour of his wife. In a note on the allied Sunris or Sundis of Bengal, Mr. Risley writes that “according to Hindu ideas, distillers and sellers of strong drink rank among the most degraded castes, and a curious story in the Vaivarta Purāna keeps alive the memory of their degradation.

It is said that when Sani, the Hindu Saturn, failed to adapt an elephant’s head to the mutilated trunk of Ganēsa, who had been accidentally beheaded by Siva, Viswakarma, the celestial artificer, was sent for, and by careful dissection and manipulation he fitted the incongruous parts together, and made a man called Kedāra Sena from the slices cut off in fashioning his work. This Kedāra Sena was ordered to fetch a drink of water for Bhagavati, weary and athirst. Finding on the river’s bank a shell full of water, he presented it to her, without noticing that a few grains of rice left in it by a parrot had fermented and formed an intoxicating liquid. Bhagavati, as soon as she had drunk, became aware of the fact, and in her anger condemned the offender to the vile and servile occupation of making spirituous liquor for mankind. Another story traces their origin to a certain Bhāskar or Bhāskar Muni, who was created by Krishna’s brother, Balarām, to minister to his desire for strong drink. A different version of the same legend gives them for ancestor Niranjan, a boy found by Bhāskar floating down a river in a pot full of country liquor, and brought up by him as a distiller.”

For the following note on the Sondis of Vizagapatam, I am indebted to Mr. C. Hayavadana Rao. According to a current tradition, there was, in days of old, a Brāhman, who was celebrated for his magical powers. The king, his patron, asked him if he could make the water in a tank (pond) burn, and he replied in the affirmative. He was, however, in reality disconsolate, because he did not know how to do it. By chance he met a distiller, who asked him why he looked so troubled, and, on learning his difficulty, promised to help him on condition that he gave him his daughter in marriage. To this the Brāhman consented. The distiller gave him a quantity of liquor to pour into the tank, and told him to set it alight in the presence of the king. The Brāhman kept his word, and the Sondis are the descendants of the offspring of his daughter and the distiller. The caste is divided into several endogamous divisions, viz., Bodo Odiya, Madhya kūla, and Sanno kūla. The last is said to be made up of illegitimate descendants of the two first divisions.

The Sondis distil liquor from the ippa (Bassia) flower, rice, and jaggery (crude sugar). There is a tradition that Brahma created the world, and pinched up from a point between his eyebrows a little mud, from which he made a figure, and endowed it with life. Thus Suka Muni was created, and authorised to distil spirit from the ippa flowers, which had hitherto been eaten by birds. When a girl reaches puberty, she is set apart in a room within a square enclosure made with four arrows connected together by a thread. Turmeric and oil are rubbed over her daily, and, on the seventh day, she visits the local shrine.

Girls are married before puberty. Some days before a wedding, a sāl (Shorea robusta) or neredu (Eugenia Jambolana) post is set up in front of the bridegroom’s house, and a pandal (booth) erected round it. On the appointed day, a caste feast is held, and a procession of males proceeds to the bride’s house, carrying with them finger rings, silver and glass bangles, and fifty rupees as the jholla tonka (bride price). On the following day, the bride goes to the house of the bridegroom. On the marriage day, the contracting couple go seven times round the central post of the pandal, and their hands are joined by the presiding Oriya Brāhman. They then sit down, and the sacred fire is raised. The females belonging to the bridegroom’s party sprinkle them with turmeric and rice. On the following day, a Bhondāri (barber) cleans the pandal, and draws patterns in it with rice flour. A mat is spread, and the couple play with cowry shells. These are five in number, and the bridegroom holds them tightly in his right hand, while the bride tries to wrest them from him. If she succeeds in so doing, her brothers beat the bridegroom, and make fun of him; if she fails, the bridegroom’s sisters beat and make fun of her. The bride then takes hold of the cowries, and the same performance is gone through. A basket of rice is brought, and some of it poured into a vessel. The bridegroom holds a portion of it in his hand, and the bride asks him to put it back. This, after a little coaxing, he consents to do. These ceremonies are repeated during the next five days. On the seventh day, small quantities of food are placed on twelve leaves, and twelve Brāhmans, who receive a present of money, sit down, and partake thereof. The marriage of widows is permitted, and a younger brother may marry the widow of an elder brother.

The dead are burned, and death pollution lasts for ten days. Daily, during this period, cooked food is strewed on the way leading to the burning-ground. On the eleventh day, those under pollution bathe, and the sacred fire (hōmam) is raised by a Brāhman. As at a wedding, twelve Brāhmans receive food and money. Towards midnight, a new pot is brought, and holes are bored in it. A lighted lamp and food are placed in it, and it is taken towards the burning-ground and set down on the ground. The dead man’s name is then called out three times. He is informed that food is ready, and asked to come.

Men, but not women, eat animal food. The women will not partake of the remnants of their husbands’ meal on days on which they eat meat, because, according to the legend, their female ancestor was a Brāhman woman. Among the Sondis of Ganjam, if a girl does not secure a husband before she reaches maturity, she goes through a form of marriage with an old man of the caste, or with her elder sister’s husband, and may not marry until the man with whom she has performed this ceremony dies. On the wedding day, the bridegroom is shaved, and his old waist-thread is replaced by a new one. The ceremonies commence with the worship of Ganēsa, and agree in the main with those of many other Oriya castes. The remarriage of widows is permitted. If a widow was the wife of the first-born or eldest son in a family, she may not, after his death, marry one of his younger brothers. She may, however, do so if she was married in the first instance to a second son.

It is noted by Mr. C. F. MacCartie, in the Madras Census Report, 1881, that “a good deal of land has been sold by Khond proprietors to other castes. It was in this way that much territory was found some years ago to be passing into the hands of the Sundis or professional liquor distillers. As soon as these facts were brought to the notice of Government, no time was lost in the adoption of repressive measures, which have been completely successful, as the recent census shows a great reduction in the numbers of these Sundis, who, now that their unscrupulous trade is abolished, have emigrated largely to Boad and other tracts. This is the only case to my knowledge in which a special trade has decayed, and with the best results, as, had it not been so, there is no doubt that the Khond population would very soon have degenerated into pure adscripti glebæ, and the Sundis become the landlords.”

It is recorded, in the Gazetteer of the Vizagapatam district, that “besides ippa (liquor distilled from the blossom of Bassia latifolia), the hill people brew beer from rice, sāmai (the millet Panicum miliare), and rāgi (Eleusine Coracana). They mash the grain in the ordinary manner, add some more water to it, mix a small quantity of ferment with it, leave it to ferment three or four days, and then strain off the grain. The beer so obtained is often highly intoxicating, and different kinds of it go by different names, such as londa, pandiyam, and maddikallu. The ferment which is used is called the sāraiya-mandu (spirit drug) or Sondi-mandu (Sondi’s drug), and can be bought in the weekly market. There are numerous recipes for making it, but the ingredients are always jungle roots and barks. It is sold made up into small balls with rice. The actual shop-keepers and still-owners in the hills, especially in the Parvatipur and Pālkonda agencies, are usually immigrants of the Sondi caste, a wily class who know exactly how to take advantage of the sin which doth so easily beset the hill man, and to wheedle from him, in exchange for the strong drink which he cannot do without, his ready money, his little possessions, his crops, and finally his land itself.

“The Sondis are gradually getting much of the best land into their hands, and many of the guileless hill ryots into their power. Mr. Taylor stated in 1892 that ‘the rate of interest on loans extorted by these Sondis is 100 per cent. and, if this is not cleared off in the first year, compound interest at 100 per cent. is charged on the balance. The result is that, in many instances, the cultivators are unable to pay in cash or kind, and become the gōtis or serfs of the sowcars, for whom they have to work in return for mere batta (subsistence allowance), whilst the latter take care to manipulate their accounts in such a manner that the debt is never paid off. A remarkable instance of this tyranny was brought to my notice a few days since.

A ryot some fifty years ago borrowed Rs. 20; he paid back Rs. 50 at intervals, and worked for the whole of his life, and died in harness. For the same debt the sowcar (money-lender) claimed the services of his son, and he too died in bondage, leaving two small sons aged 13 and 9, whose services were also claimed for an alleged arrear of Rs. 30 on a debt of Rs. 20 borrowed 50 years back, for which Rs. 50 in cash had been repaid in addition to the perpetual labour of a man for a similar period.’ This custom of gōti is firmly established, and, in a recent case, an elder brother claimed to be able to pledge for his own debts the services of his younger brother, and even those of the latter’s wife. Debts due by persons of respectability are often collected by the Sondis by an exasperating method, which has led to at least one case of homicide. They send Ghāsis, who are one of the lowest of all castes, and contact with whom is utter defilement entailing severe caste penalties, to haunt the house of the debtor who will not pay, insult and annoy him and his family, and threaten to drag him forcibly before the Sondi.” A friend was, on one occasion, out after big game in the Jeypore hills, and shot a tiger. He asked his shikāri (tracker) what reward he should give him for putting him on to the beast. The shikāri replied that he would be quite satisfied with twenty-five rupees, as he wanted to get his younger brother out of pledge. Asked what he meant, he replied that, two years previously, he had purchased as his wife a woman who belonged to a caste higher than his own for a hundred rupees. He obtained the money by pledging his younger brother to a sowcar, and had paid it all back except twenty-five rupees. Meanwhile his brother was the bondsman of the sowcar, and cultivating his land in return for simple food.

It is further recorded, in the Gazetteer of the Vizagapatam district, that Dombu (or Dōmb) dacoits “force their way into the house of some wealthy person (for choice the local Sondi liquor-seller and sowcar—usually the only man worth looting in an Agency village, and a shark who gets little pity from his neighbours when forced to disgorge), tie up the men, rape the women, and go off with everything of value.” The titles of the Ganjam Sondis are Bēhara, Chowdri, Podhāno, and Sāhu. In the Vizagapatam agency tracts, their title is said to be Bissōyi.

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