Bania: Agarwala, Agarwal

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This article was written in 1916 when conditions were different. Even in
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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.

Bania, Agarwala, Agarwal

Bania, Agarwala, Agarwal.–This is generally considered to be the highest and most important subdivision of the Banias. They numbered about 25,000 persons in the Central Provinces in 1911, being principally found in Jubbulpore and Nagpur. The name is probably derived from Agroha, a small town in the Hissar District of the Punjab, which was formerly of some commercial importance. Buchanan records that when any firm failed in the city each of the others contributed a brick and five rupees, which formed a stock sufficient for the merchant to recommence trade with advantage. The Agarwalas trace their descent from a Raja Agar Sen, whose seventeen sons married the seventeen daughters of Basuki, the king of the Nagas or snakes. Elliot considers that the snakes were really the Scythian or barbarian immigrants, the Yueh—chi or Kushans, from whom several of the Rajpat clans as the Tak, Haihayas and others, who also have the legend of snake ancestry, were probably derived. Elliot also remarks that Raja Agar Sen, being a king, must have been a Kshatriya, and thus according to the legend the Agarwalas would have Rajput ancestry on both sides. Their appearance, Mr. Crooke states, indicates good race and breeding, and would lend colour to the theory of a Rajput origin. Raja Agar Sen is said to have ruled over both Agra and Agroha, and it seems possible that the name of the Agarwalas may also be connected with Agra, which is a much more important place than Agroha. The country round Agra and Delhi is their home, and the shrine of the tutelary goddess of some of the Agarwalas in the Central Provinces is near Delhi. The memory of the Naga princess who was their ancestor is still, Sir H. Risley states, held in honour by the Agarwalas, and they say, ’Our mother’s house is of the race of the snake.’ [135] No Agarwala, whether Hindu or Jain, will kill or molest a snake, and the Vaishnava Agarwalas of Delhi paint pictures of snakes on either side of the outside doors of their houses, and make offerings of fruit and flowers before them.

In the Central Provinces, like other Bania subcastes, they are divided into the Bisa and Dasa or twenty and ten subdivisions, which marry among themselves. The Bisa rank higher than the Dasa, the latter being considered to have some flaw in their pedigree, such as descent from a remarried widow. The Dasas are sometimes said to be the descendants of the maidservants who accompanied the seventeen Naga or snake princesses on their marriages to the sons of Raja Agar Sen. A third division has now come into existence in the Central Provinces, known as the Pacha or fives; these are apparently of still more doubtful origin than the Dasas. The divisions tend to be endogamous, but if a man of the Bisa or Dasa cannot obtain a wife from his own group he will sometimes marry in a lower group.

The Agarwalas are divided into seventeen and a half gotras or exogamous sections, which are supposed to be descended from the seventeen sons of Raja Agar Sen. The extra half gotra is accounted for by a legend, but it probably has in reality also something to do with illegitimate descent. Some of the gotras, as given by Mr. Crooke, are as a matter of fact named after Brahmanical saints like those of the Brahmans; instances of these are Garga, Gautama, Kaushika, Kasyapa and Vasishtha; the others appear to be territorial or titular names. The prohibitions on marriage between relations are far—reaching among the Agarwalas. The detailed rules are given in the article on Bania, and the effect is that persons descended from a common ancestor cannot intermarry for five generations. When the wedding procession is about to start the Kumhar brings his donkey and the bridegroom has to touch it with his foot, or, according to one version, ride upon it. The origin of this custom is obscure, but the people now say that it is meant to emphasise the fact that the bridegroom is going to do a foolish thing. The remarriage of widows is prohibited, and divorce is not recognised.

Most of the Agarwalas are Vaishnava by religion, but a few are Jains. Intermarriage between members of the two religions is permitted in some localities, and the wife adopts that of her husband. The Jain Agarwalas observe the Hindu festivals and employ Brahmans for their ceremonies. In Nimar the caste have some curious taboos. It is said that a married woman may not eat wheat until a child has been born to her, but only juari; and if she has no child she may not eat wheat all her life. If a son is born to her she must go to Mahaur, a village near Delhi where the tutelary goddess of the caste has her shrine. This goddess is called Mohna Devi, and she is the deified spirit of a woman who burnt herself with her husband. After this the woman may eat wheat; but if a second son is born she must stop eating wheat until she has been to the shrine again. But if she has a daughter she may at once and always eat wheat without visiting the shrine. These rules, as well as the veneration of a snake, from which they believe themselves to be descended on the mother’s side, may perhaps, as suggested by Sir H. Risley, be a relic of the system of matriarchal descent. It is said that when Raja Agar Sen or his sons married the Naga princesses, he obtained permission as a special favour from the goddess Lakshmi that the children should bear their father’s name and not their mother’s. [136]

In Nimar some Agarwalas worship Goba Pir, the god of the sweepers. He is represented by a pole some 30 feet long on which are hung a cloth and cocoanuts. The sweepers carry this through the city almost daily during the month of Shrawan (July), and people offer cocoanuts, tying them on to the pole. Some Agarwalas offer vermilion to the god in token of worship, and a few invite it to the compounds of their houses and keep it there all night for the same purpose. When a feast is given in the caste the Agarwalas do not take their own brass vessels according to the usual practice, but the host gives them little earthen pots to drink from which are afterwards broken, and leaf—plates for their food. The Agarwalas will take food cooked without water (pakki) from Oswal, Maheshri and Khandelwal Banias. The Agarwalas of the Central Provinces hold some substantial estates in Chhattisgarh; these were obtained at the first settlements during 1860—70, when considerable depression existed, and many of the village headmen were unwilling to accept the revenue assessed on their villages. The more enterprising Banias stepped in and took them, and have profited enormously owing to the increase in the value of land. Akbar’s great minister, Todar Mal, who first introduced an assessment of the land—revenue based on the measurement and survey of the land, is said to have been an Agarwala.

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