Reclaiming traditions from the brahmins
My name is Suresh Singh. I’m a Nepali dalit. Among the Nepali dalits, there are three distinct types: - Hill dalit, Newar dalit, and Tarai dalit. I belong to Hill dalits who are divided into jaats (castes). These are: 1. Kami – Sunar (goldsmith), Tamta (coppersmith), Lohar (ironsmith), Chunaro (carpenter), Od (mason), and Parki (bamboo worker). 2. Sarki (leather worker). 3. Damai (musician and tailor). 4. Gaine (bard, and singer). 5. Badi (village entertainers- dancers, etc). These jaats are vertically arranged. The lowest are regarded as untouchable by the higher jaats. Unlike in Nepal, in Sikkim and Darjeeling, Damai is considered a higher jaat than a Sarki.
I belong to a Kami jaat that is divided into more than 110 clans. A thar is taken to be a sub-caste, which is flexible depending on the nature of occupation such as Sunar, Tamta, etc that a family follows or said to have followed. Here thar loses its meaning as a sub-caste while in diku jaats a thar is a sub-caste. So in my jaat, thar means a clan for some clans and to some it is associated with the nature of occupation. Clan members are regarded as brothers and no matrimonial relation is allowed among them. Seen in the historical and social context, any tagadhari (wearers of holy-thread) marrying a dalit girl is degraded to his wife’s jaat but retains his clan. In the various kingdoms of Nepal and after the Gorkha conquest in 1768 AD, a bahun (brahman) was punished with degradation of jaat for the crimes otherwise punished with a death sentence such as murder, incest, revolt or conspiracy against the state, sex or marriage with an untouchable, accepting cooked rice and pulse from the hands or from the kitchen of an untouchable and even for accepting water, etc. This resulted in the fact that the Kamis now share more than 67 clans with the Bahun, and about 6 clans with Thakuri and Khasa Chhetris (Kshatriya). These clans in Nepal are called Mijhars.
There are another group of clans numbering about 34 such as Ramdam/Ramudamu, Sunchaure or Sinchury, Gadal, Himchuri, and Lakandari, etc. They do not have sub-clans and they have one gotra called Kaushila.
In the Mijhar clans (Kairan), a sub-clan becomes a gotra, and it is important in marriage, rituals and rites. Some of the Kairans are: - Lamichhanya with gotras (sub-clans) - Lamakarmi, Lama, and Lamgadi; Pandey, Koirala, Baral (Bareli), Risyal (Rasaili\Rasali), Gahadraj, Gajmer, Khati, Singh, etc. The Mijhars have a Kaushila Sakha, which is also the gotra of the non-Mijhar clans. In eastern Nepal, some of the Kairans have a Kasi Sakha.
I’m a Sunar belonging to a Kairan of Gahadraj- Samitrika (also called Jalandhari) gotra. Gahadrajs have many gotras such as Samitrika, Jiva, Rakhsya, Medhasi, etc. I came into contact with a Gahadraj of Medhasi gotra from Siliguri (Darjeeling dist, West Bengal) Lt Col P.K.Gahadraj two months ago; he told me that in Siliguri, Gahadrajs are divided into two sections- Maure and Pipale. Maures write their clan and gotra on a paper and pipales use a Pipal leaf for this during the time of marriage.
When a person dies we mourn the death of the person for thirteen days. The family of the dead person does not take salt, oil or meat during these days. In case of death of the parents, the sons shave their head and wear a white turban called feta. All the Gahadrajs of Samitrika gotra within seven generations do not take meat if they have heard about the death of the person.
When a person dies, his/her atma- spirit remains impure for thirteen days and after the performance of rites- kriya, he/she becomes pure moving in the air- vayu and visiting the homes and lands of gotra members. A mud ball- pinda is made and a deep (lamp) is lit in the name of a death person. Shradhha ceremony is performed after one year of his/her death, burying the bones and throwing the ashes in the Ganga River. This is followed by daan or gift of land and cows to sisters or to sister's children and giving a feast to relatives. Then the spirit acquires supernatural power and can bestow blessing and curse upon the humans, can move in any part of the world and visit members living there. It visits the aanti, the top most floor of the house, so any non-member of a gotra and a married daughter is not allowed to visit aanti. The first harvest of grain or corn is offered to the pitri. When a mutton or khaja- rice cooked in ghee is prepared in a family, first it is offered to the pitri in a plate. Wine is offered in a glass to the pitri- only to the male ancestors before being taken. Failure to offer mutton, wine, or a khaja before being taken whenever or wherever a Gahadraj might live, incurs sin-paapa.
A temple of pitri called thaan has two stones inside it, symbolizing the male and female ancestor. They believe that all the ancestors and the persons, who die in families belonging to a gotra, meet in the temple.
There is no concept of heaven or hell or the belief in transmigration of soul. The spirits live in the surroundings and the pitra's temple, and can move anywhere in the world in vayu- air. The sins are punished in this world only and not in hell after death; the descendants also have to suffer for the sins of their ancestors, as is the saying that if the parents or baje- grandfather are dharmatiya (righteous) then their children and grandchildren will live in prosperity.
Religious rites and beliefs vary among different clans. Let us look into the religion of the Khadka Kairan, who have the gotras as- Lakain, Portel, and Kalikotya, etc, they have their kul devi (family goddess) - Mata whose varna- color is seto-white, so they believe that they should not kill goat or sheep of seto varna. A black goat (patoh) is sacrificed. In their pitri puja, which also takes place in Mungsir purnima in the same month, they sacrifice a goat or usually cocks. Unlike pitri puja, puja of kul-devi is not performed every year.
The oral tradition of Kamis is rich like any other Nepali jaat. One such tradition is that Kamis belong to the Asura jaat. Asuras are the descendants of Kashyapa Rishi through his wife Diti, the daughter of Prajapati. The Kulguru of Asuras is Shukracharya of the Bhrigu family. Varuna, the god of the sea, was the father of Bhrigu Rishi. It is believed that Asuras become powerful after sunset. Hiranya Kashyap, Bali, and Ravana were famous kings. Ravana is the most important Asura in the Kami tradition.
Ravana was instructed by his father Vishwarupa along with his brothers in Vedas, and use of arms. His father also sent him to Santa Kumara Rishi and he became a great chanter of the Samaveda, and a great devotee of Shiva, from whom he received Chandrahasa Khadka, a powerful sword. Ravana also composed the famous Shiva Tandava Stotra. Ravana married Mandodari, daughter of Asura king Maya of Mandor. He had a son by her, named Meghanaada (which means the 'sound of the clouds'). In a war with Indra, Meghanaada defeated Indra and imprisoned him, and earned the title of 'Indrajit'.
The population of Kami jaat is higher as compared to other Nepali Dalit jaats. In the struggle against caste discrimination, most of the leaders are Kamis, and the literacy rate is high. According to the INSEC magazine Informal- June 2004, the Kamis control 75% of the dalit NGOs. Kamis have shown their talent in different fields like sports, and film and music industries, etc. International Taekwondo master Sunny Bee, Nepali film maker Tulsi Ghimire, actor- producer Shrawan Ghimire, top actress Niruta Singh, and singers Deepa Jha, Suresh Kumar, and Heera Rasaily, etc are some popular examples.
[Suresh Singh is pursuing his M. Phil in History at the Kurukshetra University, Haryana]