Who are the Meghwals?

A significant population of the Meghwal community can be found in North-western part of India and Pakistan. In India, they are commonly found in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh. Owing to the large area in which they are found, their cultural traditions have more in common with the local cultures, than a common tribal identity. Traditionally, the Meghwals have been an agro-pastoral community. Like all tribal communities, they originally worshipped nature, but they began to worship different deities as they got integrated into the larger fold of Hinduism. In Hinduism, most tribes and castes trace their ancestry to a particular deity. For the Meghwal community, it is the Rishi Megh, a saint believed to have the power to make it rain through his prayers. Being an agro-pastoral community in a semi-arid region, rain played a significant role in the regional economy and spirituality. 

 

Megh Rishi: Meghwal Community

 

Historically, the Meghwal community was known by many different names. These names were linked to their profession, or to prominent saints; ‘Vankar’, which meant weaving, ‘Dhedh’, which was related to removing dead animals, and ‘Meghwal’, from saint Megh Rishi. There are no literary records for the etymology of the community’s name. It is believed that the word is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Megh’ which means clouds or rain. This is consistent with their ancestral lineage from Rishi Megh. 

Their history is part of the oral history tradition, with very little documented data. This is primarily because the Meghwal community belongs to the Dalit caste. Written history in India has been dominated by upper-caste Brahmins, with little or no reference to the Meghwals, or any other Dalit community. It is only through oral history that we find the different stories of their origin, cultural-traditional practices, and stories of different saints who played an important role in the upliftment of the community.

 

Subcultures 

There are different divisions of the Meghwal community – Adu Bhambis, Maru Bhambis, Charaniya Bhambis, Bamnia Bhambis, and Jata Bhambis. The Adu and Maru castes are connected through ties of marriage. While the Bamnia and Jata Bhambis marry within their castes. Each sub-caste has different cultural traditions, and hold more in common with the larger cultural groups into which they assimilated. For example, the Jata Bhambis dress-up is similar to the Jat women of North India and adorns lac bangles instead of the traditional ivory. Similarly, the Charniya Bhabis also dress like the Charan women from the western states of India. 

 

Meghwal women: Who are the Meghwals?

 

Saints

The Meghwal community worshipped Megh Rishi, and venerated him as their ancestor. Another important saint was Veer Meghmaya of the 12th century. It is believed that he sacrificed his own life for equal access to drinking water, and to relieve the Meghwals from the derogatory practices they were subjected to in their village. Ramdev Pir is another deity who is worshipped not only by the Meghwal community but also by the other tribes of the region. He was a a 14th century king who believed in the equality of all human beings,  and opposed discrimination against downtrodden communities. Ravidas, a 15th-century poet and saint is also worshipped by the community for fighting against the caste system. 

 

Saint Rohidas: Who are the Meghwals?

 

Religious Beliefs & Practices

Originally nature worshippers, the community started idol worship under the influence of Brahmins. As monotheists, they worshipped Palan Pir, the invisible god. They lived in east-facing houses, as they worshipped the Sun God. They continued this practice even when they moved to the outskirts of present-day villages. Today, they worship every god and believe that they are all equal. They worship different goddesses such as Meladi Mata of the Vaghri community, and Bahuchara Mata, the goddess of eunuchs. 

The traditions of the community are influenced by the different religions and regions, depending on where they live. Some of their traditions have been adopted from the influence of major religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Before this, many social changes in the community were introduced by Saint Meghmaya. The Meghwals followed the customs and traditions that were imposed upon them by the upper castes. These practices were derogatory and oppressive, often forcing them to live an untouchable lifestyle. Their marital customs are similar to the religion which the sub-community follows. However, the ones following Hinduism take four rounds around the sacred fire, instead of the standard seven. The community is generally not allowed to wear ornaments made of gold and silver. However, the head of the village and his wife are exceptions to this rule.

Irrespective of the religion that they follow, the Meghwals bury their dead. There are various reasons for this, such as not being able to purchase firewood due to financial constraints, Brahmins controlling the majority of village resources, and the fact that the smoke from the dead body was, and is still considered polluting. However, the community slightly burns the toe of their dead before burying them. 

 

Food Culture

The Meghwals are traditionally beef-eaters, but they can only eat the meat of dead cows. It is part of their tradition and culture. According to oral history traditions, it is believed that they were cursed by Brahma to pick dead animals from the villages because they had killed the divine bovine-goddess, Kamdhenu. Due to lack of food, the community had to survive by eating dead animals. It is due to such eating habits, that the community was pushed away further from mainstream society. However, today the community has reduced this food practice due to fear of discrimination and now have a vast and varied diet. 

 

Occupations

Like every tribal community in India practises some form of art and craft, the Meghwal community also practises distinct forms of embroidery tradition. It is because of their isolation from the mainstream community, that the community and sub-sections of the community have been able to preserve their distinct embroidery traditions. The embroidery is an important part of their culture, worn during marriage and given as dowry. 

Today, it is very rare to find Meghwals practising the traditional occupation of moving and skinning dead animals. It is more common for them to perform weaving and embroidery. A lot of emphasis is put on education within the community. It is their way of bringing change in a caste-ridden society and being seen through their craft.

 

Samjhu Devi: Kashidakari Artist

References

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