The Wadars made history, today even restore it!

Outside a rock cave housing Lord Shiva’s sculptures dating back to the second century, on his haunches sits a 30-year-old Kailash Dashrath Dhotre chipping away at a stone, carving a pattern in near similarity to match a row of others forming an archaic, age-old boundary to a large Banyan tree. After an hour, Kailash’s efforts bear fruit and the stone made ready for fitting in identical pattern with the rest of its sort.

A little distance away, some Japanese tourists, while visiting the pristine UNESCO World Heritage Site Elephanta Caves located on top of Elephanta Island that lies 13 kilometres from Mumbai, bask in the glory of the rock carvings on display little realising that the artistes are at work even today barely a few feet away.

The ruin of ancillary structures at the site due to tourist intervention and the travesties of nature is addressed by descendants of the original creators of the carvings themselves - the Wadars - who work diligently in concerted tandem over the years overseen by Archaeological Survey of India’s (ASI) officials.

An educated Kailash, after completing his bachelor’s degree in Political Science, deciding to deviate from his community chore of ‘carving rocks for a living’ and instead took up a ‘job’ with Volkswagen at Pune. “With my father’s health failing swiftly and the money just not being as good on the job, I left it to join the ‘family work’ of ‘carving’ structures at archaeological sites across Maharashtra - in temples and cave structures,” said Kailash.

So, Kailash joined his 70-odd near and distant Wadar relatives - comprising men and women - at Elephanta Caves to restore ancient structures by chipping away, with creative agility, stones to match designs of yore. “These Wadars are so talented and hard-working that it’s impossible to find even trained modern-day replacements for them,” says ASI monument attendant Vishnu Rawool.

Over the years, since Vishnu has been overseeing their works throughout the year when the Wadars arrive on the island to work on recreating broken structures and providing intrinsic touch-ups on damaged portions of walls and stone surfaces along the caves, he is left bewildered. “Their work is magical, simply speaking,” he adds.

Little wonder then that as far as anthropological documentation goes, the Wadars, a stone-carving community, relegated to a ‘criminal’ status following a mischievous study on these communities carried out by officers appointed by the British colonial administration aimed at ‘identifying and enlisting criminal tribe-castes’ and castigated as a ‘criminal tribe’ in the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, have been closely associated with creating temple sculptures and cave rock carvings.

Denotified And No Longer Criminal

In 1949, two years after India obtained Independence, the Central government appointed a committee to study the utility of this law. It was concluded that the act was against the spirit of the Indian Constitution and the committee recommended suitable steps to be taken for amelioration of the pitiable conditions of the Criminal Tribes rather than branding them as ‘criminals,’ and, concurrently, the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 was repealed in 1952.

Today, despite years after the Wadars and others were de-notified by a free India, the police and society continue to treat them with contempt and view them with a suspicion that legislation failed to remove. That, however, does not take away from the fact that these tribes, however ‘backward’ in nomenclature, possess some of the finest skills available to natives of the land.

Historically Speaking

Maharashtra has nearly thirty-five important denotified tribe-castes and more than two hundred sub-tribe castes that have adopted Hindu, Sikh and Muslim religions. After 2006, a large number of them converted to Buddhism; like the Beldaar, Shikalgar, Sapgarudi, Darveshi and Madari, tribes who have mixed linkages with Hinduism and Islam. They perform a wide range of activities that include wrestling, entertainment, magic performances, astrology, daily wage work, snake-charming activities and more.

Like the Madari, for instance, is a predominantly snake-charmer who is mostly on the run owing to the ‘illegal’ status of his profession owing to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, and is said to be an offspring of a Rajput father and Muslim mother.

But, where the Wadars were concerned, they got a particularly raw deal. On 20th April 1936, Wadars were restricted to their districts in colonial and non-colonial territories of India followed by a notification on 23 June, 1939, by Solapur, Belgaum, Bijapur, Dharwad, Deccan, South Maratha, Mysore and Madras Presidencies, declaring them ‘criminals’.

Over the years, owing to their acute poverty and their nomadic way of life, the Wadars have a low social and economic status in society. However, now by adopting urban culture they’re drawing a better status. The younger generation has opted for formal education and procure degrees that help them obtain jobs in urban India. Even the women have begun observing urban rules and dress codes that have led to their dropping the traditional custom of not wearing a blouse - a practice mired with mythological origins.

Today, even though most of their rituals were Hindu, the socially-ostracised Wadars have renamed them with Urdu terms and continue to observe them despite the Hindu upper caste disdain. The Wadars, opposed to strict Hindu regimes, have adopted the practice of parallel cousin marriages abandoning the exogamy that they were socially prevented by the caste system. So, today most Wadar marriages are undertaken as per Islamic tradition.

The Wadars, now a denotified tribe in Maharashtra, have no place they can call their own. Owing to the absence of means of livelihood and the stigma of criminality that has stuck to them over the ages, the Wadars move about in urban and rural area but only on the basis of their occupation.

While the Wadars have decreased drastically in population, they are considered immigrants from Southern India mainly from Andhra Pradesh and are mainly found in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa, West Bengal, Bihar, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.

In Maharashtra, most of these tribals are engaged in construction work. A few, educated Wadars, work in the service sector of urban zones of Maharashtra while, in rural areas, women wander from village to village making and repairing stone-grinders.

In Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, the Wadars comprise denotified tribes (DNT) while in the rest of India they are either included in the Scheduled Castes list or the Scheduled Tribes list.

Status, Caste and Sub-castes

In certain sociological documents, the Wadars have been traced to Odra Desa or Orissa, from where they are believed to have migrated to various southern states. The Wadars are also known by names such as Bhovi, Wadda, TudugWadars, Voddar, Wadars, GiriniWadars, Od and Odde. The word ‘Bhovi’ is a corrupted version of ‘Bhavi’ which means ‘earth-digger’. They have been involved in the digging of wells. And, among Wadars are sub-castes at different places, areas and regions. For instance, in Maharashtra, there are three main sub-castes closely linked with the type of occupational responsibility.

The ‘Mati Wadars’ are known for digging up the soil, transporting the soil, including loading; unloading and finally using the soil for levelling up the ground. In Marathi, the word ‘Mati’ means ‘soil’ and hence all occupations related to digging, transporting, loading and unloading of soil led to the name ‘Mati Wadar’.

The ‘Gadi Wadar’ are involved with breaking stones of quarries, loading and unloading the same into a cart or a vehicle known as ‘Gadis’ in Marathi.

The third, ‘Jate Wadar’, has been derived from the term ‘Jate’ that means ‘grinding stone’ in Marathi. As the occupational responsibility of the ‘Jate Wadar’ was to make grinding stones, he was referred to as ‘Jate Wadar’. The Jate Wadars consider themselves higher than the Mati Wadars and Gadi Wadars.

Primarily nomadic in form, the Jate Wadars put up shop under a tree, near a temple or on fringes of a village, for a week or two. Once the villagers get to know about the ‘Jate Wadars’ arrival, they get their stone grinders and other utensils for repairs or place orders for new ones.

Wadar Legends and Origins

As per the Rasmal scriptures, once the king of Gujarat, Sidharaj keen on the formation of ‘Sahastraling Lake’ brought Wadars from Malva to dig the lake. Among the Wadars was the beautiful young bride Jasma whose stories of untold beauty were legendary.

Once he laid eyes on her, King Sidharaj fell in love with her and requested her to come with him to the Palace. Jasma, being married, refused to do so and fearing being forced into submission by the King, even tried to run away.

King Sidharaj got angry and chased her, killing the Wadars who tried to stop him from following Jasma. Exasperated with the King’s advances, a frustrated Jasma killed herself. But, before dying, cursed the king that the lake that he had wanted made would never bear water. Cursed the fate of her lot, she said, to avoid such a repeat, Wadar women should never be born beautiful.

So, till date, in memory of Jasma, Wadar women do not apply hair oil or colour their lashes.
According to another legend, two brothers Asalo and Kasalo - the first Wadar males - travelled from Marwad to Gujarat during the reign of King Sidharaj Jaysingh. Prince Jaradhan’s daughter Jehman got married to Kasalo. However, on the death of Kasalo, Jehman jumped into the pier to complete the death rituals of ‘sati’.

On behalf of Jehman, labourers dug up 99 lakes and the money she received was used to take care of these labourers during famine. These labourers were said to be the forefathers of Wadars. Since them Wadars were involved in digging, breaking stone, transporting soil working in clay-related jobs.
Interestingly, the Wadar women cover their breasts only in urban zones and keep them bare when in the village. The practice derives legitimacy from an age-old myth. As the legend goes: Once, when Sita was bathing near a pond behind a huge rock, a Wadar man accidentally breaks it and happens to see Sita naked.

Incensed with rage, Sita, curses him and tells him, 'From now on I forbid Wadari women from covering their upper body.'

The Life, The Lifestyle

Among Wadar’s sub tribes there are various kinds of clans that include Lashkare, Alkunte, Vitkar, Kusalkar, Devkar, Pawar, Kurhade, Shinde, Dhotre, Jadhav, and Nalawade.

Interestingly, even within the three sub tribes, marriages are permitted only within their own group. The Wadar almost always never marries outside his group. Today, due to the absence of an elderly person during a marriage and the disappearance of the caste panchayat who may insist on traditions, marriages are allowed outside caste groups yet have to occur within caste only.

In rural area, Wadars are found in settlements of 10-15 families usually near the beginning of the village entrance. The zone where Wadars reside in rural areas is known as Wadarwada while, in urban area, it’s known as Wadarwadi . In rural zones, their huts are made by stone and mud but in urban area they are live in slum areas, in tin homes.

The Wadar men wear dhotis and white kurtis known as ‘Bandi’ while some wear white shirts too. The Wadar women wears a sari and blouse in urban areas but in rural zones, elder Wadar women follow the tradition of not wearing a blouse but cover their upper torsos with sarees. In rural area, Wadar men too are compelled to follow traditional customs and rituals.

While Rice and Jowar remains the staple food of these Wadars, the tribals are primarily non- vegetarian and consume chicken, pork, fish, etc. While both men and women smoke and chew tobacco, most men drink country liquor and toddy.

The Wadars believe all disease is attributed to their ‘Devi,’ or an evil spell. And, treatment includes the recitation of a mantra, a sacrifice to the Devi or the use of herbs and other natural means. However, this is changing with the onset of time and modern health-care facilities available to them.

Wadars Mostly Endogamous

The tribe is a strictly endogamous lot and Uncle-niece marriages, Cross Cousin marriages (in the form of a man marrying his father’s sister’s daughter and mother’s brother’s daughter) are preferred among Wadars. Marriages are fixed through negotiation and mutual consent while other forms of marriages such as marriage by elopement too occur.

Among the Wadar Community exists, till date, a unique custom. The moment she goes into labour, the woman communicates the matter to her husband, who immediately retires to a dark room and lies on a bed, covering himself with his wife’s clothes.

The Devi-worshipping Wadar mostly worships Goddess Yelamma, represented in various forms and worshipped on Fridays and Tuesdays. Incidentally, pigs, fowls and goats are sacrificed to the deity on special occasions. Among the other deities worshipped include Mahadevi Pochamma, the goddess of diseases and Balamma Devi, the goddess of the cart and Mahalaxmi, the goddess who protects from cholera.

Today, even though the stigma of being notified as a criminal tribe by a biased British empire sticks, even years after India’s independence and the Wadar continues to dodge the biased police action in urban India, when called upon by an Indian government agency like Archaeological Survey of India to help restore a battered history to near perfection with a rare skill-set is a vindication of sorts.
The Wadars have a crucial part to play in making India’s history and restoring it.