[Editor's Note: This entry is much longer and more detailed than others to provide a sense of the social, religious, economic, and interpersonal details that are typical of daily life in many Hindu village societies throughout South Asia. This description focuses on life in the early 1960s in a hamlet given the pseudonym of Banyan Hill]
Identification. People calling themselves Magar are concentrated in the middle Himalayas of west-central Nepal The middle Himalayas are defined by the Mahabharat and Siwalik ranges to the south and the southern slopes of the highest Himalaya to the north. Small Magar settlements and Individual farmsteads are also found elsewhere in Nepal, as well as in Sikkim and even in north India. This pattern of distribution in part reflects the excellence of Magar men as infantrymen. In the late eighteenth century Magars formed an important component in the armies raised by Prithivi Narayan Shah and his successors who created the modern nation of Nepal and for a time extended it well beyond its present borders both to the east and to the west. A number of families now living outside the area of Magar concentration occupy land given a forebear as a reward for his military service during these campaigns. Under the British Raj, when Magars served as mercenaries in the Gurkha Brigade, a few families settled Permanently in north India around the cantonment areas. Magars in need of land have also been moving south to the low malarial Terai of Nepal, since it has been made more habitable by a mosquito eradication program.
Magars usually identify themselves as belonging through patrilineal inheritance to a named section or "tribe," which in the traditional Nepali system is also a caste. Some of these are Pun, Gharti, Rana, Thapa, Ale, Rokha(ya), Budha, Burathoki, and Jhankri. If a Magar man is asked to identify himself, he might say he is a Pun Magar.
Sections are subdivided into named subsections or clans. For example, one of the subsections of the Thapa section is the Sinjali clan. However, because some clans, such as the Ramjali, are widespread and found in more than one section, a person's identity might then be given as Ramjali Pun or Ramjali Gharti. Alternatively a Magar may choose to stress locality, saying "I am a Masali Gharti," with Masali referring to the specific small settlement in which he or she lives.
Location. Magar concentration in the middle Himalayas is roughly bounded on east and west by the drainage of the Kali Gandaki River at approximately the latitude of Pokhara up to and including the Bnuri Gandaki. It also includes much of the area drained by the Bheri River and its tributaries, notably the Uttar Ganga, Sano Bheri, and Thulo Bheri.
Demography. In the census of 1952-1954, the first after the restoration of the present ruling Shah family, the number of those identifying themselves as Magar was 273,800, or 3 percent of the total population of Nepal. Later censuses were based on mother tongue, and the census of 1981 gave the Magar population as 212,681, an underestimate that ignored Magars whose mother tongue was Nepali. The total projected population for all of Nepal in 1991 is 19,370,300. If we take Magars as 3 percent of the population, we can estimate their population at 500,000.
Linguistic Affiliation. As their mother tongue Magars may speak one of three languages: Nepali, Magarkura, or Khamkura. The latter two both belong to the Bodish section of Sino-Tibetan, and though closely related, they are mutually unintelligible, (according to studies done by James F. Fisher). Nepali is the Sanskrit-based lingua franca and is the second language of almost all Magars.
History and Cultural Relations
Magars' Mongoloid physical type and their Sino-Tibetan Languages suggest they entered Nepal from the north, through Tibet or southern China. The Magarkura speakers occupy the lower, warmer, and more desirable agricultural area and are known to have been there since at least the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, so it is likely that they preceded the Khamkura speakers, who generally live in the higher, colder locations to the north.
Banyan Hill lies in the heart of long-settled Magar territory. Other Magar hamlets elsewhere—particularly those in the harsher northern areas, where food resources are both more limited and widely scattered and where Brahman influence is less—differ from Banyan Hill in various ways. The rapid changes of the last thirty years throughout Nepal have affected all Magar hamlets. Banyan Hill is one of seventeen hamlets comprising a traditional administrative district called Kihun Thum. Prior to the Gurkha conquest the Thum apparently was part of a petty kingdom ruled by the raja of Bhirkot. Like other Thums, Kihun had a fortification called a kot. Kihun's kot, now important solely as a ceremonial center, lies at the crest of the 1,500-meter ridge behind Banyan Hill.
In Kihun Thum there were about 600 households in the 1960s, and if one estimates 5 persons per household, the Population as a whole numbered about 3,000. Brahmans were the most numerous caste and their 243 households comprised approximately 40 percent of the total number of houses. Magars' households numbered about 190, or approximately 32 percent. Caste groups such as the metalworkers (60 households), leatherworkers (36 households), ex-Slaves (36 households), and tailors (17 households) were less Numerous. Other castes accounted for the remaining 18 Households including seven Newars who were shopkeepers in the local bazaar.
The caste groups at that time tended to concentrate in separate hamlets. Practically all households in Banyan Hill were Magars, and Magars predominated in five other hamlets in Kihun Thum.
Banyan Hill consists of two house clusters, one dominated by a founding patrilineage and the second dominated by their wife receivers. Houses vary in size. Some are oval, and some rectangular. Most have two stories; a few have three. Despite variation in size and shape, the method of construction and basic layout are much the same. Walls are built up using stones and mud mortar. Next they are plastered with mud. The final coat that is applied dries to a warm reddish orange. Roofs are thatched. All houses have verandas. Interior ground floor plans, which may symbolically reflect the tripartite social system, consist of two side rooms flanking a Comparatively large central room containing the fire pit. The single door of the house opens into the left-hand flanking room, making it an entrance hall. A notched pole ladder leads from the right-hand flanking room to the upper floor where clothing and valuables are stored in boxes and grain is stored in circular bins made of woven bamboo.
Other buildings and structures that are almost invariable parts of the farmstead include a thatched cattle shed, usually open on three sides, and a tall rack for storing ears of maize. The amount of maize on display is an indication of family wealth.
Banyan Hill's subsistence activities are carried out at elevations ranging from about 800 meters to 1,000 meters in a climatic zone classified as subtropical and characterized by deciduous broad-leaf trees such as Shorea robustus, as well as by banyans, pipals, bananas, and papayas.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The major crops on dry land terraces are maize, accounting for half of the harvest, wheat, and dry rice. With the exception of a small amount of maize, the irrigated terraces are planted to rice. Over the years the Magars have also made use of buckwheat, hulled barley, mustard, potatoes, sugarcane, bananas, arum lilies, radishes, sesame, lentils, beans, pumpkins, cucumbers, carrots, cauliflowers, cabbages, onions, tomatoes, yams, chilies, and tobacco. In addition there are many kinds of fruit and trees with leaves suitable for fodder, two plants providing leaves useful as plates, and three plants used for fencing.
All of Banyan Hill's tillage, dry or irrigated, is within a half-hour's walk from any house. The same is true of places where there are trees for firewood and grass for cutting hay or thatch. Water for irrigation and domestic use is spring-fed and plentiful. The cattle population includes buffalo, cows and calves, and bullocks. There are also goats, pigs, and horses, and a few familes keep beehives and chickens. Buffalo are stall-fed and are seldom taken from their shed except to be bred.
The saying in Banyan Hill that "everyone gets enough to fill his belly" does not mean that every family obtains enough grain from its own land to meet even its minimum needs. It means rather that if the family does not have a sufficiently large grain income, it can make up the deficit by borrowing or by sending one or more family members to work as hired laborers. In the 1960s, only seven of Banyan Hill's families had tillage so large and productive that it provided a salable surplus. This problem still exists today. Families who are not among the fortunate few with adequate land have to purchase or borrow grain in amounts varying from what is required to support an adult for a year to the very little needed to feed a guest on ceremonial occasions. Even households that are comparatively well-off because they have dry landholdings that are more than adequate may lack paddy land and Therefore have to buy rice. Most people prefer to sell jewelry rather than suffer the ignominy of serving riceless meals to guests. The majority of the families also need an income greater than their land can produce so that they can buy the services of specialists, cloth, supplemental ghee, salt, and occasional bazaar items such as powdered color, cigarettes, or soap.
The most important nonlocal source of income is army service. A young man wishing to enlist may join the Nepalese national army or any one of the regiments of Gurkha Brigade, divided in 1947 at the time of India's independence into four British and six Indian regiments.
Industrial Arts. Every household has rice-straw mats that women, and sometimes men, weave on looms pegged out in the courtyard. As a sign of hospitality and welcome such a mat is unrolled as seating for a Magar or other "Touchable" caste persons allowed on the veranda.
Sickles are one of the most widely used implements and are made by a neighboring man of the metalworker caste, but their wooden holsters are always carefully crafted by their Magar owners, who also decorate them with incised designs. Among other homemade articles of everyday use, the wicker carrying basket is one of the best-suited for an individual display of skill and appreciation for color patterning. The wicker can be more or less evenly woven, and color patterning can be obtained by varying the exposed side of the bamboo strips—green if exposing the outside of the strips, white if exposing the inside.
Banyan Hill Magars used to grow cotton to be spun and woven, but by the 1960s most clothing was of mill-made cloth. To show affection for a brother or favored young man, women often sew colorful embroidery on articles of their dressiest clothing.
Trade. Trade in livestock provides income for many Families, even if the sales involve only a few chickens or an infrequent buffalo, goat, cow, or pig. A few families sell ghee or honey, but the chief local source of income for poorer families is field labor, done either for wealthier Magars or for Neighboring Brahmans who believe plowing the earth is contrary to their religion and status. In absolute terms the most lucrative source of supplemental income in Banyan Hill is the interest earned on loans of cash and grain. By far the greatest part of such income goes to the headman because he makes the largest loans. Two other men who are pensioners have financed greater numbers of loans, but because the amounts of the loans are much smaller than those of the headman, the income from them is less.
Emergency sources of income are jewelry and land, Usually in that order. For marginal families these are the two items with which they can keep themselves going through a series of bad years or finance a necessary ceremonial expense such as a father's funeral.
Along with funerals and similar expenses, plus purchases of livestock and grain, the other major drain on a family's resources is the purchase of bazaar goods mainly manufactured in India. Butwal was formerly the largest bazaar regularly visited, but by the 1960s it was being superseded by Pokhara, a town on an outwash plain beneath the Annapurna massif that is two easy days' walk away from Banyan Hill.
Division of Labor. The most common kind of work group is formed on the basis of labor exchange. Various families' fields are ready for planting, weeding, hilling, and harvesting at different times, and what needs to be done has to be done rapidly, requiring more labor than one family alone can provide. Participants in an exchange arrangement work on a daily basis. Generally the return of an equivalent number of days' work is made within a year, and often, though not necessarily, in kind: a day's weeding, for example, for a day's weeding. Work groups also form on the basis of wage payments.
Poor families with too few adults to participate in labor exchange seek help from relatives, often from another Hamlet. The expected payment is a good rice meal, with meat and beer if possible, plus one tiffin (a light meal). Regardless of a family's wealth, roofs are almost always thatched on this basis.
A fourth kind of labor group is almost exclusively associated with carrying wood from the forest. Magars are reluctant to work on days of the full and new moon and on the day they do puja (worship) for the tiger deity, Mandale. But the ban does not apply to wood carrying, done out of neighborliness and for no return other than a tiffin. Nor does the taboo apply to community fishing, which requires enough people to dam and divert a large stream.
Work groups, especially those involved in labor Exchanges, tend to be composed of a nucleus of persons who habitually work together. The usual group cuts across Neighborhood and hamlet lines, as well as across caste lines from Untouchable to Brahman, and it encompasses wide differences in age. It also disregards gender, except in paddy and millet planting, where women do one task and men another, and roofing, which is done exclusively by men. Finally, it also includes members of families of varying wealth, from richest to poorest.
An exception to the flexible adaptation of the group size to its task is an occasional group that hires itself out as an unchanging unit. Its members work for payment in cash and at the end of the season use money they have saved to buy a feast. For example, a Banyan Hill group of this kind formed around a woman who was an exceptionally good singer.
Land Tenure. At the time of 1960s studies, only one Banyan Hill family did not own land. Most of the hamlet's tillage thus is owned by families individually. Exceptions are a small irrigated plot, the use of which rotates annually among the families of one particular lineage, and woodlots and places where thatch can be cut, which all lineages may use. Only well-to-do families purchase land. Obtaining land for use is much more common. Some is leased and paid for by a fixed sum. In other cases the user agrees to give the owner a share of the land's produce, usually two-thirds from a rice paddy and one-half from dry land.
Kin Groups and Descent. Clans are made up of local patrilineages. A Magar man conceives of his local patrilineage as a group flanked on one side by one or more patrilineages that have provided his own lineage with wives and on the other side by one or more patrilineages to which his lineage has given wives. This configuration results from a rule that defines marriage to a woman from a wife-receiving lineage as incestuous. The rule is an important aspect of Magar identity, serving, for instance, to differentiate Magar society from Gurung society, which permits marriage with either flanking lineage. The configuration also serves to allocate to specific patrilineages a number of ceremonial duties connected, for example, with marriage, funeral, and certain other rites.
The Thapa clans of Sinjali, Makkim, and Sunari are represented in Banyan Hill. Members of the same clan believe they are all descended in the male line from a shared (but unknown) male ancestor, and clan members cannot marry one another.
Locally, the Thapa Sinjalis are divided into three patrilineages, each tracing descent through male links to a known ancestor. Lineage members share common pollution at the time of birth or death and observe related taboos. Birth pollution lasts eleven days, during which lineage members cannot participate in any kind of religious ceremony. The period of pollution after the death of an adult is thirteen days, and there is a taboo on eating salt. If a child dies before it is named, only the mother is polluted; a named child, dying when less than 3 years old, pollutes only the parents. The death of a child older than 3 years counts as an adult death and pollutes the whole lineage. An unmarried daughter living at home is not polluted by the death of her father or of her father's lineage members because she is not regarded as belonging to the lineage. When married, she becomes a member of her husband's lineage. She is polluted by death in the same way as its members and has to observe the same taboos they do.
A deceased man's sons, closest lineage brothers, and occasionally the husband of a daughter or sister take turns carrying his bier to the cremation site. When a wife dies, her sons and her husband's lineage brothers, but not the husband, perform this task.
Most lineages, as defined by men who are communally polluted by births and deaths, correspond to a group of men called hukdar, which is determined by tracing male links from a common ancestor in the sixth ascending generation. The hukdar are important in the inheritance of land, especially if a widower dies without surviving sons and without previously willing some of his property to a daughter.
Banyan Hill Magars speak of daughters and sisters who have married and left home as cheli-beti and call the men they have married kutumba. More broadly, they sometimes use the latter term to refer collectively to their married daughters and sisters, the husbands of these women and the husbands' Lineage brothers, and even the hamlet areas where they all live. Girls refer to their fathers' lineages and their natal hamlets as maita. Magars say that when they celebrate an auspicious occasion such as the fall festival of Dasain, they call together the cheli-beti, but when it is a question of help to be rendered on an inauspicious occasion, such as a funeral, they call the kutumba.
When possible, a man prefers to marry a daughter of his mother's brother, or mama. If his mama has no daughter, the next choice is any girl from a family in mama's lineage who is younger than the prospective groom. Since any such girls are potential wives, their potential husbands are allowed and even expected to joke with them about sex and to touch them freely. Marriage to a mama's daughter is only a preference and is not in the same category as the strict rule forbidding Marriage to a father's sister's daughter. As explained earlier, a patrilineage that becomes a source of wives cannot in the next generation become a receiver of wives, because such an Exchange is regarded as incestuous. The rule sometimes is expressed using the metaphor of milk: a wife-giving patrilineage identified in the local context as the "milk side," the source of wives and mothers, is not a suitable source of husbands.
During the 1961 fieldwork in Banyan Hill, residents were queried about their kin relationship to each of their spouses, past or present, living or dead. Of the 58 marriages recorded, 17 were between a man and a woman who was either his mama's daughter or daughter of his mama's lineage. The remaining marriages were the result of a search for girls Generally not more than a day's walk away, who belonged to a clan other than the potential groom's and to a lineage other than the one to which girls from the groom's lineage had in recent memory gone as wives. The result was a multiplex, fairly dense, and localized pattern of affinal ties. The groom who made such a marriage spoke of his wife's family, lineage, and hamlet as his susural. His son, though, spoke of it as his mamali —the family, lineage, and hamlet of his mother's brother. Both he and also his lineage mates now felt that they had a strong claim on marriageable girls in this lineage, which sometimes led to a run on brides from a particular and heretofore unallied patrilineage.
Kinship Terminology. Ego's descent group and his two flanking descent groups are the basic categories in the Magar system of kinship terminology. Whether the terms are in Magarkura, Khamkura, or Nepali—the increasingly usual language of Banyan Hill Magars—the terms that Ego uses clearly distinguish to which of these three descent groups a relative in his own and first ascending and descending generations belongs. In the third ascending and descending generations, the descent group distinction is lost and only two terms appear—one for males, the other for females. The system throughout is sensitive to gender difference and, in the Middle three generations, to relative age, though an exception appears in the wife-receiving descent group. Here the same terms are used for two different categories of husbands: those married to Ego's descent group's sisters and those married to Ego's descent group's daughters.
Marriage and Family
Marriage. For a virgin girl the minimum ceremony Generally regarded as sufficient to give her the status of a married woman consists of four rites. After securing permission from the prospective bride's family—usually through an intermediary—a representative of the groom's family goes to the bride's house and takes her to the groom's. There, in the first of the four ritual actions, one that only Vaishnavite Magars omit (see below), the man who accompanied the bride Sacrifices a chicken at the entrance to the groom's farmstead. The bride and groom step on the blood for strength and well-being and to keep evil spirits at bay. The second action takes place at the entrance to the groom's house, when first the Father and his lineage elders and then the mother, as tokens of their acceptance of the union and hopes for its auspicious future, each press a tika (auspicious spot) of red-colored curd and rice on the couple's foreheads. Inside the house, as a symbol of their consummated union, the groom gives his bride some red powder for the part in her hair, usually applying some of it himself. The fourth and final step is the return of the couple and their party to the bride's house, carrying a gift of food for the bride's family. Each entering person is given a tika at the door, and then the bride's mother serves them a meal.
Marriages of virgin girls are sometimes made more Elaborate, mainly by bringing more food to the bride's house and making the return procession more conspicuous. In such cases there is a tailor to beat a drum and, as companions and food carriers for the couple, a virgin girl from the bride's Lineage and a man married to a girl from the groom's lineage. These two carry curd, fried bread, beer, and rice-based liquor. Further elaboration at the groom's house includes the use of one or more Brahmans to conduct Vedic rites.
Many Banyan Hill marriages are remarriages for both spouses. No social opprobrium is attached to the woman who marries a second time (jari ), nor to the woman who marries for a third (sari ), but one who marries for a fourth time is referred to by a term (phundi ) that connotes sexual looseness. Second and third marriages enter the realm of politics. Before such marriages are recognized as legal, the deserted husband has to be compensated. The amount is negotiated by the couple's headmen. A deserted husband whose wife has married a fourth time cannot claim compensation.
To avoid the expense of a marriage ceremony the parents of a virgin girl sometimes arrange to have her abducted by a boy they approve of as a son-in-law. "Captures"—marriages that have not been arranged by the girl's parents—also occur, but not frequently. The abductor knows that the marriage is not legal and that if he is not approved of by the girl and her parents, they have legal recourse.
Husband and Wife. In many ways the relationship Between husband and wife is biased in favor of the husband. When she marries, a wife leaves her natal home and moves to her husband's. In many daily situations she is expected to show her husband deference. For instance, if he is late in Returning home, she feeds the children but herself refrains from eating until he comes home. In the morning she gets up Before he does and carries out a ritual that implies she is worshiping him as if he were a god. She pours specially drawn water regarded as pure over one of his big toes and into one of her palms, and then she touches the water to her lips. Although in these and many other instances the wife has a subordinate role, some factors strengthen the wife's position in relation to her husband and his family. For a brief period the newly married couple live with the husband's parents, but soon they almost always move to a house of their own. This all but erases the possibility for a continuing servantlike relationship with an authoritative mother-in-law. Another important support for the wife is the gift (pewa ) her parents Usually present to her when she marries. Often it consists of livestock such as goats, cows, or buffalo. Chickens are also a common pewa. Wealthier parents sometimes give land, such as a paddy field. Whatever the gift, a husband has no right to it: it provides a wife with an independent source of income, small or large, and it may be transferred by her in her will or before her death to whomever she wishes. Further support lies in the fact that at marriage a woman acquires a share of her husband's property, to be hers if she is widowed or abandoned. The births of children diminish the size of her share, since at birth they also acquire rights to a portion of the estate. But so long as she does not remarry, a wife's share is hers until her death. Only then does it revert to her husband's estate. It is significant too that natal homes of most wives are not more than 8 kilometers distant. Wives go home often, and the tie to parents and brothers is frequently strengthened by exchange of gifts. A wife sometimes returns from a funeral for someone in her natal lineage with a cow or a calf to be added to her pewa.
Two paths are open to a wife who is not happy with her husband: she may return to her natal home or run away with another man. Very often the first option is a precursor of the second.
The majority of the marriages are monogamous, but circumstances sometimes lead to polygyny. The most common reason is desire for a son in a sonless first marriage.
Gender-Based Division of Labor. Women's position in Magar society is enhanced by the essential and many-faceted part they play in the domestic economy. After men plow the fields, women break up the clods with mattocks. They plant and weed, carry wood, water, and manure. They care for the farm animals and do the milking. Although older women do not climb the tallest trees to collect fodder, they do gather heavy loads of leaves from the bushes and low-growing trees. From time to time women work heavy mills to extract oil from mustard seed. They spend much of every day processing food. In the very early morning they operate the grinding stones and hulling beams and winnow away the chaff. They also spend hours squatting by the firepit doing the cooking.
Other work, such as plowing, is strictly reserved for men, but many tasks may be done by either men or women and often are done by both together. Husbands and wives often join in group fishing, and although women mostly operate the hulling beams, when there is much hulling to be done, men frequently help. Men without daughters do the cooking when their wives are menstruating, and men also cook when traveling without women.
Socialization. Magar children are born into homes where tensions between adults are usually minimal and children are desired and liked. It is true that traditionally a boy was more wanted than a girl, yet daughters have always been highly regarded and treated with much affection. Unmarried girls of the family and lineage have high ritual value. Gifts given to them are considered to be like gifts to goddesses and are a way of obtaining religious merit. Daughters are also an important source of labor. It is hard to imagine some Magar farms operating successfully if daughters were not contributing many kinds of help.
Parents hope for as many children as possible. Their usefulness as labor and as supports in old age outweigh their costs as additional mouths to feed and bodies to clothe.
Children grow up in the center of the day-to-day life of the household. A nursing baby sleeps with the mother on a straw mat. During the day the baby spends many hours in a hammock slung between posts of the veranda. When the baby wakes or is fretful, the mother, or whoever else is nearby, gives the hammock a push. If rocking does not help, the infant is nursed and fondled. On trips away from the house, the mother carries the baby hung in a cloth across her back. Toilet training is gradual and without fuss. Weaning too is nontraumatic. A pregnant mother may try to hurry the weaning; otherwise a child is given the breast until the age of 3 or 4 years.
When a girl is about 3, her parents ceremoniously give her a new shirt, a rite of passage corresponding to the first haircutting of a 4- or 5-year-old boy. Both ceremonies honor the child and impress him or her with the parents' good wishes for the future. From the age of about 8 the child, whether girl or boy, is gradually asked to assist with Household or farm tasks, which are divided among the children following the same pattern as among the adults. By the time children are about 12, they can do almost all adult tasks and have become genuine assets to the household economy.
Although children are taught the appropriate formal gestures to show respect for their parents, for the most part relations between parents and children are quite informal. They all sit together on the house porch, or, if children alone are sitting there when their father comes into the yard or up on the porch, they do not get up. Also, if they are smoking, they do not feel obliged to stop.
Birth order is recognized terminologically among brothers and sisters. It counts in some ritual contexts and becomes politically significant in that a headman's eldest son usually inherits the office. Despite instances such as that one that favor the eldest, there is no shyness or avoidance among siblings.
Brothers and sisters play together throughout childhood and remain close throughout life. Once a year their relationship is expressed ritually when a brother goes to the home of one of his married sisters and she gives him an especially good meal and paints a multicolored tika on his forehead.
Caste Distinctions and Ranking. Banyan Hill Magars, who themselves comprise a distinctive caste group, live in two major kinds of relationships with the neighboring caste groups of Kihun Thum. One kind rests on ideas about ritual pollution, and the other involves exchanges of services for food or other payment.
A major split exists between those caste groups called Touchable (chhune ) and those called Untouchable (nachhune ). Members of a Touchable caste cannot ritually pollute those of any other local castes merely by touching them, but they are themselves subject to pollution by the touch of any Untouchable person.
From the Magar point of view, the major Touchable castes in the vicinity of Banyan Hill make up a hierarchical ritual order of Upadhyaya Brahman (Brahman of highest Status) , Jaisi Brahman (offspring of a Brahman and a Brahman widow), and Magar. The three Untouchable caste groups in the area, tailors (Dami), metalworkers (Kami), and leatherworkers (Sarki), are thought to have equal ability to pollute.
Magar Relationships with Brahmans. The relative status of Touchable caste groups is expressed in a variety of ways, as illustrated by a few kinds of interactions between Magars and Brahmans. When a Magar man meets an Upadhyaya Brahman man, the Brahman raises his foot and the Magar touches his forehead to it. A young Brahman meeting an older and Respected Magar man first inclines his head and then lifts his foot to be touched. Before stepping on a freshly cleaned veranda of an Upadhyaya home, a Magar woman touches her forehead to one of the steps. Magars address Upadhyaya Brahmans as "grandfather" or "grandmother." If a Magar man boils rice in his own vessel he will not offer it to a Brahman because he knows that the Brahman may not accept it. In contrast, the Magar may take rice cooked in a Brahman's vessel.
Each Banyan Hill Magar family, except for that of the headman's plowman, is regularly served by one of seven Brahmans from four nearby Brahman hamlets. These Brahmans perform priestly functions and are referred to as upret. During the course of a year the upret visit their client families to help them observe a number of calendrical festivals, including the day in July or August when the "World Snake" (the "Bed of Vishnu" and the "Garland of Shiva") is worshiped; Tika Day in September or October, during the festival of Dasain, when they give each family member a tika to ensure good health and prosperity; and Thread Full Moon, usually in August or September, when they tie yellow and red yarn around their clients' wrists, partly to ensure that if they die within the next six months they will go directly to Heaven. Other occasions for which a Magar family may call their Brahman include: a ceremony to prevent an inauspicious disposition of the planets from harming a baby; the Satya Narayan puja for Vishnu; an elaborate marriage; and a baby's naming ceremony.
Upret are paid when they provide services; generally this payment consists of a small amount of money, plus food deemed appropriate for a person of such high caste to take from a Magar. Such food includes uncooked rice, ghee, salt, and spices.
Untouchable Service Castes. Magars regularly employ the services of the various Untouchable castes. The hamlet is served by seven tailor families, all but one of which had a sewing machine by the 1960s. At least once during the year, one or more members of a tailor family, often a man and his wife, come to their Magar client's family to sew. They work on the client's veranda and are given their meals. The items most in demand are blouses for men and women. A tailor who works for a regular client supplies his own thread, and if asked to make caps—usually a cap is required for each man in the family—he supplies the cloth. The client provides cloth for other garments. Magar families usually pay their tailors twice a year, after each harvest in the spring and fall, by giving them millet or maize. Wealthy families give additional payments at this time and, if possible, give rice, which is highly valued by groups like tailors who have no irrigated fields. A final set of payments may be made on major festival occasions such as Dasain in the fall. A tailor will come to a client's house on these occasions expecting a meal and liquor. If he has already eaten at another client's, he is given food and liquor to carry home.
In the 1960s, nine households of metalworkers provided services on a fairly regular basis for one or more Banyan Hill families. Four of the nine were ironsmiths; one, a coppersmith; four were goldsmiths. The most regular kind of work expected of the ironsmith is putting good cutting edges on plow tips, axes, mattocks, ditchers, and sickles. Pay for such usual work is the same as the tailor's: a measure of millet or maize twice a year plus food and drink on festival days. Ironsmiths also make a large variety of new implements for which they are paid on a piecework basis.
About half the Banyan Hill families regularly engage the coppersmith. (In the 1960s, one family gave him as much as 40 kilograms of paddy rice, but most gave a single payment of 18 kilograms of millet or maize.) In return for one such large payment, the smith repairs copper utensils such as water vessels, vessels for cooking buffalo mash, and vessels for making distilled liquor. Families who make regular payments think it cheaper to do this than to pay separately for each repair.
In the 1960s, four goldsmiths had a regular connection with about a third of the Banyan Hill households. Goldsmiths devote their skills almost entirely to making and repairing women's jewelry—nose rings, earrings, necklaces, bracelets, finger rings, hair ornaments, and the small gold flowers women wear in one nostril. The goldsmith's work and pay is comparable to that of the coppersmith.
About half the hamlet's Magar families retain a leatherworker on a regular basis. Leatherworkers are from four Neighboring leatherworking families. In return for annual payments of millet or maize and food or drink at major festival times, they are expected to remove dead animals—a service they usually perform whether or not they are retained, since they can sell the hides and, in the case of buffalo, the intestines, which are used as tie ropes.
Ferrymen and Messengers. Once a year representatives from members of the Untouchable ferryman caste living in a hamlet located at a much-used ferry point on the Kali Gandaki River come to Banyan Hill. They go from house to house asking at each for a number of kilograms of grain. Only those households whose members have crossed or expect to cross the river using ferryman services give to the ferrymen. It is said that the ferrymen remember who has given and do not charge them at the river.
In the 1960s, three messengers served all the hamlets in Kihun Thum, and all were members of an Untouchable caste. At that time the messenger who served the Banyan Hill households was a metalworker. Like the ferrymen the messenger annually goes from house to house in his constituency asking for bulk payments of grain. He also visits the houses at major festivals to get food and drink.
Song and Dance Groups. Singing is important in Magar life, and many songs are associated with the fieldwork of particular seasons. Some are sung when millet is being planted; others accompany rice planting. The songs, with lines sung by men and women alternately, make this stooping, difficult work go more easily. Other occasions also have their characteristic songs: those sung by boys and girls as they walk Together, those sung by women ex-slaves during a marriage, and those sung by women during the days between Krishna's birthday and the following festival of Tij. There are also special songs for the day during Tivahar when offerings are made to Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, and songs for Brother-Worship Day.
Many times during the year, especially during festival seasons such as Dasain, boys and girls gather together in the evening at some centrally located sitting place. There are characteristic tunes, and the basic pattern is boy-girl question and answer. The boys' chosen song leader sings a question that all the boys then repeat three times. The subject matter seldom varies: all the questions and answers have to do with love, marriage, and a bantering sexual antagonism between boys and girls. The singing can go on indefinitely.
Besides the secular singing groups that come together on an ad hoc basis, there are two formally constituted singing groups composed of Magars from several hamlets. One tells of episodes in the life of Lord Krishna, the other of episodes drawn from the Ramayana. Each has a leader who tells the story, backed by a chorus, drums, and costumed male dancers, some of whom may be dressed as women. The atmosphere is intensely religious, for Saraswati, goddess of learning and music, is patron of both groups and indicates her presence and approval by causing a member or members of a group to fall into a trance.
Political Organization. Kihun Thum is divided into eight jurisdictions, each with its own hereditary headman (mukhiya ). Of the eight headmen, three are Brahmans, and five are Magars, one of whom is from Banyan Hill. In return for keeping the peace, acting as liaison officers between the government and the local people, and collecting taxes on unirrigated farmland, the eight headmen each receive 5 percent of what they collect. However, since taxes are extremely low, this form of income is not the major reward of the office. The real reward lies in the days of forced labor the headmen can claim from each household in their respective jurisdictions. Forced labor was legally abolished following the overturn of the extremely repressive Rana regime in 1951. Whether or not the abolition is observed depends, however, on the stature of the district's headman. In the 1960s, people continued to work as before for the exceptionally strong Banyan Hill headman Because they recognized him as an outstanding community benefactor. He had studied law and knew how to write legal documents. Individuals thus could come to him for help with their legal problems. He was also a source for loans of cash or grain, keeping careful records and charging no more interest than community custom allowed. He was something of a water engineer and had laid out a series of channels to make water for drinking and irrigation more accessible.
The multifarious services expected of Kihun Thum's eight headmen contrast with what is expected of its two additional revenue collectors (jimwal ). Both are well-educated Brahmans whose sole responsibility and source of a Comparatively high income is to collect the taxes on irrigated rice-producing terraces.
Religion and Politics. During the course of his career as headman—an office that a member of his family has held for at least three generations—the Banyan Hill headman's major political opponents are neighborhood Brahmans. In the Religious sphere he challenges them by hiring a learned Brahman as his religious retainer. Under his guidance the headman performs two elaborate pujas every day, morning and evening. He also follows a strict dietary regime and does not accept food from a Brahman known to drink liquor. In this and other ways he is more Brahman than many Brahmans.
The kot above Banyan Hill is the scene of two Dasain observances—both the major one which takes place during eleven days in the fall and a smaller one known as Chaitre Dasain that is held during a single day in March or April. The focus of both is the incarnation of Shiva's active female principle, or Shakti, who in one embodiment is called Chandi and in another is called Durga. The initial proceedings at the kot during the spring rite emphasize the importance of the Brahman community throughout the area. A group of Brahman men worship Chandi by reading aloud a Sanskrit text, the Chandi-Patha. This takes place in a small shedlike Structure that is open on one side. The second part of the worship, the beheading of a young goat, takes place before a small stone building where Durga resides. (At one of these rituals observed by anthropologists in the 1960s, a Magar headman of a nearby hamlet was in charge. His young son was not yet strong enough to do the beheading, so the headman did that. But the boy was the one to wet his hands in goat blood and put his hand prints, one on each side, on the Durga temple door.) The remainder of the ritual symbolizes political aspects of the Thum. The three Thum messengers are given money. A leatherworker is designated to cut up the goat carcass according to traditional rules for distribution. Portions go to the Thum's eight headmen, with one for the raja of Bhirkot, and some to representatives of other Untouchable castes involved in Dasain—a tailor who with his band provided music, and a metalworker who sharpened the sword for the sacrifice.
Religious Beliefs. The Banyan Hill Magar's pantheon includes a great many deities, or spirit beings, most of whom a family at one time or another will try to influence. The most numerous deities are those who are pleased, or at least placated, by an offering of a live sacrifice.
Deities are usually thought to be invisible. The class of deities named jhankri (male) and jahkreini (female) are notable exceptions. They are often seen, and it is said that two Humans from Kihun Thum were forced to live with them for a time in their underground home. Jhankris are hunters, requiring gifts that generally include a miniature bow and arrow for the male, and for his wife, miniature combs, baskets, tump lines (loops of cloth, about 2 meters long, placed over the head and used to carry a load on one's back), and the kind of bow used to shoot clay pellets at birds. Some Banyan Hill Persons say that after dark they sometimes hear Jhankri hunting dogs and the bells they wear.
Some deities are the exclusive concern of a single family or, at most, of a few closely related families. Other deities may affect any family, or collectively a hamlet or a whole neighborhood, including its different caste groups. Sansari Mai, a female deity who causes cattle diseases, is generally placated with a communal sacrifice. Once, when an epidemic of cattle disease struck the cattle of one of Banyan Hill's neighboring hamlets, its thirty-two households combined to offer Sansari Mai a sacrifice.
Deities have varying degrees of power. Although all of them attract "promises" of gifts for granting specific boons, those with the reputation for exceptional power naturally attract the most. "Grandmother Satiwanti" is an example of a powerful hamlet deity. Following a common pattern, one soldier who was leaving Kihun Thum to complete his tour of duty promised her a sacrifice of five chickens, plus a carved pole to be set beside the shrine and a bell to be hung inside it. When the soldier returned safely from the Burma campaign, he promptly fulfilled the promise.
Two shrines, each a few hours' walk from Banyan Hill, are considered to be the most powerful in the vicinity. One to the west commands a sweeping vista from the top of a very high hill; the other, about the same distance away to the east, is a hot spring with a periodic flow. Both frequently attract soldiers seeking to protect their lives as well as others with a variety of requests—for a son, for a wife, for recovery from illness, for good crops, or for defeat of an enemy in a court case.
Some deities are believed to have originated in Banyan Hill itself as transformed humans. One of these, belonging to the class of deities called mari, is worshiped by two Magar families together with two neighboring metalworker families. This particular deity came into existence when a woman died in childbirth. In fact, most persons, male or female, who die violent deaths become mari, although soldiers who die in Battle are an exception. They are said to go directly to Heaven.
The pantheon worshiped in Banyan Hill with live Sacrifices is dynamic, with some deities being added as others are forgotten. More than anyone else, shamans keep people informed of the pantheon's changing and locally relevant dimensions. Very frequently a shaman learns of a new and troublesome deity in a dream.
Three especially important Banyan Hill deities began their existence long ago as Magars. Two are believed to have become fearsome witches, so threatening that people avoid mention of them after dark. Called "Grandfather-Grandmother," they are conceived of as one, and once a year in the lunar month of Mangsir (November-December), the two are worshiped communally, often with the slaughter of two pigs. The sacrifice to Grandfather-Grandmother does not follow the pattern described earlier. Appropriately, it is more like the sacrifice to ancestors made by Magars without the help of a Brahman. Except for the autumn festival of Dasain, the day of annual offering to Grandfather-Grandmother is when relatives do the most visiting.
The third transformed Magar deity is Mandale. While still a human, he changed himself into a tiger, and thereafter he never reverted to human form. Many say that Grandfather-Grandmother are his maternal uncle and aunt. The major sacrifice to Mandale is a cooperative effort carried out by several neighborhoods, including Banyan Hill, in the month of Mangsir. The pig is considered the most appropriate live sacrifice. It is believed that tigers, all of whom are manifestations of this spirit, will not attack villagers or their cattle when Mandale is correctly propitiated.
Each Magar household has a male deity who comes to reside in the kitchen room whenever a new house is built. This deity's effects are limited to the family alone and it is the only deity to be propitiated by live sacrifice within the house. He looks to the well-being of family members and their cattle and crops, and he is regularly propitiated in the month of Jeth (May-June). The usual sacrifice is a cock promised during the ritual of the previous year. Besides the promised sacrifice of the "old cock," the central feature of the kitchen ritual is the offering of nine leaf plates containing rice and a piece of yeast used for making beer. A Magar's prayer during the ritual is the following: "I am remembering you every year. Please take care of my family."
Religious Practitioners. Most men in Banyan Hill follow a pattern of worshiping pitri (spirits of dead ancestors) that does not require a Brahman. Once a year on the first day of the month of Magh (January-February) they go to a spring and make an offering there. This puja's major component is nine leaf plates containing hulled rice, black pulse, turmeric, barley, and sesame. The offerings are made to the ancestors generally, with the exact relationship remaining unspecified. A tenth plate with the same contents is set aside for the spirit porter who accompanies the ancestors. The ritual is repeated in the fall. Either or both rituals may be carried out in the house, in the place where the sacrifice to the "old cock" is made. When performed in the house, cooked food such as fish, crab, and chicken often are included.
Shamans are an important link between the people of Kihun Thum and the world of deities and spirits. During one of the studies done in the 1960s, there were three shamans in the Thum—two Magars and a Brahman. One of the two Magars was an ex-soldier living in a hamlet near Banyan Hill, and he was the one turned to most often by the people of Banyan Hill. He called himself a lama—implying that he was a Tibetan priest, though he was not—and he was most often referred to by that term. He would tell his clients the cause of a present trouble (for example, a sick buffalo) and would advise them on the steps to take to remedy the problem. But his practice was more than remedial. It was also prescient: he would foretell what misfortunes the future held and how to forestall them.
This shaman's special powers derived from his ability to enter a trance state. To do this he did not don any special Costume other than an empowering necklace. While seated, he clasped a number of leafy branches in both hands and held them before his face while muttering a series of spells. When he became possessed by the spirit he had summoned, the branches shook violently, and he began speaking in the spirit's voice. The spirit would answer questions from the afflicted family and also those of any in the larger audience that usually assembled when it was known that the shaman would be holding a seance. His techniques were not limited to his ability to enter a trance state. When he deemed it appropriate, he provided medicines concocted from items he carried in an old army rucksack. His pharmacopoeia included the following: some Ayurvedic treatments available in the local or more distant bazaars; a bull's tooth; a human legbone; the navel of a musk deer; a shred of a leopard's tongue; a porcupine's jawbone, plus its stomach, still stuffed with the dried contents; a tortoise shell; a piece of red brick; a black stone; and numerous bits of leaf and bark. Often the patient was required to drink a concoction of selected ground-up bits from this array. Ground-up brick was a frequently used component. Harder, nongrindable items such as a bull's tooth were merely touched to the medicine.
Ceremonies. Disregarding small variations, the method of sacrifice generally follows a predictable pattern. The ritual takes place at a locality where the deity is thought to be Present. It is carried out by a young unmarried boy who has bathed and dressed himself in a clean white loincloth. After sanctifying the ground with cow dung and water and constructing a small open-ended room from flat stones, he selects a small stone to represent the deity and provides it with new clothing by wrapping white string around it. He then sets the newly dressed deity in the stone room and fashions a cowdung platform with a number of depressions in it. This he places before the deity to hold food offerings. Such offerings include rice flour fried in ghee, puffed rice, rice mixed with water and sage, and cow's milk. The deity is honored further by decorating the shrine with turmeric, bits of colored cloth, and flowers and by the presence of fire in the form of a mustard-oil lamp in a copper container.
Just before the sacrifice, the sacrificer makes an incense of ghee and sage and prays for whatever boon he wishes the deity to give. The animal to be offered is readied by sprinkling water, rice, and sage on its head until it shakes it, thus showing its willingness to be sacrificed. If the animal is small enough, it is then waved over the incense container. Otherwise the incense burner is waved under it. Next the animal is beheaded, and the blood that spurts from the carcass is Directed toward the shrine and the image inside. The head is then placed in front of the image. The sacrificer then gives tika to all who are present by pressing a small amount of rice mixed with blood onto their foreheads. One of the worshipers does the same for him. As a gift for his services, the sacrificer receives the head and whatever food is not needed for offering in the shrine. Sometimes the sacrificed animal is cooked near the shrine and everyone eats the food sanctified by its having been shared with a deity.
Death and Afterlife. A Magar who dies does not cease being a member of the family. He or she continues to be aware of descendants and can affect them. The descendants, in turn, continue to be aware of him or her and realize that what they do controls, at least partially, the way he or she treats them. There are two kinds of deceased ancestor. One kind, called bai, is a spirit being who wanders about on Earth and likes sacrificial blood. The other, called pitri, is in heaven and does not like sacrificial blood.
A deceased family member may become a bai for a number of reasons. Bai include those who performed no Religiously sanctioned good deed during the course of their lives; those whose dead bodies were touched by some polluting animal, such as a dog; and those who were witches or shamans. In addition, those who in the ordinary course would not become bai may be intercepted on their way to Heaven by a witch or shaman and be made to return to Earth and trouble their family. Bai are somewhat like mari, the main difference being that mari trouble a wider range of persons than their own descendants.
Bai are honored once each year, and most families offer the sacrifice—generally a cock for a man and a hen for a woman—on the full-moon day in the month of Baisakh (April-May). To eliminate the necessity for making this annual sacrifice, a lineage member can go to Banaras (Varanasi, in India) where with a single offering he can placate the bai forever.
Bai can either cause trouble or refrain from doing so; pitri too can trouble their descendants or bring them good fortune, more frequently the latter. Pitri are honored in either of two ways. One way is through the ancient Hindu ceremony of sraddha. A Banyan Hill man who honors his mother and father in this way calls a Brahman to assist him and performs the rites on the anniversaries of their deaths. In the fall he repeats the ceremony on the appropriate day arrived at by calculations based on the Hindu calendar.
See also Brahman and Chhetri of Nepal; Sunwar
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JOHN T. HITCHCOCK
"Magar." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 1, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/magar
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