ALTERNATE NAMES: Goala; Gaura; Gopal; Rawat
LOCATION: India (middle Ganges valley; states of Bihar, Orissa, and Uttar Pradesh)
POPULATION: About 45–50 million
LANGUAGE: Language of the region of India in which they live
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: People of India
The Ahirs are a traditional cattle-keeping caste distributed widely throughout northern and western India. They are thought to be the descendants of an immigrant, probably non-Aryan, tribe of ancient India. One first hears of this tribe, the Abhiras, around the 3rd or 2nd century BC. Abhiras are mentioned in the epic Mahabharata as "slaves" and "barbarians" coming from the northwest. Some authorities see them as nomads of Central Asian origin, perhaps entering India in the troubled times that followed Alexander's death. Their early settlements were limited to the Punjab, Rajasthan, and Sind, but in the centuries following the beginning of the Christian Era they migrated towards the south and east. Abhira rulers established extensive kingdoms in Gujarat and nearby areas during this period. Abhiras may even have reached southern India, as legends of the Ayars (Abhiras) appear in the ancient Tamil literature. Eventually the nomadic Abhiras gave up their migratory ways and began to integrate with the surrounding communities. The Sanskrit Abhira becomes Ahir in the vernacular language.
Ahirs today are mainly cattle-keepers and dairy farmers. They are known locally by names such as Goala, Gaura, Gopal, and Rawat. Although their precise rank varies according to region, Ahirs are usually placed among the Sudras, the third of the four major caste groupings in Hindu society.
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
Because of the variety of names by which they are known and the lack of caste data in the modern census, any estimate of the Ahir population is, at best, crude. The 1931 census placed the number of Ahirs and related castes at just over 14 million people, or roughly 4% of the population. Assuming that this percentage has not changed significantly, with an estimated population of 1.13 billion in India (March 2008), the Ahir population would lie between 45 million and 50 million people. Ahir defines numerous cattle-keeping communities with the same (or related names) distributed throughout India. These usually fall into regional groupings who are not interconnected and do not intermarry. Ahirs are most numerous on the alluvial plains of the middle Ganges valley. Significant Ahir communities are found in the states of Bihar, Orissa, and areas of Uttar Pradesh. Ahirs are also found in central India, and in the western states of Rajasthan and Gujarat.
Over time, Ahirs have adopted many of the cultural traits—including language—of the regions in which they have settled. Thus Ahirs in Gujarat speak Gujarati, in western Uttar Pradesh they speak Braj, and in Bihar their language is Bihari. Ahirs in other parts of India speak the language current in the areas they inhabit. In some areas, the importance of Ahirs in the local population is reflected in the names of local dialects. Khandeshi, a dialect of the Gujarati language, is also known as Ahirani. Malvi, a Rajasthani dialect, bears the name Ahiri. Ahirwal (Ahirwati) is the name of a folk region southwest of Delhi in which Ahirs dominate and in which the local dialect is called Ahirwati.
The legend of Lorik is one of the most popular in Ahir mythology. Several versions of the legend exist, but the following is told in Mirzapur District in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Lorik is an Ahir who elopes with Chandani, his neighbor's wife. He defeats her husband in a fight and then goes on to meet Mahapatiya Dusadh, chief of the gamblers. Lorik loses everything, including Chandani, but the girl argues her jewelry was not part of the stake and induces Lorik to play again. This time Chandani distracts the chief of the gamblers by displaying her ankles, and Lorik wins everything back. Chandani tells Lorik she has been insulted by his opponent, so Lorik cuts off the gambler's head with his magic sword. The head and the body are turned to stone.
In his subsequent wanderings, Lorik gains a kingdom and marries the girl (not Chandani) to whom he had been betrothed. He eventually incurs the displeasure of the god Indra, and after giving in to temptation by Indra's wife who assumed the form of Chandani, Lorik dies in shame in Varanasi (Banaras). Several elements of this tale—the gambling match, the magic sword, the body turning into stone, and the fidelity test—are common motifs in folk tales in both the East and the West.
The majority of Ahirs are Hindu and share in the basic beliefs and practices of Hinduism. They belong mostly to the Vaishnava sect, i.e., they worship the god Vishnu rather than Shiva. (In Bihar, however, many are Shaivites or worship the Mother Goddess). Ahirs pay particular respect to, and are closely identified with, the legendary god Krishna. Krishna is regarded as the eighth incarnation of Vishnu, although he is also worshiped in his own right. The name Krishna (meaning "black") occurs in the Vedas, but not in reference to any deity. The dark-skinned god of later times is basically non-Vedic in origin, with a later Aryan overlay. Some scholars have argued that Krishna was a pastoral deity of the Ahirs, whose worship was spread throughout northern India during their migrations and subsequently absorbed into Hinduism. Others see aspects of Krishna (e.g., Krishna as child-god) as reflecting knowledge of Christ acquired by Ahirs from early Christian missionaries in India.
Many legends of Krishna, for example, his birth and childhood, his exploits as a cowherd, and his amorous dalliance with the gopis (cowgirls), are set in Braj, the region of western Uttar Pradesh State around Mathura and Vrindavan. Even today, many Ahir groups in northern India have a tradition that their ancestors came from this region of India. The cow is regarded as the favorite animal of Krishna, and Krishna-worshipers are among the most ardent supporters of the Hindu concept of the sanctity of the cow. Not only is the cow revered as a deity, Ahirs also worship various local gods who are linked in some way with cattle and cattle-keeping.
Ahirs celebrate all the major festivals of Hinduism. Of particular importance among the community, however, are the festivals dedicated to Krishna. These include Holi, Divali, Janamastami (Krishna's birthday), and cattle festivals such as Gopashtami and Govardhan Puja. Gopashtami, literally "Cow Eighth," falls on the eighth day of the Hindu month of Kartik (October-November). It marks the occasion when the child Krishna first took his father's cattle out to graze in the forests of Braj. Cattle are washed and decorated at this time, processions of cattle are taken through the streets of towns and villages, and cows are worshiped (the go-puja ceremony). Govardhan Puja, another cattle-related festival, falls on the day after the Divali festival. The centerpiece of this ritual is the worship of an image made of cow dung said, in certain areas of the country, to represent Krishna. An unusual custom of the Ahirs of Bihar and West Bengal at Govardhan Puja is a ritual involving the goading of village cattle to trample a pig to death.
RITES OF PASSAGE
In the Chhattisgarh region of central India, Rawats (i.e. Ahirs) follow a rite known as sidhori during pregnancy. This involves feeding the pregnant woman special foods so that the unborn child will not hunger for these foods in its later life. If the birth is delayed, a line of men and boys is formed between the house and a well. A pitcher is then passed rapidly along the line, filled with water, and returned to the house. The speed acquired by the water on its trip to the house, it is believed, will be communicated to the woman and give rise to a quick delivery. The father is not allowed to see the mother or child until purificatory rites are performed on the sixth day. If a child is born on an inauspicious day, its ears are pierced in the fifth month after birth to protect it from possible harm.
Ahirs cremate their dead, after performing the appropriate funeral rites. One unusual ritual in Chhattisgarh involves bringing the soul back to the house. On the third day after death, women place a lamp on a red, earthen pot and go to a pond, river, or stream at night. Fish are attracted to the light and one is caught, placed in water in the pot, and taken home. The son of the deceased, or a close relative, takes a stone and washes it with water from the pot. After the sacrifice of a cock or hen, the stone is enshrined in the house as a family god. It is believed that the dead person's soul is brought back to the house in the fish and then transferred to the stone by the act of washing it in the water. The sacrifice of a fowl is repeated annually before the stone.
Ahirs follow the greeting patterns and visiting customs of the local communities among whom they reside.
Wherever Ahirs settled, they adopted many local customs concerning caste, kinship, and material culture. Ahir villages in Rajasthan, for example, differ little in form and appearance from other villages in the region. Settlements are nucleated, located in the center of the village lands. Houses, constructed haphazardly along winding, unpaved lanes, are built of mud or sun-dried brick. Attached to the houses are small compounds, enclosed by low mud walls or thorn fences, used for keeping cattle at night. Residences contain living quarters and several small rooms used for storage. People sleep on the floor on mats or on low wooden cots. In the hot season, it is common to sleep outdoors or on the roof. Most houses lack sanitary facilities, with villagers going to the fields to perform daily bodily functions. In general, creature comforts and standards of living reflect the economic status of individual families.
Ahirs fall into several broad regional groupings which are not connected and which do not intermarry. In any given region, there are endogamous groups of Ahirs, each divided into exogamous clans (gotra). Marriage rituals do not differ much from those of other Hindu castes. The rules of marriage conform to broader regional practices. In Uttar Pradesh, for example, marriage is forbidden between a member of a clan and the clans of one sisters' relations up to three generations. In Bihar, marriage is regulated according to territorial-based categories called muls. The marriage of first cousins is prohibited. Marriages are arranged. Ahir girls are wed around the time of puberty, although some groups prefer infant marriage. Residence is patrilocal, i.e., the bride moves into the household of her husband's family. Family structure conforms to regional patterns, with the extended family being the norm. Divorce is possible under certain circumstances, although it requires the approval of the caste's panchayat or council. Widow remarriage is allowed.
Just as they have adopted local languages, Ahirs have assumed the regional dress of their locality. Thus Ghosis (Ahirs who have converted to Islam) in central India wear tight, short pants of white cotton, a waist band with a fringe on either end, a short jacket, and a tight, saucer-shaped turban. Ghosi women wear a long bodice over a petticoat. Women wear a variety of jewelry. Rawat women favor large, cylindrical leg-ornaments called churas. Ahir girls are commonly tattooed immediately after marriage.
Most Ahirs are nonvegetarian, eating goat, chicken, and, in some cases, pork. There are reports from central India that local Ahirs will even eat field mice and rats. Ahirs do not eat beef, however, and their special relationship with the cow is reflected in their good social standing in many communities. Many higher-caste communities will accept food and water from Ahirs. Milk and dairy products are important in the Ahir diet, which generally mirrors regional dietary patterns. Ahirs also consume local "country" liquor in fair quantities.
In such a numerous and widely distributed community, literacy and educational levels vary. Although Ahirs have access to government schools, the nature of their occupation and their predominantly rural character is reflected in generally low levels of literacy and educational achievement.
The folk songs and dances of the Ahirs reflect their pastoral traditions and their historical associations with Krishna. Known as birhas, Ahir songs are accompanied by the flute and tell of past heroes or of the carefree life of the cowherds. Some are love songs, expressing the longings of Ahir youth. Love is also the theme of the rasas, the folk dances depicted in early paintings and sculptural representations of Krishna. These often show the cowherd god playing on his flute, surrounded by a ring of dancing gopis (cowgirls). The garba dance of Gujarat and many of the folk dances of Uttar Pradesh and other areas are derived from the rasas of old.
The hereditary occupation of Ahirs is tending milk cattle and dealing in dairy products such as milk, butter, and ghi (clarified butter). In the past, Ahir women sometimes entered domestic service. One group, the Dauwa Ahirs of central India, are descended from the illegitimate offspring of Rajput fathers and Ahir women employed as wet-nurses. Today, perhaps no more than one-third of the Ahirs breed cattle or are dairy farmers, and even less cling to their old nomadic ways. The majority of Ahirs are now engaged in cultivation, either as farmers or as laborers. Those few who have acquired some education may work in offices or other low-level clerical jobs.
As might be expected, many of the traditional pastimes of Ahirs focus on their cattle. At the time of the Gopashtami festival, bull fights are staged in honor of Krishna. Two bulls are set on each other, and they lock horns in a test of strength until one submits to the other. The animals are separated before they hurt each other. Cattle sports represent an ancient tradition in India, with evidence suggesting "bull-jumping" took place in the Harappan culture nearly 4,000 years ago. Another modern practice found in rural areas is the "running of the herds." At the time of Govardhan Puja, village cattle are taken outside the settlement then stampeded towards their pens in the village. The men of the village try to stop them from reaching their pens. It is considered a sign of good fortune for the next year if the herds manage to reach their pens safely.
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
In addition to their folk activities, Ahirs seek recreation and entertainment at the numerous fairs and festivals of rural India. One of the biggest and best-known of these is the Pushkar Camel and Cattle Fair in Rajasthan, which is attended by livestock breeders and farmers from a wide area. The fair has even become an attraction for Western tourists. Depending on their individual circumstances and where they live, Ahirs have radios and televisions and can visit movie theaters in nearby towns for entertainment.
FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
Although pastoral themes and the legends of the cowherd god Krishna are prominent motifs in Indian art, paintings and sculptures depicting such subjects are produced by professional artisan castes. The Ahirs themselves have not developed folk arts or crafts that can be considered unique to the community.
Given the extensive geographic distribution and variation in culture of Ahir communities in India, it is difficult to make generalized statements about their social conditions. Ahirs are usually ranked as the highest of the cultivating castes and thus do not face the problems of discrimination, etc., encountered by Untouchables and tribal groups. However, in central India many Ahirs are hardly considered Hindu because they live in Gond villages.
There are many among the Ahir community who face problems typical of the rural peasant in India today, such as landlessness, poverty, debt, illiteracy, and alcoholism. In general, however, Ahirs are placed with the Jat and Gujar as being among the most succesful cultivating castes of northern India.
Ahir women, like most women in India, occupy a low social status. They are involved in agricultural activities (many are agricultural laborers), collect fuel and run the household, but have little say or control in the social arena. Literacy among them is low, despite recent central government attempts to remove gender barriers in education. (Until 1976, education was solely the concern of states but a Constitutional Amendment permitted the Union Government to legislate educational reforms, viz the 2001 Sarva Shihska Abhiyan (SAA) was which aimed at providing schooling for all 6-14 year-olds by the year 2005, at bridging all gender and social gaps by 2007, and at universal retention by 2010). Although formerly practicing child marriage (this still occurs, though it has been made illegal by the Union Government), there is a tendency among Ahirs for the age of marriage to be delayed to between 15 and 20 years for women. Customs regarding widow remarriage and divorce vary among Ahir groups. Occasionally, due to illness or the inability of a wife to bear children, a man is allowed to take a second wife, provided this act is approved by the local panchayat or tribal council.
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—by D. O. Lodrick