ALTERNATE NAMES: Vania
LOCATION: India (Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Maharashtra states; also sizeable communities in Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta and other Indian cities); Singapore; Malaysia; Fiji; Hong Kong; elsewhere in the Middle East
POPULATION: 55-65 million
LANGUAGE: Rajasthani, Marwari and other dialects of western Hindi or the language of the region from which they originate
RELIGION: Hinduism; Jainism
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: Hindus; Vol 4: People of India
The word Bania (also Vania) is derived from the Sanskrit vanij, meaning "a merchant." The term is widely used to identify members of the traditional mercantile or business castes of India. Thus, Banias are bankers, moneylenders, traders, and shopkeepers. Though some members of the Bania castes are cultivators, more Banias than any other caste follow their traditional caste occupation. Banias are classed as vaisyas, the third of the four great categories of Hindu society, and stand below Brahmans and Ksatriyas in caste ranking. They are, however, considered to belong to the "twice-born" castes of India, they wear the sacred thread, and they adhere strictly to the rules of behavior that go along with this status. The Aggarwals and Oswals are prominent Bania castes of northern India, while the Chettiar are a mercantile caste of the south.
Banias believe that the community originated 5000 years ago when an ancestor Maharaja Agrasen (or Ugarsain) of Agroha, Haryana divided the Vaisya (third in the Hindu varna system) community into 18 clans. Their surnames include Aggarwal,Gupta, Lala, Seth, Vaish, Mahajan, Sahu and Sahukar. There are six subgroups among the Bania—the Bisa or Vaish Aggarwal, Dasa or Gata Aggarwal, Saralia, Saraogi or Jain, Maheshwari or Shaiva and Oswal. The Bisa believe that they are descendents of the 17 snake daughters of Bashak Nag (cobra) who married the 17 sons of Ugarsain. The husbands slept with the handmaidens of the snake daughters resulting in Dasa offspring. The Bisa ("twenty") consider themselves of a higher status to the Dasa ("ten") and the Pancha ("five"). The Saralia are an offshoot of the Bisa who migrated to Saralia, near Ambala in Haryana State.
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
Although no recent data are available, the Bania castes make up an estimated 6% or 7% (or 55 million to 65 million people) of India's Hindu population. Bania communities are found in cities, towns, and villages all over India but have their densest concentrations in the northwest in Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Maharashtra. and in Uttar Pradesh. There is considerable speculation as to why the trading ethic has been so important in the western part of the Indian subcontinent. Some scholars have argued that the harsh desert environment of Rajasthan forced much of the population to turn to nonagricultural occupations to support themselves. Others have suggested that proximity to the overland and maritime trade routes with the Middle East have played a role in this emphasis on trade and commercial activities. Whatever the facts of the matter, Banias from the northwest have migrated to all parts of India and beyond. Much of the commerce of Bombay (Mumbai) is in the hands of Gujarati Banias. Rajasthani businesspeople, known as "Marwaris" after the region of Rajasthan called Marwar, are found as far afield as Assam and Tamil Nadu. There is an important, and also affluent, community of Marwaris in Calcutta.
The Bania castes, and Gujaratis in particular, also form an important element in the population of overseas Indians. They have settled in Singapore, Malaysia, Fiji, Hong Kong, and elsewhere in Asia where business opportunities present themselves. They are also found in the Middle East and among the Indian populations of the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States.
Banias speak the language of the region from which they originate. Thus, a Shrimali from Gujarat speaks Gujarati, an Oswal from Rajasthan speaks Marwari (a Rajasthani dialect), and a Banajiga Lingayat (a trading subgroup of the Hindu Lingayat sect) from Karnataka speaks Kannada. Banias who are settled in regions where other languages are current obviously need to know the local language in order to do business. But, even though they are long removed in both distance and time from their original home, they still use their native tongue among themselves and at home. Marwari business communities in Gauhati and other towns in Assam, for example, still keep their books and converse among themselves in their own Rajasthani language.
The Bania castes share in the mythology and folklore of their own religious communities and regional cultures. Many Banias, for example, are Jains and are thus brought up in the traditions of the Jain religion. Vaishnavism is strongly rooted among the Bania castes of Rajasthan and Gujarat, and for these Banias the myths and legends of Krishna, the cowherd god of Hinduism, are of utmost importance. Each caste has its own lore and folk traditions. The Shrimali caste of Gujarat traces its origins to Bhinmal, a town in Rajasthan formerly known as Shrimal. There, they believe, 90,000 Shrimali families were created by Mahalakshmi, the daughter of the sage Bhrigu, to maintain 90,000 Shrimali Brahman families. One account says they came from her thigh; another, from her garland. Some explain the division of the Shrimali castes into two subdivisions by the fact that the Bisa Shrimalis sprang from the right side of Mahalakshmi's garland and the Dasa Shrimalis from the left. Of interest here, Mahalakshmi or Lakshmi is the Hindu goddess of wealth and is of great importance to the Bania castes. The Shrimali Brahmans are still the family priests for the Shrimali Banias.
Banias are Hindu or Jain and follow the beliefs and customs of their respective religions. Some castes, such as the Shrimalis, have both Hindu ("Meshri") and Jain ("Shravak") sections. Thus, a Dasa Shrimali Shravak is a member of the Dasa section of the Shrimali caste who follows the Jain religion. Most Jains, because of religious restrictions on occupations they can follow without violating the principles of their religion, belong to the Bania castes. They are split between the Svetambara ("white-clad") and Digambara ("sky-clad") sects of Jainism. Jains in northern India generally belong to the Svetambara sect. Hindu Banias are almost exclusively Vaishnavas, i.e., they worship the god Vishnu, in his incarnation as Krishna. Most follow the Vallabhacharya sect of Hinduism, in which Krishna is seen as the supreme deity. This sect is also known as pushti-marga ("abundance way"), as it calls on its followers to enjoy the good things of life Krishna has provided for their enjoyment.
Banias celebrate the festivals of their religious communities, although some are more significant than others. For example, Divali, the Hindu "Festival of Lights," is kept by all Hindus but it holds particular importance for the Bania castes. It is an occasion for the worship of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, and is also a time when the financial books for the old year are closed and new ones started for the coming year. Houses are painted and all food in the household is thrown out and replaced. It is also a time for card-playing and gambling. The festival of Ganapati or Ganesh, the Hindu god of good fortune, is also important for the Banias. Jains celebrate the usual festivals of Jainism, but they, too, observe Divali, which coincides with their own festival honoring the death of the founder of the religion, Mahavira.
RITES OF PASSAGE
The life-cycle rituals of the Banias conform in general to Hindu and Jain practices, although they may show variations in their details. In Gujarat, a Hindu Bania woman usually returns to her father's house for her confinement and to give birth. Various rituals such as the Sixth Day worship are performed. Among the objects used in this ceremony are a piece of paper, an inkstand, and a reed pen—items clearly related to the traditional occupation of the Bania caste. Similarly, to mark events such as a betrothal, contributions are made to the caste fund. The caste association is important among Banias, and many castes are still organized into trade guilds or mahajans. These are modern survivals of institutions that date to medieval times.
Like all Hindu groups, Banias cremate their dead. But again, some of the death rituals are unique to each caste. On his deathbed, a Hindu Bania in Gujarat traditionally performs Godan ("the gift of a cow") by giving a Brahman a cow or the monetary value of a cow. He also names a sum of money to be given to charity in his name. After death, the body is taken to the cremation ground, bathed, wrapped in a shroud, and burnt on the funeral pyre. The ashes and bones are collected and thrown into a river or the ocean. A cow is milked on the spot where the body was cremated. Various rites are performed during the period of mourning. These include marrying a steer to a heifer, giving food to crows, and feeding dogs. This latter custom is of interest because in Hinduism the dog is usually viewed as an unclean animal. The funeral rites conclude by the giving of a caste dinner.
The term bania is often used by other castes in a negative sense to mean someone who is greedy, who exploits customers, who resorts to shady deals, and who will do anything to make a profit. There is, perhaps, an element of truth in this stereotype. The Bania is the principal moneylender in the villages. Uneducated peasants who borrow money at high rates of interest so that they can grow their crops may never be able to pay off the loan. They eventually end up losing their land, and the Bania is seen as the villain. The same problem in repaying loans applies to the large amounts of money that may be borrowed for marriages and dowries. On the other hand, as bankers, moneylenders, traders, and businesspeople, Banias have played an essential role in the functioning of India's economy. Some scholars argue it was Bania moneylenders who funded British economic development in India. Today, many of the country's important industrialists and capitalists come from the Bania castes.
Banias are, by and large, prosperous, and this is reflected in their lifestyles and standards of living. However, the specifics of housing, creature comforts, and other aspects of their material culture are determined to a large extent by the place and social context of their lives. The Bania who runs a small shop in a village in Rajasthan lives very much like his or her neighbors. The Bania's house may be bigger and built of better materials, and its furnishings may be more opulent, but in appearance and design it is little different from other houses in the village. On the other hand, the prosperous industrialist in Bombay or Calcutta is likely to live in a luxurious, air-conditioned house, with numerous servants, automobiles, and all the conveniences of modern living.
Traditionally, the Bania are strict vegetarians whose diet consists of wheat, rice, maize, pulses, lentils, vegetables, fruit and dairy products. Many younger men eat meat at social events outside their community. They do not drink alcohol but smoke and chew tobacco and paan (betel leaf.)
Literacy levels are high as both boys and girls are encouraged to study further and attain university degrees. Banias visit clinics and hospitals as well as alternative indigenous medicine. Family planning is practiced to limit family size. They have made good use of media and communication and benefited from the government's development programs. They have embraced progress and developments. Agriculturists use fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation to increase crop yields. Loans provided by banks have enabled the Bania to expand or set up new businesses.
Banias are divided into numerous castes distributed over the Indian subcontinent. As with all Hindu castes or jati, they are endogamous social units. The basic unit in which endogamy is practiced, however, may be a subcaste rather than the caste itself. Among the Banias of the northwestern region, the Bisas are considered the most pure and unpolluted section of the original caste. Dasas are ranked lower, perhaps because of intermarriage with local peoples in the past or the taking up of occupations considered demeaning by the caste. The Pancha section is ranked the lowest of the three. These various sections often act as endogamous groups in their own right. For example, the Shrimali caste of Gujarat has all three sections, Bisa, Dasa, and Pancha (known among the Shrimalis as Ladva). These groups do not intermarry, and the Bisa Shrimali does not even dine with the Ladva Shrimali. In this sense, the three sections virtually function as separate castes. The Bisa Shrimalis are exclusively Jain. In northern Gujarat, the Dasa Shrimali Shravaks (Jain Shrimalis) will marry Dasa Shrimali Meshris (Hindu Shrimalis).
Marriage among the Banias reflects the basic differences between North and South India, as well as differing regional customs. In Gujarat, for example, cross-cousin marriage is prohibited, and there is a certain distance of relationship required within the marriage pool defined by the endogamous caste or subcaste. Marriages are arranged and are often seen as business associations between two families as well as unions of a boy and girl. In the past, child marriage was common, although obviously this has changed today. A wedding is an occasion for a display of wealth and may often last as long as eight days. The marriage ceremony follows the Hindu or Jain rites. Residence after marriage is patrilocal, i.e., the newly-weds move into the home of the groom's family. Bania families display the typical joint family structure of Hindu society. The role of women is primarily to deal with domestic matters, with the business affairs of the family left in the hands of the men. Divorce is not socially permitted but does occur rarely. Widow remarriage is allowed and is becoming acceptable except in Karnataka, where it is definitely not permitted. Levirate, i.e. when a women marries a deceased husband's brother, and junior sororate, when a widower marries a deceased wife's younger sister, are permitted by most Bania groups.
Bania clothing reflects regional styles of dress. In Gujarat, this consists of a dhoti, over which is worn a jacket, a long-sleeved coat known as an angarkha, and a shoulder cloth (pichodi). A variety of turbans are worn, depending on locality, but all clearly identify the wearer as a Bania. In northern and central Gujarat, Banias wear a small, tightly folded, cylinder-shaped turban with numerous folds in the front and several coils at the back. Bania women wear the sari over a petticoat (ghaghra) and bodice (choli). Both men and women are fond of ornaments. A wealthy man may wear a silver girdle, a gold armlet above the elbow, earrings, a necklace, and rings on his fingers. A well-to-do Bania woman wears gold hair ornaments, gold or pearl earrings, nose rings, and a variety of necklaces, bangles, anklets, and toe rings.
Although traditional dress is still worn in rural areas and in many towns, the modern businessman in a city such as Calcutta is likely to be dressed in a Western-style business suit, shirt, and tie.
Banias observe fairly rigid dietary restrictions. Both Jains and Vaishnavas are strictly vegetarian, out of concern for ritual purity, regard for animal life, and the sanctity of the cow. Liquor and narcotics are prohibited to the Bania castes (although this does not stop many Westernized individuals from drinking alcohol). Actual diet and eating habits tend to reflect regional cuisines. Thus, in Gujarat, where vegetarianism has long been an established tradition, the typical diet consist of breads (roti) made from wheat or other grains, eaten with vegetables, condiments, and copious amounts of ghi (clarified butter). Jain concern for ahimsa, the philosophy of nonviolence to all living things, means that even certain plant foods are taboo. Milk and milk products are an important part of the diet. Even where Banias have migrated to areas such as Bengal or Assam where eating fish is acceptable among the higher castes, they preserve their vegetarian traditions.
Banias, as a group, are highly literate because of their need to keep accounts. Young boys receive training in traditional accounting methods, mathematics, and mental arithmetic at an early age. These skills, combined with intelligence, shrewdness, and an ethic of hard work have contributed to the economic success of the community. In the past, they have been employed in positions of responsibility in the administrations of the princely states of northwestern India. The more conservative groups prefer traditional education to Western schooling. However, modern education has come to be seen as a means of success in both personal and business life. Among the Agarwal community of Delhi, for example, a premium is placed on education even for girls. Even though a woman may not use her education, it may be essential for finding her a suitable husband. Among the younger generation who are entering modern industrial or commercial concerns, university and even professional degrees are commonplace.
The Bania castes have a tradition of patronage and support for culture and the arts and also of giving to charity. They contribute heavily to the support of temples and religious institutions. Many impressive temples in northwestern India, some dating to the 11th century AD, reflect the generosity and piety of the Jain merchant community. The Birlas, a successful, modern bania family, have funded the construction of temples across India. The most recent, the Shri Radhakrishna Temple in Calcutta, with its exquisite Rajasthani carvings, was dedicated in 1996. Banias have supported artists and artisans, as seen in the Jaina school of painting or the magnificent wood and stone work found in the Bania houses and mansions (havelis) of Rajasthan and Gujarat. They have built, and still support, hospitals, schools, colleges, and universities throughout India.
Charity is an important part of the Bania ethic. Bania castes have their own charitable funds to help the needy of their caste. They also provide charity to the general public, feeding the poor and supporting hospitals and dharamsalas (rest houses for pilgrims). Two unusual institutions of the Banias are the pinjrapol and the goshala. The former is a Jain home for animals. Sick or injured animals are provided with medical care, and old animals are maintained until they die from natural causes. This institution originates in the Jain concern for ahimsa (nonviolence). The goshala, a home for old and useless cows, stems from the Hindu concept of the sanctity of the cow. Both institutions are supported by charitable contributions from Banias.
The Bania castes make up the mercantile classes of Hindu society, and most Banias continue to follow their traditional occupation today. Many remain small entrepreneurs, running stores and shops in villages and towns across India, they are traders of grain, groceries, and spices and also work as money lenders. They have a reputation of being shrewd and mercenary. Money is loaned at very high interest rates with secured collateral, usually against land or gold. They also work in government departments, private enterprise and agriculture, and include administrators, engineers, doctors, advocates, judges, teachers, scholars and stockbrokers among them. Others have emerged as leaders of commerce, trade, and industry in the modern Indian economy. The Birlas, for example, one of the most prominent business families in India, belong to the Marwari community of Calcutta, and the Singhanias, Modis, and Bangurs, also among the top ten business houses in India, are also Marwari. Banias are active in politics at local, regional and national levels and have a powerful presence in India.
There are no sports that are distinctively "Bania" in origin or practice.
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
Entertainment and recreation depends on individual circumstances. A conservative village Bania from Gujarat may forgo modern mass media in favor of traditional entertainment associated with religious festivals and local folk traditions. Affluent young Marwaris who belong to Calcutta's business elite are more likely to lead a Westernized lifestyle, turning to golf, horse-racing, and exclusive clubs for their entertainment.
FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
There are no folk arts, crafts, or hobbies specifically associated with the Bania castes.
Banias, as a community, are relatively prosperous, and the problems they face are different from those of many other groups in India. As "twice-born" Hindus, they do not face the discrimination met by low-caste and Untouchable communities. As merchants, they are not as dependent as the cultivator on a good monsoon. Many are more concerned with the stability of India's economic policies than with the arrival of the rainy season. Perhaps the most common problem faced by the community is the survival of the stereotype—especially in rural areas—of Banias as greedy moneylenders, traders who adulterate their goods, and shady dealers who make their living by exploiting the common person.
Bania women face the same problems as all women in a male-dominated society. Their families follow local caste customs in terms of arranged marriages, child marriage, dowry demands, widow remarriage, etc., even though child marriages and the giving of dowries have been legally banned by the government of India.
Women among the Bania castes have a low status and are usually confined to their homes though some help their husbands in the family shop and city women work. The women take part in social and religious functions only, although they do have input on financial matters relating to the family. The women sing folksongs and dance at marriages, births and festivals. They are known for their cooking, making rich dishes and sweets on special occasions.
Bania women tend to be better educated than other women in South Asia, though this rarely translates into achievement in the workplace, but rather is a means of obtaining a better match in marriage. The prime role of women is still to bear children, run the household and to complete household chores. Bania women who have migrated to other countries, especially the West, fare better in terms of education and the workplace, if they so choose.
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Channa, V. C. Caste: Identity and Continuity. Delhi: B. R. Publishing, 1979.
Saha, Narayan Chandra. The Marwari Community in Eastern India. New Delhi: Decent Books, 2003.
Timberg, Thomas A. The Marwaris: From Traders to Industrialists. New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1978.
—by D. O. Lodrick