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ETHNONYMS: Guguwālā, Jallad, Kanjari, Khānābādōsh


Identification. Kanjar are an ancient, widely dispersed, and endogamous population of nomadic artisans and entertainers spread throughout Southwest Asia. They are widely known as singers, dancers, musicians, operators of carnival-type rides, and prostitutes; they are best known for the small terra-cotta toys they manufacture and hawk door-to-door through sedentary rural and urban communities.

Location. Small nomadic groups of Kanjar are found throughout Pakistan and north India; they are most concentrated in the fertile and more densely populated areas of the Indus River valley and the Punjab. In 1947 the international boundary separating Pakistan from India divided the Punjab region between the two nations. Disputes between the two nations about irrigation resources and religious conflicts among Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs keep tensions high on the frontier and prohibit free movement of nomadic peoples along traditional travel routes. Traditionally, Kanjar used to travel a circuit from Rawalpindi and Lahore in Pakistan to Amritsar and Delhi in India. This region lies in a warm temperate zone, generally arid, with hot summers and cool to cold winters. On the whole, rainfall is low. The five rivers feeding the Punjab and extensive systems of irrigation canals have sustained the development of relatively dense networks of agriculture-based villages and the growth of small towns and metropolitan centers. The human population of these Communities forms the economic niche exploited by Kanjar.

Demography. There are about 5,000 Kanjar in Pakistan and considerably more in north India. Unfortunately there is no accurate demographic or other census information on Kanjar in either nation. Small groups of one to three families travel extensively through rural areas following the wheat and rice harvests. Weddings and other festive occasions follow harvest activities in village areas and Kanjar capitalize on these patterns of seasonal wealth. During fallow and growing seasons they move into urban areas. By combining entertainment and handicraft skills with much spatial mobility the Kanjar exploit a peripatetics' nichea constant demand for goods and/or services that local communities cannot internally generate or support on a full-time basis.

Linguistic Affiliation. Kanjar are fluent in several Languages and many regional dialects of Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, and Sindhi. Their own language, Kanjari, has affinities with Indo-Aryan Prakrits and Romani. Linguistically, and in their cultural habits, contemporary Kanjar may share a common ancestry with Rōm (Gypsies) and other populations of Romani speakers throughout the world.

History and Cultural Relations

Ancient historical accounts indicate that nomadic groups like the Kanjar were firmly embedded throughout the fabric of sedentary social systems in South Asia by the late Vedic period (circa 1000-700 b.c.). Ongoing ethnoarchaeological research suggests that groups similar to or identical with contemporary Kanjar may have been responsible for the manufacture and distribution of terra-cotta figurines found throughout the ruins of the Harappan Civilization in the Indus Valley (circa 3000-1500 b.c.). Kanjar figure in local traditions and folklore and practically all villages and urban centers are visited by them at least twice each year. The nature of their peripatetic subsistence activities and ethnic pride govern Kanjar relations with client Communities. Females peregrinate through narrow village lanes and urban streets calling out Gugu ghoray lay lao, "Come and take the toys." Responding to this beckoning refrain, children rush to parents for a few annas (coins), measures of rice or wheat, and/or items of cast-off clothing to exchange for some of the terra-cotta toys being offered for sale. Some will hold back cash or barter items knowing the Kanjar may also have carnival-type rides or jhula (small merry-go-rounds and Ferris wheels) in their tent camps pitched in nearby fields or vacant lots. Adults anticipate a late afternoon or evening of music and dancing. Kanjar men surreptitiously smile while wives look scornfully at their husbands, knowing that Kanjar women also have sexual favors for sale. Senior females from client households with daughters about to marry will seek out older Kanjar women to come and quietly sing and joke before the bride-to-be about the wedding night, sexual intercourse, and relations with males, as part of the girl's enculturation into adulthood. Beyond these formalized roles and transactions, Kanjar relations with the membership of host communities are those of professional strangers. They have no bonds of kinship, they have not belonged to the community from the beginning, and they desire no contracts that might bind them in the future. They simply import goods and services that do not, and cannot, stem from the client community itself. Because relations with clients are confined to formalized transactions in structured settings, clients know very little about Kanjar life and cultural habits. Conversely, Kanjar constantly learn and understand a great deal about the roles and patterns of social structure and organization governing everyday activities in the communities and regions of their peregrinations. This knowledge is used and constantly updated in order to maintain timely and sensitive entertainment routines and to determine economic or political conditions affecting their travel routes and tenure in an area. Also by restricting their interactions with clients to public settings, Kanjar protect the sanctity of the private domains of their family and group activities. This strategy inhibits collection of accurate information about themselves that government, police, social service agencies, and others might be able to use in order to curtail their economic activities, group flexibility, and/or freedom of movement. In the larger sedentary world, Kanjar are often classified under the culturally nebulous term "Khānābādōsh." An ancient Persian term adopted into Hindi/Urdu, Khānābādōsh literally means "house-onshoulder." It carries a negative semantic connotation and is similar in use to the English construct "Gypsy" or nomad. They are also inappropriately labeled as a caste (zat ) of terra-cotta toy makers (Guguwālā).


Kanjar own no land or permanent shelters. They survive by traveling from community to community through diverse regions, transporting their physical possessions on mule-drawn carts (rehra ) or donkeys. The woven reed or munj grass (sirki ) walls of their tents are ideal for their peripatetic activities and contrast sharply with the mud and/or brick shelters of client settlements and the barrel-vaulted, patchwork cloth tents of other populations of nomadic artisans and entertainers. Tent walls are made by weaving and binding strands of sirki or split bamboo into long, flexible mats about 2 meters wide and up to 9 meters in length. This mat is wound around a rectangular frame of vertical poles or sticks to form a continuous wall that is rolled open to provide an entrance. Cloth or smaller grassmat ceilings are supported by one or two ridgepoles secured to corner posts. The living area may be varied by adjusting the distance between corner posts. Each family maintains a separate tent and one seldom finds more than three tents traveling or camped together. In rural areas tent camps are pitched along canal banks and railway lines and in fallow or newly harvested fields around villages. In urban settings camps are located in vacant lots or undeveloped commercial sites. Because they are almost identical, Kanjar tents are frequently confused with tents belonging to the Changar. Changar are a totally different community of nomadic artisans who weave bamboo, reeds, and grass into mats, baskets, brooms, toys, and the like. While Kanjar are capable of manufacturing their own tents, it is common to contract with Changar to build or repair their tents.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Income-producing activities fall into three basic domains: (1) sale of gugu (terra-cotta toys); (2) entertainment routines including sale of jhula (carnival rides), singing, dancing, music-making activities, and prostitution; and (3) some begging strategies. Some families keep and train fighting dogs and roosters; However, income from wagers on animal fighting is not reliable. In rural areas Kanjar bargain for measures of wheat, rice, and other cereals as payment for their goods and services. In urban settings they are more inclined to accept cash, though even there many will negotiate for sugar, flour, and cast-off clothing as remuneration. Prostitutes demand cash. Occasionally, females will offer sexual favors in order to avoid harassment from local police or other authorities. Earnings in soft commodities are accumulated and transported until sufficient quantities justify visits to regional markets where the goods are sold for cash. Income not needed for immediate subsistence requirements is converted into silver and gold. Rice, chappatis (flat bread made from unleavened dough), dried lentils (dal ), produce such as onions, potatoes, and chilies, occasional fresh meat, tea with milk and sugar, and yogurt comprise their basic diet. Enough of these items are usually earned daily; cash outlays for food generally are restricted to purchases of cooking oil, spices, tea, and luxury items such as fresh fruit and sweets. Family pack animals and goats are grazed in rural areas; however, in more crowded urban areas fodder is often purchased with cash. Seasonal income is influenced by local conditions in the diverse communities Kanjar service. Resourceful families may accumulate considerable wealth.

Industrial Arts. While the sale of terra-cotta toys accounts for only 24 percent of family income, the manufacture and hawking of gugu-ghoray give Kanjar their primary identity. Clay deposits are common throughout the Indus Valley and Punjab, and Kanjar are adept at finding local deposits of this raw material wherever they camp. Males generally dig up the clay; however, the entire group traveling together participate in making the clay figurines. Stylized yet consistent across the entire Kanjar population, the clay figurines represent dogs, sheep, goats, camels, cows, buffalo, birds, and elephants as well as miniature household items such as fireplaces, pots, plates, spoons, and bells. Hand-molded from damp clay, figurines are sun-dried before surface firing under grass, dried manure, and straw. Depending on local demand, families usually make gugu twice weekly. Surface firing ensures fragility and a relatively constant demand for these popular toys.

Trade. Kanjar avoid local markets and craft centers, preferring to hawk their wares and services door-to-door. In Recent years the growth of inexpensive and durable plastic toys in the market has begun to affect sales of gugu-ghoray. Response to this competition has increased the number of toys a client may select for the same price.

Division of Labor. Kanjar females enjoy dominance over males in practically every sphere of daily activities. With the exception of income from jhula (carnival rides) operated exclusively by males, females generate the majority of income in both rural and urban settings. Door-to-door hawking, singing, dancing, and prostitution are exclusively female activities. Both sexes and all children beg. Daily provisioning of the family is provided by females and children. Males and elderly females prepare meals and tend infants. Dealings with outsiders are handled by females, and internally they tend to carry more weight when decisions are made about distribution and/or investment of family resources. Talented males are trained and skillful musicians; they accompany the singing and dancing routines of their mothers, sisters, and spouses with drums, flutes, harmoniums, cymbals, and a range of stringed instruments. Boys share tent-maintenance, livestock, and child-care responsibilities with fathers. Girls accompany mothers in their activities outside camps and concentrate on learning dancing and singing skills within the family domain.

Land Tenure. Most Kanjar avoid ownership of land or permanent property; however, some families may invest cash in professional entertainment establishments servicing urban centers.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kin Groups and Descent. Contrary to popular belief and cursory historical records, Kanjar do not consider themselves to be a caste (zat). They refer to themselves as a qam and use this term to mean an endogamous "people" or society. Structurally they are divided into biradari. Kanjar use this term to define loosely organized, bilateral descent groups, the Members of which can trace affiliation back to a common ancestor (s), usually a group of siblings. In turn, the apical siblings of each biradari are believed to be descendants of a common but unknown ancestor. The term biradari is also, and most commonly, used to indicate a group of families living and traveling together, regardless of actual kin ties among them. Biradari, as a descent group, is not an organizing principle and is only called upon when a specific kin link is disputed or perceived to be politically or economically profitable for a given Ego. Kanjar are related to each other in many involuted ways and each relationship has a distinct term. The closest kin ties are among siblings and their mother, Ego's father being the husband of his or her mother at Ego's birth.

Marriage. All females are highly valued, both as daughters and spouses, and the bride-price (bovar ) is very dear, often amounting to more than three years' total earnings from the prospective husband's family. Kanjar prefer wadi de shadi (exchange marriages) between the children of siblings. Wadi de shadi enables a family to solidify alliances and accumulate cash for bride-price where exchange is impossible or undesirable. Marriages are arranged by members of the child's natal tent with an eye toward enhancing their own position, either through receipt of bride-price and/or through achievement of a more desirable alliance with other families. Divorce may be instigated by either spouse; however, reconciliation is always sought because otherwise bride-price must be returned. Disputes about marital tensions and bride-price are common sources of conflict.

Domestic Unit. The same term (puki ) is used for tent and for the basic social unit of Kanjar society. Puki connotes the commensal group of a female, her spouse, and their unmarried children. Marriage creates a new tent and residence is either neolocal or with siblings or parental siblings traveling in other groups. Each tent is economically independent.

Inheritance. All material and animal resources are owned corporately by the tent or family unit. When a member dies, his or her portion of the tent's resources is equally divided among surviving members. Individual debts also become the responsibility of the bereaved tent if not settled before death.

Socialization. There is no separate world for children and adults and Kanjar believe that children learn best through a combination of example and specific training. Broadly speaking, males are enculturated to be cooperative and supportive, whereas females are encouraged to be more aggressive, self-reliant, and independent. Exceptionally attractive and talented girls are raised with expectation that they will be sold into professional entertainment establishments. Musically talented boys may be encouraged to leave their tents and work independently as professional musicians.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Where each tent is an independent economic unit, families usually form temporary alliances with other tents forming a dēra. Dēra typically consist of two to four tents with a balance among skilled performers and jhula (carnival rides). While economic considerations are always a mediating factor, most dēra include tents involved in engagement or marriage negotiations.

Political Organization. While females tend to dominate, both tents and dēra are acephalous. Decisions affecting the group are reached through consensus, deference wisely being paid to older and/or more experienced individuals.

Social Control. Kanjar recognize that the independence of tents and freedom (azadi ) to move are the most important forms of social control. Tents unwilling to abide with dēra consensus are encouraged to or simply move away in order to avoid serious conflict or violence. Among Kanjar, loss of mobility is loss of social control.

Conflict. Tension and disputes arise from bickering Between spouses or entertainers working together about share and distribution of earnings, adultery or excessive sexual joking, disagreements about travel routes and tenure in an area, and bride-price negotiations, as well as individual transgressions such as drunkenness, excessive abuse, theft, physical attacks, serious injury, and murder. When group pressure and negotiated compromises fail, Kanjar have a formal legal System for hearing and resolving serious disputes. Since they lack institutions or formal roles for enforcing group sanctions, settlement of disputes ultimately devolves on the conflicting parties, their families, and their allies.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. As nomads Kanjar are familiar with a broad spectrum of religious beliefs and practices among the communities they service, and they don any sacred mantle that momentarily meets their practical needs. While they are essentially agnostic, they do protect themselves from spirits (jinn ) by wearing amulets (tabiz ) purchased from holy men (fakirs ).

Arts. As professional artisans and highly skilled entertainers, their everyday subsistence activities are a form of expressive and creative art.

Medicine. Kanjar seek treatment from homeopathic Practitioners, druggists or pharmacists, and fakirs (holy men) for serious illness. Chronic malaria is endemic and most suffer from seasonal bouts with typhoid and cholera. Greater energy and resources are spent on sick females than on sick males, especially as infants and young children. Males are constantly reminded that "roti (bread) for your stomach" comes largely from the females in their lives.

Death and Afterlife. Kanjar are stoic about death and accept it as fate and a normal aspect of life. Individuals prefer to die in the company of family and siblings; however, they realize that their peripatetic life-style often prohibits dispersed kin from being present. Ideally, parents and/or siblings wash the body, wrap it in a new white cloth, sprinkle it with scented water, and bury it on its side facing east toward warmth and the rising sun. Burial takes place as soon as possiblethe next day during the hot season, and after two or three days in winter, thus in cooler weather allowing any siblings who might be in the same area time to travel and be involved in the burial process. The body is considered polluting to females and therefore males prepare it for burial. Kanjar Generally fear incapacitating diseases or long final illnesses more than the actual death itself. While a family will carry a sick Individual on their carts and/or stop traveling when an Individual becomes extremely ill or crippled, Kanjar fear loss of mobility more than death. Among Kanjar, freedom and mobility represent life.

See also Peripatetics; Qalandar


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