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ETHNONYMS: Bandarwālā, Bhaluwālā, Khānābādōsh


Identification. Qalandar (pronounced like the English word "colander") are a widely dispersed, endogamous population of nomadic entertainers found throughout South Asia. Practicing a variety of entertainment strategies, their name and ethnic identity are based on their skill in handling, training, and entertaining with bears and monkeys.

Location. Qalandar are scattered throughout Pakistan and North India, most heavily concentrated in the Punjab. The word "Punjab" is derived from Indo-Persian panch (five) and āb (water). The five rivers of the Punjab are, from north to south, the Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej. The International boundary established in 1947 separating Pakistan from India cuts across four of these rivers and divided the Punjab politically between the two nations. Disputes over distribution of water and religious conflict among Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs keep tensions high along the frontier, thus prohibiting free movement of Qalandar along their traditional travel routes from Peshawar to Lahore in Pakistan to Amritsar and Delhi in India.

Demography. There is no accurate demographic or census information on Qalandar in either Pakistan or India. Today, there are about 4,000 Qalandar in Pakistan and many times more in north India. Sufficient and predictable sources of water have sustained the development of dense networks of small agriculture-based villages, towns, and trade and metropolitan centers. The high population density of the area (about 192 persons per square kilometer) forms an ideal economic niche for the Qalandar. The dense and perdurable membership of these sedentary communities forms a Peripatetics' niche, where there is a constant demand for specialized goods and/or services that sedentary communities cannot, or will not, support on a full-time basis. Combining entertainment skills with spatial mobility, Qalandar have survived by exploiting these resources since earliest times.

Linguistic Affiliation. In both their language and cultural habits, contemporary Qalandar share common ancestry with Rom (Gypsies) and the Romany language of Gypsies and other traveler populations throughout the world. In addition to their own language, Qalandri (part unique, with some argot, and secret to the extent that it is only spoken among themselves), Qalandar are adept linguists, speaking as many as five languages and being familiar with many regional dialects. No Qalandar are literate. Their perpetually nomadic life-style precludes attending schools, and a strong sense of ethnic unity and strict adherence to traditional values outweigh for them the benefits of prolonged cultural contact necessary for formal education.

History and Cultural Relations

It is very likely that nomadic specialists such as the Qalandar may be as ancient as settled communities themselves. However, it is not until the late Vedic era (ca. 1000-700 b.c.) that we find historical confirmation of nomadic entertainers with performing bears and monkeys. Qalandar figure in sedentary folklore, traditions, and history. Their nomadic activities and pride in ethnic identity largely govern Qalandar relations with other communities. Qalandar prefer to limit relations with client communities to specific interactions and settings related to entertainment routines. Outside these situations they try to maintain a nondescript or "invisible" posture. This enables them unobtrusively to observe and gather information about community activities in order to adjust routines and determine their stay in an area. Practically every village and urban settlement is visited at least twice annually. Their relations with client communities are essentially those of professional strangers, people who are not "organically connected" to the membership of host settlements through traditional bonds of kinship, propinquity, or occupation. Thus, unlike nomadic populations of smiths, basket makers, or genealogists who benefit from regular bonds with clients, Qalandar understand that novelty rather than predictability is the key to their success. Thus groups vary their travel routes in order to maximize the productivity of established entertainment routines. Whereas Qalandar know a great deal about the structure and social organization of host settlements, clients understand very little about Qalandar life and cultural habits. Consequently members of the sedentary world tend to address and refer to Qalandar by names associated with entertainment skills or nomadic activities. For example, they are most often called Bandarwālā (monkey leaders) or Bhaluwālā (bear leaders). Today individuals, as well as cursory government census records, tend to classify Qalandar under these occupational designations and often impute separate domains of ethnic or cultural membership to each category. Qalandar are also lumped under the more inclusive and culturally nebulous ethnic rubric Khānābādōsh. An ancient Persian construct incorporated into Hindi and Urdu, Khānābādōsh glosses as "house-on-shoulder" and is comparable to English use of the terms "nomad" or "Gypsy." In dealing with the external world Qalandar also identify themselves by these ubiquitous but ethnically nebulous terms. They use this strategy in order to focus outsiders' attention on specific activities and to promote ambiguity about their private domains and actual group resources. This method of public posturing inhibits collection of accurate census, income, or other information sought by government, police, social service agencies, and others desiring access to, or control over, their private affairs or nomadic activities. Qalandar also realize that promoting ambiguous information about themselves neutralizes knowledge as an external source of power that might be used to curtail their freedom and cultural flexibility. Toward this end they actively cultivate inaccurate information about their income, traditions, origins, values, religion, and other cultural habits. To share valid information or otherwise involve outsiders with internal matters is a major source of shame and loss of pride for Qalandar. The nature of their peripatetic life-style and subsistence activities places Qalandar outside normative rules regulating caste and class interactions in the communities they service. Throughout South Asia, Qalandar and a few other populations of Peripatetic specialists are the only groups that enjoy equal access to all levels of local social systems.


Qalandar own no land or permanent shelters. They subsist by traveling from place to place, leading animals and transporting their limited physical possessions and tents on donkeys. Qalandar tents (puki ) are the Bender type common to Peripatetics throughout Asia and Europe: barrel-vaulted ribs supported by vertical endpoles and horizontal ridgepoles, covered with a patchwork cloth. In rural areas tents are pitched in fallow or newly harvested fields near villages, along canal banks, and along railway lines. In urban settings Qalandar camp in vacant lots and undeveloped industrial sites. Wherever located, tents and camps are considered private domains. Families keep vicious dogs to patrol the camp perimeters and Qalandar may assume unfriendly postures toward outsiders seeking entry, or passage through, these areas.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. About 15 percent of Qalandar families own bears, the most common being the Kashmiri black bear with its distinctive white V on the chest. A few own the larger and more difficult to handle Asian brown bear. Both species adapt poorly to the hot, arid climate and the growing number of hard-surfaced roads connecting villages and urban centers. Easily irritable and prone to attack, a disturbed animal may kill its handler with a single blow. It is the danger and novelty of bear routines that appeal most to an audience, and this is therefore the most lucrative form of entertainment strategy. Because bears are dangerous and costly, especially since the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the proliferation of refugees in mountain areas where bears are found, most Qalandar keep and train performing rhesus monkeys (macaques). Like young bears, baby macaques are purchased from hill tribes and are trained to perform routines that mimic human situationsimitating police or soldiers, marital disputes, and relations among inlaws, as well as performing traditional feats of dancing and riding bicycles. Monkeys are less expensive to maintain and breed in captivity than bears. Qalandar also use trained dogs and goats to perform balancing acts. In addition to their animal-handling activities, Qalandar are also skilled jugglers, acrobats, magicians, impersonators, and beggars. They announce their presence in a community or neighborhood through small, highly resonant drums and/or goatskin bagpipes. These instruments are also used to provide rhythm and background music for their routines. Intensity of spatial mobility and entertaining schedules correspond with postharvest activities in rural areas: villagers are more affluent following the rice and wheat harvests and these periods mark marriage and other festive events on the rural scene. During these annual cycles Qalandar may travel and perform in as many as three villages daily. Payment is in kind and transported until they reach a market where it is sold for cash, silver, or gold. As postharvest resources diminish, Qalandar move toward urban settings where their activities are rewarded with cash, though many entertainers will strike bargains for sugar, fresh meat, cast-off clothing, and the like as recompense. Although prostitution is more common in an urban milieu, in rural areas females may exchange sexual favors for camping privileges and grazing rights. Along with young children, females also earn cash and considerable food working as professional beggars. The staple diet throughout the year consists of rice, chappatis (flat breads), cooked lentils and cereals, vegetables, goat's milk, and tea. If harvests have been plentiful Qalandar families often have sufficient resources to sustain them throughout the year. Following harvests, families that have been dispersed will gather to conduct intra-Qalandar business such as arrangement of marriages, repayment of loans, settlement of outstanding disputes, reaffirmations of relations among kin, and the forging of new alliances, before dispersing again.

Industrial Arts. Qalandar invest their energies in entertainment skills and interpersonal relations. They manufacture no craft items for sale.

Trade. Excess earnings of wheat and rice are sold for cash, which in turn is used to purchase silver and gold. The nail clippings and hair from bears may be sold as charms that villagers believe protect them from a host of diseases and evil spirits.

Division of Labor. All members are expected to contribute labor and earnings toward the daily welfare of the tent family. Their division of labor is essentially one of situational pragmatismthat is, whoever is present when a task needs doing simply does it, depending on their level of experience and skill. Qalandar stress lifelong flexibility of individual skills and task performance rather than exclusive domains of influence or activities based on sex or age. While females may train animals within the confines of camps, they seldom perform in public as animal handlers, because bears and monkeys are more difficult to handle in public settings and Qalandar believe that men are better animal handlers overall. More importantly, Qalandar believe that females are more perceptive and aggressive and better suited for dealing with strangers and so will have greater success as beggars and gatherers. During periods of high mobility in the rural areas, females will guard tents and camps and accept the responsibility for meal preparation and child care. In urban settings, males perform these tasks, freeing females to beg and gather.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kinship. All Qalandar consider themselves kin to the extent that they trace themselves back to a common, but unknown, apical ancestor. They are related to each other in many different and involuted ways and the kin terminology is descriptive in nature (i.e., separate terms for each relationship) . Qalandar often joke that no one actually knows for certain who his biological father really is. One's father (pater ) is the husband of his or her mother at the time of birth. Children of the same mother or children who have nursed from the same breast are considered siblings. The children of successive generations of siblings are considered members of the same zat or descent group. An individual may not marry his or her own sibling or a parental or grandparental sibling. Descent is traced bilaterally through the mother and pater at birth.

Marriage. Qalandar are strictly endogamous and all marriages are arranged by parents and/or parental siblings. Engagements, marriages, and frequent divorces occupy a large part of Qalandar time and figure heavily in determining the alliances among families traveling together. All marriages and most divorces are arranged and involve payment of brideprice (bovar ) for females. Either spouse and/or their parents may negotiate a divorce and remarriage so long as reimbursement of the bride-price can be agreed upon. Qalandar prefer parallel-cousin marriage because they believe it helps to maintain sibling solidarity.

Domestic Unit. Qalandar use the term puki for both tent and family. Puki is the basic social and productive unit, structurally similar to Western notions of nuclear family. The tent is the commensal unit comprised of a female, her spouse, and their unmarried children. A new tent or puki is created by both marriage and divorce. Once betrothed, individuals never return to or reside in their natal tent. Each tent is self-sufficient; however, families usually form temporary alliances with other tents to travel and work together.

Inheritance. Only the physical tent structure is corporately held by a family; all other physical and animal possessions are individually owned. Following death, possessions are distributed among tent members. Any livestock that has been purchased with loans is sold and the cash used to settle accounts with creditors.

Socialization. From infancy, children are incorporated into income-producing activities, first as beggars, then as participants in entertainment routines. Qalandar believe that children learn best through imitation and example, and from birth they are carried or placed where they can observe tent and camp activities. There are no separate worlds for adults and children. Praise for appropriate behavior rather than corporal punishment for misadventures is most common. Children are encouraged to become economically independent as soon as possible and all are capable of supporting themselves by age 9.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. A collection of tents in temporary alliance in order to work and travel together forms a dēra. Typical dēra contain three to seven tents with a balanced distribution of skilled performers and animal acts. Dēra membership involves complex social and economic considerations, including marriage-planning strategies and proximity to skilled individuals, especially bear leaders. Other considerations include common interests, friendship, kin loyalties, and efforts to maintain sibling solidarity. These motivations must be moderated by practical concerns related to the overall distribution of human skills and animal resources. Dēra organization is based on mutual agreements among tents to work and travel together in a spirit of biradarana, which prescribes mutual support, understanding, tolerance, and cooperation. Families unwilling to share biradarana are simply encouraged or forced to move on.

Political Organization. Dēra are acephalous and decisions affecting the group, such as travel routes and tenure in an area, are achieved through consensus among tents. Deference is usually paid to opinions of older and/or more experienced individuals.

Social Control. Group pressure and consensus among dēra members serve to regulate everyday activities. Tents unwilling to go along with group opinions break away, travel alone, or most commonly join other dēra or make new alliances to form new dēra. Freedom (azadi ) to move is the most effective form of social control; however, Qalandar have an elaborate jural system comprised of their own lawyers, judges, and a complex trial process for resolving serious conflicts.

Conflict. Qalandar recognize that internal conflict and disputes among tents can seriously affect their survival. Major sources of conflict involve fights between spouses and among entertainers working together about the distribution of earnings, adultery, disagreements over travel routes, and excessive parental demands on married children, as well as individual acts of inappropriate behavior such as theft, drunkenness, excessive sexual joking, serious injury, murder, or involvement of outside authorities in any kind of internal Qalandar affairs. When senior members of a dēra cannot negotiate a compromise among disputing parties, adversaries and their supporters will seek out Qalandar lawyers (waikel ), who in turn select judges (surbara ), thus setting in motion an elaborate and prolonged legal proceeding culminating in a trial. Before proceeding to trial litigants and their supporters must agree to post a cash bond with judges binding them to the decisions (karna ) or rulings of the jural body called for a particular dispute. Depending on the offense, sanctions involve public apologies, fines, banishment, or execution. Lacking institutions or specialized roles for enforcing legal decrees, enforcement devolves on the disputants, their families, and their friends. Conflict fuels perpetual processes of fission and fusion among tents and contributes to changing patterns of alliance and spatial mobility throughout the year.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. Rather than having a formal set of religious beliefs or practices, Qalandar rely on sacred activities and religious holidays in order to pursue their entertainment strategies. They are essentially agnostics or religious pragmatists, professing Muslim, Hindu, or Christian beliefs depending on whichever affiliation best serves their momentary purposes. They do believe in the "evil eye" and the effectiveness of charms or amulets (tabiz ) in protecting them from a spectrum of spirits and ghosts.

Arts. Qalandar produce no art or artifacts, as they invest all their energies and pride in their knowledge and skills as professional entertainers.

Medicine. Excluded from access to modern hospitals, Qalandar rely on druggists and homeopathic practitioners for serious illnesses. Most suffer from chronic malaria and seasonal enteric diseases such as typhoid and cholera. Colostrum is considered "hot" and newborns are fed sugar water for the first three weeks after birth. This solution of water and brown sugar is readily contaminated by flies and infant mortality from enteric infections is very high. Senior females serve as midwives at birth, though strong women often deliver their own children.

Death and Afterlife. When an individual becomes too old or unable to walk he or she is considered dead, and left behind. Death is considered a part of life and bodies are simply washed, wrapped in a clean white cloth, sprinkled with perfume, and buried in an unmarked grave within thirty-six hours of death. Ideally siblings and parents care for the body; however, if not available, dēra members dispose of the body. Regardless of economic potential around a campsite following a death, Qalandar will immediately move on to their next destination. They are always aware that flexibility and freedom from both internal and external constraints are critical for their survival as nomadic entrepreneurs.

See also Kanjar; Peripatetics


Berland, Joseph C. (1982). No Five Fingers Are Alike: Cognitive Amplifiers in Social Context. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Berland, Joseph C. (1983). "Behind Cloth Walls." Natural History 92:50-60.

Berland, Joseph C, and Matt. T. Salo, eds. (1986). "Peripatetic Peoples: An Introduction." Nomadic Peoples (Toronto) 21-22 (special issue).

Misra, P. K., and K. C. Malhotra, eds. (1982). Nomads in India. Anthropological Survey of India. Calcutta.

Rao, Aparna (1985). "Des nomades méconnus. Pour une typologie des communautés péripatétiques." L'Homme 25: 97-119.


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Qalandar. Eastern name for holy beggars, perhaps derwishes. The name occurs in the Thousand and One Nights, as though the Qalandars are a particular sect; but although they have been associated with the Bektāshīy(y)a, it seems more probable that they were unorganized and simply took to begging as a way of life.