A summarised history of the Koli community: its traditions, customs and beliefs
There is a Guajarati saying which translates to: “Even if it is only half a bread, I will earn it to have it”. I had the good fortune to meet a community which aptly represent this very thought! A community that occupies the fringe position not only in the society ladders, but also in its living quarters in the city. A community that does smallest of labour jobs, however, has become a major part in the “urban development” of the city of Bhuj. Even a single meet with this small community provides enough insight into their vigilance towards the upkeep of its customs and traditions, which can put to shame the so called contemporary urban civilisations.
The First Introduction:
To earn their wages, the Koli people used to commute all the way from as far as Waagad and Mandvi to Bhuj on a daily basis to work on ‘Bardaan’, i.e. to stitch sacks that too for a simple daily wage of Rs 3 and they have maintained this occupation till date. Neither the harsh weather conditions, nor the distance stopped the youth of the community to come to Bhuj and earn a living for themselves and their families. However, over the years, the daily travel became a tougher and time consuming affair, leading them to consider the option of migrating to Bhuj. Of the 7-8 individuals who used to travel to Bhuj for their daily jobs, all of them shifted to Bhuj and five of them settled with the families.
Lakhdhirbhai ‘Bhopa’, who is considered the mediator of the local deity within the community, has a slightly different version for the reason of shifting to Bhuj. According to him, the ancestors of the community were landlords in their own rights, however, the worsening conditions of the rainfall situation in Kutch and the subsequent famine led either to the division, sharing or selling of the land property. In the end, the once landlords were forced to consider other options for survival and turned towards manual labour. The seniors of the community accept that the community was forced to move towards manual labour owing to the fact the education within the community was close to nill.
Gradually from being labours and hired help who would stitch the sacks, the Koli’s started growing and graduated to being owners of their own businesses. There still are several people who are still stuck with the labour jobs and although their wages have gone up from Rs 3 to Rs 300, however considering the inflation it has done nothing to improve their standard of living. The Koli community has always kept up good business relationship with the ‘Luhana’ community in Bhuj, and the same respect has been seen reverted to them by the Luhanas and Vaniyas, which are the leading business communities in the city.
Social Hierarchy and organisation:
The Koli Samaj or community is mainly divided into 3 main castes – Thakeda, Parkara and Kutchi meta which are then further divided into various sub castes. Before their migration to Bhuj, the large Koli community in Waagad and Mandvi met annually and for various occasions, however, the migration has effected the community gatherings to some extent. In Bhuj, the major residential congregations for the Koli people are in the areas of Ashapura nagar, Panjrapol, Ramnagri, Ganeshnagar and Fulpatiya. Even within the city of Bhuj, the community is unable to come together for large social gatherings (Naat), except for weddings and other family occasions. One of the biggest gatherings of the Koli Samaj is seen on the 8th day of Navratri. The partition of India in 1947 led to several of their relations living across the border in Karachi, Pakistan with whom they have kept up connections through mail.
Lifestyle and Dressing:
The dressing and lifestyle of the Koli community is very simple but they reflect customs very unique to their tribe. During weddings, the groom’s side is often expected to give gifts in terms of jewellery and cash to the bride’s family. Another interesting thing is that whatever be the income in the household, a considerable amount of the savings is invested in Gold and Silver ornaments.
They have been known to wear traditional ornaments like Raamrami, Kadla-Kaambi, Chudla Wadlo etc. which can weigh anywhere between 250 gm to 1 kg. The women of the community wear long skirts of 7 metres, a blouse and a black chunni (Odhno), the men of the Koli folk often wear a ‘chapni’ which is a kind of narrow bottom trouser with suddenly flares around the top accompanied with a specific type of Kurta and coat. The women in the community often tattoo on their hands with specific symbols and signs which are called ‘Trajva’. During their days of settlement in Waagad, they were known to imprint these symbols by themselves and this tradition of tattoing still continues to this day.
The customs and traditions of the Koli folk are very peculiar to their community. If a person’s wife passes away and the person wishes to remarry, he is not permitted to attend the final rights of his deceased wife. His attending the funeral is an indication to the community that he is unwilling to marry again. In case of a widow, she is never allowed to remarry; however, she can live with another widower of the community as his responsibility. The people of the Koli community marry within their community and have never married outside the Koli and any relationship of the sort with outsiders of the community leads to them being outcasts in their society. Another interesting custom of the Koli’s is that they will get married only after they have seen nine proposals (nav -natra).
The Koli’s are followers of the Goddess and thus, the music and folk songs are a compilation of hymns, prayers, invocations and worship of the deity. In Bhuj, a family of four brothers of the community who stay in Ashapura nagar, took up the responsibility of keeping the folk music of the community alive. Even today, Dilipbhai Bhurabhai Kasvia is involved with the Koli folk music. Apart from the drums, Ektara, cymbals, dholaka, jhanjha and pakhavaja, a special huge mebrophane instrument called the ‘Daak’ is also used during the deity worships.
In the sector of education, as has been mentioned by the community people itself, the literacy rate is next to nil. The Koli community was earlier a part of the OBC and could merit on those provisions. At the time, even an eighth grade pass person was able to avail a government job. Owing to certain reasons, the Koli community was excluded from the OBC status. This has led to several people having to resort to manual labour or face unemployment even if they have cleared their 10th grades.
Article Transleted by : Khushbu Soni
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