Keepers of craft

Keepers of craft

The Wadars come from a lineage of skilful stone sculptors. Although marred by a derogatory colonial stamp and stigmatised over time, these artisans work with the ASI to restore historical monuments

Outside a rock cave housing Lord Shiva’s sculptures dating back to the 2nd century, on his haunches sits 30-year-old Kailash Dashrath Dhotre chipping away at a stone, carving a pattern in near similarity to match a row of others forming an age-old boundary to a large Banyan tree.

After an hour, Kailash’s efforts bear fruit and the stone is made ready for fitting in an identical pattern with the rest of its sort. A little distance away, some Japanese tourists, while visiting the pristine UNESCO World Heritage Site Elephanta Caves, located on top of Elephanta Island that lies 13 km from Mumbai, bask in the glory of the rock carvings on display, little realising that the artistes are at work barely a few feet away.

The ruins of ancillary structures at the site due to tourist intervention and the travesties of nature are addressed by descendants of the original creators of the carvings themselves — the Wadars — who work diligently in tandem with the officials of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

An educated Kailash, after completing his bachelor’s degree in Political Science, decided to deviate from his community chore of carving rocks for a living and instead took up a job with Volkswagen in Pune. “But with my father’s failing health and the money not so good on the job, I joined the family work of ‘carving’ structures at archaeological sites across Maharashtra — in temples and cave structures,” said Kailash.

So, Kailash joined his 70-odd near and distant Wadar relatives — comprising men and women — at Elephanta Caves to restore ancient structures by chipping away at stones so they match the designs of yore. “These Wadars are so talented and hard-working that it’s impossible to find even trained, modern-day replacements for them,” says ASI monument attendant Vishnu Rawool.

Over the years, since Vishnu has been overseeing their work throughout the year after the Wadars arrive on the island to work on recreating broken structures and provide intrinsic touch-ups on damaged portions of walls and stone surfaces along the caves, he is left bewildered. “Their work is magical,” he adds.

Little wonder then, that as far as anthropological documentation goes, the Wadars, a stone-carving community, relegated to a ‘criminal’ status following a mischievous study on these communities carried out by officers appointed by the British colonial administration aimed at ‘identifying and enlisting criminal tribe-castes’, and castigated as a ‘criminal tribe’ in the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, have been closely associated with creating temple sculptures and cave rock carvings.

No longer ‘criminal’

In 1949, two years after India obtained Independence, the Central Government appointed a committee to study the utility of this law. It was concluded that the act was against the spirit of the Indian Constitution, and the committee recommended suitable steps to be taken for amelioration of the pitiable conditions of the Criminal Tribes rather than branding them as ‘criminals,’ and, concurrently, the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 was repealed in 1952.

Today, years after the Wadars and others were denotified by a free India, the police and society continue to treat them with contempt and view them with a suspicion that legislation failed to remove. That, however, does not take away from the fact that these tribes, however ‘backward’ in nomenclature, possess some of the finest skills available to natives of the land.

Historically speaking...

Maharashtra has nearly 35 important denotified tribe-castes, and more than 200 sub-tribe castes that have adopted Hindu, Sikh and Muslim religions. After 2006, a large number of them converted to Buddhism; like the Beldaar, Shikalgar, Sapgarudi, Darveshi and Madari tribes — who have mixed linkages with Hinduism and Islam. They are involved in a wide range of activities like wrestling, magic performances, daily wage work, snake-charming and more.

Like a Madari, for instance, is predominantly a snake-charmer, who is on the run due to the ‘illegal’ status of his profession owing to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, and is said to be an offspring of a Rajput father and Muslim mother.

But, where the Wadars were concerned, they got a particularly raw deal. On April 20, 1936, they were restricted to their districts in colonial and non-colonial territories of India followed by a notification on June 23, 1939, by Solapur, Belgaum, Bijapur, Dharwad, Deccan, South Maratha, Mysuru and Madras Presidencies, declaring them ‘criminals’.

Over the years, due to their acute poverty and nomadic way of life, the Wadars have a low social and economic status in society. Now, by adopting an urban culture they’re drawing a better status. The younger generation has opted for formal education and procure degrees that help them obtain jobs in urban India. Even the women have begun observing urban rules and dress codes that have led to their dropping the traditional custom of not wearing a blouse — a practice mired with mythological origins.

A Wadar wife sharing a light moment with her husband while cooking their
evening mail after a long day's work near Elephanta Caves.
Photos by author

Today, even though most of their rituals belong to Hindu religion, the socially-ostracised Wadars have renamed them with Urdu terms and continue to observe them despite the Hindu upper-caste disdain.

The Wadars, opposed to strict Hindu regimes, have adopted the practice of parallel cousin marriages, abandoning the exogamy that they were socially prevented by the caste system.

So, today, most Wadar marriages are undertaken as per Islamic tradition.

The Wadars, now a denotified tribe in Maharashtra, have no place they can call their own. The absence of means of livelihood and the stigma of criminality leads them to move around in urban and rural areas, but only on the basis of their occupation. Though the Wadar population has decreased drastically, they are considered immigrants from South India, mainly from Andhra Pradesh, and are now found in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, West Bengal, Bihar, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.

In Maharashtra, most of these tribals are engaged in construction work. A few educated Wadars work in the service sector of Maharashtra while women wander from village to village making and repairing stone-grinders.

In Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, the Wadars comprise denotified tribes, while in the rest of India, they are either included in the Scheduled Castes list or the Scheduled Tribes list.

Caste, sub-caste

In certain sociological documents, the Wadars have been traced to Odra Desa or Odisha, from where they are believed to have migrated to various southern states.

The Wadars are also known by names such as Bhovi, Wadda, Tudug Wadars, Voddar, Wadars, Girini Wadars, Od and Odde. The word Bhovi is a corrupted version of Bhavi, which means ‘earth-digger’. They have been involved in the digging of wells. And, among Wadars are sub-castes at different places, areas and regions. For instance, in Maharashtra, there are three main sub-castes closely linked with the type of occupational responsibility.

The Mati Wadars are known for digging up the soil, transporting the soil, loading and unloading the soil, and finally using it for levelling up the ground. In Marathi, the word mati means ‘soil’, and hence, all occupations related to digging, transporting, loading and unloading of soil led to the name Mati Wadar.

The Gadi Wadar are involved in breaking stones of quarries, loading and unloading the same into a cart or a vehicle known as gadis in Marathi.

The third, Jate Wadar, has been derived from the term jate, which means grinding stone in Marathi. As the occupational responsibility of the Jate Wadar was to make grinding stones, he was named so. The Jate Wadars consider themselves higher than Mati Wadars and Gadi Wadars.

Primarily nomadic in form, the Jate Wadars put up shop under a tree, near a temple or on fringes of a village, for a week or two. Once the villagers get to know about their arrival, they get their stone grinders and other utensils for repairs, or place orders for new ones.

Wadar legends & origins

As per the Ras Mala scriptures, once a king of Gujarat, Sidharaj, keen on the formation of Sahastraling Lake, brought Wadars from Malva to dig the lake. Among the Wadars was the beautiful young bride Jasma, whose stories of untold beauty were legendary.

Once he laid eyes on her, King Sidharaj fell in love with her and requested her to come with him to the palace. Jasma, being married, refused to do so. Fearing being forced into submission by the king, she even tried to run away.  

King Sidharaj got angry and chased her, killing the Wadars who tried to stop him from following Jasma. Exasperated with the King’s advances, a frustrated Jasma killed herself. But, before dying, she cursed at the king that the lake that he had wanted made would never bear water. She also cursed her fate a lot and, to avoid repetition, wished that the women of this community should never be born beautiful.

So, till date, in memory of Jasma, Wadar women do not apply hair oil or colour their lashes. According to another legend, two brothers Asalo and Kasalo — the first Wadar males — travelled from Marwad to Gujarat during the reign of King Sidharaj Jaysingh. Prince Jaradhan’s daughter Jehman got married to Kasalo. However, on the death of Kasalo, Jehman jumped into the pyre to complete the death rituals of sati.

On behalf of Jehman, labourers dug up 99 lakes and the money she received was used to take care of these labourers during famine. These labourers were said to be the forefathers of Wadars. Since them Wadars were involved in digging, breaking stone, transporting soil working in clay-related jobs.

Interestingly, the women of this community cover their breasts only in urban zones and keep them bare when in the village. The practice derives legitimacy from an age-old myth.

As the legend goes: Once, when Sita was bathing near a pond behind a huge rock, a Wadar man accidentally breaks it and happens to see Sita naked. With rage, Sita curses him thus: “From now on, I forbid Wadari women from covering their upper body.”

The life, the lifestyle

Among Wadar’s sub-tribes are kinds of clans that include Lashkare, Alkunte, Vitkar, Kusalkar, Devkar, Pawar, Kurhade, Shinde, Dhotre, Jadhav and Nalawade.

Interestingly, even within the three sub-tribes, marriages are permitted only within their own group. A Wadar almost always never marries outside his group. Today, due to the absence of an elderly person during a marriage and the disappearance of the caste panchayat, who may insist on traditions, marriages are allowed outside caste groups, yet have to occur within caste only.

In rural areas, they are found in settlements of 10-15 families, usually near the village entrance. The zone where Wadars reside in rural areas is known as Wadarwada, while in urban areas, it’s known as Wadarwadi. In rural zones, their huts are made with stone and mud, but in urban areas, they live in slum areas, in tin homes.
The Wadar men wear dhotis and white kurtis known as bandi while some wear white shirts too.

The Wadar women wear a sari and blouse in urban areas, but in rural zones, elder Wadar women follow the tradition of not wearing a blouse but cover their upper torsos with saris.
In rural areas, the men too are compelled to follow traditional customs and rituals. While rice and jowar remain their staple food, the tribals are primarily non- vegetarian and consume chicken, pork, fish, etc.
While both men and women smoke and chew tobacco, most men drink country liquor and toddy.

The Wadars believe that all diseases are attributed to their devi, or an evil spell. And, treatment includes the recitation of a mantra, a sacrifice to the devi, or the use of herbs and other natural means. However, this is changing with time and modern health-care facilities available to them.

Mostly endogamous

The tribe is a strictly endogamous lot and uncle-niece marriages, cross-cousin marriages (in the form of a man marrying his father’s sister’s daughter and mother’s brother’s daughter) are preferred among Wadars.

Marriages are fixed through negotiation and mutual consent, while other forms of marriages such as marriage by elopement occur, too. Among the Wadar community exists a unique custom. The moment she goes into labour, the woman communicates the matter to her husband, who immediately retires to a dark room and lies on a bed, covering himself with his wife’s clothes.

Wadar mostly worships Goddess Yelamma, represented in various forms and worshipped on Fridays and Tuesdays. Incidentally, pigs, fowls and goats are sacrificed to the deity on special occasions. Among the other deities worshipped are Mahadevi Pochamma, the goddess of diseases, Balamma Devi, the goddess of the cart, and Mahalaxmi, the goddess who protects people from cholera.

Today, even though the stigma of being notified as a criminal tribe by a biased British empire sticks, years after India’s Independence, that the Wadars continue to dodge the biased police action in urban India when called upon by an Indian government agency like the Archaeological Survey of India to help restore a battered history to near perfection with a rare skill-set is a vindication of sorts.

The Wadars have a crucial part to play in making India’s history and restoring it.