Just outside Pachewar in Rajasthan we came across an encampment. As we approached, we saw that a ceremony was taking place. I was unsure about whether we should enter, but an elderly woman signalled to a teenager and chairs were brought for us. The ceremony continued. A young, shirtless man lay in the centre of the gathering with a family member, acting as a priest, speaking over him. An elderly man sat at the side of the gathering, wrapped in a blanket, shivering. The young man, trance-like, made responses to the priest before convulsing and appearing to lose consciousness. Then, the priest covered his face with a cloth, and he quickly recovered, got up and moved away from the group. The shivering man put down his blanket, apparently cured of whatever ailed him.
"...my eyes and ears are still good, I can see and hear everything..."
The old woman, the family matriarch, said that they were members of the Bhand tribe. She explained that their settlement was a temporary arrangement while they waited for a permanent location to be identified by the government. She added, “I don’t know how old I am, maybe 80, maybe more, but my eyes and ears are still good, and I can see and hear everything”. She claimed that her group was an extended family encompassing nine generations. Quite a claim, despite the Bhand often marrying young. My friend and interpreter, Vikas, later explained that she may have been counting different branches of the family rather than generations. He also explained the ceremony. The Bhand believe that the spirits of their ancestors, who they call pitrs, can help them in times of trouble. The ceremony was performed to assist the recovery of sick family members and the voice of a particular pitr was being channelled through that of the younger man. These spirits are mentioned in Hindu texts including the Mahabarata and the Devi Bhagavata Purana. Annual homage, or shrad, must be paid to them in order to retain their favour.
During the days of the Maharajas, the Bhand were story tellers and entertainers. At important gatherings, they would act as acclaimers, announcing the arrival of guests, showering praise upon them and their ancestors. Some would maintain family trees for the nobility. They would also perform plays and dance. Although most of their work was for the wealthy, they would occasionally put on shows for the common people during important festivals. Today they perform their traditional work at weddings, large events and festivals.
"..the priest...told a story to his perfectly silent audience"
When the matriarch spoke, all present maintained a respectful silence, but then the man with the blanket began asking us for money. She silenced him with a look and then asked us what we wanted. I explained that I am a writer and was curious about her community. On hearing this, the priest (who was her son), stood up, donned a colourful turban and told a story to his perfectly silent audience. The gist of it was that the emperor Akbar once had his Bhand executed for some argument he had with Birbal – a poet and singer appointed as a Minister. The Bhand’s son took his revenge on Birbal by using his skills in poetry and humour.
Towards the end of the story, a smartly dressed young man arrived and interrupted the priest. He announced himself as Jelabi Lal. He spoke rapidly and made the family laugh. Then he asked us for money. At this the matriarch’s smile changed to a look of anger. She spoke sharply to him in Hindi, telling him to “chup raho” – “shut up”. He did as he was told and stood looking at his very stylish shoes. She then turned to me and said, “what have you brought me”. Thinking on my feet, I handed her the colander I’d purchased from the Gadia Lohar tribe settlement on the other side of the road. She examined it closely, turning it over and over before pronouncing it “good, very good”. It seemed like a good time to leave and we went back to the road, leaving her to admire her new possession.
You might also like The rag-pickers of Jhalawar