Numbers, Language and Story: A Nomadic Perspective

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Nomads are the most ancient people on earth. They speak several languages. Their ancient Nomadic lingo is very different from the languages that we use. Rama Shanker explores into the Nomadic languages, their numbers or counting system, and their storytelling traditions. Here’s an in-depth study about Mahavats, one of the Nomads of Uttar Pradesh.

Human society is diverse. No two societies are equal in a given time and space. They have differences. They have layers. The South Asian society is divided into many layers of varna (castes) and other categories. From early centuries of Rigveda, the Indian society has been divided in a physio-philosophical division of the human body. The Brahmins are considered to be the head, on the top of the body, and the Dalits are at the very bottom, the feet. The warrior caste Kshatriya represents the chest and Vaisyas are related to stomach. The Dalits comprises the largest part of the Indian society. In the terms of toils and hardships they are makers of Indian cultures. There are others groups that contributed in the making of Indian cultures.

They are Nomads. The term Nomad means ‘communities with homes on their back’. Like early cultures of the world, they are earliest inhabitants on earth. Nomads constitute a huge section of Indian population. Noted linguist and cultural activist Ganesh Devy says that it is unthinkable that a section of people who are among the earliest occupants of the sub-continent, constituting six per cent of its population.(1) In terms of population, Uttar Pradesh is the largest state of the country. It may be one of the states with largest numbers of Nomads in the country. We have no authentic and reliable database for the community. The government of India has constituted a commission for the study of numbers, location and socio-economic condition of the Nomads. It will hopefully set the things right in future.

Here I am presenting a glimpse on the lives and languages of some Nomadic communities of Uttar Pradesh (UP). Mahāvat is one of the surviving Nomadic communities of Uttar Pradesh. Some others are Nats, Chamarmangtās, Kankali, Pardhi and Pathrkats. Mahāvats, Kankalis and Camamangtās have occupational similarities at present. They are engaged in buffalo trading and collection and sale of medicinal herbs. However, Mahāvats do not engage in begging like Chamarmangtās and Kankalis, who are traditional alms-seekers. Patharkats are known for theiisr skills in preparing and repairing domestic manual stone grinder mills. They have nothing in common with the Mahāvats. Nats share one occupation with the traditional healers — they both coach the wrestlers. Some of the occupations of Nomads are animal husbandry, poultry, bee-hiving, fishing, trading of Ayurvedic and local medicines, trading of indigenous and rare fruits and grains, etc.

Unlike other Nomadic communities, Mahāvats were better placed in social order till last century. Their traditional job was elephant rearing and leading. They are an endogamous community. In north India, they were also called Peelwān, Karināyakā, and Kurmangiā. They have nine sub-castes including Ballāh, Belāhā, Chidīmār, Dulhāvā, Khatangā, Gulām, Kingīriha, Namburiha, and Yāchak.

Traditionally, Mahāvats were associated with the elephant units of army. This used to be the frontal squad of warfare in India since ancient times. Narratives of elephants are plenty in historical texts of India. Colonial masters defeated Indian rulers and replaced them but they could not remove Mahāvats from their jobs. Elephants were still the best beast of burden for difficult terrains. Tuskers remained in use as a means of transport and so did their Mahāvats. Princely states and tallukedārs continued patronising them. Indian tuskers were fed with leaves of fig trees. With the passage of time, these trees dwindled. Feudal class lost its financial strength. Elephants disappeared. However, the Mahāvats survived. They took up new occupations. Women got involved in curettage, while men started buffalo rearing, breeding, and sale.

Political, social and economic changes have not only marginalised the Mahāvats but threatened their very existence. With the expansion of animal healthcare services towards remote rural areas, the community is being pushed out of buffalo breeding business as well. Wrestling has lost its charm among youth, at least in rural Uttar Pradesh. Unemployment looms large over the community. Perhaps the only identity that still keeps it in existence is its dialect.

Here I am talking about the languages of Nomadic communities. These communities use their language in two different worlds. They use the language with the outer world and in a very close world, among themselves. With the outer world, the language plays in the role of economic activities. The inner world of Nomadic languages encircles their worldviews, the belief behind the creation of the world, the cultural norms, kinship, and friendship.

First, we will see the economic role of a language. Available accounts suggest that Mahavats migrated to a village of Gonda, twenty years back from Faizabad district, where a large settlement of this tribe exists even today. They first settled in a village 25 km away from district headquarters. The local landlord had granted them some land. Later on, they moved to Sisai village when their population grew. This happened some fifteen years back. During the 2005 general elections, voter identification cards were given to them. These cards have recorded them as the residents of Sisai. At present, they inhabit the unproductive land of the gram sabha of Sisai. An India brand pump provides them potable water. They are yet to get houses under Indira Avas  Yojana, the proposal for which has been tendered for the approval of the local administration. Their dwellings are made of polyethylene and straws, but they are hopeful that sooner or later the gram pradhan will take stock of their situation and try to improve it. Their hope stands on the fact that they have 23 votes for different electoral processes. There are two government-run schools in their colony. One is a primary school while the other is a middle school. Yet, children of Mahavat community do not attend schools. They are formally enrolled perpetual abstainers. Teachers allege that these students deliberately avoid schools while counter-allegation of the parents holds that teachers do not have the interest in educating their children. Children, on the other hand, do not like the schools. This assertion is shocking because their homestead has hardly anything interesting to keep them engaged. It is evident that they are extremely poor and their appearance might work as deterrence for them in mixing up with others in the classroom. Their parents have so far not realised the importance of education in reducing their social exclusion. It is also evident that the worldview of these children is culturally very different from those attending the school. Domestic animals, cattle, and poultry dominate the world of these children and their linguistic orientation has a strong association with these creatures. Famous anthropologist K. S. Singh informs in his India’s Communities that Mahavats speak Hindi language and use Devnagari script. However, it has been found that this community does not have enough literacy to use Hindi as their language. Instead, they use an entirely different dialect in their everyday life.

Buffalo plays an important role in economic life of this community. Neighbouring cattle herders seek their help when a buffalo cow is in estrus state. Mahavats rear male buffaloes for breeding. The number of buffaloes in possession of a Mahavat depends on his economic status. They also house those buffalo cows of other owners, which have problems in conceiving. Once they conceive, the owner pays some fees to the treating Mahavat and gets his cow released. Buffalo cows are called Jhamasi in Mahavati language, as also in the dialects of Nats and Chamarmangatas. Male buffalo is called Jhamasa. When a customer approaches a Mahavat he would instruct his fellow member in these words: Suab Kujaro Ayo Hai, Jhahuvay Deo Jhamasi (this customer appears to be well off, get the cow inseminated). Here ‘Suab’ means well off and ‘Kujaro’ means customer or farmer. Another word used for customer is Kajawa. The landlord of the area where Mahavats inhabit is called Dema.

For most of the Nomadic tribes, the dog is an important pet. Mahavats are no exception in this matter. One can easily figure out at least one dog in front of their dwellings. Some of the most common expressions are thus expected to deal with dogs. For example, Bataro Kukur Bandhasi Hay (My son is chaining the dog) is a common expression. A dog is called Kukur, a son is represented as Bataro. A daughter is called Batari. In exclamatory sentences, Re is used for males and Ri for females. Following sentences present some unique features of Mahavati language/dialect.

Bua Hian Aa Ri. Aaw Chali Re Bajar: Aunt, come here. Come, let’s go to the market.

Action verbs are prefixed with – ima or transformed according to the tense. For example,

Khai Lima: I have had my food.

Chalijai Ghas Chilan Ko: Would you come for mowing grass?

Abbe Tohake Maari Darima: I will kill you right now.

The language appears to have the influence of Bhojpuri as well. For example:

Dukan Khulal Hai, Aata Li Aube: The shop is open will you bring some wheat flour?

In the above sentence, adjective Khulal has been used in the same manner as it is used in Bhojpuri. Similarly, Li Aube is a verb commonly used in Bhojpuri.

This influence can be traced in the nuptial knots of the tribe. For example, one of the residents in Sisai, Faqir Muhammad has a daughter-in-law from Muzaffarpur district of Bihar.

Community relations among Mahavats are very strong, but internal quarrels are also frequent. This has something to do with their professional independence. Every Mahavat is economically independent and hence there is no subjugation of any kind. In the case of a quarrel taking place due to some disagreement in the monetary transaction, one might listen to sentences like this: Tor Hamare Upar Laimi Lagay Dihis (You are alleging me of theft/fraud). Alternatively, one may find them defending their integrity when police officials or landlords blame them for theft: Hamare Upar Laimi Na Lagau (Do not impose false allegation on me).

Mahavats also practice barter of cattle. They call this trade Khubhad. When they have to swindle money from their customer, they use the term Khobhana: Suab Dema Aawa Hay Bapai, Pakki Khammis Khubhad Lya Toy (A gentle landlord has come, swindle five hundred rupees from him). Since Mahavats do not have regular houses or lockers, they keep money on their body or secure it in their clothing. The process of hiding/securing money is called ‘Nasiya Rakha Hay’.

Mahvats have their own counting systems like Nisads or Pandas. The following para presents the counting system of Mahavats:

Rupee: Kahila; One Rupee: Ek Kahila; Two Rupees : Do Kahila; Three Rupees: Teen Kahila; Four Rupees: Char Kahila; Five Rupees: Panch Kahila; Six Rupees: Chah Kahila; Seven Rupees : Satta; Eight Rupees: Aath Kahila; Nine Rupees: Nau Kahila; Ten Rupees: Asil; Twenty Rupees: Dui Lang; Thirty Rupees: Dedhawa; Forty Rupees: Rava; Fifty Rupees: KhaEthmmis; Hundred Rupees: Lang Kahila; Five Hundred Rupees: Pakki Khammis; One Thousand Rupees: Pakki; Five Thousand Rupees: Panch Pakki and Ten Thousand Rupees: Asil Pakki.

Languages breathe in their story telling. Nomads tell the stories for settling community disputes, nuptial tensions, enhancing comradeship and sisterhood among the members of the communities. These stories follow a distinct form. Generally, literate people get the story from printed world. They have fixed form of storytelling and full control over it. A story in a Nomadic community finds the place among various person’s memories. They sit and start telling stories. Every listener is a storyteller. They put the threads in a single rope and the story is complete. This form of telling and preserving story is entirely different from the so-called mainstream society. Some ethnographers have recorded these stories.(2)

(1) Devy, G.N., et al 2013, Narrating Nomadism: Tales of Recovery and Resistance, New Delhi, Routledge, pp 9).

(2) Parashuram Shukla, Moghiya Kathayein, Adivasi Lok Kala evam Boli Vikas Academi, Bhopal


Text and pix by author

Rama Shanker Singh is a doctoral candidate at G B Pant Social Science Institute working on Community Rights of Lower Castes. This work traces the claims of marginal communities over natural resources, their everyday life and resistance. He has worked in People’s Linguistic Survey of India as a coeditor and contributor in its Uttar Pradesh section which is coming soon.