Transcending religion, trapped in caste: Inside a Manganiyar wedding in Rajasthan

From believing they were once Hindus who were converted to Islam during the Mughal invasions to casually referring to other Muslims as “them”, the Manganiyars are definitely in the periphery of Islam.
Transcending religion, trapped in caste: Inside a Manganiyar wedding in Rajasthan
Transcending religion, trapped in caste: Inside a Manganiyar wedding in Rajasthan

Women of a Manganiyar family in Hamira, Jaisalmer gathered in a dimy-lit courtyard in Gafoor Khan Manganiyar’s home. With their faces covered with ghoonghats (veil), they sang to celebrate his son’s wedding. While their droning melodies resonated from the huddle, a boisterous song burst out of a room packed with young men and boys. And from somewhere behind the house a steady, controlled song by the older men wafted into the open courtyard from where Dilip Khan, the dulha (groom), would leave with his baraat (wedding procession) for his nikah (Muslim wedding) to Jaji in the village Madho Singh ki Dhani, 50kms away.

Someone or the other would customarily break into a song, at times accompanied by a dhol or dholak, harmonium, and khartaal (Indian castanets), for every ritual that Dilip participated in. They sang to welcome guests, while decorating their hands with mehendi, during Dilip’s pithi (grooming ceremony), when he left with his baraat, on the bus, and even while chopping onions. Despite the fact that the Manganiyars are hereditary musicians, the variety and abundance of their music is overwhelming.

The community is in this kind of wedding frenzy in the winter months from November to February every year, either getting a family member married or singing at the weddings of their patron families - the Rajput Jajmaans.

Manganiyars from both the bride and the groom’s families gather to sing in celebration of the nikah. A manganiyar hands over some money to a gadh manga (the community to which the Manganiyars are Jajmaans) 

Rajasthan’s intricate social fabric is laced with the Jajmaani Pratha (patronage system), a nuanced caste-based socio-economic hierarchy that has created a disconcerting status quo of power. This system of patronage begins with the Rajputs (dominant Kshatriya caste), who sit on top of the pyramid, and slowly trickles down to the last members in the caste and class hierarchy.

A Jajmaan is a patron who provides financial support and social security to communities and individuals who work under him or provide any kind of service. In a world where a person’s occupation was determined by the caste, he or she belonged to, a society essentially was made up of members from various castes who provided different services and were brought together by the ruler or zamindar. A village or settlement often had everyone from a Nai (barber), a Lohar (ironsmith), a Dhobi (washerman), to a Brahmin (priest/teachers). Artistes and entertainers such as the Manganiyars played an important role within these social structures.

The Manganiyars, a sub-caste of the Mirasi caste, are hereditary musicians, bards, and genealogists. For centuries, they have earned their livelihoods by recording the lineage and history of the two prominent Rajput clans, Rathores of Marwar and Bhatis of Jaisalmer. The Manganiyars are considered manglik (auspicious), and hence life within Rajput households begins and ends with the presence of a Manganiyar.

Mitthu Khan, a Manganiyar, was thus brought to Hamira by the Bhatis of the village. Five generations on, Dilip’s family seems to still have a strong bond with their Jajmaans. The wedding means that his father will receive money and other material support from his Jajmaans. During Dilip’s netra (custom of guests and family members contributing to the wedding/marriage) the Jajmaans and the Manganiyars sat together after the Jajmaan had made his contribution, bonding over gur (jaggery) and a mix of intoxicants. But not all Jajmaans come for the netra. After the wedding, Dilip and his new wife will have to go from house to house seeking the acceptance of their Jajmaans with never ending Khamma Ghanis (Marwari greeting that loosely translates to ‘I beg your forgiveness’), and reciting the Shubhraaj (genealogical history), for which they will be given money, food grains, and sometimes even some gold or silver.

Netra, the custom of making money and material contribution to the wedding

The Manganiyar (Maangani-haar) derive their name from this relationship of seeking and receiving. From food grains to wedding dowry, the Jajmaan partakes in every important expenditure his Manganiyar incurs. What is to be given to a Manganiyar is earmarked. Along with this financial patronage comes the social contract; I provide, you please. Apart from all the usual signs of an upper caste - lower caste relationship, the Manganiyars display another fascinating characteristic of the notion of upward mobility. The Manganiyars, a community of Muslims under the patronage of caste Hindus for centuries seem to move away from Islam inching closer to Hindu practices mirroring their Jajmaans. They have created for themselves an interesting and complex multicultural identity.

Manganiyar weddings are a display of this multicultural existence - the welcome involves a tilak, arti and coconuts; pujas are performed for home-made mud Ganesh idols; and songs are sung about various Hindu deities all in the run-up to a nikah. Dilip Khan too personified this confluence of cultures - a saafa, a tilak, a kataar and a coconut in hand.

Rajput women from the Jajmaan families visit the wedding house to greet the bride

Maulvi performing the nikah and seeks the groom’s kabool

The bride’s head is nodded by her relative to convey her kabool during the nikah ceremony

From believing they were once Hindus who were converted to Islam during the Mughal invasions to casually referring to other Muslims as “them”, the Manganiyars are definitely in the periphery of Islam. But this has not assured them a secure space within the Hindu community either. Even though several aspects of the Manganiyars’ lives now seem to be dominated by their Jajmaan’s Hindu influence, the Khan surname, and the Kabools they utter at their nikah seem to clearly separate them from their Jajmaans. Despite having lived with each other for several generations through changing times and socio-political scenarios, the relationship between these castes remains hierarchical. The Manganiyars are and will always be at the bottom of the caste pyramid. No amount of auspiciousness seems to have rid them of their ‘impurities’ making them social equals in this bond with their Jajmaans.

Radhika Ganesh, democratic rights activist and founder of ‘Ek Potlee Ret Ki’ an activist collective working on cultural identities and diversity.

Shatakshi Gawade, independent journalist with ‘Ek Tra Bol: stories about culture, rights and environment’.  

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