LOCATION: India (Gujarat state)
POPULATION: 48 million
RELIGION: Hindu; small populations of Muslims, Jains, Parsis
Gujaratis live in Gujarat, one of the western states in India. The name comes from "Gujara," a branch of the White Huns. This group ruled the area during the eighth and ninth centuries. Gujara also is the name of a pastoral caste (social class).
Archaeological evidence shows the region had cities as early as 2000 BC . Muslims conquered Gujarat in the thirteenth century AD and ruled for the next 450 years. Control passed to the British East India Company in 1818. After India's independence in 1947, Gujarat was incorporated into Bombay state. In 1960, the Gujarati-speaking areas of Bombay were split off to form the present-day Gujarat.
Gujarat currently has a population of 48 million. There also is a sizable community of Gujaratis who live and work outside India.
Gujarat lies on India's west coast. Part of its western boundary lies at the edge of Pakistan. Its coastline runs from near the mouth of the Indus River, curves around the great peninsula of Saurashtra, and swings south to a point about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Bombay. Gujarat has three broad geographic divisions: mainland Gujarat, the Saurashtra Peninsula, and Kachch. Mainland Gujarat consists of coastal plains. These merge with lowlands around Ahmadabad and northern Gujarat. Fringing this area on the north and east are the uplands of the southern Aravallis, the western Vindhya and Satpura Ranges, and the Western Ghats. The southern areas are good for farming, even though most of the state is dry.
The Saurashtra (also known as Kathiawar) region consists of a peninsula bounded by the Gulf of Cambay, the Arabian Sea, and the Gulf of Kachch. Broad coastal plains surround low plateaus and hills. One of these, Gir Range (about 2,100 feet or 640 meters), is home to a wildlife sanctuary for the last Asian lion population in the world. The Rann, a vast expanse of tidal mud flats and salt marshes, take up much of Kachch.
The language, Gujarati, comes from Sanskrit—an ancient language. There are several dialects of Gujarati. These include Kachchi, Kathiawadi, and Surati. Bhili, a language similar to Gujarati, is spoken by tribal groups in northern and eastern Gujarat. Gujarati is written in a cursive script. Many Gujaratis can also understand and speak Hindi.
According to Hindu legend, the hero-god Krishna was forced to abandon his ancestral home of Mathura and moved his capital to Dvaraka (the modern Dwarka) at the western tip of the Saurashtra Peninsula. In one epic, Krishna's relatives began to quarrel and the entire city got involved in an uproar. Soon, many chiefs were dead. Krishna's son was killed, and his brother was mortally wounded. Disheartened, Krishna went to a nearby forest to think. A hunter saw him, thought he was a deer, and killed him. The city of Dvaraka was then swallowed by the sea.
About 90 percent of Gujaratis are Hindu. The Vallabhacharya sect of Krishna worshipers has a particularly strong following among the Gujarati bania (trading) castes. Dwarka is an important place of pilgrimage for this sect, and is considered one of India's seven sacred cities. Shiva also has his following among Gujaratis. The Somnath Temple, on Saurashtra's southern coast, is an important Shaivite shrine.
Muslims make up about 8 percent of Gujarati population. Jains, although comparatively few in number, have played a major role in shaping Gujarati culture. Girnar and Satrunjaya Hill, near Palitana, are major centers of Jain pilgrimage. There are small Parsi communities in the cities of Surat and Navsari.
Various Gujarati communities celebrate different religious festivals. Navratri is one holiday that is widely celebrated throughout the state. Navratri means "nine nights" and is celebrated on the nine nights leading up to Dasahara (the festival of the goddess Durga). It is a time of gaiety, when men and women gather in village squares and temple compounds to sing and dance. On Dasahara, artisans worship their tools, farmers their ploughs, and students their books. Gujaratis also pay special attention to the birthday of Indian national leader Mohandas "Mahatma" Gandhi. He was born in Porbandar in Saurashtra (Gujarat) on October 2, 1869. (He was killed by a Hindu fanatic in 1948.)
Gujaratis follow the life-cycle rituals prescribed by their communities. Virtually all groups have some sort of period of seclusion followed by purification rites for girls at their first menstruation. Jain rituals in general follow Hindu patterns. Muslim practices include whispering the Call to Prayer (azan) in a newborn baby's ear, head shaving and naming ceremonies, and circumcision (sunnat) for males.
Most Gujarati Hindus cremate their dead, although some lower-caste groups bury them. Ashes and bone are collected from the funeral pyre to be scattered, if at all possible, in the sacred Ganges River. Jain funeral customs tend to follow the Hindu pattern, while Muslims bury their dead.
Hindus greet each other by saying Namaste or Namas which means "Greetings to you." Muslims use Salaam or Salaam alaikum (Peace be with you) as a greeting.
A typical Gujarati village consists of a cluster of houses along a central street. A temple, a village square, a few shops, and a well are found in the village center. Agricultural and trading castes live in this central area, and artisan castes live farther out. In the past, mud walls surrounded villages for protection against robbers. Untouchables (people who are not members of any of India's four castes), such as Dheds (road sweepers) and Bhangis (cleaners), live outside the village boundaries. Houses are generally roomy, and built of mud or brick. Furniture consists of a couple of wooden boxes to hold valuables, wooden beds and coverings, and copper and earthenware cooking utensils. There is usually no stable for livestock, so cattle and goats are kept in the house.
In general, Gujaratis conform to northern Indian patterns of kinship, marriage practices, and family structure. The norm is to marry within one's caste, but outside one's clan. Newlyweds live with the father's family. Marriages are arranged. The joint family is typical among Gujaratis, with a household consisting of two or three generations of men and their dependents. Lower caste women are expected to work in the fields or otherwise contribute to the family income.
Gujarati men wear the dhoti (loincloth consisting of a long piece of white cotton wrapped around the waist and then drawn between the legs and tucked into the waist), accompanied by a shirt and coat closed with strings. Women wear the sari (a length of fabric wrapped around the waist, with one end thrown over the right shoulder) and choli (tight-fitting, cropped blouse).
Gujarati cuisine is mostly vegetarian, reflecting the strong influence of Jains and the Vaishnavas in the region. Wheat and the two kinds of millet (jowar, bajri) are the main staples. Flour is made into unleavened bread called roti . This is eaten with a variety of vegetable dishes. The villager takes a light breakfast of roti and milk or curds before setting out for the fields. Lunch is usually roti and buttermilk. The main meal is eaten in the evening and consists of rice, split peas (dal-bhat) , and vegetables. Meals are served on a thali , a metal tray on which roti, rice, and small bowls are placed. The bowls may hold vegetables such as eggplant, potatoes, beans, dal (lentils), and dahi (curds). Kadhi , a savory curry of curds and fried cakes made from pulses (legumes), is a popular dish. No Gujarati would eat a meal without generous helpings of ghee (clarified butter). Milk-based desserts are common. Srikhand is a rich dessert made with curds and spiced with saffron, cardamom, nuts, and fruit. Gujarat is also known for its delicious ice cream.
Among the Bania castes (higher social classes), education in reading, writing, mathematics, and accounting begins early in life. Literacy (percent of the population who can read and write) among these males approaches 100 percent. However, when tribal people and the lower castes are figured into the equation, literacy in Gujarat state drops to just over 60 percent (over 70 percent for males, but less than 50 percent for females).
Gujaratis have a cultural heritage that can be traced back to a civilization that existed 3000 years ago. Signs of this include an ancient bead factory discovered at the archaeological site at Lothal. Gujarati literature dates to the twelfth century.
Many groups contribute to Gujarati culture. From the Vaishnavas come the legends and mythology of Krishna, to whom are ascribed the popular Ras and Garba folk dances. Jains influenced temple architecture and developed a distinctive style of painting. Muslim architecture in Gujarat combined Hindu elements with its own styles.
Bania castes (higher social classes) are quite numerous in Gujarat. They thrive as business people. Gujaratis also have traveled around the world in search of business opportunities. Gujarat is a leading industrial state and Ahmadabad is a major textile center. Cotton, sugarcane, oilseeds, and peanuts are major cash crops.
Gujarati girls play house, dress their dolls, and hold mock wedding ceremonies. Boys play marbles, spin tops, fly kites, and play such games as kabaddi (team wrestling). Khokho, a kind of team tag game, is another popular local pastime. Soccer, cricket, field hockey, and basketball are enjoyed throughout Gujarat.
In cities, Gujaratis have access to movies, radio, and television. In villages, however, traditional forms of entertainment remain part of community life. Traditional entertainment may be part of religious fairs and festivals or provided by traveling bands of professional entertainers. Castes who traditionally have been associated with music and theater perform a folk drama known as Bhavai . The Bhats and Charans are bards and genealogists who have preserved much of the region's folk culture and traditions.
Gujarat is known for its beautiful hand-crafts. Silk saris are made in Patan and block prints are produced in Ahmadabad. Surat is famous for its zari, embroidery using gold or silver thread. Jumnagar is a center of colorful tie-dyed work, while peasant women in Saurashtra and Kachch produce embroidery containing tiny mirrors as well as beadwork. Making jewelry and cutting precious stones also are traditional handicrafts in Gujarat. Artisans in Kachch are known for their silver work. Woodcarving is an ancient skill in Gujarat, as can be seen in the fine carvings found in houses and temples throughout the region. Wooden furniture is also produced in a distinctive Gujarati style.
Although Gujaratis have made great strides in improving their living conditions, poverty, malnutrition, and a lack of basic services such as drinking water and health facilities continue to be problems. The Gujarat government is deeply involved in the massive Sardar Sarovar Dam project on the Narmada River. Although it was planned to help provide irrigation and power to the state, a lack of resources and an anti-dam environmental movement have made the project controversial. As Mohandas Gandhi's home state, Gujarat has been identified with the nonviolence movement. However, violence between Hindus and Muslims erupts from time to time across the normally peaceful state.
Ardley, Bridget. India. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Silver Burdett Press, 1989.
Barker, Amanda. India. Crystal Lake, Ill.: Ribgy Interactive Library, 1996.
Cumming, David. India. New York: Bookwright, 1991.
Das, Prodeepta. Inside India. New York: F. Watts, 1990.
Dolcini, Donatella. India in the Islamic Era and Southeast Asia (8th to 19th century). Austin, Tex.: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1997.
Kalman, Bobbie. India: The Culture. Toronto: Crabtree Publishing Co., 1990.
Pandian, Jacob. The Making of India and Indian Traditions. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1995.
Shalant, Phyllis. Look What We've Brought You from India: Crafts, Games, Recipes, Stories, and Other Cultural Activities from Indian Americans. Parsippany, N.J.: Julian Messner, 1998.
Consulate General of India in New York. [Online] Available http://www.indiaserver.com/cginyc/ , 1998.
Embassy of India, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available http://www.indianembassy.org/ , 1998.
Interknowledge Corporation. [Online] Available http://www.interknowledge.com/india/ , 1998.
World Travel Guide. India. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/in/gen.html , 1998.