ETHNONYMS: Agariya, Agharia
Although the Agaria are not a homogeneous group, it is believed they were originally a Dravidian-speaking branch of the Gond tribe. As a separate caste, however, they do distinguish themselves from others by their profession as iron smelters. Their population was 17,548 in 1971, and they were widely dispersed across central India on the Maikal range in Mandla, Raipur, and Bilaspur districts of Madhya Pradesh. There are other castes of Agarias among the Lohars as well. The Agaria's name comes from either the Hindu god of fire Agni, or their tribal demon who was born in flame, Agyasur.
The Agaria live in their own section of a village or town, or sometimes they have their own hamlet outside of a town. Some travel from town to town working their trade as well. As already indicated, the traditional occupation of the Agaria is iron smelting. They get their ore from the Maikal range, preferring stones of a dark reddish color. Ore and charcoal are placed in furnaces that are blasted by a pair of bellows worked by the smelters' feet and channeled to the furnace through bamboo tubes, a process that is kept up for hours. The clay insulation of the kiln is broken up and the molten slag and charcoal are taken and hammered. They produce plowshares, mattocks, axes, and sickles.
Traditionally both men and women (in Bilaspur men only) collect the ore and make the charcoal for the furnaces. At dusk the women clean and prepare the kilns for the next day's work, by cleaning and breaking up the pieces of ore and roasting them in an ordinary fire; the tuyeres (cylindrical clay vents for delivering air to a furnace) are rolled by hand and made by the women as well. During smelting operations the women work the bellows, and the men hammer and fashion the ore on anvils. The construction of a new furnace is an important event involving the whole family: the men dig the holes for the posts and do the heavy work, the women plaster the walls, and the children bring water and clay from the river; upon completion, a mantra (prayer) is recited over the furnace to ensure its productiveness.
There are two endogamous subcastes among the Agaria, the Patharia and the Khuntias. These two subgroups do not even share water with each other. The exogamous divisions usually have the same names as the Gonds, such as Sonureni, Dhurua, Tekam, Markam, Uika, Purtai, Marai, to name a few. Some names such as Ahindwar, Ranchirai, and Rattoria are of Hindi origin and are an indication that some northern Hindus possibly have been incorporated into the tribe. Individuals belonging to a section are believed to constitute a lineage with a common ancestor and are therefore exogamous. Descent is traced patrilineally. Marriages are usually arranged by the father. When a boy's father decides to arrange a marriage, emissaries are sent to the girl's father and if accepted presents will follow. Contrary to Hindu marriage customs, marriage is permitted during the monsoons when iron smelting is postponed and there is no work. A bride-price is generally paid a few days before the ceremony. As with the Gonds, first cousins are permitted to marry. Widow marriage is accepted and is expected with one's late husband's younger brother, particularly if he is a bachelor. Divorce is allowed for either party in cases of adultery, extravagance, or mistreatment. If a woman leaves her husband without being divorced, the other man by custom is obligated to pay a price to the husband. Even among the widely dispersed subgroups of the Agaria there traditionally has been discrimination: among the Asur, marriage was sanctioned by custom with the Chokh, although both groups refused to marry with the Hindu Lohar subgroup, owing to their lower status.
The family god is Dulha Deo, to whom offerings of goats, fowl, coconuts, and cakes are made. They also share the Gond deity of the forest, Bura Deo. Lohasur, the iron demon, is their professional deity, whom they believe inhabits the smelting kilns. During Phagun and on the day of Dasahia the Agaria make offerings of fowl as a sign of devotion to their smelting implements. Traditionally, village sorcerers were recruited during times of sickness to determine the deity who had been offended, to whom an atonement would then be offered.
Elwin, Verrier (1942). The Agaria. Oxford: Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press.
Russell, R. V., and Hira Lal (1916). "Agaria." In The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India, by R. V. Russell and Hira Lal. Vol. 2, 3-8. Nagpur: Government Printing Press. Reprint. 1969. Oosterhout: Anthropological Publications.