Magar - Sociopolitical Organization



Caste Distinctions and Ranking. Banyan Hill Magars, who themselves comprise a distinctive caste group, live in two major kinds of relationships with the neighboring caste groups of Kihun Thum. One kind rests on ideas about ritual pollution, and the other involves exchanges of services for food or other payment.

A major split exists between those caste groups called Touchable ( chhune ) and those called Untouchable ( nachhune ). Members of a Touchable caste cannot ritually pollute those of any other local castes merely by touching them, but they are themselves subject to pollution by the touch of any Untouchable person.

From the Magar point of view, the major Touchable castes in the vicinity of Banyan Hill make up a hierarchical ritual order of Upadhyaya Brahman (Brahman of highest Status) , Jaisi Brahman (offspring of a Brahman and a Brahman widow), and Magar. The three Untouchable caste groups in the area, tailors (Dami), metalworkers (Kami), and leatherworkers (Sarki), are thought to have equal ability to pollute.

Magar Relationships with Brahmans. The relative status of Touchable caste groups is expressed in a variety of ways, as illustrated by a few kinds of interactions between Magars and Brahmans. When a Magar man meets an Upadhyaya Brahman man, the Brahman raises his foot and the Magar touches his forehead to it. A young Brahman meeting an older and Respected Magar man first inclines his head and then lifts his foot to be touched. Before stepping on a freshly cleaned veranda of an Upadhyaya home, a Magar woman touches her forehead to one of the steps. Magars address Upadhyaya Brahmans as "grandfather" or "grandmother." If a Magar man boils rice in his own vessel he will not offer it to a Brahman because he knows that the Brahman may not accept it. In contrast, the Magar may take rice cooked in a Brahman's vessel.

Each Banyan Hill Magar family, except for that of the headman's plowman, is regularly served by one of seven Brahmans from four nearby Brahman hamlets. These Brahmans perform priestly functions and are referred to as upret. During the course of a year the upret visit their client families to help them observe a number of calendrical festivals, including the day in July or August when the "World Snake" (the "Bed of Vishnu" and the "Garland of Shiva") is worshiped; Tika Day in September or October, during the festival of Dasain, when they give each family member a tika to ensure good health and prosperity; and Thread Full Moon, usually in August or September, when they tie yellow and red yarn around their clients' wrists, partly to ensure that if they die within the next six months they will go directly to Heaven. Other occasions for which a Magar family may call their Brahman include: a ceremony to prevent an inauspicious disposition of the planets from harming a baby; the Satya Narayan puja for Vishnu; an elaborate marriage; and a baby's naming ceremony.

Upret are paid when they provide services; generally this payment consists of a small amount of money, plus food deemed appropriate for a person of such high caste to take from a Magar. Such food includes uncooked rice, ghee, salt, and spices.


Untouchable Service Castes. Magars regularly employ the services of the various Untouchable castes. The hamlet is served by seven tailor families, all but one of which had a sewing machine by the 1960s. At least once during the year, one or more members of a tailor family, often a man and his wife, come to their Magar client's family to sew. They work on the client's veranda and are given their meals. The items most in demand are blouses for men and women. A tailor who works for a regular client supplies his own thread, and if asked to make caps—usually a cap is required for each man in the family—he supplies the cloth. The client provides cloth for other garments. Magar families usually pay their tailors twice a year, after each harvest in the spring and fall, by giving them millet or maize. Wealthy families give additional payments at this time and, if possible, give rice, which is highly valued by groups like tailors who have no irrigated fields. A final set of payments may be made on major festival occasions such as Dasain in the fall. A tailor will come to a client's house on these occasions expecting a meal and liquor. If he has already eaten at another client's, he is given food and liquor to carry home.

In the 1960s, nine households of metalworkers provided services on a fairly regular basis for one or more Banyan Hill families. Four of the nine were ironsmiths; one, a coppersmith; four were goldsmiths. The most regular kind of work expected of the ironsmith is putting good cutting edges on plow tips, axes, mattocks, ditchers, and sickles. Pay for such usual work is the same as the tailor's: a measure of millet or maize twice a year plus food and drink on festival days. Ironsmiths also make a large variety of new implements for which they are paid on a piecework basis.

About half the Banyan Hill families regularly engage the coppersmith. (In the 1960s, one family gave him as much as 40 kilograms of paddy rice, but most gave a single payment of 18 kilograms of millet or maize.) In return for one such large payment, the smith repairs copper utensils such as water vessels, vessels for cooking buffalo mash, and vessels for making distilled liquor. Families who make regular payments think it cheaper to do this than to pay separately for each repair.

In the 1960s, four goldsmiths had a regular connection with about a third of the Banyan Hill households. Goldsmiths devote their skills almost entirely to making and repairing women's jewelry—nose rings, earrings, necklaces, bracelets, finger rings, hair ornaments, and the small gold flowers women wear in one nostril. The goldsmith's work and pay is comparable to that of the coppersmith.

About half the hamlet's Magar families retain a leatherworker on a regular basis. Leatherworkers are from four Neighboring leatherworking families. In return for annual payments of millet or maize and food or drink at major festival times, they are expected to remove dead animals—a service they usually perform whether or not they are retained, since they can sell the hides and, in the case of buffalo, the intestines, which are used as tie ropes.

Ferrymen and Messengers. Once a year representatives from members of the Untouchable ferryman caste living in a hamlet located at a much-used ferry point on the Kali Gandaki River come to Banyan Hill. They go from house to house asking at each for a number of kilograms of grain. Only those households whose members have crossed or expect to cross the river using ferryman services give to the ferrymen. It is said that the ferrymen remember who has given and do not charge them at the river.

In the 1960s, three messengers served all the hamlets in Kihun Thum, and all were members of an Untouchable caste. At that time the messenger who served the Banyan Hill households was a metalworker. Like the ferrymen the messenger annually goes from house to house in his constituency asking for bulk payments of grain. He also visits the houses at major festivals to get food and drink.

Song and Dance Groups. Singing is important in Magar life, and many songs are associated with the fieldwork of particular seasons. Some are sung when millet is being planted; others accompany rice planting. The songs, with lines sung by men and women alternately, make this stooping, difficult work go more easily. Other occasions also have their characteristic songs: those sung by boys and girls as they walk Together, those sung by women ex-slaves during a marriage, and those sung by women during the days between Krishna's birthday and the following festival of Tij. There are also special songs for the day during Tivahar when offerings are made to Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, and songs for Brother-Worship Day.

Many times during the year, especially during festival seasons such as Dasain, boys and girls gather together in the evening at some centrally located sitting place. There are characteristic tunes, and the basic pattern is boy-girl question and answer. The boys' chosen song leader sings a question that all the boys then repeat three times. The subject matter seldom varies: all the questions and answers have to do with love, marriage, and a bantering sexual antagonism between boys and girls. The singing can go on indefinitely.

Besides the secular singing groups that come together on an ad hoc basis, there are two formally constituted singing groups composed of Magars from several hamlets. One tells of episodes in the life of Lord Krishna, the other of episodes drawn from the Ramayana. Each has a leader who tells the story, backed by a chorus, drums, and costumed male dancers, some of whom may be dressed as women. The atmosphere is intensely religious, for Saraswati, goddess of learning and music, is patron of both groups and indicates her presence and approval by causing a member or members of a group to fall into a trance.

Political Organization. Kihun Thum is divided into eight jurisdictions, each with its own hereditary headman ( mukhiya ). Of the eight headmen, three are Brahmans, and five are Magars, one of whom is from Banyan Hill. In return for keeping the peace, acting as liaison officers between the government and the local people, and collecting taxes on unirrigated farmland, the eight headmen each receive 5 percent of what they collect. However, since taxes are extremely low, this form of income is not the major reward of the office. The real reward lies in the days of forced labor the headmen can claim from each household in their respective jurisdictions. Forced labor was legally abolished following the overturn of the extremely repressive Rana regime in 1951. Whether or not the abolition is observed depends, however, on the stature of the district's headman. In the 1960s, people continued to work as before for the exceptionally strong Banyan Hill headman Because they recognized him as an outstanding community benefactor. He had studied law and knew how to write legal documents. Individuals thus could come to him for help with their legal problems. He was also a source for loans of cash or grain, keeping careful records and charging no more interest than community custom allowed. He was something of a water engineer and had laid out a series of channels to make water for drinking and irrigation more accessible.

The multifarious services expected of Kihun Thum's eight headmen contrast with what is expected of its two additional revenue collectors ( jimwal ). Both are well-educated Brahmans whose sole responsibility and source of a Comparatively high income is to collect the taxes on irrigated rice-producing terraces.

Religion and Politics. During the course of his career as headman—an office that a member of his family has held for at least three generations—the Banyan Hill headman's major political opponents are neighborhood Brahmans. In the Religious sphere he challenges them by hiring a learned Brahman as his religious retainer. Under his guidance the headman performs two elaborate pujas every day, morning and evening. He also follows a strict dietary regime and does not accept food from a Brahman known to drink liquor. In this and other ways he is more Brahman than many Brahmans.

The kot above Banyan Hill is the scene of two Dasain observances—both the major one which takes place during eleven days in the fall and a smaller one known as Chaitre Dasain that is held during a single day in March or April. The focus of both is the incarnation of Shiva's active female principle, or Shakti, who in one embodiment is called Chandi and in another is called Durga. The initial proceedings at the kot during the spring rite emphasize the importance of the Brahman community throughout the area. A group of Brahman men worship Chandi by reading aloud a Sanskrit text, the Chandi-Patha. This takes place in a small shedlike Structure that is open on one side. The second part of the worship, the beheading of a young goat, takes place before a small stone building where Durga resides. (At one of these rituals observed by anthropologists in the 1960s, a Magar headman of a nearby hamlet was in charge. His young son was not yet strong enough to do the beheading, so the headman did that. But the boy was the one to wet his hands in goat blood and put his hand prints, one on each side, on the Durga temple door.) The remainder of the ritual symbolizes political aspects of the Thum. The three Thum messengers are given money. A leatherworker is designated to cut up the goat carcass according to traditional rules for distribution. Portions go to the Thum's eight headmen, with one for the raja of Bhirkot, and some to representatives of other Untouchable castes involved in Dasain—a tailor who with his band provided music, and a metalworker who sharpened the sword for the sacrifice.




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