Peripatetics - History and Cultural Relations

Peripatetic groups have been part of Indian civilization for hundreds of years. Evidence of peripatetic artisans and entertainers have been found for the early Vedic period. By the late Vedic period (circa 1000-700 B . C .) the Rig Veda refers to a number of specialized traders, artisans, entertainers, professional acrobats, fortune-tellers, flute players, dancers, jugglers, snake charmers, etc. Tamil literature from the first through sixth century A . D . has references to wandering musicians, dancers, fortune-tellers, and beggars. It also suggests that some of the peripatetics performed difficult tasks such as undertaking goodwill missions from one king to another or helping reconcile rival kings or brothers. In censuses, district gazetteers, and other dispatches written during the British period, the nomadic populations were often referred to as pastoralists, gypsies, or criminals. This situation has now changed somewhat, although the knowledge that the settled people of India have about peripatetics is still minimal. There are several reasons for this, including the settled people's typical suspicion of all those who are mobile, the nomads' effort to maintain an ambiguous posture with reference to the larger social system, and their attempt to cultivate a mystique about themselves.

The peripatetic groups are ethnically diverse and maintain their identities within the milieu of Indian society. Each peripatetic group has considerable autonomy to regulate its own affairs. Peripatetics adopt the style, dialect, and medium in performance of their services and supply of goods that best appeal to the imagination of the people of the region they serve. For themselves, peripatetics make conscious efforts to adopt appropriate regional customs and beliefs. They also claim a vague and ambiguous position in the varna/jati framework of the Hindu caste society. Within their own caste clusters they maintain a diffused hierarchy based on the concept of purity and pollution, and they also maintain some degree of exclusive rights to their occupations. For example, while one group of genealogists and bards serves only some middle-level castes, other groups serve only the lowest castes. Thereby, they reaffirm the hierarchical structure of the caste system but also enable even the lowest caste to have a place in the system. Myth, language, ritual, kinship, and specific occupations are used to legitimize a group's position in the caste hierarchy and to ensure its peripatetic niche. Caste endogamy and their caste panchayats (councils) play a pivotal role. People may wander far and wide yet they remain connected with their specific caste norms. In literature, peripatetics have been described as traveling specialists who provide cultural variety that is otherwise lacking in Indian villages, as popular religious instructors, as communicants of culture, and as those who carry the culture of the Great Tradition of Indian civilization to the local people.

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