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Who are the Vani?

Tensing Rodrigues


It is very likely that the pani and baika – the ancestors of vani and vaishya were itinerant merchants travelling across the country selling diverse wares – basically carrying products of one region into another, and making their livelihood out of that. They must have used cattle as the mode of transport, in the process trading in cattle as well. We do find references to such ‘cattle caravans’ moving across the country. [See Bhan, 1973 :The Sequence and Spread of Prehistoric Cultures in the Upper Saraswati Basin; Possehl, 1980 : Urban and Post Urban Harappan Settlement Patterns in Gujarat; Allchin, 1983 :The Rise of Civilization in India and Pakistan, 189; Mehta, 1984 :Valabhi – A Station of Harappan Cattle-breeders] Incidentally, RV 6.045.33 talks of Brbu donating ‘a thousand liberal gifts’ to the Bharadvaja priests, possibly a thousand heads of cattle.

In his Legends of The Konkan, Crawford narrates a folk tale describing the peopling of Konkan. According to the tale, first the dhangars of the ghatmala came to the newly uplifted coast and tilled the land with the help of mharsandsudras; and then‘vaishyas followed them and carried the produce up-ghat on bullock carts driven by brinjaris from the far eastDekkhan.’[Crawford, 1909 :Legends Of The Konkan, 26] It is interesting to note that the tale speaks of two different janainvolved in the up-ghattrade of the produce from Konkan. We need to explore their distinct identities.

According to Thurston, the brinjari are the same as banjari, vanjari, boipari, lambadi, lambani, lamani, sugali or sukali. [Thurston, 1909 :Castes And Tribes Of Southern India, Vol. IV, 207] Russel defines them as ‘the caste of carriers and drivers of pack-bullocks.’ [Russel, 1916 :The Tribes And Castes Of The Central Provinces Of India, Vol. II, 162]This is what Watson and Kaye have got to say about the brinjari:“From Sind to Assam, from the foot of the Himalayas to Cape Comorin, they are the regular, and, for the most part, the principal – often the only, public carriers in the country. To the districts of Central India – they bring from the sea coast, salt, spices, and condiments : and take back, or to other places, grain, oil seeds, hemp, and whatever they may find, either as a profitable speculation of their own, or provided by their agents and correspondents.  …  It is an interesting sight to meet a drove of Brinjari bullocks on the march.” [Watson and Kaye, 1874 :People Of India, Vol. 7, 120] That gives a verymeaningful picture when read in the context of the extract from Crawford given above and the evidence on ‘cattle-caravans’ by Bhan, Possehl and Allchin. According to Cox, Sugali or sukali is a corruption of supari (betel nut); probably the brinjarilargely traded in this commodity. [Cox, 1895 :Manual of North Arcot District, Vol. I, 245]

Thurston, Rusell and Watson and Kaye seem to trace the origin of brinjari to the north-western India. According to Thurston their language seems to be a mix ofMarwadi and Northern Gujarati; but the language of the southern brinjari seems to be much influenced by Tamil family of languages. However, based on their population figures for 1911, Russel feels that currently the ‘the caste belongs rather to the Deccan than to northern India’; their largest numbers were found in Central Provinces, Berar and Hyderabad. Russel feels that the most probable derivation of the word banjara is from the Sanskritbanijyakara, meaning a merchant; may or may not be. But if it does, it reduces the difference between them and the baniya.

Thurston discusses the baniya or bunyaseparately; according to him they are “immigrant traders and money-lenders (sowcars) from Northern India, who have settled down in the southern bazars, where they carry on a lucrative business, and wax sleek and wealthy.” [Thurston, 1909 : 146] What is interesting is that Thurston is of the opinion that the word also occurs as a synonym for the South Indian trading caste, the komati, who themselves claim to be the vaishya mentioned in the vedic Purushasukta.It is generally believed that the word komati is derived from gomati, meaning the possessor of cows; or at least in some way connected with go, the cow.  That seems to be an important link to what we started with, the panias possessors of cattle; it does make sense, as in very early times cattle was indeed the chief form of wealth, and cattle trading could have been the principal business activity. Does komati have any connection with the Konkani community namekamati, which seems to have more to do with land then cows; moreover the latter are bramhana. But there is another curious case : according to the Madras Census Report, 1901, the Konkani vani group namedbandekara, call themselves vaishyabramhana. [Thurston, 1909 : 146]

Johnson, mainly concerned with the Bombay Presidency, refers to ‘banians’ or ‘waneeas’ of Gujarat and Kathiawar; the latter, I suppose, refers to vani; he categorically calls them vaishya. [Johnson, 1863 :The Oriental Races And Tribes, Vol. I, 43] Russel deals at length with the bania, the ‘occupational caste of bankers, moneylenders and dealers in grain, ghi (butter), groceries and spices,’ also called the ‘vania’ or ‘vani’ in western India.[Russel, 1916 : 111] An important point that Russel makes is that several bania groups (like Agarwals, Oswals, Khandelwals, Kasarwanis, Jaiswal, Maheshris,etc) believe that they are of kshatriya origin having descended from rajput princes.  Incidentally, according to Russel, banjarastoo are derived from the charan or bhat caste of Rajputana.

By now it seems fairly clear that the dividing line between the vaishya and the brinjaricould indeed be fuzzy. Both claim descent from Rajput and there are striking commonalities between them – trading, cattle, etc.Look at the attire of the two communities – their style of dressing up, the ear rings, the male headgear; it is the colour of the skin that does not match. Could that hold a clue to the difference ?An interesting point to note is that both seem to have originated in the north-western India, almost in a coterminous region – Rajasthan and Northern Gujarat. It is natural, therefore, that the Rgvedabramhana encountered them just as they stepped out of their homeland. But which of the two were then the much maligned pani?

One thing is certain, though; the identity of the vaishya is not as clearly defined as that of bramhana or kshatriya – in case of the latter two a clear geographical delimitation is possible; often one finds the vaishyatracing their origin to either bramhana or kshatriya. Possibly the former constitute the vanijya element in the other two jana, that eventually acquired a separate identity.

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