A Jatra of the Wandering People: Beyond the Registers of Criminality and Deprivation

Through the study of rural fairs, the article challenges the picture of the “rural agrarian universal” and highlights the mobile and dynamic flows of life and livelihood that constitute the Deccan region. Beyond the registers of criminality and deprivation, the article illustrates the central role that fairs play in the life of nomadic/pastoral/peripatetic communities and the constituent role these communities play in the occurrences of these fairs in particular and regional landscape at large. It concludes with sets of possibilities that the study of fairs can open up to deepen our engagement with nomadism in its contemporary implications. 

 

The jatra or annual fair held in the Malegaon village of Nanded district in Marathwada constitutes the scene of our inquiry.1 Identified in common parlance as Bhatkyanchi jatra (fair of the wandering people), Hijre chi jatra (a fair of people from the transgender community), Garibanchi jatra (fair of the poor folk) or Khandoba chi jatra (fair of the deity, Khandoba); it is a site of cultural, economic, social and political congregations, productions and contestations. When we speak of this fair, we speak of an event that has had continuity over centuries and decades and at the same time an event that changes from year to year. This fair attended annually by lakhs of people is embroiled in a history of productive relations of the settled and nomadic modes of life, and is organised around one of the largest cults in the Deccan of the folk deity—Khandoba. Marathwada has dominantly been represented as a drought-stricken, suicide-ridden, feudal society steeped in agrarian distress and caste atrocities. While the agrarian crisis and caste violence are undeniable, this image of stagnation and backwardness is problematic. As we enter the region through its jatras, melas, urus, we learn the formative role of nomadic, pastoral and peripatetic modes of life in the region, challenging the dominant picture of the “rural agrarian universal” (Bhattacharya 2018: 1). At the Malegaon fair, jatras were described to me as a critical site of “making life happen” for several traditionally mobile groups. I argue that the study of fairs offers us an opportunity to engage with nomadism and nomadic groups beyond the dominant narrations of criminality, deprivation, cultural exoticism, primitivity, etc. The article begins with a discussion on fairs in the region and moves on to the site of Malegaon jatra with a focus on the nomadic, pastoral and peripatetic communities. Through a broad stroked portrait of the Malegaon fair, the article highlights the themes of various mobilities and the agrarian gaze of the state that characterise this space. It concludes with questions that the study of fairs can open up to deepen our engagement with nomadism. 

The Lens of the Jatra

Jatras, yatras, urus and melas have long been an essential feature of the historical landscape and aggregated central places of exchange and religious activity. In 1940, the statistics department of the princely state of Hyderabad came out with a detailed list of all the jatras, urus, melas that took place in the then Hyderabad dominion. In the district of Nanded itself, where Malegaon is presently situated, the report records 87 fairs (Hussain 1940: 132). A look at the report also enables us to gauge the scale and size of these assemblies. Indeed, based on the number of attendees recorded in this district-wise list, we find that the Malegaon jatra is one of the biggest fairs, with the report recording an attendance of at least 10,000 people (Hussain 1940: 132). In the 1961 Census, the Maharashtra government recorded a total of 11,465 fairs, big and small, in the entire state. The report recorded that in the district of Nanded, 343 minor fairs saw an attendance of around 25,000 people. Of these 343 minor fairs, 329 were held in rural areas and 14 in urban areas of which 303 fairs in the rural areas, 10 fairs in the urban areas saw an attendance of around 5,000 people (Maharashtra Census Office 1969: 68).

While no state records of the present day, the annual media reports, descriptions of the people at the fair, and my own experience of the field record that the scale of the fair such as that at Malegaon has only increased over the years and witnessed participation in lakhs rolling in and out over the entire month of the fair. The zilla parishad also declares an official holiday for three days during the height of the Malegaon jatra. 

The governmental interest in fairs and pilgrimages stemmed from a concern with law and order and heightened by the presence of “criminalised” communities, as in the case of the Malegaon jatra. The government also increasingly directed its “medical” and “sanitary” gaze in the direction of fairs and pilgrimages because these gatherings were considered responsible for the spread of infectious diseases (Administration Report of the Medical and Public Health Department of Hyderabad Dominion 1936). The latter records under the Nizam state call attention to a major epidemic of cholera and plague in the dominion, with special arrangements being made to assess and tackle the situation. Obviously, through the gazette notes of the health and sanitation department of the Hyderabad state (1936), it appears that special attention was directed towards Marathwada and certain other districts, with a focus on fairs. The surveys and awareness campaigns instituted focused on what are claimed as “indigenous” areas and rural market centres (Administration Report of the Medical and Public Health Department of Hyderabad Dominion 1936: 49). Importantly, urus and jatras were supervised by the various health officials, and the significant Pattan and Malegaon jatras were being inspected by higher-ranking public health administrators (Administration Report of the Medical and Public Health Department of Hyderabad Dominion 1936: 51).

Fairs were also singled out for scrutiny and control because they were important venues for trading, especially livestock, a commodity targeted as a source of government revenues and the cattle and horses needed for military purposes in the 18th and 19th centuries. As the colonial gazetteers of the Bombay Presidency testify, most of the colts were sold as yearlings, the majority finding their way to the yearly fair at Malegaon in the Nizam’s territory (Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency 1885: 63).

 As should be discernible, while the government records do not detail the distinction between these various assemblies, they still identify three categories, namely, the urus, the jatra and the mela. These assemblies gather around sacred sites but their function and the activities that occur there are not just religious. The religious zone, cultural and secular zone of entertainment, consumption and sociality and the economic zones, are connoted by descriptions of a site as a pilgrimage centre, a fair and a market, respectively. These three aspects do not occur completely independent of one another but at varying intensities. Each site may have its own specificity and journey into becoming a pilgrim site, a fair, market or a combination of the three and it may shift over time. 

These historical indications about the landscape of the fairs, their sheer number and scale leave no doubt that they play a significant role in society’s religious, cultural and economic organisation. The centrality of the nomadic, pastoral and peripatetic groups is further foregrounded by their deities such as Khandoba, Yellamma, Jyotiba, Biroba, Maskoba, Yedai, Pirs who populate the sites of these numerous fairs. Furthermore, these assemblies do not occur in isolation to one another, but form webs of dynamic networks. Many of these assemblies and their networks have a historical continuity and their contemporary dynamism also illustrates that they continue to innovate their vitality with the changing times, with both changes in their nature and occurrence. This rich landscape of these religious, social and economic congregations is, therefore, characterised centrally through the various mobilities that mark them, through the flows of people, commodities, animals, culture and deities. These sites, while having an independent life of their own, are equally linked with one another and are part of a larger nexus, which they both affect and are affected by.

Interestingly, the sociologically minded historian, Anand Yang (2000) in his work on the mela of Sonepur in Bihar, urges scholars to employ the lens of the “bazaar” in order to recalibrate our imagination of the rural landscape. He pertinently observes that the rural and the village “never suffered from the rather artificial quality of isolation that has been constructed in the colonial imagination” (Yang 2000: 16) and in order to reimagine a more dynamic view of the agrarian society, it is crucial to reorient our attention to the landscape of bazaars. He uses bazaars as analytical units because they “speak the language of exchange and negotiation, of movement and flow, of circulation and redistribution, in short, of extra-community or supra-community connections and institutions” (Yang 2000). They disturb the image of stagnated, fixed and neatly ordered landscape of villages and farmlands and reveal the dynamic linkages and wider supra-local ties.

All the same, unlike the mela of Sonepur that Yang addresses, in the context of the Malegaon jatra, we also have a modality that serves as the site of thriving religious activity. Fundamentally, the site of Malegaon is not just a trade fair, but has been a historically significant part of the cult of Khandoba—the deity of the hunters, warriors and shepherds. 

The fair at Malegaon
Along the Nanded–Bidar highway, almost at the juncture of the three states lies the small village of Malegaon. Derived from the Kannada Male-gav and Mal-gaon in Marathi, Male/Mal a hill or a hillock and gav/gaon meaning village, connotes the traditional abode of pastoral communities (Sontheimer 1995). On the auspicious no moon day of the Margashirsha month—broadly, the month of December or/and January, the village comes alive as scores of people throng the 200 acres of fair grounds surrounding the village. At the heart is the Khandoba temple, probably built in the 12th or 13th century, discernible through its Hemad-Panthi architecture and is now developed into a larger temple complex. The cult of Khandoba makes allusions towards historical interactions between settled communities and those who practiced a nomadic and pastoral mode of life. Scholars have further explained that the temples of Khandoba, emerged on the trade routes that connected various singular agricultural regions, as they also trace the spread of settled agriculture in the pastoral and the forested regions corresponds with the deity’s popularity among other Shudra castes (Sontheimer 1993: 150–56). He further notes that deities like Khandoba, Biroba, and Mhaskoba who are found mainly in the Marathi-speaking regions share many similarities with deities like Murukan and Aiyanar (Tamil), Mallanna (Telugu), and Mailar (Kannada) (Sontheimer 1993, 1997). More significantly, owing to Khandoba’s popularity, across the 12th to 14th centuries there are also many references that ridicule Khandoba as a Shudra god (Dhere 1993: 24).  

The jatra at Malegaon has a significant place in the cult of Khandoba and is revered as one of the jagrut sthans (potent places) for the cult. But beyond its religious significance the fair at Malegaon has been equally important for the annual congregation of some of the nomadic and peripatetic caste councils known as Jaat panchayats. Most notably, it is hailed as the biggest donkey, camel and horse market in the region. 

There are several niche markets within the fair associated with traditionally mobile communities; the ghongadi/kambli blankets made from goat and sheep fur by the Dhangar/Golla/Kuruba communities, bamboo and wooden goods market of the Kaikadis, the various animal traps, fishing nets, bird catching equipment made and sold by muslim peripatetic groups, various medicines, vibhootis (medicinal ashes), oils sold by the Vaidu community members, fortune-tellers and several trinkets, handcrafted jewellery, religious items sold by Pardhi community members and so on. There are tamasha, lavani, and Bombay-dance troops who come to the fair and set up their large tents along the borders of the fair grounds. Within the religious space one finds many folk artists and performers from nomadic/pastoral/peripatetic and “lower” caste groups such as the Potharaju, Waghya-Murali, Gondhalis and halgi/duff performers. Several members of the Hijra community also come to the fair for religious, cultural and economic participation. A large market of leather goods of mostly Chambhar community traders, metal products ranging from iron, steel, copper, aluminium constituted by mixed groups also gathers at the fair. Officially, the fair is organised by the zilla parishad for five days, around the religious ceremonies associated with the temple. But the fair spills over, before and after the official dates to almost an entire month. 

This broad-stroked portrait of the fair at Malegaon only seeks to highlight some activities associated with traditionally mobile communities. The larger space of the food, entertainment, consumer market of the fair, the various religious activities beyond the main temple and the social and communal meetings and co-presence fills the huge stretch of the 200 acres of the fair. While the community associations to the activities as listed above obtain in that fashion, they are not strictly restricted and limited by their traditional occupations. The fair is also a space of innovative entrepreneurial ventures where the transient and mobile nature of the fair allows many people to move beyond their traditional modes of livelihood. 

Mobilities That Mark the Fair at Malegaon

On the one hand, periodic assemblage and dispersal, and on the other hand, the networks and flows that they are embedded in characterise these sites as mobile. At the Malegaon jatra, we find that the fair, pilgrimage and the market occur at not just converging but also competing intensities.

The jatra of Malegaon is linked to other religious sites associated with the cult of Khandoba,2 like Jejuri, Pembar, Naldurg in Maharashtra and Mailar, Devaragudda in Karnataka among other smaller sacred sites. The cult of Khandoba is also linked to smaller religious shrines like that of Banai in the neighbouring village of Banvas. Some families, within communities that are associated with the cult of Khandoba, are also part of other goddess cults. There are also mythological accounts of the deity’s travels to Medina and subsequently revered as Mallu Khan. One of the largest urus in the region, around the figure of Turut Pir Baba, is the next site many from Malegaon head to. At the Malegaon jatra, the camel is restricted to the market space, in the urus of Turut Pir baba, the camel also features as a part of the religious ceremony.

The Malegaon jatra, is hailed as an “apex court” of various nomadic, pastoral and peripatetic communities such as the Vaidus, Waddars and Kaikadi (non-pastoral service-providing peripatetic communities who domesticate the donkey and use it for their livelihood)3 for the Jaat panchayats held here. Community members travelled long distances to attend these annual councils.

A Waddar family I meet at the donkey market of Malegaon in January 2018 has travelled from Solapur district to the donkey market in Malegaon, and have consequently, returned from the donkey market in the village of Vautha in Gujarat, travelled to the fairs at Jejuri near Pune and plan to sell the donkey bought in the April fair at Madhi in Ahmednagar. Malegaon jatra is connected with the regions of Saurashtra, Bundelkhand, Khandesh and parts of Rajasthan through the trade flows of donkeys, camels and horses. The superior Kathiawadi breed of donkeys has a higher demand than the local Deccani variety and traders from these northern regions attend the annual fair. 

At the fair, we also meet the rows and rows of shops dedicated to various equipment required for horses as well as tending to other animals owned by Dalit men who have travelled from Agra, they explain that for the six months of the year, they travel to various fairs, selling their products and are able to turn a considerable profit. Many petty traders from other regions track similar routes as they move on the road for months, travelling to smaller fairs and pilgrim places that dot the routes from one big fair to another until the monsoon season when they return home. 

The space is charged with movement and mobility not just because of the transient nature of the jatra but as some of these brief illustrations clarify, what we see is a complex network formed through a multiplicity of crisscrossing ties of religions, cultures, socialites and economies. Over time, as the scale of the jatra expands the state involvement has also deepened. As a result, one of the primary contentions that emerge are the state’s efforts of ordering the jatra as a fixed space against its inherently mobile character.

The State and its Agrarian Registers 

The state management of the fair has an overreaching impact on the jatra; it, by and large, looks at the fair as a rural agrarian affair and orients the space accordingly. The zilla parishad introduced numerous grand stalls that host exhibitions, competitions and information centres on cattle, crops, agricultural equipment, pesticides and so on. These stalls now occupy a large area of the fair.

Khandoba’s promotion as the Puranic avatar of Shiva, or Mahadev, is forwarded by the state narrative through the representations of the temple and the space it accommodates (including the rituals of the temple that are legitimised through practice), as for example the recent promotion of vegetarianism, which is done by promoting vegetarian food and offerings to the deity by government officials (where hitherto the practice was one of goat sacrifice). Even the dates of the announcement of the fair are aligned with the religious part of the fair, and no heed is paid to the arrangements required for the pastoral, nomadic and peripatetic groups that arrive at the jatra through public transport or on foot days before the fair has begun.  In fact, by the time the official fair begins, the donkey and camel market is almost over and most of the donkeys have been sold or bought.

The increasing importance given to the agrarian registers of the rural market and the changing nature of the temple complex has meant a clear shift in the centre of gravity of the fair.  In the explicit words of an old donkey seller from the Waddar community, who has been attending the jatra for the past 60 years, “The jatra has lost its sheen; we have all been pushed farther and farther away.  It is no longer our jatra.” His anxiety about losing the space of the jatra is also accentuated because of the recent ban on the Jaat panchayats, which has had a huge impact on the communities as well as their market.  

At any rate, the jatra becomes a site where we can see the interplay of the state with ex-criminalised groups, as well as new ways of criminalisation and disciplining of these spaces. On the one hand, we can see that the agents of the state, that is, the regional and local administration and politicians, all hail the fair as an important religious site that must be preserved and funded. These functionaries are all visible in their participation and patronisation of the Khandoba temple. On the other hand, the state also seeks to discipline and regulate certain other religious and cultural activities which they deem as “uncivil” like animal sacrifice and caste assemblies. To be sure, the jatra also continues to be occupied by the spaces and people that fall out of this logic of the state of what constitutes “legitimate” religious and social practices and activities. But, from within the gaze of the state, they are accommodated either in the form of complete neglect, criminalisation and/or cast as “superstitious” devotees. Outside of this gaze, however, the people and spaces do not get subsumed under this statist effect, but reorient and negotiate their positions in different ways. For example, while the Jaat panchayats stand criminalised, the communities continue to gather and hold caste courts in the name of assemblies, hiding from the police, journalists and the non-governmental organisation radar farther in the corners and niches of the jatra.

Conclusions

The scholarly attention towards these communities has been mainly the preserve of anthropologists, folklorists and Indologists. Broadly, one can identify three kinds of approaches that have dominated the discussion. One is that of the anthropologists who undertook extensive ethnographies mainly in the 1970s and 1980s, with their work largely focusing on one particular group or community. The second approach fixes itself on questions of the constitutional and developmental paradigm, addressing in particular the history of criminalisation of some communities, with the narrative devolving on their facets as victims of the violence of modernity, colonialism and the nation state. The third approach broadly is that of the Indologists and folklorists, who invariably looked at these communities as keepers of “exotic” traditions, while focusing heavily on the religious and cultural aspects of their life. 

To move away from these narratives is clearly a move towards a site that would offer an understanding of these communities, away from the registers where they exist only as criminalised groups or as marginalised communities, or even as under-developed, denotified tribes or victims of atrocities, and so on. The place and location of the Malegaon jatra presents precisely such a site of practice and theorisation. It allows us to be attentive to the “life worlds” of these communities, although their existence is not limited to these registers; and also, as a place where their engagement with other caste groups and the intricate networks of politics, economy and religion becomes visible, the entanglements of which require serious attention.  

“Saal bhar kuch nahi hua toh jatra me kuch na kuch ho jayega” (Even if the entire year was harsh, the jatra will see us through), these words that came at me many times during my encounters at the fair, emphasise that the importance of the jatras cannot be undermined. 

As the Malegaon fair presents itself as a rich archive of the life of the region and its people it also serves as a space of economic buffer against the harsh realities of changing political economy. The jatra suffers from stigmatisation, disciplining and neglect because of the centrality of nomadic, pastoral and peripatetic groups to the fair. Renewed fears of criminalisation through state intervention like the ban on Jaat panchayats, the control of cultural space through various “sanitisation” practises of vegetarianism, disciplining cultural economies and folk art to stage performances and competitions and at the same time a sheer absence of state welfare are tensions that the communities continue to grapple and contend with. On the one hand, the state administration expands its hold over the jatra, rendering it into a rural agrarian exhibition, and on the other hand, the increasing entry of the non-nomadic castes to seek opportunities in the jatra in the lieu of deepening agrarian crisis and economic precarity has left these groups with an increasingly shrinking space in their own fair. 

 

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