Artists from Kumaon
Culture,  Uttarakhand

Shilpkars of Kumaon- Vishwakarma Jayanti and Casteism

The saying of ‘Ghade Kumhar, Bhare Sansar’ (the potter who makes the pots that all of society uses, himself remain untouchable) describes the social status of the Shilpkar people of Kumaon. While narrating the widespread prevalence and importance of the Vishwakarma Jayanti, the storyteller poses the question as to why caste discrimination continues in our society even today.

Storyteller- Beena Verma
Village Malla Ghorpatta, Munsiari, District Pithoragarh
Uttarakhand

Read this story in Hindi

On the day of Vishwakarma Jayanti (annual festival), I woke up early, bathed, got ready and performed puja. After making kheer and puri, I worshiped my sewing machine and work tools and distributed prasad to everyone. This festival is of great cultural and religious significance, especially among the Shilpkars (Dalit craftsmen from a collection of different castes who do artisanal works are categorized as Scheduled Castes), artisans, craftsmen, engineers, and industrial laborers in India and Nepal and is celebrated on September 17th every year. This day also holds a special place for me.

Doing a puja (worship) of her work implements on Vishwakarma Jayanti 

I belong to a Lohar (blacksmith) family from Munsiari. I have seen my grandfather working as a blacksmith in the Sai Polu village. My uncles are still working as blacksmiths in the Choribagad village. My father used to work as a postman in Munsiari’s post office and did not practice his caste trade. When the lockdown was imposed, I learned sewing. Later, when I started working at Maati- a women’s collective, I stopped sewing for a living.

A Munsiari blacksmith with his work tools

There are questions in my mind that have bothered me- why are skilled artisans who are involved in various crafts like house construction, bamboo work, goldsmiths, blacksmiths, and woodworking- including the making and playing of traditional instruments, still referred to as a lower caste? In any other part of the world, these artisans are celebrated as artists who contribute to society!

Ringal (Montane Bamboo) weaver of Munsiari with his craft items

Vishwakarma Jayanti is an important Hindu festival celebrated in honour of Lord Vishwakarma, the divine architect and craftsman of the universe, who created the most intricate and amazing structures in the cosmos. He is considered a divine craftsman and is often referred to as the world’s first engineer. Vishwakarma is tasked with constructing the palaces of gods, including Lord Indra’s heavenly abode and Lord Krishna’s city of Dwarka.

A blacksmith from Naya Basti performing a puja  of his tools at the furnace

The festival of Vishwakarma Jayanti includes various customs and rituals. On this day, laborers clean their tools, machinery, vehicles, and workplaces, worshiping tools and machines made of iron. They do not use tools made with iron on this day. Devotees decorate their workshops and factories with colourful decorations, rangoli designs, and flowers. In Munsiari, artisans who come from Bihar to work on building projects celebrate Vishwakarma Jayanti in their own way. After the two days of puja, they take Vishwakarma’s idols in a procession with music and dance, in a vibrant and lively atmosphere, to immerse them in the Gori River near Madhkot, seeking blessings for prosperity before doing so.

Today, there have been many changes in the lives of Shilpkars, but I remember my grandmother’s stories. In the past, the Bhotiya or Shaukha (Scheduled Tribe) people from the 13 villages of Johar, located in the high Himalayas, were engaged in the trade with Tibet and the Shilpkars worked with them as their serfs.

My grandmother Ms. Anandi Devi, resident of Sai Polu village

My grandmother recalls her days of servitude and says-

 “I have seen the days when we did not have enough food to eat twice a day.” 

She would relate stories of how they would wake up early in the morning, work at their Gusai’s (master’s) house, do household chores, clean the premises, wash the dishes and would then be given their breakfast. They would then go to wash their master’s clothes, and only after that would they receive food. Some would take a little food for their families at home, because the children would be hungry, waiting for their mother to bring some. After washing the dishes during the day, they would have to go to cut grass for the cattle in the evening.

“When we came back with the grass in the evening, it was then that we would get tea. Sometimes, we would go to sleep hungry.”

Shaukha trader with his Yaks in Tibet

The men would also work for their Gusai. They would herd the horses, cattle, and sheep, and they would then get fed. When the Indo-China war of 1962 led to the closure of trade with Tibet, the Shilpkars were faced with the spectre of starvation. The Shaukha traders and their caravans had to stop going to Tibet. Soon thereafter, the enactment of the law for the Abolition of Zamindari (Landlordism) took land that they did not cultivate away from the wealthy Shaukhas. For these reasons along with others, the Shaukha community obtained the Scheduled Tribe status in 1967. The Shaukha traders then asked their Shilpkars to fend for themselves and to work separately. Some gave their Shilpkars small pieces of land to make a living from.

Khardung village located in Tibet

Since then, the Shilpkar community has gradually found ways of earning their livelihood and supporting their families. The Shilpkar community began to educate themselves. I have studied up to the 12th grade, and my father passed the 10th grade. Times changed, and the prospects for our community steadily improved. Today, everyone talks about their rights. People from the Shilpkar community have entered the political arena in our villages as elected representatives, enabled by a Constitutional amendment ensuring reservation for Dalits inPanchayati Raj Institutions. I have lived to see the day when a Scheduled Caste woman Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) of our state, Uttarakhand visited Munsiari recently, and we witnessed those who still discriminate against our dalit community bow and scrape before her to greet her!

Today, we can earn for ourselves and are free citizens of this Republic, yet casteism still exists. We are not allowed to enter temples. When it comes to marriages, we are not invited to participate like others. When a wedding takes place in our Shilpkar community, a priest does not preside over the ceremony. The bride or the groom’s maternal uncle conducts the wedding. Despite being in respectable positions, members of the Shilpkar community are not given equal respect. Elected representatives at the village panchayat have told me that they have been discriminated against several times and are often not invited to public meetings and gatherings. In one recent incident, an elected representative at the district level called upon only the Shilpkarwomen to dance and perform at public programs, which made us feel humiliated and small, as though we were still their slaves.

Shri Nain Ram, resident of Jainti village and a renowned Ringal (Montane Bamboo) craftsman of Munsiari

Many times, it’s hard to understand why the caste system is still prevalent in today’s society?

We are stuck in the same thinking-

“I am big, and you are small; you are a low, and I am high.” 

Who has created this high and low? 

Or have we gotten entangled in this caste system just to maintain our particular communities’ sense of power and prestige? 

We bother about what society will say and think, but isn’t society made up of you and me?

Is caste above humanity? 

In the 21st century, casteism is a curse that hinders the development of our society and country. Casteism is a very bad feeling.

Meet the storyteller

Beena Verma
+ posts

Beena Verma spent her childhood in Sai Polu village, and after her marriage she has experienced city-life in places like Ahmedabad and Haldwani. Her easy-going nature and bright smile belies a steely determination to stand up for what she believes is just and right. She enjoys making videos and posting them on social media. She is an active member of Maati, an autonomous women collective based in Munsiari.

बीना वर्मा का बचपन मुनस्यारी के साई पोलू गांव में बीता और शादी के बाद उन्होंने अहमदाबाद और हलद्वानी जैसी जगहों पर शहरी जीवन का अनुभव लिया। उज्ज्वल मुस्कान और सहज स्वभाव के साथ-साथ, बीना अन्याय के खिलाफ खड़े होने की दृढ़ता रखती है। उसे वीडियो बनाना और उन्हें सोशल मीडिया पर पोस्ट करना अच्छा लगता है। वह पिछले एक साल से मुनस्यारी स्थित माटी संगठन की सक्रिय सदस्य रही हैं।

Maati Sangathan
+ posts

Maati Sangathan is an autonomous women's organization which has been actively working on issues faced by mountain communities in their everyday lives in Uttarakhand for the last three decades. These include issues like stiving for a life free from violence, food sovereignty, livelihood security and local people's rights over the water, forests and land of the Himalaya.

माटी संगठन एक स्वायत महिला संगठन है जो उत्तराखण्ड के पहाड़ी जीवन के रोज़मर्रा जन मुद्दों पर पिछले ढाई दश्कों से सक्रीय हैं। हिंसा-मुक्त जीवन, अन्न स्वराज, आजीविका सुरक्षा और हिमालय के जल, जंगल व ज़मीन पर स्थानीय जनता का अधिकार हो जैसे मुद्दों पर कार्यरत रही है।

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