The Banjaras are the largest and historic formed group in India and also known as Lambadi or Lambani. The Banjara people are a people who speak lambadi or Lambani. All gypsy languages are linked linguistically, stemming from ancient Sanskrit and belonging to the North Indo-Aryan language family. Lambadi is the heart language of the Banjara, but it has no written script. The Banjara speak a second language of the state they live in and adopt that script. They are listed under 53 different names. Historically, these are the root Gypsies of earth. During the British colonial rule, these gypsy nomads of India were given the name Banjara, but they call themselves Ghor.
The Banjaras are a colourful, versatile and one of the largest people groups of India, inhabiting most of the districts in India. The Banjara are a sturdy, ambitious people and have a light complexion. The Banjara were historically nomadic, keeping cattle, trading salt and transporting goods. Most of these people now have settled down to farming and various types of wage labour. Their habits of living in isolated groups away from other, which was a characteristic of their nomadic days, still persist. Their unique dress, heritage, customs and language distinguish them from the majority population, and they maintain a separate lifestyle. The banjara gypsies love storytelling, music, songs and dance. Men play drums and women dance in a circle chanting to the rhythmic beat. The Banjara are now experiencing rapid changes, and their traditional customs, practices and institutions are undergoing far-reaching transformations.
They are now settled as agricultural labourers. With ninty million Banjara in India and thirteen million outside India, there may be hundred million Banjara/gypsies live in the world. The Banjaras are located throughout India. The Banjara are primarily Hindu-Animists with their own gods and goddesses, festivals, and animistic worship practices. They offer goat sacrifices and are also bound by superstitions, fears and witchcraft. And only 12-15% of Banjara people are literate.
Banjara Gypsies are proud people with strong family traditions. They have close-knit family relationships with little involvement outside their own community. Nuclear or joint families often live together in one home. Banjara women are easily recognized by their colorful traditional costume with mirrors and coins stitched into their clothing. In the past, Banjara men also wore distinctive dress including an Indian dhoti, along with a long white shirt and turban. Today, mens' dress is generally indistinguishable from other Indians in the cities. The most loved Banjara food is called bhaggi, which is a spinach leaf curry mixed with goat meat and eaten with bhatti -- a flat bread similar to a tortilla.
Banjaras in contemporary periods.
In the 18th century a chain of mobile traders connected India to the outside world. Central Asian traders brought goods to India and the Banjaras and other traders carried these to local markets. They bought and sold these goods as they moved from one place to another, transporting them on their animals. They moved over long distances with their animals. They lived on milk and other pastoral products. They also exchanged wool, ghee, etc., with settled agriculturists for grain, cloth, utensils and other products. The Banjaras were the most important tradernomads. Their caravan was called tanda. Sultan Alauddin Khalji used the Banjaras to transport grain to the city markets. Emperor Jahangir wrote in his memoirs that the Banjaras carried grain on their bullocks from different areas and sold it in towns. They transported food grain for the Mughal army during military campaigns. With a large army there could be 100,000 bullocks carrying grain.
The Banjaras Peter Mundy, an English trader who came to India during the early seventeenth century, has described the Banjaras:
“In the morning we met a tanda of Banjaras with 14,000 oxen. They were all laden with grains such as wheat and rice. These Banjaras carry their household – wives and children – along with them. One tanda consists of many families. Their way of life is similar to that of carriers who continuously travel from place to place. They own their oxen. They are sometimes hired by merchants, but most commonly they are themselves merchants. They buy grain where it is cheaply available and carry it to places where it is dearer. From there, they again reload their oxen with anything that can be profitably sold in other places. In a tanda there may be as many as 6 or 7 hundred persons. They do not travel more than 6 or 7 miles a day – that, too, in the cool weather. After unloading their oxen, they turn them free to graze as there is enough land here, and no one there to forbid them.?”
Banjaras were a community much more in evidence all over India thousand of years from now. In fact, banjaras were called the "exporters" of grain, salt and other goods to distant provinces and regions of the country. Essentially, banjaras were a numerically larger community, operating on a much larger scale, traversing a much larger geographic area. They are also called as Vimukta Jati and Nomadic Tribes. The social category generally known as the Denotified and Nomadic Tribes (DNTs) covers a population of approximately 6 crores. In the period of Raja and Maharajas they however earn their bread and butter by hard working and doing ladeni work. In British period due to deforestation, industrialization and mammoth constructions work they used to get works of labour and loaders. But in the later stage due to advent of machine age and cutting of jungle and increasing dependency on machines by the British these people became jobless. By working in different areas and settling in those areas they became no longer nomadic and bereft of their earlier occupations, they were suspected of being desperate criminals by the police and public alike, and continue to be hounded as in colonial times. And by the British Government they were notified as criminal tribals.
Soon after Independence, these communities notified as criminal tribals were denotified by the Government. This was followed by the substitution of a series of acts, generally entitled 'Habitual Offenders Act'. This preserved most of the provisions of the former CT Act, except the premise that an entire community can be 'born' criminal. The denotification and the passing of the HOAs should have ended the misery of the communities penalised under the CT Act. But, that has not happened. After independence, various state governments have done little to restore land to the DNTs. Schemes for economic upliftment does not seem to have benefited them. The rate of illiteracy among the DNTs is higher than among Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes, malnutrition more frequent and provisions for education and health care almost negligible since most of them have remained nomadic. Above all, there is no limit to the atrocities that the DNTs have to face. However, in some State like Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Delhi, Bihar, Punjab and Orissa they have been included in SC/ST List.
In India, as described above, it was the colonial revenue policies which destroyed the itinerant/nomadic communities' earlier trading practices. Till 19th century the local people must find the nomads quite useful for the unusual wares they bring periodically. Their various skills of weaving mats or making baskets or playing musical instruments and more dramatically in the case of acrobats and dancers make them a colourful and interesting presence, in all probability providing relief and diversion from the tedium of daily routine.