Goa's forgotten tribe – the Mhars
Dear Goans everywhere,
I dedicate this article to Goa's forgotten tribe – the Mhars!
Everyone has been despising the Mhars and treating them as dirt. In this series I have outlined various aspects of the Mhar community and some of the services they have provided to Goan society over the centuries and the discrimination meted to them.
This is a 14-part weekly series, commencing today on Gulf-Goans e-Newsletter, www.goa-world.com which is also posted to other Goan forums.
THE ORIGIN OF MHARS
The caste-system in India is a man-made system devoid of divine guidance.
Archaeological evidence shows Goa’s oldest inhabitants are the Mhars.
Around 4000 BC, a pastoral tribe migrated to Goa with the skills needed to tame animals. This is perhaps why so many names by which Goa has been known contains the term, Go (cow.)
Goa was known in ancient Hindu literature as Gomanta. In the Puranas and certain inscriptions, the name of the place appears as Gove, Govapuri and Gomant. In ancient Indian texts, in Sanskrit, Goa is also known as Gopakapuri or Gopakapattana.
Furthermore, while some appear to derive the name of the city from the river Gomanti, the old name for the Mandovi River, others identify it with Gopakarashtra i.e., the district of cowherds or of nomadic tribes mentioned in the Mahabharata, because, as is well known, the first Aryan settlers led a pastoral life.
Mhars are one of the original inhabitants of Goa who lived here long before the Aryans arrived. They are presently identified as scheduled caste laborers. Their main traditional occupations are basket-making and mat weaving with bamboo wood. They also played traditional instruments in the temples. They lived by hunting and gathering fruits and edible vegetation and roots.
The following song illustrates the low social treatment and unhappy poverty-stricken condition of the Mhars, a community converted to Christianity centuries ago by the Portuguese.
Their condition of semi-starvation compelled them to supplicate for remnants of food on the occasions when affluent people held feasts in their houses. A poor Mhar woman or Mharin sings thus:
“Ashe-dhashechim, Saiba; ashe-dhashechim
On’na-thembieachim, ami Mharam, Saiba.
(We are Mhars, Sir; we are Mhars who come to you with our plea!
We look up to you, Sir just for a few drops of water – just for a few crumbs of food! We are Mhars, Sir!)
Olden-day professions depended on the type of work one performed.
All those who tilled fields were classified as “xeth-kamti” (agriculturists); one who made gold ornaments was classified as a “sonar-xett” (goldsmith); one who melted iron and prepared tools was classified as a “lohar/chari” (ironsmith); one who manufactured furniture was classified as a “sutar/thovoi” (carpenter); one who processed tan and cobbled shoes was classified as a “chamar” (cobbler/shoemaker); one who dug graves was classified as a “pedo” (grave digger), and so on.
Some of the above-mentioned professions were considered so low that they were clubbed and classified as ‘untouchables’ - now Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes.
For example, nobody was prepared to share a meal in the company of a mhar. Why? Because they collected and disposed off carcasses and garbage, slaughtered animals, washed toilets, dug graves and buried humans and animals.
The caste system was so embedded in Goan society in the olden days that it was almost impossible for two lovers to join hands in holy matrimony, especially if one of them belonged to a lower caste strata.
Yester-year tiatrists like the late Minguel Rod and Aleixinho de Candolim did their best to educate and change the mindset of their audiences through their songs and tiatros; they did succeed to a great extent.
Until the Seventies, mhars were a common sight in every village. In fact, every village has a ‘mhar vaddo’, colloquially known as ‘marodda’. No wonder they say: “Ganv asa thuim marodd asa” (Wherever there is a village, there is a mhar vaddo) to protect it from evil spirits and invaders.
In Anjuna, we have a mhar vaddo that resembles a small “zunvo” (island.) It is a stretch of land admeasuring around 25,000 square meters. The place is elevated on a flat plateau and surrounded by fields on all four sides with a creek running on its North and West side.
Environmentally, it is the best place to live on, especially because there is free flow of breeze round-the-clock on all four sides, thus allowing natural ventilation.
The mhar vaddo is full of coconut trees. There are also mango trees, jackfruit trees, bhemor (gum tree), etc. and a couple of dhadde baimieo (barren wells,) which we, as adolescents, frequented to catch frogs (we fished them out from wells with a fishing rod by using ladies’ black fallen hair for bait); in turn, we used frog legs as bait to catch “kurleo” (crabs) from the creek.
Mhar vaddo residents never bought coconuts; they lived on fallen coconuts, but they also removed coconuts from the trees and served themselves whenever they felt the need. To make matters worse, boys from the village robbed addsoram (tender coconuts) from mhar vaddo at night. As a result, bhattkars hardly got any coconuts whenever “narlancho paddo” (coconut harvesting) took place.
In order to avoid the pilferage of coconuts, the bhattkars would tie “kantteanche bhore” (thorny bunches) in the middle of coconut trunks, which meant if anyone wanted to climb the coconut trees, they had to bring a ladder, but thieves would somehow cut the thorny bunches and rob coconuts.
The bhattkars then introduced a more painful method to prevent robberies of coconuts. They fixed fishing hooks to coconut trunks, which somewhat worked
– I say somewhat because clever thieves would feel the trunk first with both hands, remove the hooks and then climb the trees. The hooks were more effective while climbing down a coconut tree than climbing up, as they were inserted into the trees pointing upwards.
For all purposes, the mhars were outcast from society - they were segregated from common wards and located in an isolated place where the general populace of the village could not easily mix with them.
Whoever assigned this place to the mhars obviously had in mind to cut them off from the public, as the place was practically off-limits without even a connecting road! People went to marodda only when they needed mhars’ service. Teenagers went there either to eat addsoram (tender coconuts) or catch frogs in dhadde baimieo.
The only other time some men and women visited the place was whenever there was a cyclone - to collect fallen “narl” (coconuts,) “suke pidde” (dry coconut leaf stems,) “chuddttam” (coconut leaves), “sukeo pistoreo” (dry sheaths), “sukeo poieo” (dry spathes,) etc.
When it rains heavily for 3-4 consecutive days and nights, flooding takes places - colloquially it is known as “anvor”. The whole area, including the main road gets flooded and submerged in water.
Recently, there was an anvor when it rained continuously from June 30 through July 6, 2009. At such times, to a passerby, the mhar vaddo looks exactly like an island!
Whenever it rained heavily, the residents of mhar vaddo were stranded on the island; but they were a brave people. Since their houses were mostly “kolvacheo khompi” (palm-leaf-thatched huts) with mud floor, they had to flee the island by wading through a sunken “mathiechi paz or paim-vatt” (mud pathway) through the fields.
During my childhood there was only one house with mud walls and six hut-type houses in mhar vaddo but our elderly people told me there were over two dozen hutments there. There was only one house built with stones and “ganvtti nolle” (local tiles); it belonged to Jose Luis Fernandes, but it gave way in the late Fifties.
The mhars wore a kashti at home and even otherwise. But in the church they were given a uniform – khaki (flare) shorts and khaki half-sleeve shirt. A red cross was stitched on shirt pocket. The collar of the shirt was decorated with red piping all around. Due to their unfortunate state of affairs, they could not afford to buy a leather belt; so, they tied a piece of coir rope to secure their short pants!
Practically, all the mhars were regular drinkers and smokers. Most of them smoked “pamparo” - a local cigar made from tobacco leaf and wrapped in fallen jackfruit leaf; even women smoked a pamparo.
They often fought among themselves, which is why whenever a local family resorted to their type of behavior, people would comment: “Tanchem ghor marodd koxem zalam.” (Their house has become like a mhar vaddo!)
If they lived in disharmony, society was responsible as they never assisted the Mhars in improving their lot and elevating them on the social ladder. On the contrary, most people suppressed them and treated them like slaves.
The residents of mhar vaddo lived in abject poverty. Somehow, they were never able to make both the ends meet. But their poverty did not deter them from their basic parental duties. They cared for their children whole-heartedly, just as much as anyone of us did.
Their poverty brings to my mind the following incident of one of their boys, which will not only convince readers of their commitment towards their children but also the extent of sacrifice they were prepared to undergo for the sake of their children:
When Zenito (name changed) was about 9 years old, he fell down from a mango tree at marodda and his right thigh broke into three pieces.
Zenito’s parents were very poor. In those days, there was no public transportation in Anjuna. So, his father and “dog titiu” (father’s two brothers) would place him on a “xirotti” (hand-made bamboo stretcher used by Hindus to carry a dead body) and carry him on foot from Anjuna to Zunvear (Jua - Sant Estevanv) for treatment with a bonesetter. Two of them carried the stretcher and the third person acted as a reliever. Zenito’s mother walked behind them.
They would begin their journey at around 4:00 a.m. and return to Anjuna by about 3:00 p.m. Once in Anjuna, they would keep the stretcher in St. John’s chapel verandah, opposite my house, and relax there.
Sometimes Zenito’s mother would give a hint to my mother that they would be visiting Jua on the next day. My mother would go out of her way and prepare enough food for the five of them and keep it ready by noon. When they returned from Jua, we would take food to chapel verandah and serve them for which they were ever grateful to us.
Zenito had to be carried to Zunvear every week for over three months. He did not only recover from multiple fractures but went on to become one of the best local football players. He played as a full back for the Anjuna team for over two decades. He is still in excellent health. He is a good friend of mine.
Only Christian mhars lived on the so-called mhar vaddo in Anjuna until the Eighties, after which they relocated to different places, thus losing their “Munddkar” (Tenant) right.
Most acquired other skills and are better off economically - “xennantlo kiddo xennantuch uronam.” (A cow dung maggot does not remain there – it emerges out.) The expression is used while referring to those who rise from small, humble beginnings. In Portuguese they say: Ontem vaqueiro, hoje cavalheiro! People don’t always remain poor.
To my knowledge, there were only three Hindu mhar families in Anjuna but they did not live in mhar vaddo.
During my childhood, until the late Sixties, the south outskirt of mhar vaddo was used as a slaughter place. Actually, there was not even a hut for the purpose; they used a “bhenddiechem zhadd” (Thespesia populnea) to hang meat on hooks. Even the “tagddi” (weighing scale) was tied to a branch of bhenddiechem zhadd.
The mhars slaughtered cows and buffaloes. People always argued with them over meat, as buffalo meat is reddish and can be differentiated from cow meat. Yet they did not stop slaughtering buffaloes - may be because it was their favorite meat!
The mhars also slaughtered pigs at marodda and sold pork beside the beef stall.
In the Seventies, the slaughter house was shifted to a semi-dilapidated house at Igroz vaddo (Church ward) but the slaughtering was done by a Muslim and his Christian associate. The house has now been renovated and occupied by its legal owner, Alex Fernandes. At present, there is no slaughter house in Anjuna.
Presently, the mhar vaddo is re-named as “Asakundo/Asakunngo” (ancestral name) and is inherited by Hindus as well as Christians. There are in all 8 houses on the island now. There was a time when nobody wanted to be a part of mhar vaddo but today new occupiers are the proud owners of the once ‘marodda.’
Two years ago, the mathiechi paz or paim-vatt from the island to the main road was widened and converted into a tarred road.
The mhar vaddo was owned by four bhattkars - the late Antonio D’Souza from Gaumvaddy; the late Inaudino D’Souza (Venerable Fr. Agnel’s brother) from Sonarvaddo, Gaumvaddy; the late Frankie D’Souza from Voilo Vaddo, Gaumvaddy and the late Bruno Lobo from Mazalvaddo. The first two parties are yet to sell their properties. Once they sell their properties, more houses will prop up on the island.
To be continued …………….
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