Indian culture

How the migratory patterns of the Brahmins, weavers shaped Indian culture


Whenever we speak of migration, we think of the Aryan migration to India 3,500 years ago. The British colonialists insisted, for their political reasons, that this was an invasion. But, a scientific investigation, based on linguistics, archeology and genetics, has conclusively proven that this is a migration that has occurred in phases over the centuries.

Yet Indian culture is not just the result of the Aryan invasion. There have been many migrations within the subcontinent which have often not been covered in the history books. They are not part of popular memory. Let’s discuss three such migrations that changed the face of India.

A significant set of migrations took place between 500 CE and 1000 CE in different parts of India. These are the Brahmin migrations. The Brahmins came with special skills. Unlike the Vedic Brahmins, who practiced yagyas only for the material welfare of their patrons, the new Brahmins were known to found villages. The villages increased the extent of cultivated land, hence the income of the kings. Thus, ambitious kings or warlords in different parts of India invited the Brahmins to come to their kingdoms to establish temples, transforming the village gods into local forms of traditional Puranic gods. The deity of the temple was designated as the true owner of the villages. The king was only a viceroy, and the priest served both the king and the deity. The temple would then become the center of tax collection. It has also become the place of culture, where art, music and literature will develop. The Brahmans thus allowed the king to become royal and to extend his hold on the country. This is captured in the story of Vamana Avatar, who receives a piece of land from King Asura Bali. The lands received by the Brahmins are known as Brahmadeya lands and the lands where the Brahmins stayed were called Agraharas. Across India we find many large copper plaques explaining how kings would give these lands.

One of the most popular migrations of the Brahmins occurred when the Sena kings invited the Brahmins from the Ganges plains to come to Bengal. The other was when the kings of Konkan and Goa invited the Brahmins Gaud Saraswat of Kashmir. These Brahmins had traveled from Kashmir and the banks of the Saraswat River, via Bengal, to the Konkan coast. Another migration occurred when the Brahmins were called to Madurai and Tanjore, from Maharashtra. This is how the Sanskrit cosmopolis spread across India during this period.

The second migration was the migration of the weavers. These took place between 1500 and 1800 AD. The Deccan plateau was controlled by the agricultural economy. Coastal regions of India were popular for their weaving communities. The fabrics would be exported to all over the world and this made India a center for textiles.

The story goes that Markendeya wanted to give clothes to the gods. So from a hearth he created a sage called Bhavana Rishi, who had with him a ball of threads which he had picked up in Vishnu’s navel. He spun this thread and woven it into a fine fabric which he distributed to the gods. From Bhavana Rishis descended the Padmashali and other communities of weavers. The weavers migrated from Saurashtra in Madhya Pradesh to the different kingdoms of the Vijaynagar Empire. They were popular among temples because the fabric was used for various temple rituals. The fabric was also used by the communities that lived around the temple. They were invited to port cities, from where merchants could sell their wares to the rest of the world. They would move to where they got tax cuts and good incentives. Various push and pull factors took place during this period. India has become famous not only for its cotton weaves, but also for its silk weaves and the use of brocades.

The third migration was that of the ascetic mercenaries. We often think of the naga babas as the savage spiritual people of the Kumbha Mela, but from the 16th to the 19th century, when they were demilitarized by the British, they were fierce warriors to hire. The Akhadas provided a training ground for single men with no family, no clan attachment. It was a mobile group of people. They worshiped the warlike forms of Shiva such as Bhairava and also Hanuman. For many, the Vanar-sena were the first warrior ascetics who served Ram. In popular tradition, they defended Hinduism against Islamic invaders, but in reality they were available for a fee and were used by local kings – Hindus and Muslims – to collect taxes and ward off predators from their lands. The wealth collected by the Akhadas was often used in banking operations as well as in commerce. Even today, the Akhadas of India are known to be the district’s proto-banking establishments.

Thus, we see the migratory patterns of Brahmins, weavers and mercenary ascetics in different periods of Indian history. While these migrations shaped Indian culture, we don’t talk about them much though now scholars like Chinmay Tumbe, Vijaya Ramaswamy, and William Pinch write about them.

(The writer is the author of the Business Sutra)


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