Kalbelia – Tribe of Rajasthan
Kalbelia – Tribe of Rajasthan: The community that worships snakes is Kalbelia. Kalbelia is made from two words Kaal and Belia. But what is the meaning of Kaal and Belia? What relation does this community have with snakes and venom?
Let’s discover some interesting facts about them. It is believed that the Kalbelia tribe of Rajasthan originated in almost the 12th Century as one of Navnath’s followers as Sage Kanifnath in the Thar desert of Rajasthan. As per mythological stories, once Sage Gorakhnath tested his disciple Sage Kanifnath handed him a bowl of venom, which Sage Kanifnath drank without any questions. Pleased with this, Sage Gorakhnath blessed him that Sage Kanifnath would have control over poisonous animals and snakes.
And his followers would have the right to beg for alms. It is a very old tradition in India to beg for alms and to give charity. Kalbelia is also a symbol of that custom. And thus Kalbelia community was born. But how did the word Kalbelia come into existence? It is a belief that Kaal which means ‘death’, is connected to poison and the meaning of Belia is a bowl. So, the bowl of Kaal (death) means ‘a bowl of poison’. Hence, the followers of Sage Kanifnath, who drank the bowl of poison are called Kalbelia.
Some historians also believe that the Kaal is associated with Mahakaal or Lord Shiva and Belia is associated with Nandi, the bull of Lord Shiva. And hence the word Kalbelia. Whatever the origin of their story, one thing is clear capturing snakes and protecting people from them, treating a snake bite, and trading in snake poison are the traditional businesses for the Kalbelia community.
Dhaliwal and Mewara are the two sub-castes of the Kalbelia community. They are also known as Sapera, Sapela, Jogi, Gatiwala, Poogiwara and also by Banjara. The language spoken by them is called Sapera. According to Polish poet Jan Kochanowski, the 12th and 13th century was the Golden period for Kalbelia Community. But after the defeat of Prithviraj Chauhan by Muhammad Ghori, The golden era of the Kalbelia community started fading away. During the 14th Century, due to the fear of conversion and forced slavery. Kalbelia community migrated from Rajasthan to other parts of the country like Malwa in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Gujarat.
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Even then for many years, the Kalbelia community continued their traditional occupation. Then between the 16th and 18th centuries, during the Mughal rule, Kalbelia were summoned to the Mughal court to entertain with snake feats and to perform traditionally Kalbelia dance. The people of the Kalbelia community are nomadic and they keep moving from one village to the other. They usually stay on the outskirt of a village. And their temporary homes are called Dera (shelter). In the Kalbelia community, it is compulsory for one person in the family to work as Sapera (snake charmer).
They keep the snakes in bamboo baskets and go from door to door displaying their skills. And women beg for alms by performing their traditional dance. In this manner, this community earns its livelihood. Despite the Kalbelia community being Hindus, their dead bodies are not burnt but are buried. And on top of their grave, an idol of Shiva’s Nandi bull is installed. In 1972, the Government of India enacted the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 in which capturing and taming wild animals has been completely banned. Due to this, the Kalbelia community had to stop their traditional occupation which involved snakes and their poisons. Therefore, to make a living, the Kalbelia community adopted dance and music as their prime business.
Which women of the Kalbelia community contributed a lot. Gulabo Sapera is the biggest example of this. Gulabo Sapera gave a new identity to Kalbelia dance, in India and abroad. And this dance style is known as Kalbelia dance all over the world. For this contribution, in 2016, the Government of India honored Gulabo Sapera with Padma Shri Award. Kalbelia community has protected the society from venomous animals and gave their dance form a new recognition all across the globe. Today to watch and learn the Kalbelia Traditional dance from people from all over the world visit Rajasthan.
This and in turn give a boost to tourism and employment. The proverb ‘Ramta Jogi aur Behta Pani’, (Wanderer is like flowing water) perfectly captures the essence of the life of the Kalbelia community.
What is the relation of the Saraswat Brahmins community with the divine river Saraswati? Why and how did they have a long escape in three directions? In the next article, we will learn about the origin of the Saraswat Brahmin Community and some interesting facts about their thousands of years of journey.