18 Jul A Brief History of the Bajigars
The Bajigars were nomads, refugees from Akbar the Great’s aggression against them in Rajasthan. Akbar the Great, who should really be called Akbar the Coward, sent out an overwhelming force to conquer smaller kingdoms. The Bajigar generals Jamla and Patti were the only Rajput warriors to have defeated him time and again. To win them over, Akbar offered to marry one of their daughters. The generals refused, and an enraged Emperor gathered a huge army to annihilate them.
Faced with these odds, and the prospect of forced conversion, the generals uprooted their settled tribes and escaped to the wilderness. For a few centuries, they wandered across northwest India trying their best to survive. They were divided into twenty-six tribes, each with its own Raja. They learned to get along in Punjabi, Hindi. and Urdu.
The Bajigars were classified as “criminal tribes” by the British colonists, who feared them and compared them to the criminal network known as the Thugs, who were also nomadic and who terrorized the British, refusing to be subjugated. The Bajigars, however, were a peaceful people who survived through scavenging, herding goats and sheep, and renting their camels for field labour or work digging canals. The women of the tribe, known for their dancing and singing talents, were welcomed at the celebrations of weddings, engagements, and the birth of male heirs; some of the best Punjabi musicians and singers today are Bajigars. The men, tall and athletic, performed Baji, unique acrobatic skills, to entertain for a living. They were also accomplished drummers.
After Partition, some of the Bajigar clans with Muslim patrons decided to remain in Pakistan and probably converted to Islam. A majority chose to endure the flight to India. There, the Bajigars were offered the opportunity to settle permanently on the lands allotted to individual kabilas (clans) from the communal/shyamlat land of villages throughout northwest India. A large number of Bajigars settled in PEPSU, which later became the provinces of Punjab, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh. The settled tribes
lived in deras, a collection of mud huts with thatched roofs surrounded by thorny fences. Their children started to attend schools; the adults worked as entertainers, herdsmen, hunters, and field hands.
Born Hindus, many Bajigars adopted Sikhism as their faith and represent one of the largest groups to have done so in later centuries after this faith was well established.
The Bajigars did not have a written language and they do not have a documented history. There is almost nothing in English literature about them; the only references to be found are in census reports. I have been unable to find any book detailing their lives, or even a Bajigar protagonist in fiction. There is a Bollywood movie called Bazigaar but, disappointingly, it has nothing to do with the Bajigar people.
Bajigars in Modern Times
The Bajigar deras have merged with villages and towns. Their dress is Punjabi, and they speak Hindi, Punjabi, or the languages prevalent where they live. Bajigars have become increasingly modernized thanks to education and the reservation system, under which they are classified as “backward” tribes.
Growing up in Punjab, I was fascinated by the exotic Bajigar people—their colourful clothes and silver jewellery, their sweet language, Gauri. My mother’s brother, a wrestler, had a Bajigar guru, and I had the pleasure of being welcomed to his dera. He called me his dohta (daughter’s son) and would feed me a glass of milk every time I went there. I developed a strong liking for the Bajigars and their ways, and I visited their deras whenever I had the chance.
It is sad now when I go to Punjab to see only occasionally a traditionally dressed woman or man; most have adopted Punjabi and western attire, and no longer tattoo their faces or wear their heavy silver jewellery. I wanted to make sure that this colourful and complex culture, with its unique history, did not disappear into the past.
In Paper Lions I decided I must include a major protagonist who was a Bajigar, as the tribe is an integral part of the fabric of Punjab. I felt that it was also ethically necessary to portray them, their culture, and their customs in a proper and respectful manner. My childhood friend Surinder Agnihotri offered to help with the research as he knew an elderly Bajigar tribal groat. I prepared a list of almost a hundred questions, and the answers that came back gave me knowledge that was invaluable in creating Basanti, Devi, Rustum Mukhia, Sehba, Naura, and Paso, Rana, and Wazeer, as well as Dadi, Changu, and Gulab as characters with their own distinctive personalities.
Now my prayer is that other writers, hopefully Bajigars, will be inspired to enrich this subject via fiction or non-fiction.
Punjab is not a monolithic place. Punjabi is the eleventh most popular language in the world, with over 150 million claiming it as their mother tongue. Punjabi is unique in that it is read and written in three distinct alphabets. The majority of Punjabi speakers are in Pakistan, where Punjabi Muslims total almost 80 million. They read and write Punjabi in the Urdu script. A lot of the best Punjabi literature was created by Muslim poets and writers like Baba Bulleh Shah, Farid, and Kabir. Sikhs read and write Punjabi in the Gurmukhi script, while Hindus in Haryana, Himachal, and Greater Delhi use the Hindi script.
Modern-day Indian Punjab is home to significant Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim populations in addition to the majority Sikhs.
Sikhism in Films and Literature
There remains a dearth of literature in English about Sikhs. I know of only a handful of Sikh writers in English. Sikhs are rarely featured as protagonists. The best known Sikh in a Hollywood movie is Noonien Singh Khan from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Sikhs are generally minor characters and often caricatured. Several science fiction novels mention and include them as a warrior clan.
My favorite novels featuring Sikhs are Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh, What The Body Remembers by Shauna Singh Baldwin, and The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota. I hope Paper Lions adds helpfully to this meagre offering.