As usual, they are seated in front of their “gadi”, the chariot they use to travel as well as their house. While the man is making a pick by hammering on his anvil, his wife is rotating the bellows. Timelessly, they repeat these gestures for hours everyday. Both belong to a blacksmith caste from western India, the Gaduliya Lohar.
Nomads since ever, the Gaduliya Lohar would have settled in the Middle Age in the Mewar region ( Southeastern Rajasthan, India) to manufacture the weapons of the ” Sisodia Rajput”, the local kings and warriors. After the defeat of Chittor ( then capital of Mewar) in 1568 by the Mughal emperor Akbar, they felt so humiliated by the defeat of the weapons they had made, they promised never to have a house again and never come back again to Chittor as long as the fortress would not be recaptured, as long as their honour would not be avenged. As Chittor has never been won again, the Gaduliya Lohar have never accepted to come back.
After this defeat, they decided to stop making weapons. They started manufacturing domestic utensils and agricultural tools and used to go to remote villages to avoid competing with sedentary smiths. They moved in small groups, each group following his own route. By this way, they could establish lasting contacts with villagers.
Although they admit they are “rajput” ( the western indian nobles), they are considered as untouchables. Indeed, the hindu orthodoxy considers nomads as impures. Through the centuries, their social status has been lowered by their itinerant way of life. As they spend most of their time together and their contacts with other castes are only professional, they have developed their own identity, their own traditions.
Coping with the modern world
Living as nomads was a strategy to reach the customers. By this mean, they increased their opportunities while minimizing the risks. Their flexibility, the free (domestic) labour, the low profitability, the capacity to concentrate on a segmented market, their lack of interest for wealth allowed them to work on a vacant sector for centuries. But times have changed. Despite of their hard work, profits are becoming lower and lower. They are not able to cope with industrialization. Nowadays, indians prefer buying steel or aluminum factory produces in the market : they are cheaper and the finish is better.
In the past, when blacksmiths arrived somewhere, farmers were happy, they allowed the Lohar to stay around the village. They could use the water, graze their cattle. Nowadays, farmers no more need them : finding a place to stay is becoming more and more difficult. Attempts have been made to sedentarize them. In 1955, Jawaharlal Nehru, then Indian Prime Minister, organized a march towards Chittor. In a symbolic way, he gave them the keys of the fort and asked them to settle, arguing they had no more reasons to fulfill their promise India being independant. Areas were reserved for them but building a house was too expensive. Those who tried to become peasants failed : they didn’t know farming. So, they hit the road again. Since then, other attempts have been made, other failures.
But times are hard. The Gaduliya Lohar are changing. Because of their extreme poverty, more and more are questioning their promise and putting away their “gadi”…to give a better future to their children who actually are not schooled.