Read Sansia of The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India, Volume IV, free online book, by R.V. Russell, on ReadCentral.com.

1. Historical notice of the caste

Sansia . - A small caste of wandering criminals of northern India, who live by begging and dealing in cattle. They also steal and commit dacoities, house-breaking and thefts on railway trains. The name Sansia is borne as well by the Uriya or Öd masons of the Uriya country, but these are believed to be quite a distinct group from the criminal Sansias of Central India and are noticed in another short article. Separate statistics of the two groups were not obtained at the census. The Sansias are closely connected with the Berias, and say that their ancestors were two brothers Saíns Mul and Sansi, and that the Berias are descended from the former and the Sansias from the latter. They were the bards of the Jat caste, and it was their custom to chronicle the names of the Jats and their ancestors, and when they begged from Jat families to recite their praises. The Sansias, Colonel Sleeman states, had particular families (of the Jats) allotted to them, from whom they had not only the privilege of begging, but received certain dues; some had fifty, some a hundred houses appointed to them, and they received yearly from the head of each house one rupee and a quarter and one day’s food. When the Jats celebrated their marriages they were accustomed to invite the Sansias, who as their minstrels recited the praises of the ancestors of the Jats, tracing them up to the time of Punya Jat; and for this they received presents, according to the means of the parties, of cows, ponies or buffaloes. Should any Jat demur to paying the customary dues the Sansias would dress up a cloth figure of his father and parade with it before the house, when the sum demanded was generally given; for if the figure were fastened on a bamboo and placed over the house the family would lose caste and no one would smoke or drink water with them.

The Sansias say that their ancestors have always resided in Marwar and Ajmer. About twenty-four miles distant from Ajmer are two towns, Pisangan and Sagun; on their eastern side is a large tank, and the bones of all persons of the Sansia tribe who died in any part of the country were formerly buried there, being covered by a wooden platform with four pillars. On one occasion a quarrel had arisen over a Sansia woman, and a large number of the caste were killed in this place. So they left Marwar, and some of them came to the Deccan, where they took to house-breaking and dacoity; and so successful were they that the other Sansias followed them and gave up all their former customs, even those of reciting the praises of and begging from the Jats.

2. Social customs

The Sansias are divided into two groups, Kalkar and Malha; and these two are further subdivided into eight and twelve sections respectively. No one belonging to the Kalkar group may marry another person of that group, but he may marry anybody belonging to any section of the Malha group. Thus the two groups being exogamous the sections do not serve any purpose, but it is possible that the rules are really more complicated. In the Punjab their marriage ceremony is peculiar, the bride being covered by a basket, on which the bridegroom sits while the nuptial rites are being performed. According to Colonel Sleeman, after the arrangement of a match the caste committee assemble to determine the price to be paid to the father of the girl, which may amount to as much as R. When this is settled some liquor is spilt on the ground in the name of Bhagwan or Vishnu, and an elder pronounces that the two have become man and wife; a feast is given to the caste, and the ceremony is concluded. After child-birth a woman cannot wash herself for five days, but on the sixth she may go to a stream and wash. Even on ordinary occasions a woman must never wash herself inside the house, but must always go to a stream, which rule does not apply to men. When the hair of a child begins to grow it is all shaved except the scalp-lock, which is dedicated to Bhagwan; and at ten or twelve years of age this lock is also shaved off and a dinner is given to members of the caste. The last ceremony is of the nature of a puberty-rite, and if children die prior to its performance their bodies are buried, whereas after it they have a right to cremation. After a body has been burnt the bones are buried on the spot in an earthen vessel, over the mouth of which a large stone is placed. Some pig’s flesh is cooked and sweet cakes prepared, portions of which are placed upon the stone; and the deceased is then called upon, by reason of the usual ceremonies having been performed at his death, to watch over his surviving relatives. If any Sansia happened to commit a murder when engaged in a dacoity he was afterwards obliged to make an offering for forgiveness, and to spend a rupee and a quarter in liquor for the caste-fellows. If a dacoit had himself been killed and his body abandoned, his clothes, with some new clothes, were put upon a sleeping-cot, and his companions of the same caste carried it to a convenient spot, where it was either burnt or buried in the ground.

3. Taboos of relationship

Colonel Sleeman records some curious taboos among relations. A man cannot go into the hut of his mother-in-law or of his son’s wife; for if their petticoat should touch him he would be turned out of his caste and would not be admitted into it until he had paid a large sum. “If we quarrel with a woman,” said a Sansia, “and she strikes us with her petticoat we lose our caste; we should be allowed to eat and drink with our tribe, but not to perform worship with them nor to assist in burial rites. If a woman piles up a heap of stones and puts her petticoat upon it and throws filth upon it and says to any other, ‘This disgrace fell upon your ancestors for seven generations back,’ both are immediately expelled from our caste, and cannot return to it until they have paid a large sum of money.”

4. Organisation for dacoity

As in the case of the Badhaks the arrangements for a dacoity were carefully organised. Each band had a Jemadar or leader, while the others were called Sipahis or soldiers. A tenth of all the booty taken was given to the Jemadar in return for the provision of the spears, torches and other articles, and of the remainder the Jemadar received two shares and the Sipahis one each. But no novice was permitted to share in the booty or carry a spear until he had participated in two or three successful dacoities; and inasmuch as outsiders, with the exception of the impure Dhers and Mangs, were freely admitted to the Sansia community in return for a small money payment, some such apprenticeship as this was no doubt necessary. If a Sipahi was killed in a dacoity his wife was entitled to a sum of R and half an ordinary share in future dacoities as long as she remained with the gang. The Sansias never pitched their camp in the vicinity of the place in which they contemplated an enterprise, but despatched their scouts to it, themselves remaining some twenty miles distant.

5. Description of a dacoity

The scouts, having prospected the town and determined the house to be exploited, usually that of the leading banker, would then proceed to it in the early morning before business began and ask to purchase some ornaments or change some money; by this request they often induced the banker to bring out his cash chest from the place of security where he was accustomed to deposit it at night, and learnt where it should be looked for. Having picked up as much information as possible, the scouts would purchase some spear-heads, bury them in a neighbouring ravine, and rejoin the main body. The party would arrive at the rendezvous in the evening, and having fitted their spears to bamboo shafts, would enter the town carrying them concealed in a bundle of karbi or the long thick stalks of the large millet, juari. One man was appointed to carry the torch, and the oil to be poured on this had always to be purchased in the town or village where the dacoity was to take place, the use of any other oil being considered most unlucky. The vessel containing the oil was not allowed to touch the earth until its contents had been poured upon the torch, when it was dashed upon the ground. From this time until the completion of the dacoity no one might spit or drink water or relieve himself under penalty of putting a stop to the enterprise. The Jemadar invoked Khandoba, an incarnation of Mahadeo, and said that if by his assistance the box of money was broken at the first or second stroke of the axe, a chain of gold weighing one and a quarter tolas would be made over to him. The party then approached the shop, the roads surrounding it being picketed to guard against a rescue, and the Jemadar, accompanied by four or five men and the torch-bearer, rushed into the shop crying Din, Din. The doors usually gave way under a few heavy blows with the axe, which they wielded with great expertness, and the scout pointed out the location of the money and valuables. Once in possession of the property the torch was extinguished and the whole party made off as rapidly as possible. During their retreat they tried to avoid spearing people who pursued them, first calling out to them to go away. If any member of the party was killed or so desperately wounded that he could not be removed, the others cut off his head and carried it off so as to prevent recognition; a man who was slightly wounded would be carried off by his companions, but if the pursuit became hot and he had to be left, they cut off his head also and took it with them, escaping by this drastic method the risk of his turning approver with the consequent danger of conviction for the rest of the gang. About a mile from the place of the dacoity they stopped and mustered their party, and the Jemadar called out to the god Bhagwan to direct any pursuers in the wrong direction and enable them to reach their families. If any dacoit had ever been killed at this particular town they also called upon his spirit to assist them, promising to offer him a goat or some liquor; and so, throwing down a rupee or two at any temple or stream which they might pass on their way, they came to their families. When about a mile away from the camp they called out ‘Cuckoo’ to ascertain if any misfortune had occurred during their absence; if they thought all was well they went nearer and imitated the call of the partridge; and finally when close to the encampment made a hissing noise like a snake. On arrival at the camp they at once mounted their ponies and started off, marching fifty or sixty miles a day, for two or three days.

6. Omens

The Sansias never committed a dacoity on moonlight nights, but had five appointed days during the dark half of the month, the seventh, ninth, eleventh, thirteenth and the night of the day on which the new moon was first seen. If they did not meet with a favourable omen on any of these nights, no dacoity was committed that month. The following is a list of omens given by one of the caste: “If we see a cat when we are near the place where we intend to commit a dacoity, or we hear the relations of a dead person lamenting, or hear a person sneeze while cooking his meal, or see a dog run away with a portion of any person’s food, or a kite screams while sitting on a tree, or a woman breaks the earthen vessel in which she may have been drawing water, we consider the omens unfavourable. If a person drops his turban or we meet a corpse, or the Jemadar has forgotten to put some bread into his waistbelt, or any dacoit forgets his axe or spear or sees a snake whether dead or alive; these omens are also considered unfavourable and we do not commit the dacoity. Should we see a wolf and any one of us have on a red turban, we take this and tear it into seven pieces and hang each piece upon a separate tree. We then purchase a rupee’s worth of liquor and kill a goat, which is cut up into four pieces. Four men pretend that they are wolves and rushing on the four quarters of the meat seize them, imitating the howl of these animals, while the rest of the dacoits pelt them with the entrails; the meat is afterwards cooked and eaten in the name of Bhagwan.”

It would appear that the explanation of this curious ceremony must be that the Sansias thought the appearance of the wolf to be an omen that one of them would furnish a meal for him. The turban is venerated on account of its close association with the head, a sacred part of the body among Hindus, and in this case it probably served as a substituted offering for the head, while its red colour represented blood; and the mimic rite of the goat being devoured by men pretending to be wolves fulfilled the omen which portended that the wolves would be provided with a meal, and hence averted the necessity of one of the band being really devoured. In somewhat analogous fashion the Gonds and Baigas placate or drive away a tiger who has killed a man in order to prevent him from obtaining further victims. Some similar idea apparently underlay the omen of the dog running away with food. Perhaps the portent of hearing the kite scream on a tree also meant that he looked on them with a prescient eye as a future meal. On the other hand, meeting a corpse and seeing a snake are commonly considered to be lucky omens, and their inclusion in this list is curious. The passage continues: “Among our favourable omens are meeting a woman selling milk; or a person carrying a basket of grain or a bag of money; or if we see a calf sucking its mother, or meet a person with a vessel of water, or a marriage procession; or if any person finds a rupee that he has lost; or we meet a bearer carrying fish or a pig or a blue-jay; if any of these occur near our camp on the day we contemplate a dacoity, we proceed forthwith to commit it and consider that these signs assure us a good booty. If a Fakir begs from us while we are on our way to the place of dacoity we cannot give him anything.” Another Sansia said: “We think it very favourable if, when on the way to commit a dacoity we hear or see the jackal; it is as good as gold and silver to us; also if we hear the bray of the ass in a village we consider it to be lucky.”

7. Ordeals

The following is a description given by a Sansia of their ordeals: If a Jemadar suspects a Sipahi of secreting plunder a panchayat is assembled, the members of which receive five rupees from both parties. Seven pipal leaves are laid upon his hand and bound round with thread, and upon these a heated iron tawa or plate is set; he is then ordered to walk seven paces and put the plate down upon seven thorns; should he be able to do so he is pronounced innocent, but if he is burnt by the plate and throws it down he is considered guilty. Another ordeal is by fixing arrows, two of which are shot off at once from one bow, one in the name of Bhagwan (god), and the other in the name of the panchayat ; the place being on the bank of the river. The arrow that flies the farthest is stuck upright into the ground; upon which a man carrying a long bamboo walks up to his breast in the water and the suspected person is desired to join him. One of the panchayat then claps his hands seven times and runs off to pick up the arrow; at this instant the suspected person is obliged to put his head under water, and if he can hold his breath until the other returns to the bank with the arrow and has again clapped his hands seven times he is pronounced innocent. If he cannot do so he is declared guilty and punished. A third form of ordeal was as follows: The Jemadar and the gang assemble under a pipal tree, and after knocking off the neck of an earthen pitcher they kill a goat and collect its blood in the pitcher, and put some glass bangles in it. Four lines are drawn on the pitcher with vermilion (representing blood), and it is placed under a tree and 1 1/4 seers of gur (sugar) are tied up in a piece of cloth 1 1/4 cubits in length and hung on to a branch of the tree. The Jemadar then says, ’I will forgive any person who has not secreted more than fifteen or twenty rupees, but whoever has stolen more than that sum shall be punished.’ The Jemadar dips his finger in the pitcher of blood, and afterwards touches the sugar and calls out loudly, ’If I have embezzled any money may Bhagwan punish me’; and each dacoit in turn pronounces the same sentence. No one who is guilty will do this but at once makes his confession. The oath pronounced on 1 1/4 seers of sugar tied up in 1 1/4 cubits of cloth was considered the most solemn and binding which a Sansia could take.

8. Sansias at the present time

At present, Mr. Kennedy states, the Sansias travel about in gangs of varying strength with their families, bullocks, sheep, goats and dogs. The last mentioned of these animals are usually small mongrels with a terrier strain, mostly stolen or bred from types dishonestly obtained during their peregrinations. Dacoity is still the crime which they most affect, and they also break into houses and steal cattle. Men usually have a necklace of red coral and gold beads round the neck, from which is suspended a square piece of silver or gold bearing an effigy of a man on horseback. This represents either the deity Ramdeo Pir or one of the wearer’s ancestors, and is venerated as a charm. They are very quarrelsome, and their drinking-bouts in camp usually end in a free fight, in which they also beat their women, and the affray not infrequently results in the death of one of the combatants. When this happens the slayer makes restitution to the relatives by defraying the expenses of a fresh drinking-bout. During the daytime men are seldom to be found in the encampment, as they are in the habit of hiding in the ditches and jungle, where the women take them their food; at night they return to their tents, but are off again at dawn.