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1. Distribution and historical notices

Savar, Sawara, Savara, Saonr, Sahra (and several other variations. In Bundelkhand the Savars, there called Saonrs, are frequently known by the honorific title of Rawat). - A primitive tribe numbering about 70,000 persons in the Central Provinces in 1911, and principally found in the Chhattisgarh Districts and those of Saugor and Damoh. The eastern branch of the tribe belongs chiefly to the Uriya country. The Savars are found in large numbers in the Madras Districts of Ganjam and Vizagapatam and in Orissa. They also live in the Bundelkhand Districts of the United Provinces. The total number of Savars enumerated in India in 1911 was 600,000, of which the Bundelkhand Districts contained about 100,000 and the Uriya country the remainder. The two branches of the tribe are thus separated by a wide expanse of territory. As regards this peculiarity of distribution General Cunningham says: “Indeed there seems good reason to believe that the Savaras were formerly the dominant branch of the great Kolarian family, and that their power lasted down to a comparatively late period, when they were pushed aside by other Kolarian tribes in the north and east, and by the Gonds in the south. In the Saugor District I was informed that the Savaras had formerly fought with the Gonds and that the latter had conquered them by treacherously making them drunk.” Similarly Cunningham notices that the zamindar of Suarmar in Raipur, which name is derived from Savar, is a Gond. A difference of opinion has existed as to whether the Savars were Kolarian or Dravidian so far as their language was concerned, Colonel Dalton adopting the latter view and other authorities the former and correct one. In the Central Provinces the Savars have lost their own language and speak the Aryan Hindi or Uriya vernacular current around them. But in Madras they still retain their original speech, which is classified by Sir G. Grierson as Mundari or Kolarian. He says: “The most southerly forms of Munda speech are those spoken by the Savars and Gadabas of the north-east of Madras. The former have been identified with the Suari of Pliny and the Sabarae of Ptolemy. A wild tribe of the same name is mentioned in Sanskrit literature, even so far back as in late Vedic times, as inhabiting the Deccan, so that the name at least can boast great antiquity.” As to the origin of the name Savar, General Cunningham says that it must be sought for outside the language of the Aryans. “In Sanskrit savara simply means ‘a corpse.’ From Herodotus, however, we learn that the Scythian word for an axe was sagaris , and as ‘g’ and ‘v’ are interchangeable letters savar is the same word as sagar . It seems therefore not unreasonable to infer that the tribe who were so called took their name from their habit of carrying axes. Now it is one of the striking peculiarities of the Savars that they are rarely seen without an axe in their hands. The peculiarity has been frequently noticed by all who have seen them.” The above opinion of Cunningham, which is of course highly speculative, is disputed by Mr. Crooke, who says that “The word Savara, if it be, as some believe, derived from sava a corpse, comes from the root sav ‘to cause to decay,’ and need not necessarily therefore be of non-Aryan origin, while on the other hand no distinct inference can be drawn from the use of the axe by the Savars, when it is equally used by various other Dravidian jungle tribes such as the Korwas, Bhuiyas and the like.” In the classical stories of their origin the first ancestor of the Savars is sometimes described as a Bhil. The word Savar is mentioned in several Sanskrit works written between 800 B.C. and A.D. 1200, and it seems probable that they are a Munda tribe who occupied the tracts of country which they live in prior to the arrival of the Gonds . The classical name Savar has been corrupted into various forms. Thus in the Bundeli dialect ‘ ava ’ changes into ‘ au ’ and a nasal is sometimes interpolated. Savar has here become Saunr or Saonr. The addition of ‘a’ at the end of the word sometimes expresses contempt, and Savar becomes Savara as Chamar is corrupted into Chamra . In the Uriya country ‘v’ is changed into ‘b’ and an aspirate is interpolated, and thus Savara became Sabra or Sahara, as Gaur has become Gahra. The word Sahara, Mr. Crooke remarks, has excited speculation as to its derivation from Arabic, in which Sahara means a wilderness; and the name of the Savars has accordingly been deduced from the same source as the great Sahara desert. This is of course incorrect.

2. Tribal legends

Various stories of the origin of the Savars are given in Sanskrit literature. In the Aitareya Brahmana they are spoken of as the descendants of Vishwamitra, while in the Mahabharat they are said to have been created by Kamdhenu, Vasishtha’s wonder-working cow, in order to repel the aggression of Vishwamitra. Local tradition traces their origin to the celebrated Seori of the Ramayana, who is supposed to have lived somewhere near the present Seorinarayan in the Bilaspur District and to have given her name to this place. Ramchandra in his wanderings met her there, ate the plums which she had gathered for him after tasting each one herself, and out of regard for her devotion permitted her name to precede his own of Narayan in that given to the locality. Another story makes one Jara Savar their original ancestor, who was said to have shot Krishna in the form of a deer. Another states that they were created for carrying stones for the construction of the great temple at Puri and for dragging the car of Jagannath, which they still do at the present time. Yet another connecting them with the temple of Jagannath states that their ancestor was an old Bhil hermit called Sawar, who lived in Karod, two miles from Seorinarayan. The god Jagannath had at this time appeared in Seorinarayan and the old Sawar used to worship him. The king of Orissa had built the great temple at Puri and wished to install Jagannath in it, and he sent a Brahman to fetch him from Seorinarayan, but nobody knew where he was except the old hermit Sawar. The Brahman besought him in vain to be allowed to see the god and even went so far as to marry his daughter, and finally the old man consented to take him blindfold to the place. The Brahman, however, tied some mustard seeds in a corner of his cloth and made a hole in it so that they dropped out one by one on the way. After some time they grew up and served to guide him to the spot. This story of the mustard seeds of course finds a place in the folklore of many nations. The Brahman then went to Seorinarayan alone and begged the god to go to Puri. Jagannath consented, and assuming the form of a log of wood floated down the Mahanadi to Puri, where he was taken out and placed in the temple. A carpenter agreed to carve the god’s image out of the log of wood on condition that the temple should be shut up for six months while the work was going on. But some curious people opened the door before the time and the work could not proceed, and thus the image of the god is only half carved out of the wood up to the present day. As a consolation to the old man the god ordained that the place should bear the hermit’s name before his own as Seorinarayan. Lastly the Saonrs of Bundelkhand have the following tradition. In the beginning of creation Mahadeo wished to teach the people how to cultivate the ground, and so he made a plough and took out his bull Nandi to yoke to it But there was dense forest on the earth, so he created a being whom he called Savar and gave him an axe to clear the forest. In the meantime Mahadeo went away to get another bullock. The Savar after clearing the forest felt very hungry, and finding nothing else to eat killed Nandi and ate his flesh on a teak leaf. And for this reason the young teak leaves when rubbed give out sap which is the colour of blood to the present day. After some time Mahadeo returned, and finding the forest well cleared was pleased with the Savar, and as a reward endowed him with the knowledge of all edible and medicinal roots and fruits of the forest. But on looking round for Nandi he found him lying dead with some of his flesh cut off. The Savar pleaded ignorance, but Mahadeo sprinkled a little nectar on Nandi, who came to life again and told what had happened. Then Mahadeo was enraged with the Savar and said, ’You shall remain a barbarian and dwell for ever in poverty in the jungles without enough to eat.’ And accordingly this has always been the condition of the Savar’s descendants.

Other old authors speak of the Parna or leaf-clad Savars; and a Savar messenger is described as carrying a bow in his hand “with his hair tied up in a knot behind with a creeper, black himself, and wearing a loin-cloth of bhilawan leaves”; an excellent example of ‘a leaf-fringed legend.’

3. Tribal subdivisions

The Bundelkhand Savars have been so long separated from the others that they have sometimes forgotten their identity and consider themselves as a subtribe of Gonds , though the better informed repudiate this. They may be regarded as a separate endogamous group. The eastern branch have two main divisions called Laria and Uriya, or those belonging to Chhattisgarh and Sambalpur respectively. A third division known as the Kalapithia or ‘Black Backs’ are found in Orissa, and are employed to drag the car of Jagannath. These on account of their sacred occupation consider themselves superior to the others, abstain from fowls and liquor, and sometimes wear the sacred thread. The Larias are the lowest subdivision. Marriage is regulated by exogamous septs or bargas . The northern Savars say that they have 52 of these, 52 being a number frequently adopted to express the highest possible magnitude, as if no more could be imagined. The Uriya Savars say they have 80 bargas . Besides the prohibition of marriage within the same barga , the union of first cousins is sometimes forbidden. Among the Uriya Savars each barga has the two further divisions of Joria and Khuntia, the Jorias being those who bury or burn their dead near a jor or brook, and the Khuntias those who bury or burn them near a khunt or old tree. Jorias and Khuntias of the same barga cannot intermarry, but in the case of some other subdivisions of the barga , as between those who eat rice at one festival in the year and those eating it at two, marriage is allowed between members of the two subdivisions, thus splitting the exogamous group into two. The names of the bargas are usually totemistic, and the following are some examples: Badaiya, the carpenter bird; Bagh, the tiger; Bagula, the heron; Bahra, a cook; Bhatia, a brinjal or egg-plant; Bisi, the scorpion; Basantia, the trunk of the cotton tree; Hathia, an elephant; Jancher, a tree (this barga is divided into Bada and Kachcha, the Bada worshipping the tree and the Kachcha a branch of it, and marriage between the two subdivisions is allowed); Jharia (this barga keeps a lock of a child’s hair unshaved for four or five years after its birth); Juadi, a gambler; Karsa, a deer; Khairaiya, the khair or catechu tree; Lodhi, born from the caste of that name (in Saugor); Markam, the name of a Gond sept; Rajhans, a swan; Suriya Bansia, from the sun (members of this barga feed the caste-fellows on the occasion of a solar eclipse and throw away their earthen pots); Silgainya from sil , a slate; and Tiparia from tipari , a basket (these two septs are divided into Kachcha and Pakka groups which can marry with each other); Sona, gold (a member of this sept does not wear gold ornaments until he has given a feast and a caste-fellow has placed one on his person).

4. Marriage

Marriage is usually adult, but in places where the Savars live near Hindus they have adopted early marriage. A reason for preferring the latter custom is found in the marriage ceremony, when the bride and bridegroom must be carried on the shoulders of their relatives from the bride’s house to the bridegroom’s. If they are grown up, this part of the ceremony entails no inconsiderable labour on the relatives. In the Uriya country, while the Khuntia subdivision of each barga see nothing wrong in marrying a girl after adolescence, the Jorias consider it a great sin, to avoid which they sometimes marry a girl to an arrow before she attains puberty. An arrow is tied to her hand, and she goes seven times round a mahua branch stuck on an improvised altar, and drinks ghi and oil, thus creating the fiction of a marriage. The arrow is then thrown into a river to imply that her husband is dead, and she is afterwards disposed of by the ceremony of widow-marriage. If this mock ceremony has not been performed before the girl becomes adult, she is taken to the forest by a relative and there tied to a tree, to which she is considered to be married. She is not taken back to her father’s house but to that of some relative, such as her brother-in-law or grandfather, who is permitted to talk to her in an obscene and jesting manner, and is subsequently disposed of as a widow. Or in Sambalpur she may be nominally married to an old man and then again married as a widow. The Savars follow generally the local Hindu form of the marriage ceremony. On the return of the bridal pair seven lines are drawn in front of the entrance to the bridegroom’s house. Some relative takes rice and throws it at the persons returning with the marriage procession, and then pushes the pair hastily across the lines and into the house. They are thus freed from the evil spirits who might have accompanied them home and who are kept back by the rice and the seven lines. A price of R is sometimes paid for the bride. In Saugor if the bride’s family cannot afford a wedding feast they distribute small pieces of bread to the guests, who place them in their head-cloths to show their acceptance of this substitute. To those guests to whom it is necessary to make presents five cowries are given. Widow-marriage is allowed, and in some places the widow is bound to marry her late husband’s younger brother unless he declines to take her. If she marries somebody else the new husband pays a sum by way of compensation either to her father or to the late husband’s family. Divorce is permitted on the husband’s initiative for adultery or serious disagreement. If the wife wishes for a divorce she simply runs away from her husband. The Laria Savars must give a marti-jiti ka bhat or death-feast on the occasion of a divorce. The Uriyas simply pay a rupee to the headman of the caste.

5. Death ceremonies

The Savars both burn and bury their dead, placing the corpse on the pyre with its head to the north, in the belief that heaven lies in that direction. On the eleventh day after the death in Sambalpur those members of the caste who can afford it present a goat to the mourners. The Savars believe that the souls of those who die become ghosts, and in Bundelkhand they used formerly to bury the dead near their fields in the belief that the spirits would watch over and protect the crops. If a man has died a violent death they raise a small platform of earth under a teak or saj tree, in which the ghost of the dead man is believed to take up its residence, and nobody thereafter may cut down that tree. The Uriya Savars take no special measures unless the ghost appears to somebody in a dream and asks to be worshipped as Baghiapat (tiger-eaten) or Masan (serpent-bitten). In such cases a gunia or sorcerer is consulted, and such measures as he prescribes are taken to appease the dead man’s soul. If a person dies without a child a hole is made in a stone, and his soul is induced to enter it by the gunia . A few grains of rice are placed in the hole, and it is then closed with melted lead to imprison the ghost, and the stone is thrown into a stream so that it may never be able to get out and trouble the family. Savars offer water to the dead. A second wife usually wears a metal impression of the first wife by way of propitiation to her.

6. Religion

The Savars worship Bhawani under various names and also Dulha Deo , the young bridegroom who was killed by a tiger. He is located in the kitchen of every house in some localities, and this has given rise to the proverb, ‘ Jai chulha, tai Dulha ,’ or ’There is a Dulha Deo to every hearth.’ The Savars are considered to be great sorcerers. ‘ Sawara ke pange, Rawat ke bandhe ,’ or ’The man bewitched by a Savar and the bullock tied up by a Rawat (grazier) cannot escape’; and again, ‘Verily the Saonr is a cup of poison.’ Their charms, called Sabari mantras , are especially intended to appease the spirits of persons who have died a violent death. If one of their family was seriously ill they were accustomed formerly to set fire to the forest, so that by burning the small animals and insects which could not escape they might propitiate the angry gods.

7. Occupation

The dress of the Savars is of the scantiest. The women wear khilwan or pith ornaments in the ear, and abstain from wearing nose-rings, a traditional method of deference to the higher castes. The proverb has it, ‘The ornaments of the Sawara are gumchi seeds.’ These are the red and black seeds of Abrus precatorius which are used in weighing gold and silver and are called rati . Women are tattooed and sometimes men also to avoid being pierced with a red-hot iron by the god of death. Tattooing is further said to allay the sexual passion of women, which is eight times more intense than that of men. Their occupations are the collection of jungle produce and cultivation. They are very clever in taking honeycombs: ’It is the Savar who can drive the black bees from their hive.’ The eastern branch of the caste is more civilised than the Saonras of Bundelkhand, who still sow juari with a pointed stick, saying that it was the implement given to them by Mahadeo for this purpose. In Saugor and Damoh they employ Brahmans for marriage ceremonies if they can afford it, but on other occasions their own caste priests. In some places they will take food from most castes but in others from nobody who is not a Savar. Sometimes they admit outsiders and in others the children only of irregular unions; thus a Gond woman kept by a Savar would not be recognised as a member of the caste herself but her children would be Savars. A woman going wrong with an outsider of low caste is permanently excommunicated.