(Last Updated on : 31/01/2009)
The Gujarat social restrictions are not confined to castes and sub-castes alone but affect groups of towns or villages, known as Ekadas or Gols. Marriage only within the group was permissible but as the rule was not rigidly applied and exogamous marriages were permitted with the permission of the Gol Panchayat, only a fine or a fee had to be paid for any violation.
The purpose of forming these Gols or Ekadas was motivated by practical considerations rather than narrow-minded bigotry. It was a form of protest against the hypergamy of urbanised families.
Despite the compartmentalisation of the Bania caste, the customs and ceremonies are much the same with the group as a whole. The widest difference is between the Meshris, who are Hindus and the Shravaks, who follow Jainism. In the course of time, many customs and ceremonies, observed and practised a few decades ago, have fallen by the way. Polygamy was permissible, provided the man obtained the consent of the first wife but there are hardly any cases of polygamy now. Some Bania widowers marry and marriage with the deceased wife's sister is permissible but marriage with near blood relatives, common in some other communities, is prohibited. Divorce is also looked down upon, though, in recent years, this has become acceptable.
In the past child marriages were in vogue, the girl being between 7 and 11 years of age. Now among Kapol Vanias, the age has been advanced to 16, the Ummads and Dawals extended it to 22. Only the Kutch Dawals, known as Letas, and some of the Panchas permitted widow marriage, which is generally frowned upon by all other Banias even now. To some extent, the Bania wedding ceremony is the same as any other Hindu marriage.
The decision of the wedding date, which has to be some time between the 11th of Kartika Sud (October-November) and the 11th of Asarba Sud (June-July), is left to the parents.
Three or five days before the wedding day, the mandav ceremony is performed in both houses. It begins with the worshipping Ganapati followed by the installation of the family deity and the ceremonial erection of the mandav or marriage booth. Into this the members of the family and friends throw red powder, milk, curds, betel nuts and a copper coin, accompanied with the chanting of mantras.
The women of both houses go in procession (singing wedding songs accompanied with musicians) and sprinkle sandalwood dust and flowers on a potter's wheel and bring home earthen pots to be used in the wedding ceremonies.
The most important persons are the mothers' brothers (on both sides) who carry gifts for the bride and bridegroom on the day before the marriage and superintend many of the marriage ceremonies. At the bride's place the bride's mother meets the groom at the entrance and certain rituals take place.
Balls of cowdung ash are then thrown in the four directions and simultaneously the family Brahmin or the mother-in-law holds two earthen pots of curds, circling them 7 times around the bridegroom and then place them in front of him. He then crushes the pots with his right foot and enters the marriage hall. The bride's parents wash the bridegroom's feet with milk, curds, honey, sugar and ghee. After this the ceremony follows the usual Hindu rituals. After the marriage has been solemnised the couple is taken before the family deity and has to play the game of 'odds and evens' in which they try and guess whether the number of coins that each holds in turn in a closed fist is odd or even. This game has several other variations.
In another ceremony, the bride's mother worships the carriage of the couple by sprinkling sandalwood dust and flowers on it and places a coconut under one wheel which is meant to be crushed when the carriage moves over it. The pieces are gathered by the mother and handed over to the daughters.
There are other rituals among the various sects of the Banias. Among the Oswals, the maternal uncle of the bride has to carry her four times round the bridegroom before placing her on his left
When a woman is pregnant for the first time, various ceremonies are performed at the husband's home during the 5th and 7th months. On the fourth day, she goes to her parents' home and has a bath. On her return, her sister-in-law comes out with some red powder and a large piece of white cloth on which she has to tread and at each step taken, his parents drop a piece of copper and some betel nuts on it. The mother-in-law then performs a brief puja and the mother-to-be is then allowed to cross the threshold, taking care not to touch it. Her husband now holds her hand and together they go to bow before the family deity. About 20 days after this ceremony, she goes to her parents' home, where she remains till the child is three or four months old.
For ten days after the child's birth, the husband's family and friends send ghee, gur and spices to the girl's house daily. The Chhati Pujan ceremony is performed on the 6th day.
On the twelfth day, when the mother worships the baran balians, twelve small heaps of rice are laid on a stool and next to each head is placed a betel-nut, a betel leaf and a copper coin and after kanku and flowers are scattered on them. They are given to the family priest.
In death, as in life, the Vania is bound by religious rites. On his deathbed he is required to give a Brahmin 'gaudan' or the equivalent value of a cow and has to announce a sum to be given in charity.
When the end draws near, he is bathed, dressed and placed on a freshly-washed portion of the floor of a front room, with his head to the north, till life ebbs away. On his death, the body is removed from the house, head first, to a point halfway to the cremation ground. Here it is placed on the ground where some rice, some betel-nuts and a copper coin are placed on it. From here it is carried, feet first, to the cremation ground.
After the collection of the ashes and their immersion in a river, the place of cremation is washed clean and an earthen pot full of water is placed there which the chief mourner breaks by throwing stones at it through his legs from a distance. A cow is brought and milked there so that the milk falls on the cremation spot.
The father-in-law of the chief mourner sends rice, pulse and ghee to the bereaved household which, if the deceased was old, is cooked and eaten; if not, it is given to dogs. A widow's hair is cut off and the heads of all members of the family are shaved as are the moustaches and beard even if the deceased was young.
On the 11th day the most important death ceremony is performed- mating a steer to a heifer; on the 12th day cooked food is given to crows; and on the 13th a Brahmin is given a bedstead, bedding and some money.
Vanias are, generally speaking, staunch adherents of the Vallabhacharya sect. It is believed they were converted to this faith some 450 years ago. Except for the Agarwal and Ram Nagar Vanias, none of the others wear the sacred thread.
At one time they used to visit the Vallabhacharya temples daily but gradually with the spread of education among them and the weakening of religious control, worship at home was accepted as being proper.
In almost every Bania home there is a puja room or a corner where the images and idols of worship are placed.
Vanias from North Gujarat and Kathiawar are sturdy and active while those from South Gujarat are often slight and poor in physique. Some North Gujarat and Kathiawar Vanias have a moustache and those from South Gujarat have shaven their heads at the crown and in a line down to the back of the head.