Published on 23rd April, 2022, in The Hindu.
In North India, especially in the Gangetic plains, in what is now Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, we find songs known as Baramasa. It is a 12-month cycle in poetry, expressing the loneliness and longing of a woman in a village, for a husband who is travelling far away. “The Bedu berry ripens all year long, but the Kafal berry only ripens in spring,” says a more recent and popular Kumaoni song. The key theme is viraha or separation.
In many songs, the husband is referred to as jogi, which is a local way of saying yogi, meaning the hermit. By doing so she hopes he will keep his promise — stay faithful to her while away, and be protected from harm by the power of that celibacy. These songs have been around for over 500 years, inspiring miniature paintings also. They are an indicator of a military-labour market that has long been forgotten.
When we talk of warriors in India, we are conditioned to think of either the Vedic Kshatriya or the Rajputs. These are theoretical constructs and they do not reflect ground reality. Many young peasant farmers in the northern plains, especially in less irrigated lands, would work in the fields during the agricultural season, which was about three to four months. The rest of the year they had no employment, and thus no opportunities. They were forced to leave the village to look for opportunities elsewhere. They could work as servants in other lands. They could be soldiers, paid mercenaries protecting caravans of merchants and rich bridal parties. They would come back with wealth that could enable them to marry and settle down, as we say today. The idea of migration in search of employment elsewhere, is a theme that is found across North India in medieval times, roughly the time we find the rise of Rajput communities, including the Purbia Rajputs (the eastern Rajputs) from the eastern Gangetic plains.
To appreciate this, we must understand the concept of the military-labour market. When the Turkish invasion took place in India around 800 years ago, the first rulers of India were Mamluks. They were slaves to the crown. In Central Asia, there was an old practice of people voluntarily becoming slaves of powerful warlords in exchange for food, clothing and shelter. The Sultans loved these voluntary slaves or Mamluks, and treated them as family. In fact, warlords trusted them more than their own family members or kinsmen, as the family demanded a share in their fortune, while slaves could make no such demands.
Aibak, Altamash, Balban, who were the earliest Delhi Sultans were Mamluks. Malik Kafur, who invaded South India, was a slave of Allauddin Khilji. This practice became even more popular after rise of Islam because Islam forbade Muslims from enslaving Muslims. So many Muslim warlords enslaved ‘infidels’ from East Europe, such as the famous Janessair (those who sacrifice lives) of the Ottomans, who were not allowed to marry, and were part of the royal household from the 14th to 19th century.
Amongst pagan Mongols who spread terror across the Islamic world and plundered Baghdad in the 13th century, the concept of naukar-chakar emerged. A naukar was a paid soldier and a chakar was a paid courtier, who would enable the Mongol warlord to be successful in battle. These ideas came to India in the pre-Mughal era. As long as military labour was easily available from Persia, Afghanistan and Central Asia, nobody looked at the local talent. The Delhi Sultanate preferred people from the west of the Indus and did not trust the local natives. They kept their distance from the locals. This changed as there was a drying out of the talent pool coming to India following the invasion of Taimur in the 14th century. We find the Delhi Sultanate waning in power. There is the emergence of other Sultanates such as those of Deccan, Gujarat, Jaunpur and Bengal. They started hiring local people, and the idea of the military-labour market emerged.
This means the peasants in these rural agricultural countries would become soldiers in exchange for money. The soldiers who left home wanted to promise their wives that they would be chaste and not indulge in sexual activities with others while away. Therefore, they smeared their body with ash, and carried weapons in their hands. They became mendicants or hermits, or jogis — albeit temporarily. They would return home to be householders, with a fortune earned through the active military service they provided to kings. We find these themes in North Indian ballads such as Dhola and Maru.
Those who were permanent hermit-warriors formed the akharas, or military academies, which traced their origins to Adi Shankaracharya, and which served many local kings. They worshipped Hanuman. This is the period when folklore of Hanuman’s role in helping Ram became popular and his powers were linked to celibacy or brahmacharya. This is when Adbhuta Ramayana was composed telling the story of Hanuman who defeats Mahiravan and rescues the kidnapped Ram and Lakshman. This is when the Hanuman Chalisa is composed explaining the powers of this mighty god smeared red, gold and saffron. He did not belong to the traditional caste hierarchy. Anyone could worship Hanuman.
Traditionally, in India, there is this concept of the yogi who withdraws from the world and the bhogi who consumes and enjoys the world. With this concept of the hermit-lover, the yogi-bhogi, we find someone who is temporarily a yogi, providing military and other services in the non-agricultural seasons. He is a yogi when he is a migrant labourer, but on returning home he is a bhogi. This idea is found in a lot of medieval literature. In many ways he is like Shiva, who is a hermit when separated from his wife, and householder when with his wife. It reminds us that these compartments of yogi and bhogi were never watertight.
The Baramasa songs are sung by women for their husbands who are yogis, when they leave the village to travel around the country. They created the military-labour market. They supported many kings, who could not afford full-time standing armies and would hire mercenaries, to be successful. It has been postulated that the idea of a cash economy emerged to serve the military labour market. Kings preferred to pay the soldiers money, rather than reward them with land and cattle, which was the old, feudal way. This created the mercenary system, which owed no loyalty to any king or clan. The jogi belonged to no one and served everyone.
At one time, these men fought for various rulers of India, both Hindu and Muslim. They even served the Company. But later, some of the earliest revolutionaries emerged from these groups. The songs resonate even today as young men from the Gangetic plains travel across India in search of urban employment. Nearly half of India’s population lives in the Gangetic plains and many there, depend on the rest of India for their livelihood. As in the songs, the women hope he will be jogi while away and return home to be the bhogi.