2/27/13 - one billion villagers

In today's selection -- with an estimated 1.2 billion inhabitants, the nation of India is the second largest on earth, and with faster population growth than China's, will likely become the largest. Most of India's population lives in the more than half million small villages that dot the countryside, reluctantly yielding to the inevitable tides of change, closely connected to the other members of their jati. Jati means caste, a kinship group larger than a family, but smaller and less self-sustaining than a tribe. There are thousands of jatis in modern India, tight-knit groups preserving ancient customs and traditions, and they should not be confused with India's ancient class or varna system, which is still partially observed and includes Brahmans (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (merchants and landowners), Shudras (serfs), and those outside this system known as the Dalits or untouchables:

"Three-fourths of India's population still live in more than half a million rural villages, averaging from 500 to 5,000 inhabitants. The village is India's smallest territorial unit, and its headmen or panchayats are drawn from traditional leaders who reside within its community. Most villages include families from up to twenty or more jatis, thus providing a majority of the basic goods and services required to sustain life within village boundaries. ...

"Like India itself, then, her villages reflect the fragmented diversity of many jatis and faiths coexisting within an overall unity imposed by geography and ancient traditions. There is usually only one dominant landowning jati, whether Brahman, Kshatriya, or Vaishya in origin, that presides over the political as well as economic fortunes of each village. But jati fortunes, like individual family fortunes, change, and competing groups are always in the wings of village power, seeking more land or greater access to water or mineral rights, or whatever may provide the key to village power. Nominal village identity is shared from birth by all its offspring, yet primary loyalties remain rooted in family and jati institutions. Girls born in most Indian villages, at least, know that after marriage they must move on to the villages of their husbands, which may be less than a day's walk away or quite distant. They return to ancestral homes on some holidays and before the birth of each of their own children and for weeks or months afterward, but their new permanent homes are with their husbands' parents. Many young men also leave villages nowadays to seek their fortune in neighboring towns or cities. 

"The accelerating pace of Indian urbanization depends in good measure on village labor. After some time spent in cities, with high wages and prospects for future advantage, most young village defectors opt to remain, even in crowded urban slums. But the lures of open land remain potent enough to hold the vast majority of India's sons close to her fecund or grudging soil. Nor is that surprising to foreign visitors, who often find Indian villages the most beautiful, serene, and in some cases the 'cleanest' parts of India. The rich deep green of rice fields before harvest and the gold of mustard surrounding the lime-washed white huts and well-swept lanes of a prosperous village appear so peacefully integrated into the natural environment of many regions of India's countryside that it is almost too easy to wax romantic about the pastoral beauty of village life. ...

"Most Indian villages provide only grudging, marginal sustenance to their laboring sons and daughters, who work as required by the inflexible calendar of crops, following the backs of their bullocks from sunup until sundown. Much the same as other peasants the world over, Indian villagers generally distrust strangers. The speech, dress, and officious manner of foreigners, 'townies,' or Delhi wallahs usually add up to trouble in a peasant's mind. Like the proverbial Missouri farmer, they view change of any sort with skeptical eyes. ...

"Winds of change continue to blow, but cautious peasants and their conservative leaders fear that, like the harshest or hottest of nature's winds, too fierce or searing a pace of change might destroy their village entirely. India's villages thus remain tight little bastions of traditional Indian religious values and institutions."


Stanley Wolpert




University of California Press


Copyright 1991, 1999, 2005, 2009 by Stanley Wolpert


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