VANJARA SIKHS or Banjaras, akin to Labana Sikhs of the Punjab, are found scattered throughout Central and South India as well as in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. Although vanjara, from Sanskrit vanij (a merchant, trader), is now used as a generic term for peddlers in the Punjab, the Vanjaras during the medieval times formed a class of travelling traders and carriers of merchandise in Central India, the Deccan and Rajputana (now Rajasthan). Organized in tandas or caravans, each headed by a naik or leader, they trekked between the Western ports and the trade centres of the interior.
As the story ofMakkhan Shah, a Labana Sikh ofMota Tanda village in Kashmir, suggests, they were sufficiently armed for selfdefence, and some of them were engaged also in maritime trade. Modern progress in rail and road communications destroyed their vocation reducing them to the status of peddlers selling bangles and trinkets. Vanjaras came into the Sikh fold quite early during the time of the Gurus. Guru Nanak and other Gurus whose compositions form part of the Guru Granth Sahib have often used the term vanJara as referring to man who has come into this world with capital advanced by the sahu, the financer, i.e. God.
They call him varyaria mitra ( 0, my merchant friend !) and exhort him to put his borrowed capital to good use and earn merit. Some of the prominent Vanjara names in Sikh history are those of Makkhan Shah who identified Guru Tegh Bahadur at Bakala in 1664 as the true successor to Guru Har Krishan, Nanak VIII, Lakkhi Shah who cremated at great personal risk the headless body of Guru Tegh Bahadur at Delhi in 1675, and Mani Ram, son of Naik Mai Das, whose five sons, Ude Singh, Bachittar Singh and others took the Khalsapahuhn 1699 and laid down their lives fighting for Guru Gobind Singh.
Vanjaras of Central and South India are, generally speaking, no longer Sikhs in external form, but most of them own the Gurus and the Sikh tenets.They visit gurdwaras and are especially attached to Sri Takht Sachkhand Abchalnagar Hazur Sahib, at Nanded. They eat jhatka, meat of animal killed in the Sikh style with one blow, and hail other Sikhs with `Vahiguruji ki Fateh`. At marriage the couple takes four circumambulations round the Guru Granth Sahib.
Many of them pay dasvandh or onetenth of their income at Sri Hazur Sahib. Measures are now in progress under the supervision of Gurdwara Board of Takht Sachkhand to integrate them more closely with the Sikh faith by spreading general and religious education among them, setting up gurdwaras in their villages and administering to them amrit or me Khalsa initiation.
1. Sabadarth Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Amritsar, 1959
2. Rose, H.A., ed., A Glossary of the Tribes and Castes of the Punjab and North-West Frontier Province. Lahore, 1911-19