Around 1892, Sir FCO Beaman found himself presiding over an unusual case of murder in the Bombay High Court. The incident involved a wealthy girrasia, or local landlord, in modern-day Gujarat’s Kathiawar region, who had taken a loan. A man from the Charan community had stood guarantor.

Despite the remonstrations of the guarantor, the landlord refused to repay the money. The landlord told him, “Do your worst”, according to Beaman.

The humiliated guarantor discussed the matter with his family. Their honour had to be restored but who was to be the sacrifice? The aged mother volunteered.

Today, agreements “signed in blood” and “blood pacts” have been an enduring, dramatic fixture in popular culture. But 300 years ago, there existed groups in India that took the idea of a blood pact quite literally and often in ways far more gruesome than can be imagined.

With no courts or formal legal frameworks in place, members of the Bhat and Charan communities had been performing the vital role of guarantors for contracts since the 16th century – except that these agreements were backed by threats of self-harm, self-mutilation and even the death of the guarantor. In return for these services, members of these communities were compensated commensurate to the risk they were undertaking as guarantors.

That is how Beaman’s tale ended. The Charan guarantor walked in a procession to the debtor’s house and asked him to repay his dues. When he refused, the guarantor stabbed his old mother with a dagger and smeared her blood on the lintel of the debtor’s home, invoking the curses of angry gods. The debtor fell sick and died shortly thereafter.

As a judge presiding over the case, Beaman had to confront the dilemma that this was technically murder but he understood that the accused had little choice in the matter.

‘Traga’ and dharna

The Bhats and Charans of Rajasthan and Gujarat were traditional bards and poets who composed genealogies and histories for rulers. They believed they were the descendants of the deities Shiva and Parvati and had long been guarantors for contracts and the payment of land revenue.

In the early 19th century, the British administration turned to the Bhats to also underwrite peace agreements in Gujarat through fa’el zamins, or security bonds, to ensure harmony in the region and protect the possessions of the British, the Peshwas and the Gaekwad dynasty of Baroda.

Charan Gordhar, a bard and poet to Bikaner’s Prince Padam Singh, in this painting from 1725. Credit: Bhavani Das, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

As part of the ritual called “traga”, the guarantor would shed his blood or the blood of a member of his family at the house of the party that had not fulfilled their contractual obligation. This shedding of sacred blood was considered inauspicious and it was believed that a home that had been so defiled would be cursed. The ghosts of deceased women were especially feared because they embodied the terrifying aspect of the goddess Shakti.

In his book History of India published in 1841, Bombay Governor Mountstuart Elphinstone described the effect of the threats as follows: “The disgrace of these proceedings, and the fear of having a bard’s blood on their head, generally reduce the most obstinate to reason. Their fidelity is exemplary, and they never hesitate to sacrifice their lives to keep up an ascendancy on which the importance of their cast[e] depends.”

The most basic form of traga was piercing one’s cheeks with a lancet and taunting the non-performing party with a frenzied dance invoking Shiva’s tandav, or dance of destruction. More extreme forms included severing of the head and self-immolation.

Although not outwardly violent like traga, dharna (a modified version of which is in practice as a form of protest today) involved cordoning the house of the recalcitrant party by the guarantor and their community. This group fasted and compelled the inhabitants of the defaulting party’s house to fast as well till their demands were fulfilled.

The mark of a dagger on the contract was a symbol that a Bhat or Charan was guaranteeing it. A dagger on a memorial stone was evidence of death as “traga”. The Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency, published in 1901, stated that near the entrance of several villages in Kathiawar, there were guardian stones in memory of Charan men and women who had committed “traga” to prevent the carrying away or to recover cattle amid cattle raids by Kathis, the ruling clans in the area.

The young were also a part of these rituals though deaths were rare, according to the accounts of British officials. Captain James Macmurdo, a Resident at Anjar, described an incident from 1818 in his account published in Transactions of the Literary Society of Bombay, 1820. Macmurdo wrote how a boy of around 14 years had a spear blade pushed through both cheeks to recover a debt from a Rajput man.

When the spear had to be removed, the blade was so rusty that the father put his knees on the boy’s head to force the spear out. When Macmurdo asked the boy if he had felt pain, the 14-year-old said he had. Macmurdo praised him for not crying out, to which the boy replied that then it would not have been “traga”.

A table from the Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency, Volume IX, Part I, 1901. Credit: in public domain.

Such extreme incidents were rare, though. According to Henry Diggle, a judge and magistrate in the East India Company’s Bombay civil service, rather than be responsible for the death of a Bhat, “the debtor naturally unbends, and would rather forfeit his own life than allow that of one of this sect to be sacrificed at his door”.

Major Alexander Walker, the first British Resident at Baroda, observed that the register of murders maintained by the local magistrate showed that there were more killings in cases where Bhats or Charans were not used as security in the Gujarat region.

The Charans were also protectors of caravans and travellers. In the event of a thief appearing, the Charan would step forward in ghostly white garments and proclaim that infamy and disgrace would befall anyone who injured travellers under the protection of the holy members of Shiva.

‘Falling classes’

In the 19th century, the administrative and judicial structures established by the British left little room for the Bhats and Charans to perform their traditional roles. Over time, the practice of using Bhats and Charans as guarantors of contracts was replaced by the police and courts. The expansion of the railways did away with some caravan routes, diminishing their role as the guardians of travellers as well.

Anthropologist Jeffery Snodgrass, in his book Casting Kings: Bards and Indian Modernity, writes that the British may have sought to curtail the influence of these communities too as their roles as guarantors of contractors, arbitrators of disputes and others meant that they were competitors to the colonial administration.

Traga was clubbed with other forms of self-mutilation, like hook-swinging, and prohibited. The Bhats and Charans gradually lost their status and traditional means of livelihood. The Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency, 1901, described the Bhats and Charans as falling classes. Snodgrass, too, mentioned that they abandoned their traditional professions and turned to tending to flocks and lands, and worked towards new jobs such as in medicine or law.

Leah Verghese is associated with DAKSH, a think tank based in Bengaluru working on judicial reforms and access to justice.