The Vagri People of Sindh

In the years I spent in St. Thomas’ parish, Badin, I have met many different types of people. Rich and poor, High and Low caste, Muslim, Hindu and Christian and many that I was not sure about. Some have been good, some bad, some one could call evil and a very few who are so close to God, one could call them Angelic.

 

If first impressions are anything to go by, then my sense of smell and Hygiene led me astray one morning. I was sitting before the Sacred scriptures in the Chapel, engrossed in a passage, when my senses were suddenly shocked into full alert. The first thing I noticed was the smell, something strong and acrid, almost animal.
I thought of the wet fur of a dog, but kind of mixed with the sweet smell of soil or dust as it is made damp by the first drops of a heavy rainfall. Then there came a soft swishing sound, a tension filled the air and the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. I was sitting with my back to the door bathed in the golden light streaming through the coloured windows, the fan above whirring gently. I breathed again when I heard a short gasp and recognised the sound of children whispering together. Turning around slowly, the sight I was greeted with was not what I had expected. Three women, one plump the others thin, and half a dozen or more Children.
The most ragged, dirty, filthy and smelly crowd of creatures I had ever seen. None of the children had a complete outfit. The young boys wore only tatty rags that once passed for shirts, while the girls, the older ones, had the remains of skirts and thin shawls which they were using to try to cover their heads with as they crept closer to the threshold of the chapel. My heart skipped a beat, I don’t know if from pity, revulsion or fear. As I stared at them, their eyes all wide and full of wonder and amazement suddenly fixed on me and at some invisible signal all as one made the sign of Namaste and went down on their knees. I was not sure what to do next as they were all, including the smallest child, pressing their fore heads to the ground.
I got up and went to them and greeted them in several languages not certain which the spoke. They were unlike any I had ever seen before. I wondered if they were here to beg for money, So I offered them water before they could ask for anything. They looked at me as if I was mad. So I pointed to the stoneware jar in the corner (it held about 30 Gallons of filtered cold water), I produced metal beakers and a ladle and poured out water for the next 5 minutes as the children drank as if they could empty the jar.
My cook, Shona came on the scene looking very upset and tried to speak to them but couldn’t make much sense of what they wanted. So I sent him to find Master Jerome, my Catechist. By the time Jerome arrived I had finally understood what it was these women wanted, mainly through sign and the few words we seemed to have in common. They wanted to pray and to hear the Sacred Scriptures! This was confirmed for me by Jerome who is quite a linguist. We found a Bible in Sindhi Hindi and at my insistence he started to read from the Gospels. I don’t know how much they understood, their language was different from any that I knew, although there seemed to be some common words and phrases, but almost every time the name of Jesus was mentioned They all bowed to the ground. The younger children were given some encouragement to do this by their mothers.
After an hour they asked for permission to leave and made the most profound worship of the Altar, the Crucifix and the Statue of Mary, but they would not touch the Bible, they touched its stand and the carpet on which we sit to read with the tips of their fingers which they kissed before and after. Then crawling backwards they left the chapel. Jerome and I were speechless for some moments after they had gone. He told me that these were the Vagri People, Nomads who travel throughout the whole of the Sub-continent. They survive as itinerant workers, never staying in one place longer that they have to.
Jerome told me that they had just arrived in Badin having crossed the Pakistan, Indian Border a few miles to the south of us. And the first thing they wanted to do was to come and see the Temple of God. He said that very little is known about them as a people, since they are not usually allowed to come into the town and no one ever speaks to them because they are thought of as unclean. That was an understatement if ever I had heard one. And that thought set me into motion again, opening all the windows and doors of the Chapel and lit some sticks of incense to try and get rid of that awful clinging stink of damp earth and animals. The cook was also busy boiling water to sterilize the drinking cups the women and children had used. I had never seen him be that enthusiastic about hygiene without a lot of encouragement. But then I realized that this was not just being hygienic, it was more to do with ritual caste purity.
In the days that followed I didn’t see the Vagris again but I did hear many whispers about how I had invited them into the church and made poor Master Jerome sit with the women and children to read to them and that I must have no sense of smell or even common sense for treating them like royalty. I was a little amused and a bit annoyed at the reaction to that event. The gossip was coming from my own ‘Christian’ staff.
It must have been two months later when one evening there were raised and heated voices coming from the front of the church. I came down to see what was going on. One of my staff, Bhimo the driver, was confronting two strange men. I took them to be beggars or Fakir, but they were clean and well groomed. One the senior of the two wore beads and carried the staff of a Holy Man, his hair and moustaches long and glistening with oil, the other younger man had also obviously taken care in his appearance. As I came out and stood on the steps of the church, both men came to me saying ‘Pranam Sahib Ji’, and stooped down to touch my feet. I took their hands in greeting and held my right hand over their hearts as they did in reverence to me. Once the introductions were over, my driver explained that these wee the leaders of the Vagri People who were living on the edge of town.
I was told that they had hired themselves out as labourers to plant, tend and harvest the fields of a local Landlord. As is the custom they had taken a loan from the Landlord to buy the seed for planting and enough food to see them to harvest time, when a quarter of the crop would be theirs to pay back the loan and leave them with cash in hand to buy provisions for another journey or to buy more seed for another planting. The problem was that they had harvested a very good crop of Melon and other kinds of Veg. which the Landlord had shipped out to Karachi and had made a huge profit, but he had seemingly reneged on the labourers contract and refused to pay them their due.
The elder said that this kind of thing was always happening to them and that no one was ever willing to get involved and to give any help. I called the cook to make tea, while I took Bhimo aside and asked him what we could do to help. He had once been a town councillor and still had some contacts. I then called all of my staff together, Teachers, medics and catechists, to discuss the problem. They decided that Bhimo and Sajan, our Para-Medic, who also had political contacts on the town council, would go with the Vagris as a delegation to the chamber of commerce to try to get some justice. It was in the afternoon of the next day when our group returned to report what had happened. It seemed that this Landlord had ‘Run Off’ to the Punjab and as he had other debts in the town, the chamber was willing to investigate the claims of the Vagris.
The investigation took almost a month and finally the Landlord came back and settled his accounts to the satisfaction of all. The man turned out to be quite a pleasant and reasonable type. He explained that when he had sold all the produce of his fields, he had an urgent message to go and take care of his dying brother in the Punjab. And so he dropped everything and went, not realizing the distress of the poor Vagris on his land.
The elder of the Vagris and some of his people came again, bringing gifts of fruit, flowers and incense, which they left in the church. But before leaving they wanted to hear me read to them from the Sacred Scriptures. At that time I could not read the Sindhi Hindi text well enough so I read from the Urdu Bible. I had to stop from time to time to allow the elder to translate or to ask questions and to explain to his people what I had said. I was deeply touched by the reverence and devotion to the Holy that these people displayed. I blessed them all individually and then they left.
I was not to see them again for more than a year. In the mean time I continued to get to know the people and customs of my parish. On one occasion after visiting Christians in a town about 80Klms. from Badin, I stopped at a shop for tea and started talking to the shopkeeper and asked him if he knew of any Christians in the area. I had often come across groups who had been living in isolated towns and villages and had had no contact with the church for many years, and so I usually asked whenever I came to a strange town. This time I was in a small village near the Indus River and I wasn’t expecting any positive answer. The old man asked me if I meant the ‘Tomasie’. I was puzzled by this word and asked him to repeat it. The usual word for Christians by Muslims is ‘Isai’, and Christians call themselves ‘Massihi’. But this was new to me. I asked him to explain who he meant and he said that he had heard of a tribe of Nomads in the hills who are not Hindus and not Muslim but call themselves the children of Thoma, and that they are people of the Book of Isa, Jesus. This was exciting news for me.
The story that there had been Christians in the area before the coming of the Muslims, is well known. At that time Christians were exempt from conversion to Islam being people of the Book. But after about a hundred years of Islamic rule in Sindh, all trace of the Christians seems to have disappeared. The general assumption was that they had either converted under persecution, or had migrated North and west. The legend of St. Thomas in India is well known among the Christians and that he had first evangelized in the North around Taxila before going south to Madras, where it is claimed his tomb is said to be, is accepted by all but the most sceptical. But as to this claim that there were Thomas Christians in Sindh, and that they had survived to this day, had hardly ever been given thought, let alone any credible investigation.
There had been some mention of this theory in the work of Fr. John Rooney MHM “Church History in Pakistan”. In his work there is a thought that the migration of these early Christians due to persecution, coincided with the arrival in Europe of the first Gypsies.
I was not able to follow up my search for these ‘Thomas Christians’ in that area, but I continued to ask questions of anyone I thought may have heard of these people. I never got a straight answer, everyone was always evasive and even hostile at times. I was not given any encouragement by my own staff of catechists to pursue this search and they would often try to change the subject when I raised it. I began to suspect that I was treading on sensitive toes. I wondered that if these people were discovered to be really in the area, the Koli Tribe, to which the catechists belong, would no longer be the most important people in the Diocese. Perhaps a sense of jealousy or self preservation was at work? Were these Thomasie already known by the Kolis and regarded as outcast, or were they afraid of something about them? There were many questions that I could not find any answer to.
I started to do some research through the records of the church relating to the area. All of the documentation seems very scant. In the Lower part of Sindh in the Great Ancient City of Thatha, during the late 16th century, there was a convent of Carmalite Priests. But nothing survives relating to local Christians. Since that time up to the mid 19th century, the only reference is to Europeans and Goanees migrants. Punjabi Christians started to move into the area as sweepers and labourers in the early 20th Century. The first Koli converts were around the 1940’s.
My story continues again in Badin in 1989. Early one morning as I was working in my room above the Church, I was disturbed by the sound of an almighty crash. Something had been broken. As I dashed down the stairs the sound of screams and wailing filled the house. Not knowing what to expect in those days of violence, I slowed down and calmly walked into the church. Out of the corner of my eye I could see some of the staff in the compound running towards the house, but what I found in the church was the sight of a dozen or more women and children, crying and bowing to the ground in obvious distress. It only took a quick glance to realise what had happened.
The women were the Vagris, and somehow the statue of Mary had been smashed and was lying on the floor in pieces. It took some time to calm them down and get the story from them how it had happened. But the gist of it was that they had just arrived back in Badin after coming from the south of India. They had brought gifts for the church and new veils for the statue of Mary, which they had draped around it, but a baby in arms had grabbed at a veil and when the woman turned around the child had dragged it and the statue off its plinth. Master Jerome and I gathered up the pieces and put them in the sacristy. When I came back I assured the women that I was not angry with them and that I was glad to see them again.
For the next hour master Jerome and I talked to them and even read to them from the Scriptures. Later that day the men of the Vagri tribe led by their elder came with fruit and more gifts and asked for forgiveness for the clumsy women. We had tea together and again discussed the Scriptures. Before they left I asked the elder why they had come to the church in the first place. He simply said that this was their home, the house of the Father. I was speechless. I wasn’t sure that what he meant was what I thought I understood. To the Muslims and Hindus in the area the church is often referred to as Father’s House. Meaning the Priest’s home. But he had used the word ‘Pita’ which is used for God the Father. in the Christian sense.
Some days later I met the elder again in the Bazaar and invited him for some tea, but he politely refused saying there is no where in the town that he would be served. So I asked him back to the church. While we talked the thought came that maybe they would like to see a film on the life of Christ, in Hindi. It was a new film from India that we had recently come by and were using in the villages as part of our catechetical teaching. At first he was unsure but then grew with enthusiasm when I said that the women and children should come as well. We fixed a time for the next evening. It was not easy to convince my staff that this was a good idea but eventually I did, on the compromise that we would show it in the open air. The memory of the smell of the children still lingered in the church.
During the next day I prepared everything, making sure that there was sherbet and water and some simple food and sweets ready for them. There was a nervous excitement in the compound as the time came nearer for the film show. The wives of the staff and their children were ready and had laid out some tables, while Bhimo set up the projector and screen. I went to the gate just as they arrived and was amazed by what I saw. I had never expected to see so many about 30 people including children, but all of them washed and groomed and wearing beautiful clothes and jewellery.
I looked around at my staff to see their mouths open in wonder. Introductions and greetings were exchanged and the visitors were invited to sit and have some food and drink while we waited for the sun to set. The language barrier didn’t seem to be too much of a problem for the children of our staff and those of the Vagri. The adults were a little more reserved at first but they eventually became easy and relaxed. At last it was dark enough for the film to begin and I asked my senior Catechist Master Jagsi, to introduce the film and to explain the plot of the life of Jesus. The Vagri sat in patient silence with a curious calm almost indulgent smile on their faces. I was suddenly struck with the thought that they seem to know more than they admit to.
The film, as I have said is an Indian Hindi production and as with all good Indian movies, drama is always accompanied with song, dance and comedy to give more impact and stress to the message. That evening the audience were completely at one with the story. The nativity brought out the ‘Oos’ and ‘Ahs’ from the women, the scenes of the oppressed condition of the people by the Roman occupiers made the men shake their fists and cheer when the Zealots came to the rescue. But when Jesus came to be Baptized there was silence. His temptation in the desert by the devil commanded complete attention, and when Jesus spoke, I could just make out some of the men and women mouthing the words in silence. I had seen this before in Ireland when I worked among the travelling people, and some Gypsies, mainly illiterate they had formidable memories and whenever the scriptures were read they would repeat the words to themselves to remember it.
As the film progressed I became more engrossed in watching the people and couldn’t help comparing the Vagri to the Travellers that I had known in Ireland and the Gypsies in England. I remember once the latter had told me that they were the first Christians in Europe, but even when the ‘Townies’ or the settled people became believers they still wouldn’t accept them as fellow Christians and allow them into the towns to trade on equal terms. They said that they were always feared and shunned and even treated as criminals because the ‘Travellers’ wouldn’t conform to the life of the town-folk.
The Vagri and the Vagus? could they be the same people?
Suddenly as Jesus, in the film was given his cross to carry, one of the women stood up and crying said something to the others and the children in particular, and they all started to cry and wail and beat their breasts. I looked quickly to the men of my staff for some kind of explanation or assurance that nothing had gone wrong. But the men looked shocked and just gaped at me. I had seen emotional scenes at this film before, but this was passionate and even a bit frightening. The howls and cries of anguish at the crucifixion was almost unbearable and the younger children were hiding in their mothers arms or behind the older brothers or sisters. Tears filled my own eyes and realised that I was not alone as there was not a single dry eye there.
Once again silence fell as the scene changed and the empty tomb was discovered and breath was held in expectation and then exploded in cheers as Jesus was revealed to Mary in the garden and then to the disciples. When the film ended and I turned on the flood lights in the compound the sight of those joyful faces nearly made me cry again. The women of the Vagri and Koli embracing in friendship and the men likewise, was something I could never have hoped for. The men asked me for permission to leave and shook my hand and thanked me with great show of respect and honour.
When they had gone Bhimo, Master Jerome and Master Jagsi helped me put away the equipment. Then they came into my room and were bubbling over with something they wanted to say to me. So I asked what it was. Jerome said they were fantastic, they knew the story well and their comments during the film were so deep. Bhimo, who was not known for his enthusiasm about dealing with strangers was excited and butted in to say that when that woman stood up when Jesus carried the cross, she said to the others, ‘That is not just a wooden cross he is carrying, He is carrying all of our sins on his back!’ He said that she also said at the crucifixion, ‘See how much he Loves us.’ Jagsi then said that he thinks that maybe they are really Christians.
I believe that they were of the original Tomasai tribes and that they had faithfully kept their faith handed down to them over the centuries and kept the stories of the scriptures alive on the travels.
I did not see them again.

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Denis Carter

Fr. Denis A.V. Carter SSC Missionary Priest of the Society of St. Columban. Based in Britain serving as Vice Director of the Region of Britain. Currently working on the Mission AwarenessProgramme