A dramatic rite of goddess worship, the gondhali is a popular practice among many households in Maharashtra. The dancer, always male, is called by the Brahmins and the Marathas after weddings and thread ceremonies and asked to perform in the courtyard or in any external space surrounding the dwelling. He wears a long robe, a garland of cowrie shells and a fancy turban. He is accompanied by musicians to whose tune the dance is conducted. In front of the gondhali, a square stand is erected and a piece of cloth (typically material used to stitch blouses, the upper garment worn by women) is kept on it with grain arranged on it in quadrangular fashion. The goddess is arranged on a pot on top of this. Around the design is erected a frame of millet or sugarcane stalks. After the goddess has been worshiped, the host family lights a torch and as long as oil is poured into the torch and the flame is lit, the gondhal keeps dancing. The songs that are sung during the performance weave in stories from the myths, the epics and common folklore.
Such performance rituals are common to cultures across the country, while it made the practice of religion popular and easy, it also institutionalized several caste-based practices. For instance, in most cases, the dancers come from the lower castes and perform in the upper caste households but are not allowed to cross the threshold or step into the main temple, if the performance is being conducted in the temple complex. According to several rationalist writers from the region, it was the divide that such caste systems set in place that led to the rise of Buddhism and the emergence of leaders such as B R Ambedkar in the region.
Note: According to The Tribes And Castes Of The Central Provinces Of India By R. V. Russell Of The Indian Civil Service, Superintendent Of Ethnography, Central Provinces, Assisted By Rai Bahadur Hira Lal, Extra Assistant Commissioner, Macmillan And Co., Limited, London, 1916 the Gondhals are:
A caste or order of wandering beggars and musicians found in the Maratha Districts of the Central Provinces and in Berar. The name is derived from the Marathi word gondharne, to make a noise. In 1911 the Gondhalis numbered about 3000 persons in Berar and 500 in the Central Provinces, and they are also found in Bombay. The origin of the caste is obscure, but it appears to have been recruited in recent times from the offspring of Waghyas and Murlis or male and female children devoted to temples by their parents in fulfillment of a vow. In the Berar Census Report of 1881, the Gondhalis are there attached either to the temple of Tukai at Tuljapur or the temple of Renuka at Mahur, and in consequence form two sub castes, the Kadamrai and Renurai, who do not inter- marry. In the Central Provinces, however, besides these two there are a number of other sub castes, most of which bear the names of distinct castes, and obviously consist of members of that caste who became Gondhalis, or of their descendants.
Story collected by: Arundhuti Dasgupta
Source: The Gondhali: Singers for the Devi by R C Dhere (translated by Anne Feldhaus) from: The experience of Hinduism, Essays on religion in Maharashtra, Edited by Eleanor Zelliot and Maxine Bernstein