When I was a school going kid, I remember a new family shifted to my society, one of the daughters from which I befriended. One day, when she came to my house, she wouldn’t drink water. When asked why, she said it was because we are non-vegetarians. Then, I would never ever have thought that this is a result of the caste system. Now that I have researched and learnt about it critically, it is crystal clear to me that this is due to caste – she is a Marwari Brahmin and I am a Shudra. Vegetarianism and purity are associated with the former and non-vegetarianism and impurity with the latter.
I belong to the Kumhar caste, i.e. my ancestors were potters. Further, in terms of cultural groups, the potters are classified as Hindus and Muslims. The Gujrati Kumhar, Rana Kumhar, Lad and Telangi are groups among the Kumhars. They all bear these names after different cultural, linguistic zones, or caste groups, but are termed as one caste cluster.
Under the caste system, we are Shudras. Mostly in South India where I come from, we are further divided into two groups – clean caste and unclean caste. However, in some North Indian states like Madhya Pradesh, Kumhars are also Scheduled Castes. My family comes from southern Karnataka, in Mangalore, where we belong to the Tulu speaking population.
Potters in this region are called ‘Moolye, Odari, Kumbaara or kumbar, kusave (ku+sa+ve = one who works with mud and water) and Handa’. Kulala is also an umbrella term used to refer to us. It is primarily a Hindu caste where along with pottery trade, the people pursue farming as well. They are commonly found in the Indian states of Andhra pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and southern parts of Tamil Nadu.
According to what I gained from conversations from my family regarding our caste, we had sort of a middle status, who would not inter-dine with those who had lower castes from ours. In addition to this, we practised untouchability with the Dalits and Adivasis. Similarly, castes that were higher from ours, for eg. Shetty, Rai, Hegde, etc. would not inter-dine with us either, and maintain a distance.
We still practise caste endogamy and clan exogamy, a very important feature of the caste system in India. As I started researching for this article, I noticed that there is hardly any data for my surname, but there is definitely data available for my caste, which however, is not satisfactory.
But, just to see if it is the same for some popular surnames, I looked for data on common upper caste surnames like Agarwal, Sharma, Kapoor, etc., and there I saw entire family trees for them and if not family trees, I could see a lot of information on their demographic distribution across the country and world. This, I would say is because upper castes, i.e. the dwij savarna surnames are so common due to their generational privileges and my surname is uncommon because we belong to the Bahujan community.
In the process of learning the history of my caste, especially in terms of my native place, I discovered some very interesting prospects as to how caste works differently in South India from the mainstream North Indian view of caste. My family is matrilineal i.e., caste or our ‘Kutumb’ is taken forward through the mother and not the father, which is usually not the case in most North Indian states.
Along with pottery, we also were involved in farming, however, we did not own land. The landlords were Shettys who are Vaishyas and they employed Shudra, Dalit and Adivasi castes to toil on their land. The wages were menial and the economic status of my caste wasn’t that good. However, we were allowed in temples, only for the ritual of offering Naivedyam. Other than that, we were not allowed to perform any ritual and had a separate area in temples.
Although we are allowed in temples, we cannot touch dominant castes, especially Brahmins in temples. In the Subramanya Swamy temple, one of the most important temples in my native place Mangalore, the Brahmin priests throw the prasad onto the hands of the devotees that come there, so as to not touch them as it could be possible that there are oppressed caste individuals among them. The Dalit and Adivasi castes were made to stand outside the temples, barring their entry. This, however, is not the case in my village now.
Most of South India has fared better in terms of caste as compared to North India i.e., the anti-Brahminism movements have been strong there. But that does not mean casteism, in South India, is a woe of the past. The people are still made to do their caste jobs and the marginalised castes are predominantly poor. For eg., manual scavenging and other cleaning activities are mostly done by Dalits and Adivasis. Another example being, when I look at the family history of my other dominant caste friends, they have doctors, IITians and other people from such revered institutes, holding coveted jobs for generations, while in my family, my parents have had to work and restaurants as waiters, were poor and there is no such person with a very well revered job. In fact, it is my generation that has the first doctor, engineer, etc., in my family.
My ancestors, including my grandparents, wouldn’t enter houses of Shudras, whose sub-caste was lower than ours – Poojaris, and would practise untouchability with Dalits and Adivasis in our village like Koragers. However, in terms of societal upliftment, my caste was left behind. The castes I mentioned previously who are considered ‘lower’ from us formed unions that we call ‘Sanghas’, for eg., Jaya Suvarna formed the ‘Bilavara Sangha’ for Poojaris, forming a strong sense of caste consciousness and migrated, got educated and eventually had better economic status.
After Indira Gandhi introduced new agricultural laws in the 1950s through the amendment in the section 77A in the grant of land of tenants, the lands were given back to the farmers who worked on them and that in a way helped the upliftment of the marginalised castes. The slogan ‘Uluvavane Holadodeya’ (One who tills the land is the owner) became popular.
The Shettys then got into businesses, mostly in restaurants and bars and migrated to cities like Mumbai, Bangalore, etc., becoming owners of famous ‘Udupi’ restaurants. The people from my caste have still not progressed as much. I still see them and their conditions in my village in Uppinangady, Mangalore, where they still do their traditional caste assigned jobs.
Even if they don’t do it, they are economically poor and haven’t fared much in terms of societal upliftment. Our Sangha, a union or caste organisation for the upliftment for the people from our caste, was formed much later, called ‘Kulala Sangha’, and since then, there have been consistent efforts to uplift our caste. Even though we haven’t gone much ahead as compared to other castes lower than ours, we still are casteist to them. This in fact, is a very clear distinction between caste and class – even if there is class mobility, it doesn’t necessarily imply caste mobility.
Most of the Gods we worship are similar to the mainstream Hindu Gods. But, there are some more important demigods that we have, specific to our caste. They are called ‘Bhootha’ (this does not translate to ghost, it is a term for the demigod). The rituals for worshipping them are similar for most oppressed castes in our area in Karnataka. We offer animal sacrifices, mostly chickens. There is also a very important Kola (folk art) performance by the Scheduled Castes while worshipping this god which is highly revered.
Perhaps, the reason why most designated upper castes do not worship this God is because it involves decapitating animals with our hands and most upper castes are vegetarians. Since the ritual involves killing animals alive with bare hands, the upper castes see it as ‘unclean’, ‘uncivilised‘ and ‘barbaric’. Even the Bhootha are oppressed castes, usually Dalits and Adivasis, and this was in an attempt to uplift them by attributing divinity to them.
But, even these Gods were not humans. For eg., a particular Bhootha that most Tulu speaking people believe in is a Dalit but is actually in the form of a pig. This in several ways, shows how even designated lower caste Gods are considered to be animals, which in a speciesist world clearly shows that they are of lesser importance.
In terms of personal experiences, my surname has always been made fun of, which I personally don’t mind, but it just shows to me how certain surnames, especially the ones that belong to oppressed castes don’t fit the mainstream idea of surnames, as mostly it is dominant caste surnames that are ‘famous’ and common.
My family has experienced casteism several times, for eg., a marriage proposal for one of my relatives was rejected by the other party, the reason for which was our caste (their caste was higher than ours). They insulted our caste whilst we were there and denied the proposal. There have been other instances where assigned upper castes, usually Brahmins, won’t come to our house to even sit, leave behind eating and drinking.
In case of being casteist to castes lower than ours, earlier, my grandparents wouldn’t go to their houses. However, this has changed. We don’t see caste in terms of inter-dining, but we do see it in marriages i.e. caste (jati) endogamy and clan (bari in Tulu) exogamy is what we follow.
Despite us being OBCs with the right to access reservations, my family has denied taking them because apparently, our family gets admissions only through ‘merit’. This indicates how even among marginalised castes, reservation is perceived to be unfair, and not taking advantage of reservation benefits is seen as something to be proud of. In one instance, when we had gone to a baby shower ceremony of the people from our caste, they gave all leftover food from people’s plates to Dalits working in that building as domestic workers. All the food had already been touched and eaten halfway, it was all mixed together and they even added rice water to it. Nonetheless, the Dalits ate that food and people from my caste gave it to them because they thought they were doing something nice.
My family outwardly does claim it is not casteist but as I analyse their rituals, it indicates nothing but casteism. A few of our relatives wear the janeu (ceremonial thread) yearly after a ritual called ‘janiyara’. Although it is Brahmins who wear the Janeu, I personally feel these relatives of mine do so as a means of ‘Sanskritisation’ or as I like to call it ‘self proclaimed Brahmins’.
They behave like Brahmins, i.e., they make sure they don’t go to crowded places in case they become impure. If they do go, they sprinkle holy water or ‘Tirtha’ on themselves and do a pooja. They also do not consume meat and eggs and eat only vegetarian or ‘shuddh’ (pure) food. This just shows how caste is so ingrained even among the marginalised castes, that they have accepted the concept of ‘purity’ and ‘impurity’ within and among castes.
To reiterate, my caste fulfils all the features of the caste system – caste endogamy and clan exogamy, hereditary occupation and status, practising untouchability in some or the other way, social segregation and restrictions on food and drinks. The structural functionalist perspective can also be applied here due to the caste consciousness we have and social order that we follow.
Thus, I would like to say that examining my caste and its associated history was quite an eye-opening experience for me. The instances of experiencing casteism and being casteist, were quite shocking indeed. I learned how caste has affected me and my family’s life in so many ways without us even realising it. However, it was a great learning experience in terms of knowing where and how I have got all my privileges (or the lack of them) from.
Featured image source: cjp.org.in