Reproduced below is an edited and abridged version a paper written by well-known Vienna-based sociologist Prof Shalini Randeria*, “Carrion and corpses: Conflict in categorizing untouchability in Gujarat”, published in European Journal of Sociology/ Archives Européennes de Sociologie/ Europäisches Archiv für Soziologie, Vol 30, No 2, Sentiments moraux, effets sociaux, 1989, pp 171-191). The paper is based on data collected by Prof Randeria during fieldwork in several villages in Sabarkantha and Mehsana districts (North Gujarat) and the city of Ahmedabad in 1983-84 and 1987
The Dalit castes who are the subject of this paper were (in descending order of rank) the Garo (priests), Vankar (weavers), Chamar (tanners, identified as Rohits), Tidagar (bow- and arrow-makers), Turi (musicians and genealogists), Šeņavā or Cenava (basket-makers) and Bhangi (scavengers, identified as Valmikis). These castes lived together in a settlement (väs) usually at the southern edge of the village. They were denied access to temples, wells, cremation and burial grounds and the services of ritual specialists in the village.
According to the non-Dalit castes, the impurity of all these castes was derived from their occupational connection with death. They were considered permanently polluted because of their dual association with animal death, that is, through their caste-specific occupations and their consumption of carrion. As cattle scavengers, who dragged away dead animals from the village into their own settlement, they would remove the impurity attached to the carcass and transfer it to themselves.
The Bhangis were considered to be the most severely polluted because of their additional association with human death in their role as cremation ground attendants. The extreme lowness of the Bhangi rendered him untouchable for the other Dalit castes too.
Tanning was an exclusive Chamar specialization, as was the manufacture and repair of certain leather goods. Their role in the disposal of dead cattle and their share of the carrion also rendered the Vankar impure. Whereas these two castes removed animals with hooves or horns, it was the right of the Bhangi to drag away all other animals. Whereas the Chamar had a right to the hides of the cattle of their gharāk (clients), the Bhangi had a right to remove animals off the village streets.
Analogous to the positions of the Brahmin and the Dalit at the top and bottom of the caste hierarchy respectively, the Garo and the Bhangi constituted the two poles of the Dalit hierarchy. The other village castes were usually unaware of the existence of these different Dalit castes, or simply took no notice of this internal differential ranking. They considered all Dalit castes as equally polluting on grounds of their occupational contact with death. The higher castes distinguished only between all other Dalit castes taken together and the Bhangi.
The Tidagar were traditionally the makers of bows and arrows. They used gut, an impure substance due to its association with dead animals, for the manufacture of bows. Other Dalit castes also considered them degraded on account of their responsibility for the killing of innocent birds and animals. The Senavā not only wove baskets and ropes but also used to perform the highly impure task of castrating bulls. Their extremely low position in the Dalit hierarchy, just above the Bhangi, was attributed by the other Dalits to their performance of the latter task.
The Turi and the Garo were castes of ritual specialists who served their Dalit clients (gharāk) as musicians and priests respectively. In addition, each of them performed a few other services which were denied to their clients by the village specialist castes. As actors, the Turi of a village had as their clients the Dalit settlements of certain villages as a whole. They moved from one settlement to another performing plays (bhavāi) and receiving food and cash in return. As musicians and genealogists, their clients were single Dalit households. They received cooked food and money in exchange for playing music on auspicious occasions like weddings and mortuary feasts as well as festivals. They pointed out that it was this acceptance from low clients which degraded them.
The Garo were domestic priests to the Dalit castes and argued that they too had been polluted by their provision of ritual services to castes which were low as well as by their acceptance of gifts in exchange for these services. They considered themselves to be Brahman and were referred to as such by their clients, though all the other castes of the village regarded and treated them as untouchable.
Neither they nor the Turi officiated in any capacity for the Bhangi, who were seen as beyond the pale. The Bhangi were not only denied the services of Garo priests, they were deprived of Turi musicians and genealogists, too. The Bhangi lived at the edge of the Dalit settlement, did not share a burial ground with the other Dalit castes, and if numerous enough had a well of their own. If not, they were forced to request someone of a higher Dalit caste than their own to draw water from the Dalits’ well and pour it into their pots.
The touch of a Bhangi would defile the Dalits’ well just as that of a Dalit would pollute the village well. The extreme pollution of the Bhangi was not due to his work as a scavenger and remover of night-soil, as was usually thought to be the case. The Bhangi’s task of night-soil removal was more an urban one as most villagers used the open fields for defecation. It was the association with human death in their role as cremation-ground attendants that relegated the Bhangi to the very bottom of the caste hierarchy.
Death was a much more powerful source of pollution, and death-related duties were the responsibility of the male members of the caste. They were responsible for gathering wood, making the funeral pyre (the fire comes from the domestic hearth of the deceased) and looking after the burning corpse. In return, they had a right to the shroud and all the utensils used at the cremation ground, as nothing might be taken home from there by the mourners.
The Bhangi’s association with death was made forcefully in the myth centering round their common goddess Meladimatā (the goddess of filth, who was said to be Ravan’s daughter), who received a shroud for her wedding sari from her Bhangi mother-in-law. Meladi also referred to a witch (dākan) or to the female ghost (bhutadi) of a woman of an inferior caste who had died a violent or untimely death.
Unlike other Dalit castes, who were usually linked in a jajmani or gharākavati system to the client households whose dead animals they removed, the Bhangi did not have clients. They had instead a fortnightly system of rotation with regard to their two main duties, one associated with human death and the other with the removal of garbage and excrement. Each Bhangi family took it in turn to perform one of these tasks. The fortnight of death duty alternated with the fortnight of village duty.
The former included the tasks of dragging away dead dogs, etc., from the village streets and of dealing with the human dead on the cremation ground. The latter traditionally involved doing veth (forced unpaid labour) for the ruling family, including cleaning stables and removing night-soil, which brought the Bhangi in contact with animal and human. The task of sweeping the village streets was separately regulated by permanently dividing the streets among Bhangi families.
Interestingly, the Bhangi equated human with animal death in referring to his duties with regard to both kinds as ‘mānas-kutarano vethavaro’ or ‘forced labour involving man and dog’. The work relating to both animal and human dead was thus assimilated and opposed to the removal of excrement. Whereas the former was remunerated in kind, the latter was a matter of forced, unpaid labour. Whereas the death-related work was a male job, scavenging was a female one.
The Bhangi was sent with the news of death to relatives and affines in nearby villages by both their Dalit clients and the dominant caste, including Muslims (Momin). The Garo, on the other hand, was the messenger of the auspicious. He delivered invitations to marriages or to commemorative mortuary feasts which, unlike death rituals, were auspicious events (sārun kām) to be celebrated with the pomp and splendour of a ‘second wedding’.
For delivering both kinds of news, the Garo and the Bhangi received food and a little money from the recipient in exchange. Whereas the Garo was given uncooked food, the Bhangi accepted cooked food from a household intensely polluted by the very news of death.
All Dalits had a traditional right (felt to be degrading and increasingly given up by the educated youth) to collect cooked food from their higher-caste clients on festivals and at marriage and funerary feasts. The Bhangi had an additional daily right to an evening meal (välu) consisting of left-overs (enthavād) from those whose streets they swept every day. However, the left-overs of a wedding or mortuary feast might only be collected by the Vaghari, a very low but not Dalit caste.
The Bhangi prerogative of receiving the highly impure, everyday left-overs was an ambivalent one. It degraded them to the bottom of the hierarchy, but it also evoked in the other Dalits some measure of envy. According to the latter, the Bhangi never had to worry about food and had a ready-made banquet every day. In the context of the intense rivalry among the different Dalit castes for the benefits of the State’s reservation policy, this was one of the arguments used to deny the Bhangi’s claim to a share in the reservation cake.
The upper-caste public discourse described the relationship of the Dalits to the government in terms of the caste-internal logic of affinal gift-giving. The Dalits were said to be the favoured sons-in-law of the government (sarkārī jamai), gift-receivers par excellence with no obligations to give in return. Or the government was termed their ‘house of the mother’s brother’ (mosas), i.e. a life-long provider of gifts in cash and kind extending over two generations at least.
Due to the strong influence of Jainism, the value placed on vegetarianism in Gujarat was extraordinarily high. Any kind of meat eating was therefore looked down upon. Carrion was in a sense doubly polluted, being contaminated by the impurity of death as well. Curiously enough, the consumption of carrion alone, in the absence of a death-linked caste occupation, was also not sufficient to render a caste untouchable.
In the late 1930s there was a sustained campaign carried out by local Gandhians against the consumption of meat and liquor. There was, for example, a meeting of Garo, Vankar, Chamar, Senavā and Tidagar (the Bhangi were considered to be too low to be invited at all) held for the purpose in 1939 in the village of Ilol. The resolution urged abstinence, as alcohol was seen as detrimental to physical and moral health. As against that, carrion was sought to be given up not on inherent grounds but because it lowered one’s status in the eyes of the higher castes.
The text of the resolution quotes Mathurdas Lalji, the Gandhian social worker who presided over the proceedings, as having said that the consumption of alcohol and carrion were responsible for the Dalits being regarded as demons (rakshas). The text cites him as having argued: “During the monsoon rains and the scorching summer heat, we of the upper castes shelter dogs, cats and donkeys on our doorsteps and allow them to enter our houses. But we do not even permit you who drink liquor and eat carrion to set foot on our doorsteps. So you are counted as lower than even dogs and donkeys”.
Carrion-eating in Himmatnagar and ldar Taluka came to be given up as a result of the efforts of local Gandhians in the late 1930s and 1940s. So one had to rely on the memory of informants to get some idea of how carrion used to be shared among the various Dalit castes. Patterns of distribution varied from region to region and even between villages. Without going into the details of these differences, it was interesting to note a few common features. The Garo got the head of the animal, the Bhangi received the feet, hooves, intestines and kidneys. The rest (thighs and sides) was more or less equally distributed between the Vankar and Chamar, though the Vankar had a right to the liver in recognition of their leadership (mehetarāi) of the Dalits.
This pattern showed a striking similarity to the Purusa Sukta myth of the origin of the four varnas from the primeval man (the Brahman from his head, the Kshatriya from his arms, the Vaishya from his thighs, and the Shudra from his feet). The hierarchical division of society was reflected in the hierarchical division of the human or animal body in each case. The pattern of carrion distribution among the Dalit castes could be seen to express the internal hierarchy among these castes, or rather to create it.
Interestingly, each one of the Dalit castes saw itself as lower not because of an association with ‘natural’ impurities, but as a result of improper social interaction. The Tidagar myth, for example, portrayed them as agreeing to a share of carrion in innocence (bholpan) of the consequences. The Chamar myth narrated the story of their Rajput ancestors being forced to accept water from an impure caste in a situation of distress. One of the Turi myths traced their origin to a mixed marriage between a Vankar man and a Turi woman.
The degree of significance Dalit castes attached to their own origin myths could be seen from a controversy surrounding an unusual Garo myth. It was collected by Maheshchandra Pandya during his fieldwork in Modasa Taluka of Sabarkantha district and recounted in his book on the Garo of Sabarkantha, published in 1984. According to this myth, the Garo were the product of a union between a learned Bhangi man and a Brahman woman he married far away from home. Seeing her children rummaging about in the rubbish heap (ukarado) in search of bones, the horrified woman questioned her husband as to his true caste identity.
Upon publication of the book, the author, himself a Garo, was ordered by his caste council to recant, apologize to the caste for damaging its reputation and pay a heavy cash fine. His refusal to meet with these demands led to his being thrown out of the caste.
In contrast to the importance placed on them by the Dalits, these original myths were not given any credence by the non-Dalit castes, because they viewed the Dalit castes as polluted on account of their impure occupations involving contact with dead animals and corpses.
*Currently rector at the Institute of Human Sciences, Vienna. Click HERE for her profile