Caste and Religion in India: The Meos of Mewat
Below is a map of an Indian village, drawn in the 1980s. This village, Bisru, in northwestern India, was where the French anthropologist, Raymond Jamous, lived at the time. He was studying the kinship relationships of a particular caste group, the Meos, who integrated him into their own kin networks as the bhai (brother) of Abdulaziz, a university-educated Meo, his first contact there. The region in which Bisru is located is called Mewat, ‘the land of the Meos’. It forms a triangle between Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. This is said to have been the territory of the Pandavas, the cousins of the great Mahabharata epic. An important Meo caste myth, the Pandun ke kara, identifies the Pandavas as their own caste ancestors. Like the Pandavas, they see themselves as a warrior and ruling caste, describing themselves by the regional term for ruler, that is, Rajput. Meos are one of the most important groups in the Mewat region and have spread out beyond it in both India and Pakistan. You might wonder why…
The map shows that this village, like many in South Asia, is divided into sections. The labels in the different sections are the names of the different castes or segments of castes who live in that part of the village. You might already be looking to see where the Meos live and wonder why you cannot find the label. What you will find are the names of the seven Meo lineages of the village: Haweliya, Dandiya, Dhand, Gand, Kampaniya, Sapera and Uparla. They in fact fall into three groups, centred around three ‘lineage houses’ in the village where their respective caste-segment panchayats are held (the panchayat is the key local group which sorts out disputes, makes decisions about members who go against the caste ritual and social rules, organizes festival processions and so on). Such caste-related panchayats are an essential part of the social fabric of South Asia.
Look closely at the map and think about the information above. What does this evidence tell you about the way that caste operates, and particularly its relationship with religion? Does the evidence suggest that caste is a part of Hinduism?
Figure 1 Map of Bisru village (by Sophie Archambault de Beaune)
Bard (Mirasi) Muslim low-caste singers who retell the past glories of the family they serve at life-cycle events
Fakir here, specific caste of Muslim funeral priests (equivalent to Hindu mahabrahmin funeral priests); generally, Muslim wandering ascetic
Harijan literally, ‘children of God’, Gandhi’s term for the so-called ‘untouchables’. Here, leather-workers and sweepers.
Id-Ga the mosque kept for Muslim festivals like Id/Eid
Kazi Saiyads/Sayyids, descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, usually regarded as higher status than Indian-origin Muslims
Priests here, (Hindu) Brahmins
Shopkeepers here, Baniyas
As you look at the map and key carefully and think about Abdulaziz’s name, how many clues can you find which disrupt or at least cause you to question the relationship between caste and Hinduism? How many different groups can you locate in this village? What other questions would help you understand social groupings and relations in this village and beyond? (See Suthren Hirst and Zavos 2011, ch. 7A)
Click on Raising Questions to see some possible avenues of research