Raising questions about the village of Bisru

Raising questions about caste and religion on the basis of the evidence


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

Perhaps your first query will have been:  if caste is basically a feature of Hinduism, why are there so many mosques in this village, why does Abdulaziz have a Muslim name and why are there Meos in Pakistan?  According to Jamous, ‘The Meo themselves say that they are at once a caste and a Muslim community’ (2003:17).  This clearly suggests that, at least for the Meo, caste and Muslim identity are not felt to be incompatible.

In this village the Meo are what anthropologists call the ‘dominant caste’, the most important group in terms of both numbers and status.  Locals themselves identify this village as a Meo village, by contrast with other villages in the area where other similar status caste groups, such as (Hindu) Jats or Thakurs, are dominant.  The particular dominant caste acts as the jajman in the village or area, the patron of the other castes who render service to them.  Can you identify any of these service castes from the map?

Such service may be daily – very low caste sweepers remove waste from outside Meo and other high-caste houses, for example. Alternatively it may be provided on ritual occasions – travelling Muslim Mirasi lowish caste bards sing the myths of Meo families at birth and marriage; Hindu brahmins from outside Bisru provide ‘deeper’ genealogies for the Meo, confirming their right to power.  Service castes in Bisru as elsewhere are divided into clean castes (such as the Mirasi) and unclean castes (including the sweepers).  See if you can identify other service castes in Bisru, their status and their religious affiliation.

Looking back at the map and still querying the caste equals Hindu model, you may also have wondered why one section has funeral priests, apparently high status descendants of Muhammad, water carriers, singing bards and barbers all living together.  In this village they are all Muslim (again disrupting the Hindu paradigm) and are also clean service castes in relation to the higher status Meos.  Is this then just a Muslim village?

On the other hand, you may have noticed that there are both burial and cremation grounds, the former used by Muslims, the latter generally by Hindus. You may have spotted the brahmin priests and wondered which other groups in the village are Hindu.  And whether the Harijans, or untouchables, regard themselves as Hindu, Muslim, or neither.  You might also wonder if people who identify with other religious traditions live in this village or the surrounding area and how these different social/caste groups with varying religious affiliations relate to one another locally and in terms of larger regional and global issues.

All these questions invoke a broader question to which there is no straightforward answer: what is caste?  Click on the What is caste section to explore this topic.