Exploring caste dynamics in the village of Bisru

How does life in Bisru and around relate to caste, seen in terms of the inter-relationship between casta, varna and jati?

In terms of occupation, Bisru (Hindu) jewellers retain their traditional occupation (like, for example, the many jewellers of the Gujarati Soni goldsmith caste who have businesses on the ‘Golden Mile’ in Leicester, UK); but Bisru Chamars, tanners, have turned their back on dealing with dead animals and tanning them.  They have raised their caste status by altering their occupation and becoming vegetarian.  Functioning as cobblers, their caste is still Chamar, though they are now able to enter Meo houses, unlike their fellow untouchables, the sweepers.

In terms of food, accepting cooked food and water still marks Bisru social hierarchies.  Yet while Bisru brahmins condemn Meos for their recent consumption of buffalo-meat and will generally not accept cooked food from them, they continue to respect their high status as the dominant caste and some will take tea with them.  Yet this is to risk being labelled ‘not a proper brahmin’, even by Meos!  Bisru Muslim Nais can act as cooks at public ritual occasions for Meos, because in this region they are seen as sharing descent with Meo clans and hence social status.  Elsewhere, Nais, who are barbers, and may be Hindu or Muslim, or neither, have very low-caste polluting status, because they deal with human waste products – hair and nails.  This reminds us forcibly that we need to look at localized situations to see how such social relations work.  It warns us not to read what is indeed an important local preoccupation, purity, as the only criterion affecting status, nor to read caste relations in terms of a single-overarching Hindu system.

In terms of marriage, the Meos form a caste at the broadest anthropological level (they are endogamous), and in self-identification as Meos.  Within that, they have a complex system of twelve clans or pals (some of which have links with specific territorial units) and fifty-two gots (agnatic kin units, that is, those who share common male descent groups).   The territory-linked pals are further divided up into sub-clans or thamba, linked with a village purportedly founded by the thamba’s common ancestor. The term thamba also designates that founding village and its surrounding villages as a political area, within which may live Meos from other descent groups as well as other caste groups, as Bisru shows (see further, Jamous 2003). Meo marry outside their got or clan and outside their village.  They marry within the Meo ‘caste’ (as a general rule, jati is endogamous, whereas got is exogamous).

By contrast, the term ‘Baniya’ (a general term for merchants and shop-keepers, including those who live in Bisru) covers an even broader ‘caste’ group, not strictly a jati in the anthropological sense.  For while Baniyas in this area intermarry, they do not form intermarrying groups with, say, Baniyas in Gujarat, a state to the west.  Within a particular jati, sections may break away and only marry within their own particular section, effectively splitting the endogamous unit in two or more.  Pocock (1972) demonstrates this for Patidars in Gujarat.  This was linked with other strategies to improve the status of the section which broke away.

This returns us to the question of the interrelations between casta, varna, jati and other aspects of social groupings which contribute to the notion of ‘caste’.  Our evidence suggests that the idea of casta-as-overarching-Hindu-system is not supported by the Bisru case.  The varna ideal is used as a kind of measure against which particular jatis can negotiate their relative status compared with other local groups.  We have already seen the Chamars’ change of diet and lifestyle.  The Meos’ own location of themselves as Rajputs with ancestry going back to the Mahabharata Pandava heroes shows a similar strategy, aligning themselves with the kshatriyas of the past as many other Rajput and other groups have done.  Working in the other direction, ‘brahmin’ as varna rarely unites brahmins of different brahmin castes who are not endogamous and have very marked differences in status.  Some of these are linked with occupation, the so-called mahabrahmin funeral priests being an extreme example through their association with dead bodies.  Those who act as purohits, or priests, are also generally thought to have lower status than those who do not, an important point as brahmins are often perceived primarily as ‘the priestly caste’.  

Even a brief look at one particular case study, then, helps us question and refine our understanding of the complex notion of ‘caste’.  But we must also remember to take into account change over time in different social and political contexts.  For more on this in relation to the Meo, see Mayaram (1997).