Posted by: Vikram | August 17, 2009

The culture of the ‘Scheduled Castes’ through the ages

Many of the peoples of India which were discriminated on the basis of birth and name were classified as the ‘Scheduled Castes‘ in the Constitution. Most Indians and outsiders tend to distinguish between the various castes on the basis of privilege, wealth and depravity. However the discriminated people of India, just like discriminated people elsewhere have their own culture, their own heroes/heroines and stories. Unfortunately, I was never made aware of this in India and I doubt many urban Indians know about it either. Unfortunately, the folk tales of the oppressed did not find even a single mention in my textbooks.

Luckily, I had the opportunity to take a class titled ‘Epics and Heroes of India’ in my university in America. The class covered an epic performed by low caste people in the Braj region of North India. The epic is called Dhola, and its contrast with the upper caste epics ‘Mahabharata’ and ‘Ramayana’ is very interesting. But let me first very briefly outline the story of Dhola.

Dhola describes the story of Raja Nal and his wife Damayanti, who although of kingly lineage, is born in a forest and raised by members of the merchant class. As the Raja seeks to reclaim his throne, he must take on a variety of roles, acrobat. leper, oil presser and fight off his evil and scheming opponents. Of course he does do this and emerges victorious in the end. I know thats really short, but the contents of the epic are not so important to this discussion.

I would like to compare the gender aspects of society as they are covered in Dhola, and the better-known Ramayana, which has a somewhat similar storyline. Many of the readers will recall Sita, the wife of the principal protagonist, Rama. The docility and servility of Sita is well known to most, the epic has no instances of her questioning her husband’s actions. More importantly, Rama never requires Sita, she is to be won back and is the reason for him taking on Ravana, but she never participates in his battles. She comes across as a very passive and helpless character, dependent on her husband and having very little independent thought and action.

The corresponding character in Dhola, Damayanti, could not be more different. At her swayamvar, she puts her suitors through a cooking test, and she marries the leper (Nal in disguise) in her father’s court who is the only one who can cook. She rejects her father’s efforts to have her marry a divine being and marries the human Nal. In doing this, she escapes the standard notions husband-worship found frequently in the upper caste epics. Damayanti and the other female Motini, frequently come to aid Nal in battle. Indeed as Susan Wadley, director of South Asia studies at Syracuse University notes,

Nal’s woman is a force to be reckoned with. She set fire to the gate of the fort and is now holding a sword.

This basic cultural difference is reflected in contemporary India, with low caste women participating in work much more and having much more freedom of movement. As Wadley notes,

Women in the Braj region, especially those of higher status and caste, are contained within their houses and courtyards where they follow strict rules of the purdah.

which contrasts with the,

freedom of movement found among lower-caste women in rural India even today.

I will now shift to more modern cultural differences, that relate more to the Republican Indian state. In particular, this concerns the imagery of Dr. Ambedkar and Gautama Buddha. Their images can be found in the houses, schools and places of congregation across India. The picture below is the exterior wall of a temple in Uttar Pradesh, used by the Dalits,

Beyond imagery of course, there is the question of how Dalits see modern India, and how this contrasts with the upper caste view.

The higher castes, in general are influenced by either a Gandhian nationalism based on pluralism and a benign state, or the majoritarian ‘Hindu’ ‘nationalism’ of the BJP/RSS. The low castes today, though are much more influenced by Ambedkarian ideas of the state, where the state is a tool to repair injustice and ensure equality. These differences have not manifested into mainstream pop culture, as that industry is dominated by the upper castes. So while mainstream Bollywood movies reflect both the pluralistic nationalism of Gandhi (think Chak De India), there are few movies that represent the Ambedkarian view of India. One would expect to see more manifestations of Ambedkar’s views as the low castes begin to assert themselves, and in creating their own mass’ culture it is likely that they will rely more on their own epics and heroes.

The Ambedkar picture belongs to my friend Conrad Barwa. It has been used with his permission.


  1. The story of Nala-Damyanti isn’t as less-known as you are making it out to be. I was introduced to it early in my childhood through ‘Nandan’ and ‘Amar Chitra Katha’. It’s very much part of the upper-caste Hindu mythology.

    I do agree with your other points, though.

    • Vinod, perhaps you are right. I am perhaps projecting my own ignorance on others. Would it be right though to say that Dhola, though part of upper caste mythology, is much more revered by the lower castes ?

  2. Indeed, Vikram. As I said, I agree with the rest of your points.

  3. Vikram, thanks for this educative post.

  4. Yes,a very informative post

  5. Vinod and Chawla saab, thanks.

  6. informative post!

    Thanks Reema.

  7. The economic independence of the lower case women, in contrast with the so called higher caste women is well pointed out! And I think it is true, to a certain extant even today. BTW you have been awarded and tagged.

    Destination Infinity

  8. Hmmmm the omnipresent white bathroom tiles….Yeah they have their own culture, they are different people! They evolved separately so its sort of obvious….

  9. nala damayanthi is an extremely famous story in Tamil nadu. A good food is called “nala” pagam as Nala worked as a cook when he was in disguise.

  10. Vikram, you wrote: “The docility and servility of Sita is well known to most, the epic has no instances of her questioning her husband’s actions.

    I’m somewhat surprised that you’d make a statement like that when otherwise, you do good academic research. 🙂

    I’m curious, have you read a translation of Ramayan lately? I’m not talking about Amar Chitra Katha or other versions that we read during our childhood, or about the (incorrect) perception of Sita as depicted by your above comment.

    Here are some instances from Valmiki’s Ramayan that show Sita anything but docile/servile, and questioning her husband’s decisions.

    Ram: “Oh good lady ! You such dwell here, doing comfortably to the will of Bharata the king, remaining devoted to righteousness and with a vow of truth as you end.”

    Sita, who speaks kindly and deserves kind utterances, after hearing Rama’s words, became angry out of love alone and spoke thus to her husband.

    “Oh, Rama the prince! What words these are you speaking? These light words certainly are to be laughed at by you and to me after hearing.”

    “I can come to forest which is inaccessible, which is devoid of people, filled with various types of animals and inhabited by tigers and jackals.”

    Ram again tries to dissuade Sita from accompanying him to the forest, and she doesn’t accept his words, which a docile/servile wife would have.

    Sita asking Laxman to go help Ram during the Mareecha episode is not docile or servile behavior.

    Here’s Sita questioning her husband after the war is over and he tells her that she is free to go anywhere she wants:

    ‘Then, wiping clean her face, which was bathed in tears, she spoke the following words slowly, in a stammering voice to her husband. “O valiant Rama! Why are you speaking such harsh words, which are violent to hear for me, like a common man speaking to a common woman? O the long-armed one! I am not the one in the way you understand me. Have a faith in me. I swear to you by my own character.”

    “By the conduct of vulgar woman you distrust the entire race of women. Give up this doubt, if I have been actually tested (and found trustworthy) by you. O lord! It was not my willfulness, when I came into contact with the person of Ravana. I was helpless. My adverse fate was to blame on that score.”‘

    Again, not servile, not docile.

    And, while Tulsi Das’s version has added chapters not found in Valmiki’s original, the Lav-Kush episode and Sita choosing to not go with her husband but instead asking Mother Earth to swallow her can hardly be considered docile or servile.

    So, not sure on what basis you think that Sita acted in a docile and servile manner, and during which events.

    Also, the story of Nal-Damyanti is quite famous and well-known.

    Other than that, good post.

  11. Vikram.. I don’t know if you are feeding the stereotype by contrasting the lower-caste supposedly matriarchical epics with upper-caste patriarchical epics.

    I seriously doubt there is any merit in such argument. The women of lower castes often had as much discrimination (if not more) as the women of higher castes. Further, these gender roles have changed throughout history. A selective presentation of Ramayana with Nal-Damayanti story is also very skewed. How about the various other “very upper-caste” epics of Maa Durga and Parvati ? Durga can hardly be called docile and servile.

    The Ramayana is also very misunderstood by western academics. There’s not a single Ramayana, but multiple traditions. For example, the Brahmin women of Andhra Pradesh sing several songs in which Sita rebukes and questions Rama. Buddhists and Jains have Ramayanas as well. The version of Valmiki is more a psychological treatise than a social one. If one misses this aspect, one cannot understand Ramayana.

    The fundamental idea is that there exists a Rama, a Sita, a Ravana and a Hanuman in one’s own consciousness. The story of Ramayana is about how the conscious doer (Rama) gets united with his inspiration (Sita). This is a cryptic tale, much in the ancient Indian tradition .. like Panchatantra and Subhashitani.

    And most importantly of all, Valmiki who wrote Ramayana is born into a very low caste. So may be, Valmiki’s version should be called a lower-caste epic ? 🙂

    • Kiran, sorry for the delay in replying.

      When I say ‘upper caste’ epic, I mean one celebrated by the upper castes. And you can see this in many aspects of Indian life today. Virtually every well read young English speaking urbanite in India is atleast aware of the Mahabharata, Ramayana and their basic contents. They are celebrated as achievements of ‘Indian culture’. And it doesnt matter who supposedly wrote the epic, the epic is all about the martial upper castes.

      Durga and Kali are certainly not presented as models of ‘Indian’ womanhood as Sita is. You cannot claim use their examples to contradict what I have claimed.

    • Kiran varanasi …..

      you are very wrong about “Buddhists and Jains have Ramayanas as well “. I am Buddhist but there no such epics like Ramayanas or Mahabharat .

      you should study about buddhism after all SHARNATH is in VARANASI..

  12. […] what could those other factors be ? The Dalit political emergence of the last two decades ? The mainstreaming and spread of a Dalit culture and the words and deeds of Dalit heroes like Dr. Amb… I would lean towards this factors, but it will indeed be interesting to see how scholars in India […]

  13. well debate

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