Caste has such deep roots in Southasian society that it would appear as if these divisions were primordial. Several equally plausible theories about the origins of caste are prevalent in villages around Janakpur, in Nepal’s Tarai plains, a town believed to be situated at the site of the mythical capital of the Mithila of Valmiki’s Ramayana. Hindu creationists, for instance, believe that the Brahmin emanated from the mouth of the primeval man, the Kshatriya from his arms, the Vaishya from his thighs and the Shudra from his feet. Rationalists, on the other hand, attribute the evolution of caste to varna, translated as skin colour in the Mahabharata, which says that a Brahman is white, a Kshatriya red, a Vaishya yellow and all Shudras black. A variation of the ‘Aryan invasion’ theory holds that the conquerors institutionalised their supremacy by imposing themselves upon the existing occupational groups.
In addition, there is the widely held belief that caste was originally a system of horizontal differentiation, in order to assign occupational duties in a coordinated manner. In this formulation, most castes, except Brahmins at the top and Dalits at the bottom, were fluid categories. Finally, the theory of karma propounds that one’s caste in this life is a result of the virtues of the previous one. All that a person can do is acquire virtue in the present life, to be rewarded with promotions up the caste ladder by the divine manager.
Whatever the theory, endless conflict appears to be built into the system of caste divisions. Yet different castes have lived together in the villages of the Nepali Tarai for millennia without major clashes. Part of the explanation behind the ‘peaceful coexistence’ may lie in the subordinate position of the ‘low’ castes in economic terms. At least some role was played by the subsistence agriculture that made cooperation a necessary condition of survival. However, a system of layered stratification, rather than hierarchy, seems to have been the mainstay of the caste system in the Mithila region. Different groups live together because they were neither high nor low but merely different, each with its own customs and deities. In the social arena, they have had to cooperate for collective survival.
According to legends in Mithila, the popular geographic term tarai owes its origin to massive lakes that once existed below the Shivalik (Chure in Nepal) foothills of the Mahabharata ranges. In all probability, these were wetlands left by changes in the courses of the mighty Himalayan rivers, which, once out of the mountains, meander in the plains to meet the Ganga. Today, all cultural symbols of Mithila are water-based. Makhan, lotus seeds, grow in shallow water; fish are caught from rivers and ponds; and betel leaves grow best in the shade of trees near watercourses. Makhan, machha and paan are essential elements of almost all rituals of every caste in this area.
This also indicates that the earliest settlers of this area must have been skilled fisherfolk. The hunter-gatherer ancestors of Mithila were water-dependent, rather than forest-dwellers. That could be the reason that the Mallahs figure high on the list of acceptable castes, though they are not considered as one of the high castes. Naturally, the main deity of the fisherfolks must have been water; today, their traditions perhaps live on in the Judshital festival, which heralds the onset of summer in the month of Baisakh, when elders bless young ones with water.
Over time, wetlands tend to shrink and tall grasses begin to grow in the resultant clearings. The groups that had long made their living by collecting reeds and making huts are probably ancestors of the present-day Doms, whose role in Mithila rituals continues to be important. But what are known today as Dusadhs were probably the people who began to settle along the riverbanks. Most likely, they hunted animals with bows and arrows and, along the way, learned the skills required to make bamboo rafts, reed huts and grass bins for storing edible fruits.
The tradition of worshipping Salhes – a mythical Dusadh king who is reputed to have fought valiantly, driven invaders across the Ganga and then died defending his possessions – might have begun later. But trees that are today worshipped as of Dusadh deities probably predate the tradition of making earthen statues of Salhes. The oldest villages of Mithila invariably have a Dusadh shrine, and all castes, including the ‘forward’ castes, pay yearly tribute for ritual pujas of Salhes.
The evolution of pastoral society created different castes in its wake, of which the earliest ones seem to have been Dhanuks, Koeris and Bhedihars. They worshipped mounds of earth as the Mother Goddess – the term kali was probably imposed upon this practice much later. Unlike the Doms and Dusadhs, who had a tradition of moving with the season along the river, goat- and sheepherders tended to live in clusters. Their lifestyle continues to have the most visible impact, as most settlers of Mithila are still Kali worshippers; it was probably their shamans who began the tradition of tree-worship as Brahma the eternal. In most Mithila villages, Dhanuks and Koeris are considered to have been earliest settlers; later settlers of affluence prefer people of these castes as family attendants and consider them as equals in society.
Cowherds and buffalo-rearing castes introduced the tradition of Shiva worship, but these were not permanent settlers. Until quite recently, they retreated into the forest with their cattle for much of the year. Such a tradition, however, must have begun when pastures turned into agricultural fields, and animals had to be taken wherever grass was abundant. Strangely, farming communities do not seem to have contributed their own deities. Instead, most adopted prevalent Brahma- and Kali-worshipping traditions. The shrines of Sita and Ram that dot the landscape are additions from the Bhakti age, when Buddhism went into retreat and kings claiming divine mandate began to patronise organised Hindu religion with land grants to temples. The Ram-Janaki temple in Matihani, near Janakpur, is the main Vaishnava shrine in Nepal, with its mahanth considered to be maan mahanth, a temple head above all other priests of the country.
The retreat of Buddhism gave a fillip to Brahminism, and what the sociologist M N Srinivas was to later call a process of Sanskritisation. Caste divisions became entrenched, with Brahmins at the top; farming communities accepted Vaishya status; and Dalits were relegated to the bottom. This was the caste system that, in Nepal, Jang Bahadur was to later institutionalise in the Muluki Ain – the Code of the Land – with the help of two Brahmin priests from Mahottary in Mithila. Strangely, there is no indigenous Kshatriya caste group in this area, which confirms the hypothesis that the Kshatriya category was an open group, admitting people with ‘warrior attitudes’ from all castes.
Farming also institutionalised caste roles. In a fitting finale to the caste conundrum, occupational castes have been some of the most significant beneficiaries of the remittance economy, in Nepal and elsewhere. Castes such as barbers, blacksmiths and carpenters possess very particular skills, after all, and oftentimes have less hesitation in taking up what are considered menial jobs. As such, their contributions to economic vibrancy are generally greater than those of the ‘upper’ castes, and their occupational dexterity has helped them to move ahead in the modernising economy. It would be interesting to watch the impact of resurgence of ‘low’ castes on the lifestyles of a region that takes excessive pride in its cultural traditions.
~ C K Lal is a columnist for this magazine and for the Nepali Times.