ALTERNATE NAMES: Untouchables; Scheduled Caste
LOCATION: Northern India (mainly Uttar Pradesh state)
POPULATION: About 90 million (est.)
LANGUAGE: Local dialects of the region in which they live
RELIGION: Hinduism; traditional animism, nature-worship, and superstition
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: Hindus; Vol. 4: People of India
Chamārs form one of the major occupational castes of India. Although known by different names in different areas, they are traditionally associated with the working of leather. Their name is derived from the Sanskrit word for a shoemaker or tanner (charmakāra). Chamārs include groups that skin and dispose of animal carcasses, tanners, and makers of shoes and other leather goods. Found throughout the country, Chamārs are most numerous in northern India.
Chamārs may be traced back to very early times in the Indian subcontinent. They are mentioned in the Rg Veda, the earliest of the Vedas that probably was composed some time before 900 BC. There are numerous references in the Vedic literature to leather goods (e.g., leather bags, clothing, bowstrings, reins, leather shields, etc.), and even instructions for the preparing of skins for manufacture. Tanners and leatherworkers were clearly an important occupational group in early Aryan society. But even at this time, it is likely that they were of inferior social standing. The Aryan village community must have been organized very much along the lines of villages in India today. The cultivators residing in the villagers were Aryans, but on the outskirts of the village there would be laborers whose occupations made them unclean. These were often the conquered inhabitants of the country, or peoples of mixed descent who lived outside the Aryan community. It was to this non-Aryan segment of Vedic society that the Chamārs belonged.
The sheer number of Chamār castes and their widespread distribution in India today suggest that the Chamārs have originated from numerous sources. Some groups were tribal peoples who were assimilated into the lowest strata of Hindu society. Others appear to have been of higher social standing who were conquered or otherwise degraded to their present status. Still others may have their origins in illicit sexual relations between peoples of different castes. Yet there are certain characteristics common to all Chamār groups. Their traditional occupation handling carcasses, hides, and leather makes them "unclean." This is reinforced by certain common practices, such as eating meat, that are usually identified with the lowest classes. Their touch is polluting to caste Hindus, and so they are regarded as "untouchables." As such, even if they no longer follow their traditional occupation, Chamārs occupy the lowest rungs of Hindu society.
Chamārs are fighting for political representation in India, claiming they have been ignored for too long. Chamār and Madiga (leather workers from Andhra Pradesh) leaders from the south claim that they were not given a single position on the All India Congress Committee (AICC) or the Congress Working Committee (CWC), with the Chamār representation on the latter coming from Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. Their claim is that there is poor representation of the "Chamārs" from the south despite Chamārs making up over 50% of the Dalit population in the country.
Chamārs and Dalits in the north have banded together to form a political outlet for Bahujans (the Other Backward Castes [OBCs], Scheduled Castes [SCs], Scheduled Tribes [STs]) who are viewed as being at the bottom of the Indian caste system. The Bahujan Samaj (Bahujān Samāj) Party (BSP) is a national political party with socialist leanings that claims to be inspired by the philosophy of Dr B. R. Ambedkar. The BSP was founded by the high-profile charismatic leader Kanshi Ram in 1984. The BSP is one of the most powerful political parties in north India, has 19 members in the lower House of Parliament (the Lok Sabha), supports the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition, which forms India's current government in New Delhi, and is led today by Ms. Mayawati Kumari, herself a Chamār. The BSP was created and is dominated by Chamārs but nowadays also includes Brahmans and other high caste Hindus. At present, the BSP forms the state government of Uttar Pradesh with Ms. Kumari as Chief Minister (in fact, this is the third time Ms. Kumari has been Chief Minister. She occupied that position for a short time in 1995 and also in 1997 as part of a coalition with the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP]).
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
The number of Chamār castes and subcastes, the diversity of names by which they are known, and the sometimes arbitrary identification of groups as Chamārs by census-takers makes it difficult to provide an accurate count of the Chamār population in India today. An acceptable estimate would place their total number at around 90 million people, although this number is a crude estimate, because of the problem of enumerating Chamār communities in census figures. It is based on Chamārs making up 50% of the Dalit (Untouchable) community, which is approximately 16% of India's total population. Though Chamārs are found in small numbers throughout India, their main concentrations lie on the plains of the upper and middle Ganges Valley. By far the largest Chamār population—perhaps close to 50% of the total—is found in Uttar Pradesh. The neighboring states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, and Punjab all have significant numbers of Chamārs in their populations, as do areas of Nepal close to the border with India.
The explanation for this pattern is not immediately clear and may reflect a number of factors. In its broad outlines, Chamār distributions fall within the drier areas of India where cattle-breeding is an important economic activity. The role played by Chamārs in this context would be of more significance than in the wetter, rice-growing areas of the south and east. But perhaps of greater importance is the fact that the upper and middle Ganges Valley were among the first areas to be colonized by the Aryans as they expanded out of their original heartland in the Punjab. One might expect to find the structures of traditional Aryan society more developed here than in the non-Aryan parts of the country.
Many Chamār groups go by other names, and some such as the Jadav, Mochi, Satnami, and Raidas claim an identity distinct from the Chamār. This may be because they have separate origins, different myths, different religious and social practices, or even occupational differences. In Uttar Pradesh, the Jadav and the Raidas are the main Chamār groups. Chamārs in Rajasthan are called Regar. Bhambi is a name used in Maharashtra. In the Punjab State, many Chamārs have converted to Sikhism and are known as Ramdasias (after Guru Ramdas). Mochis are a subgroup of Chamārs found in Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, and West Bengal. In Andhra Pradesh, the leather workers, equivalent of Chamārs elsewhere, belong to the Madiga caste. Chamārs are also referred to as Untouchables, for reasons already explained, and as a Scheduled Caste, because they are identified in special government schedules (lists) as a disadvantaged caste. Mahatma Gandhi called Chamārs Harijans ("Children of God") in an attempt to improve their social standing. Today, many Chamārs consider themselves "Dalits," another name for unclean, lower-caste Hindus.
Chamārs speak the local dialects of the region of India in which they live. Thus the language of Jadavs living around Mathura in Uttar Pradesh is called Braj Basha. Literally the "language of Braj," the local name for the region, this is the dialect of Hindi spoken in the area. Similarly, a Chamār living in central Rajasthan speaks Marwari, the dialect of Rajasthani current in the region. Ramdasias in the Punjab are likely to speak Punjabi and write in the Gurmukhi script (the Sikh script). Hindi, Rajasthani, Punjabi, and the other languages of northern India commonly spoken by Chamārs belong to the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European language family.
The leatherworking castes in southern India speak languages belonging to the Dravidian family. The Chakalliyans of Tamil Nadu, for example, speak Tamil, while the Madigas of Andra Pradesh speak Telugu.
Chamārs are mostly Hindus and share in the mythological traditions of the Hindu religion. However, many Chamār groups have their own myths of origin. One account traces the Chamārs to a union between a lowly boatman and a despised Chandal (i.e., of non-Aryan or mixed descent) woman, but others assign them a respectable lineage. According to one legend, in the beginning there was only one family of men of the highest caste. In this family, there were four brothers. One day, a cow died. Since no one could be found to remove the carcass, the three older brothers decided the youngest should dispose of the animal. They agreed that they would accept him back on an equal footing after he had bathed. With much effort, the youngest brother dragged the carcass into the jungle, but his brothers refused to accept him back on his return. They made him live some distance away and told him that he was to skin carcasses and work with leather. So the Chamārs were born. On another day, the story continues, a buffalo died. The Chamār told his brothers that he was not strong enough to remove it, so the carcass just lay there. The three brothers complained of this to the god Shiva, who happened to be passing. Shiva suggested that one of the brothers help, but they protested at this. So Shiva told the Chamār to make a pile of refuse (κūrā) and urinate on it. When he did this, a strong man rose from the refuse, and from this man the Kuril subcaste of Chamārs arose.
In general, Chamārs are Hindus. They accept fundamental Hindu doctrines such as karma (the law of cause and effect) and samsāra (transmigration), follow Hindu rituals, and worship many Hindu deities. However, they do reject the Hindu teachings that make them Untouchables and the Brahman priests who proclaim these teachings. This does not affect the inferior status assigned to Chamārs by other Hindus. In the past, they were barred from entering many Hindu temples, and some Brahman priests still refuse to serve them. They are allowed to make offerings at temples dedicated to Devi, Bhairon, to various mother-goddesses, and at some Shiva temples. In many places, Chamārs have their own temples.
Underlying this layer of Hinduism is a widespread and deep-rooted belief in animism, nature-worship, and superstition. The worship of stones is universal. The stones represent village godlings and are anointed with vermilion (a red coloring), possibly a survival of an ancient blood-sacrifice. Many trees are worshipped, in particular the pipal tree (Ficus religiosa) and the nim (nīm) tree (Azadirachta indica). The nim is considered to be the home of Shitala Mata, the goddess of smallpox. The snake, the tiger, the elephant, and various other animals and birds are revered and worshipped. The Chamār have numerous superstitions about evil demons, spirits (bhūts), and ghosts who have to be driven away or appeased through blood-sacrifice. Various diseases or epidemics are thought to be brought on by deities such as Shitala Mata or Mari, the goddess of cholera. Goats, pigs, chickens, and eggs are among the sacrificial offerings made to appease demons and gods. Chamārs strongly believe in the dangers of witchcraft and of the evil eye.
Chamārs have a number of resources they can turn to for protection from evil spirits. There are numerous godlings—spiritual beings and local saints who are seen to have special powers over the forces of evil. Guga Pīr, for example, is worshipped in the Punjab to prevent snake-bite. He was born a Hindu, so his legend tells, but became a Muslim so he could enter the earth and bring the snake-kingdom under his control (a pīr is a Muslim saint). He is also worshipped on behalf of sickly children, to cure various diseases, and to remove barrenness. In addition, there are various practitioners skilled in dealing with the spirit world. These include sorcerers, magicians, witch-doctors, shamans, and the like known by names such as ōjhā, sayānā, baigā, and bhagat.
Given their low status in traditional Hindu society, it is not surprising that Chamārs have been attracted to religions that downplay or reject notions of untouchability. Many are followers of devotional (bhaktī) Hindu sects such as the Kabir Panth. One such group is the Satnami Chamār of Madhya Pradesh. Some Chamārs have accepted the teachings of the Sikh Gurus, while other Chamār castes such as the Julahas are Muslims. Christianity has made some headway among the Chamārs. More recently, some groups such as the Jadavs in Uttar Pradesh have converted to Buddhism. They were motivated in this by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, an Untouchable and India's first minister of law, who became a Buddhist in 1956.
Chamārs observe the normal festival cycle of their religions and their regional cultural traditions. The spring festival of Holi is an important celebration among Hindu Chamārs and is marked with the customary bonfires and throwing of red colored powder. It is a time of drunkenness and sexual license that can last for days. Nagpanchami is held in the middle of the rainy season to honor snakes. Women make images of snakes out of cow dung and worship them. Saucers of milk are placed outside the house as offerings to snakes, and milk and dried rice are poured down snake holes. Divali, the festival of lights, is a time when the ancestral spirits visit their old homes. Govardhan Puja, a festival honoring Krishna and cattle, is accompanied by excessive drinking and gambling.
RITES OF PASSAGE
The bearing of children, especially sons, is of utmost importance to Chamār women. Barren women visit shrines and perform various rituals to ensure they conceive, and pregnant women employ ritual and magical devices to obtain sons. Chamārs take elaborate precautions to protect the expectant mother from witchcraft and the influence of evil spirits. After a birth, the local women gather and sing songs to Shitala Mata. The singing continues day and night for six days, and during this period, mother and child are never left alone. Purification rites are performed on the sixth day and again (usually) on the 12th day after birth. A black goat is frequently sacrificed to Kali Devi (the local form of the goddess Kali, the consort of Shiva) on the twelfth day. Childhood rituals include the first "rice-feeding" ceremony, held at about 6 months of age.
No special rites mark the onset of puberty, so there is no formal initiation ceremony such as the sacred thread ritual of the higher castes. However, a girl is carefully watched for the first signs of menstruation and at its onset is kept in seclusion for four days. She must be kept out of the sight of men, and no one is allowed to touch her during this period. This results from a superstitious fear of menstrual blood. The menstruating girl has to avoid food containing sugar, salt, yogurt, and tamarind. She must not look up into the sky, nor see the sun, a cat, or a crow.
Chamārs both burn and bury their dead. The poor, who often cannot afford the wood necessary for a cremation, may scorch the face of the corpse and then dispose of it in a nearby river. Members of the Shiv Narayan sect practice burial. Death rituals include emptying all the water containers in the house, and breaking any earthenware utensils touched by the deceased just before the time of death. Chamārs believe that the dead return to visit the house, so for 10 days food is set out for the departed spirit. On the tenth day, a feast is held for relatives and friends to conclude the funeral rites. Portions of the food may be set aside as offerings to Brahmans and to local godlings. Food is also placed out for crows, in the belief that it will reach the ancestral spirits.
Chamārs follow the general customs of their region and religious community in their interpersonal relations.
Chamārs are among the most economically disadvantaged castes of India and, in general, live in poverty and squalor. Most live in villages, but as Untouchables they are required to remain separate from the other Hindus in the community. They are not even allowed to use the same wells as caste Hindus, as their presence is polluting. Small clusters of Chamār houses are found on the outskirts of virtually all Indian villages. These are usually simple, one-room structures made of mud and clay, and plastered with a mixture of mud and cow dung. Houses are sparsely furnished, according to the means of their occupants. In villages, there are no latrines and the people relieve themselves in nearby fields. Chamārs who live in cities may have better standards of living. Their houses may be of brick, have two stories, and possess some basic sanitary facilities. Chamārs in urban areas still live in segregated neighborhoods.
With the wide geographical distribution and diversity of religions found among the Chamārs, variations are to be expected in Chamār social organization and kinship systems. However, they tend to follow general regional practices. Castes and subcastes (jāti) are endogamous units, i.e., one marries within the caste community. These are subdivided into patrilineal clans (got) and lineages that are exogamous. Chamārs usually practice village exogamy, seeking marriage partners from outside the village in which they live.
Marriages among the Chamārs are arranged. In the past, it was customary for the first step, the betrothal (mamgnī), to take place during infancy. The actual wedding ceremony (śadī) would be performed in childhood, when the bride was around 8 years. In its outline, this ceremony follows Hindu marriage rituals—various ceremonies are performed in the homes of the bride and groom, the marriage procession (barāt) makes its way to the bride's home, and the wedding includes the ritual
walk around the sacred fire (pherā). Some customs, however, reflect the Chamārs' lowly origins. Among castes not served by Brahman priests, a senior relative has to officiate at the ceremony. Some groups sacrifice a goat or a ram as part of the wedding ritual. Bride and groom return to the groom's home for further ceremonies. If the bride is not of an age when the marriage can be consummated, she returns to her parents' house. The final step in marriage, the consummation or gaunā, occurs at puberty. A dowry is usually paid to the groom's family.
The role of a Chamār woman in family life is typical of all South Asian groups. She marries at an early age but does not achieve full respectability until she bears male children. She manages the household, cooks for her family, and performs all the household chores. A Chamār woman also contributes to the family income, working at menial labor, and even skinning animal carcasses.
In their clothing, Chamārs are usually indistinguishable from the lower classes of their region. In Andhra Pradesh, for example, the dress of Mochi males consists of a shirt and a dhotī, the typical Indian lower garment. They also wear a cloth on the shoulders, draped from the right to the left side. They tie their hair in a knot at the back of the head. Mochi women wear the sāri and blouse, with the usual array of ornaments, nose studs, and bangles.
The staple diet of the Chamārs consists of breads (rotī) made from cereals such as wheat, maize, barley, and millet (rice replaces rotī in the wetter areas). Their main meal is consumed at night, when pulses (dāl) and vegetables supplement the breads. Chamārs also eat meat, even carrion meat (flesh from carcasses), which is a practice that contributes to their low-caste status in Hindu society. However, individual Chamār groups vary considerably in their attitudes towards meat-eating. For instance, the Bhambi, the leatherworkers of Maharashtra, are nonvegetarian, eating goat, pork, chicken, deer, and hare. The Bhambi of Karnataka will eat beef, but not pork. In Gujarat, however, Bhambis will eat fish and mutton, but not beef. Some Chamār groups have abandoned meat-eating in an effort to raise their caste status.
Food in India has important ritual and social dimensions as well as its basic nutritional function. This is true of Chamār society. The specific ranking of Chamār castes and subcastes in any region, who will accept food from whom, who can provide acceptable marriage partners, and many other social attributes are linked to the dietary patterns of specific Chamār groups.
Historically, poverty and discrimination barred Chamārs from access to education. After independence, India legally abolished the practice of untouchability. The government set in place policies providing increased educational opportunities for disadvantaged communities such as the Chamārs. Many Chamār groups favor education, especially for boys, but educational levels vary from place to place. Literacy among the Chamārs of Goa, who are called Chambhars, is 58.02%, which is far above the average for the Scheduled Castes. By contrast, Chamārs in Bihar show a literacy rate of only 11.52%, with female literacy falling as low as 2.36%.
Although they can hardly be said to possess a distinctive cultural heritage, Chamārs share in traditions of regional folk culture. Thus, legends of Guga Pīr (also known as Zahra Pīr) are widely known and popular among Chamārs and other low castes throughout northwestern India. In addition, specific groups have developed their own cultural traditions. The Chamārs of Gujarat, for example, express their art and culture in their leather goods, floor designs, tattooing, Garba folk dance, and folk songs sung at the time of birth and marriage. As with most nonliterate groups, Chamār culture is largely oral in nature, focusing on folk tales, song, music, and dance.
In the past, Chamārs carried out their occupation as tanners and leatherworkers in the context of the traditional Hindu economic system, the jajmānī system. In this, Chamārs had a hereditary relationship with a jajmān or patron, usually a landowner in the village. They provided their services to the jajmān and in return received a portion of the landowners harvest. With the emergence of the cash economy, the mutual responsibilities of such a relationship no longer have meaning. Furthermore, historically Chamārs could not own land. While this is no longer true in independent India, few Chamārs have the resources to buy land. As a result, although some Chamār castes follow their traditional occupation as tanners, leatherworkers, and shoemakers, many Chamārs in rural areas live as landless agricultural laborers.
Those Chamār individuals who have managed to obtain the necessary education have been able to pursue white-collar jobs and enter the professions. A few successful Jadavs in cities in Uttar Pradesh, for example, own their own factories. Social policies that "reserve" jobs and legislative seats for the Scheduled Castes have allowed some of the more educated generation to enter government employment and politics.
There are no sports associated specifically with the Chamār community. Children play games common to the young throughout the country.
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
Chamārs enjoy gambling, while country liquor is consumed at most social events. In rural areas, entertainment is essentially limited to activities related to fairs and festivals. Chamārs living in towns and cities have access to movies and other urban entertainment.
FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
Not all Chamārs follow their traditional occupation today. Many of those who do, however, are known for their leatherworking skills. Chamārs have a strong tradition of folk songs and music.
The Chamārs are an economically depressed and socially disadvantaged community in India. They face problems of landlessness, poverty, debt, and lack of education. Gambling and excessive drinking is common among some Chamār groups. Population growth has resulted in increasing pressure on limited resources. The traditional occupation of Chamārs makes them polluted and polluting to caste Hindus. Even though they might no longer handle hides and carcasses, they are despised by most upper-caste Hindus. Recent attempts by Chamārs to claim some of their newfound rights in an independent, democratic India have led to conflict with upper castes in villages and towns across India. For example, serious rioting involving Jadavs and upper-caste Hindus occurred in Agra in 1978. As lawmakers in the United States have discovered, social equality can be proclaimed by the stroke of a pen. But it takes much longer to change social and cultural attitudes that have been in place for centuries—for the Chamārs, attitudes that have been in place for millennia.
In most states of India, Chamārs are classified as belonging to the Scheduled Castes, i.e. castes identified by governments as needing special help in terms of education and development. Scheduled Castes also have "reservations," i.e. a certain number of places in colleges and positions in the government are allocated to them in a type of affirmative action program. Because of their traditional occupation as leather workers and handlers of animal carcasses, however, Chamārs are considered as "untouchable" and polluting to caste Hindus. Chamār women are thus alienated from society on the basis of class, caste and gender. They tend to be poor and illiterate—in Tripura, only 54.4% of Chamār women were classed as literate in the 2001 Census of India, compared to 63.4% for Chamārs as a group—whereas in Bihar, the literacy rate among female Chamārs falls below 14%. Even though many Chamārs have changed their occupations (in the terai of Nepal, for example, they act as midwives), poverty and illiteracy have limited their upward social mobility. Other Hindu castes tend to treat Chamārs as traditional "untouchables," no matter what their current occupation. One writer indicates that Chamār women are not very "shapely" and their lot remains "poverty and disease." Chamār women experience the same travails as all women in Hindu society—arranged marriages, child marriage, dowry-giving (despite the giving of dowries being made illegal by the Union Government in 1961), limited access to education and health facilities, and lack of property rights.
Despite India being a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which came into force in 1982, cultural oppression and social subjugation remains an issue with Chamār women, who are often subjected to domestic violence, physical assault, verbal abuse, sexual exploitation, rape, abduction, forced prostitution, and murder etc., which are usually inflicted by the men belonging to caste Hindus.
Nonetheless, some Chamār women have risen to a position of prominence in the political sphere. Ms. Mayawati Kumari, for instance, is leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party that forms the government of Uttar Pradesh State and she is, in fact, the State's Chief Minister. She remains a national emblem for Chamār women.
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—by D. O. Lodrick