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ETHNONYMS: Jadav, Jatava, Jatua; also known as Chamar, Harijan, Scheduled Caste, Untouchable


Identification. The Jatavs are an endogamous caste of the Chamar, or leather worker, category of castes in India. Because of the polluting occupation of leather worker they rank among the Untouchable castes close to the bottom of India's caste hierarchy. Some say the name "Jatav" is derived from the word jat (camel driver), while others say it is derived from "Jat," the name of a non-Untouchable farming caste. Many Jatavs themselves say it is derived from the term "Yadav," the lineage of Lord Krishna. They are also known as a Scheduled Caste because, as Untouchables, they are included on a schedule of castes eligible for government aid. Mahatma Gandhi gave to Untouchables the name "Harijans" or "children of god," but Jatavs reject the term and its connotations of Untouchable childlikeness and upper-caste paternalism.

Location. Jatavs live mostly in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, and Punjab, as well as in the Union Territory of Delhi in northwest India. This is a semiarid area with rainfall mostly in the monsoon season of June to August and lesser rains in January-February. Temperatures range from 5.9° C in January-February to 41-5° C in May-June.

Demography. Jatavs are not listed separately in the census of India but along with other Chamars. In the four states mentioned above Chamars numbered 27,868,146, about 9.9 percent of the those states' population (1981).

Linguistic Affiliation. Jatavs speak related languages of the Indo-Aryan Family of languages including Hindi, Rajasthani, and Braj Bhasha, all using the Devanagari script, as well as Punjabi using the Gurmukhi script. Chamars in other parts of India speak other languages of the Indo-Aryan Family and languages of the unrelated Dravidian Family, such as Tamil and Telugu.

History and Cultural Relations

Origins of the Jatavs, as well as most other Chamar and Untouchable castes, are mythical. Some say the Jatavs are the product of marriage of upper-caste Jats with Chamar women. Jatavs themselves deny such origins. In preindependent India they claimed upper-caste Kshatriya or warrior origin. In post-independent India many have claimed to be descendants of India's ancient Buddhists. This claim is in part a rejection of Untouchable status and in part an assertion of a political identity of equality rejecting the caste system.


In villages, where 90 percent of India's Untouchables live, Jatavs live in hamlets separate from non-Untouchable castes, while in cities they live in segregated neighborhoods. In larger settlements in cities these may be broken down into subsections with separate leadership. Houses are densely grouped in a nucleated pattern. Housing style is of two types: kacca and pakka. Kacca homes are generally one room made of mud, sometimes mixed with a special clay for strength, or of unbaked mud bricks. Roofs are flat, although some have sloping thatched roofs to protect against rain. Kacca homes are painted with a mixture of slightly antiseptic cow dung and mud. Pakka homes, mostly found in cities, are of baked brick and cement, the better ones with walls, floors, and flat roofs also coated with cement. Pakka homes frequently have more than one room, a small interior courtyard where cooking is done, and a second story.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Jatavs, and all other Chamars in India, are traditionally leather workers, tanners, and shoemakers. Nevertheless, in villages they are primarily agricultural laborers hereditarily attached to landowners (jajmans ) for whom they work, often upon demand. Payment was traditionally in shares of grain, food, and items of clothing. In recent years increased payment in cash has weakened the obligations of landowners toward them and progressively reduced them to wage laborers. Population increase, the use of mechanical devices such as tractors, and land reform measures have caused further unemployment and destitution. Many migrate to cities where Jatavs are skilled shoemakers. A number of the educated younger generation have found jobs in government service where a certain percentage of jobs are reserved for Scheduled Castes. Differences based on class and education have begun to appear among, but not yet to divide, them. Those who can afford it may keep a cow or water buffalo for milk.

Industrial Arts. In addition to being skilled leather workers and shoemakers, Jatavs are also skilled masons and building contractors.

Trade. Shoes are manufactured, often on a putting-out system in which individual workers are given raw materials to make shoes in their homes, sold to wholesalers in a market. A few Jatavs in cities own large factories. Shoes are supplied to the domestic and a growing foreign market. However, since they do not control the wholesale and distributive networks, Jatavs do not reap the major profits of their craft.

Division of Labor. Division of labor by sex is strict. Males alone make shoes, plow and do heavy work in the fields, and freely move outside of the hamlet or neighborhood to shop in a market or attend caste councils and other public functions. Married women wear a veil (ghunghat ) before their husband's elder male kinsmen and in his village or neighborhood; the women draw water, cook, and care for the home. They may also work at harvest time in the fields and separate scraps of leather.

Land Tenure. On the whole, Jatavs, like most Chamars, were until recently unable to own land in villages. In some villages a house tax is paid to the landowner. In cities, however, many have been able to purchase land for homes and factories.


Kin Groups and Descent. Kin groups are formed patrilineally. The smallest coresidential unit is the nuclear or extended family (parivar, ghar ). Extended families are most often composed of parent(s), married sons and their wives, and grandchildren. Otherwise they are composed of married brothers, their wives, and their children. Minimal patrilineages (kutumb ) of nonresidential brothers and cousins are expected to support one another in conflicts. The maximal lineage (khandan ) consists of all male descendants of a known or fictive ancestor. The "brotherhood" (biradari ) consists of all members of the caste (jati ). All members of the same neighborhood or village are real or fictive kin in an exogamous bhaiband. Descent is formally patrilineal, although the mother's role in procreation is acknowledged.

Kinship Terminology. Hawaiian-type cousin terms are used, while the first ascending generation uses bifurcate-collateral terms reflecting the lower status of girl-giving affinals (nice rishtedar ) and the higher status of girl-receiving affinals (unce rishtedar ). Affinals (rishtedar ) are distinguished from agnates (natedar ). Kin terms are fictively extended to all in a bhaiband.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Most marriages are monogamous, but a very few polygamous marriages still occur. Parents arrange most marriages, although a few educated today may be allowed some say in the match. Totemically named categories (gotras ) exist but their exogamic function is not strictly observed. Marriage is exogamous for the khandan but endogamous for the caste. As a practical rule, marriages are not allowed with anyone having a remembered relationship through both paternal and maternal patrilineages. Members of the village or city neighborhood are fictive kin for whom marriage is also exogamous. Also forbidden is giving girls to lower-ranked families, villages, or neighborhoods from which girls have previously been taken. A dowry must be offered to the boy's family on behalf of the girl. Divorce is possible at the instigation of either party, but it is infrequent and must be approved by the caste council. Widows, widowers, and divorced persons may remarry, but women may not remarry in a formal wedding ceremony (shadi ). The ideal is patrilocal residence in the extended family of the husband; the reality is often a majority of nuclear families.

Domestic Unit. Those who live in the same house share living space, cooking, and expenses. When an extended family disintegratesusually because of conflicts between brothers or their wivesseparate living, cooking, and expense arrangements are made in the house if it is large enough; otherwise, new living quarters are sought. Sons are expected to care for aged parents who are unable to work.

Inheritance. Property is divided equally among sons; daughters because of the dowry customarily receive nothing. Inheriting brothers are expected to provide dowry for unmarried sisters. Eldest sons may succeed to any offices, such as headman, held by their fathers.

Socialization. Parents raise children affectionately, and elder siblings, usually sisters, are caretakers for younger siblings. Boys, however, are preferred and tend to receive better care and attention than girls. At around the age of 6 same-sexed parents become stricter disciplinarians. Children are not separated from most adult activities and easily move into adult occupations in early teens. Emphasis is on socialization for dependence upon the family, and boys are socialized especially to be dependent upon the mother, who may in turn become dependent upon them in old age.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In India's villages the caste system is an organic division of labor, each caste having a traditionally assigned and distinct occupation and duty. Because Jatavs, as Chamars, do the polluting and polluted tasks of removing dead cattle from the village and of working with leather, they are ranked as Untouchables at the bottom of the system. Traditionally, their major occupation in the village was agricultural and other menial labor for landowners. In cities, where the traditional interdependencies of the caste system are virtually nonexistent, Jatavs are more like a distinct and despised ethnic group.

Political Organization. In preindependent India Jatavs gained considerable political expertise by forming associations and by developing a literate cadre of leaders. They tried to change their position in the caste system through "Sanskritization," the emulation of upper-caste behavior. Jatavs claimed Kshatriya or warrior-class origin and rank, and they organized caste associations to reform caste behavior and lobby for their claims. After independence India legally abolished the practice of untouchability, established the universal franchise, and developed the policy of "protective discrimination." That policy reserves electoral constituencies for Scheduled Caste candidates according to their percentages of population in the nation and the states; it does likewise for jobs in the national and state civil services; and it offers educational benefits to them. Jatavs have taken advantage of that policy and turned to active participation in India's parliamentary system of government. At times they have elected members of their caste to various state and national legislatures. In villages they have been less successful at influencing local political institutions and capturing funds meant for developmental projects. A major influence upon Jatavs was the Untouchable leader Dr. B. R. Ambedkar (d. 1956) who encouraged Untouchables to fight for their rights, and, as first minister for law in India, provided a powerful role model. Through their political efforts his statue and picture may be found in public parks and bus stations, symbolically asserting their quest for equal citizenship in the nation.

Social Control. Everyday control and leadership of local communities was traditionally in the hands of hereditary headmen (chaudhari ). Serious cases of conflict, breaches of caste rules, and other caste-related problems were decided by councils of adult men (panchayat ) in each locality. In the past, higher-level councils existed for more serious cases or for appeals. The council system and the powers of hereditary headmen have gradually eroded, especially in cities where the courts and the more educated and politically involved leaders and businessmen have become more prominent and influential.

Conflict. Conflicts arise within and between families and individuals over money, children, inheritance claims, drinking, insults, and the like. In recent years conflicts, both in cities and villages, have taken a political turn as Jatavs, and other Untouchables, have tried to assert their rights. Non-Untouchable castes have reacted negatively. Serious riots between Jatavs and upper castes have occurred in cities, such as Agra, and dangerous conflicts have also occurred in villages. Jatavs feel that the pace of change is much too slow, while upper castes have rejected it as too fast, unjustified, and contrary to orthodox Hindu teaching.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. In general, Jatavs and other Chamars are Hindus. They reject, however, the Hindu teaching that makes them Untouchables, as well as the Brahman priests who wrote the sacred texts so defining them. Most major Hindu festivals, particularly Holi, are observed, as are major life-cycle ceremonies. In postindependent India Jatavs may enter major Hindu temples and visit pilgrimage spots. Some Chamars are devotees of the Chamar saint Ravi Das. A number of Jatavs have followed Dr. Ambedkar and converted to Buddhism as a rejection of the caste system and as an assertion of the equality of all individuals. Buddhism for them is a political ideology in religious form. Ambedkar himself has been apotheosized as a bodhisattva; his birthday is the major public Jatav festival. Belief is in the major deities of Hinduism, especially in their localized forms. The Buddha and Dr. Ambedkar have become part of the pantheon. Ghosts of those who died before their time (bhut ) and other spirits are believed to be able to possess or harm living people; fear of the evil eye is also widespread.

Religious Practitioners. Brahman priests traditionally have not served Jatavs and other Untouchables. Instead local headmen have officiated at rituals. Shamans (bhagat ), who are sometimes Jatavs, have been known to be consulted in cases of spirit possession and other illnesses.

Ceremonies. Life-cycle ceremonies at birth, first hair cutting, marriage, and death are the major public ceremonies. Marriage is the most important ritual as it involves public feasts, the honor of the girl's family, cooperation of neighbors and specific kin, and gift giving over years to the families of married daughters. Death rituals also require participation of agnates and male neighbors to cremate the corpse immediately and of women to keen ritually. Very small children are buried. Memorial feasts or meals for the dead are given over a period of a year.

Arts. The verbal arts, particularly the composition of various forms of poetry, are cultivated, as is the skill in singing various forms of song.

Medicine. Folk remedies are used and practitioners of Ayurvedic, Unani, and homeopathic medicines are consulted. Modern medicines and physicians are used when affordable.

Death and Afterlife. Belief in transmigration of souls is widespread, and some believe in an afterlife in Heaven (Svarg) or Hell (Narak). A son to perform the funeral obsequies is essential. The dead soul lingers after death but passes on after a number of days.

See also Neo-Buddhist; Untouchables


Briggs, George W. (1920). The Chamars. Calcutta: Association Press.

Cohn, Bernard (1954). "The Camars of Senapur: A Study of the Changing Status of a Depressed Caste." Ph.D. dissertation, Cornell University.

Lynch, Owen M. (1969). The Politics of Untouchability: Social Mobility and Social Change in a City of India. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lynch, Owen M. (1981). "Rioting as Rational Action: An Interpretation of the April 1978 Riots in Agra." Economic and Political Weekly 16:1951-1956.