views updated


ETHNONYMS: Early British spelling was Mhar; nineteenth-century designation for military Mahars was Parwari; in Madhya Pradesh, India, Mahars are classed as Mehtars


Identification. The name "Mahar" is of debatable origin. Explanations run from maha rashtra (people of the great Country, now the Indian state of Maharashtra) to maha ari (great enemy) or mrit har (he who takes away the dead animals). These various origins imply that the Mahar are the original inhabitants of Maharashtra State in western India, that they fought the Aryans or some invader, and that their traditional duties included the Untouchable work of removing dead carcasses from the Village. General designations for Untouchable castes are: Dalit (oppressed), Depressed Classes, Scheduled Castes, Avarna (outside the varna system), Antyaja (last-born), Outcastes (inaccurate, since they are in castes), or Harijans (people of god), a term coined by Mahatma Gandhi that most Mahars reject as being patronizing.

Location. Hindu Mahars and those Mahars who have converted to Buddhism may be found on the outskirts of every village and in every city of the Marathi-speaking area of India, now the state of Maharashtra. There has been considerable migration to Madhya Pradesh and some to Baroda.

Demography. In the 1981 census of Maharashtra, 3,946,149 persons listed themselves as Buddhists, most of them being former Mahars, constituting 6.28 percent of the population of the state of Maharashtra; 1,648,269 listed themselves as Mahars. In the adjoining state of Madhya Pradesh, there were 75,312 Buddhists and 577,151 Mahars.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Marathi language, spoken by all people native to the Maharashtra region, is an Indo-European language, but it contains many elements from the Dravidian Family. Maharashtra is a bridge area between north and south India, and thus it reflects both zones.

History and Cultural Relations

It is clear that Mahars were among the earliest inhabitants of the Marathi-speaking area of India, if not the original dwellers. Their myths reinforce the epithet bhumiputra, "son of the soil," which implies original ownership of the land. The first Mahar to figure in history is Chokhamela, a fourteenth-century poet-saint in the devotional religious tradition that allowed participation by all castes. Chokhamela, the Untouchable Mahar, along with his wife, her brother, and their son are all historic figures in the Warkari cult. The sixteenth-century Brahman poet, Eknath, wrote more than forty poems as if he were a Mahar, underlining their importance to the everyday world of that time. In the seventeenth century, Mahars were part of the armies of the Maratha king Shivaji, and in the late eighteenth century and the nineteenth Century, Mahars joined the British armed forces and served until the army was reorganized on a "martial peoples" basis in the late nineteenth century. Former army Mahars were the first to petition the British government for redress and for equal treatment. Mahars who worked on the railways or in the ammunition factories, who were thus free from traditional village work, created a receptive body of urban workers who were ready to join a movement for higher status and even equality. There were a number of local leaders in Poona and Nagpur, but Bhimrao Ramji is still seen by Mahars, Buddhists, and many other educated Untouchables as the supreme example of Untouchable achievement. Statues of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar dot the landscape of Maharashtra, and he is often shown with a book in his hand, symbolizing the constitution of India, for his crowning achievement was to serve as chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution and as law minister in independent India's first cabinet.

Mahars were the largest Untouchable caste in Maharashtra, comprising 9 percent of that area's population. Although the majority have converted to Buddhism, the cultural relations of those remaining in the villages have not changed. Mahars traditionally were in opposition to Mangs, an Untouchable caste of rope makers seen as lower than Mahars. The Chambhars, a caste of leather workers, were held to be of higher status than Mahars. The other two major blocks of castes in Maharashtra are Brahmans, who are seen as the theoreticians of the discriminatory practices against Untouchables and the basic enemy, and Marathas, landowning agriculturists who in the current period are the chief instigators of violence against Untouchables and Buddhists who attempt to free themselves from village duties.


The Mahar quarters, called the maharwada, were always outside Maharashtrian villages, traditionally to the east, or downriver. In the nineteenth century, colonies of Mahars grew in railway towns, in mill towns, near ammunition factories, and in British army cantonment areas (where Mahars were servants), but city housing now is segregated more by economic level than by caste. The village pattern of segregation is still strictly observed. The Mahar village hut is typical of the poor in the Maharashtrian area. There are no special features.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Traditionally, the Mahars were servants to all the village, with a number of responsibilities. They were the deciding voices in land disputes, but they also brought wood to the burning grounds, carried off dead animals, took messages to other villages, cared for the horses of traveling government officials, mended the village wall, acted as village watchmen, and served the Village headman as town criers. In this capacity they were watandars (leaseholders) and so held some land, but they were never primarily agriculturists. Mahars when not engaged in village duties served as agricultural laborers. In the eastern portion of the Marathi-speaking region, Mahars had more economic freedom, and they were sometimes weavers or contractors. Mahars kept no domestic animals, and they despised the Mangs for their pig keeping. Mahars were expected to eat the flesh of the cattle carcasses they dragged from the village, and this consumption of carrion beef became an early target for Mahar reformers.

Industrial Arts. The Mahar possessed no skill other than wall mending to carry them into the modern period. Some Mahars became masons in the early twentieth century.

Trade. The Mahar's untouchability prevented any "clean" trade, and the Chambhars had a monopoly on leather work, which the Mahar did not touch.

Division of Labor. Both men and women worked in the fields as agricultural laborers. Only men served as watandar village servants.

Land Tenure. The watandar land owned by the Mahars for their village service was not alienable.


Kin Groups and Descent. Although the Mahars seem to be a fairly consistent caste group across the Maharashtra area, there were potjat divisions in various areas. These potjats were endogamous, ranked according to status, and to some extent based on occupation. From the 1920s on, Mahar reformers attempted to wipe out potjat differences, and the divisions today are largely ignored. The caste is patrilineal, but poverty dictated less stress on the joint family and more importance for women than among many higher castes.

Kinship Terminology. Mahar kin terms are the same as those used by Buddhists in Marathi.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The cross-cousin marriage system of south India and of some castes in Maharashtra is common to the Mahars. Marriage to mother's brother's daughter or father's sister's son is allowed. There has never been a bar to widow remarriage. Residence is generally patrilocal, but this is less strictly observed than in higher castes. Divorce is and has been practiced informally among the lower castes in India, Including the Mahars.

Domestic Unit. The joint family is the ideal, but poverty and mobility make this less common than in many castes.

Socialization. As is common in India, boys are raised permissively, girls much more strictly. In the modern period, there has been much stress on education, on pride, and on clean living, and many Buddhists credit their mothers with the stimulus to improve themselves.

Inheritance. Property descends patrilineally to male Inheritors, although in point of fact it is rare for Mahars to own any land.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Many features of Mahar caste Organization that existed before the reform period have disappeared. There seems to have been a caste "guru" (a spiritual counselor not averse to speaking with Untouchables) in some areas, but there is little description of this practice. Local leadership seems to be determined now by merit, wealth, and political skill. There never was a caste center nor an overarching caste organization.

Political Organization. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar began his first political party, the Labour party, in 1935, and since that time, most Mahars and neo-Buddhists have considered themselves members of his successive parties: the Scheduled Castes Federation from 1942 and the Republican party from 1956. Since the parties have been unable to attract higher-caste members, they remain unimportant politically at the national and state levels. Ambedkar's followers are, however, very politically aware, and they do figure in local politics where they have the numbers and the leadership. An organization calling itself the "Dalit Panthers," after the Black Panthers of the United States, arose in the early 1970s, led by educated Mahars or Buddhists. After initial successes, the Dalit Panthers split into various groups, but militant local groups operate effectively even today in various slum localities. An issue such as the banning of one of Ambedkar's books in 1988 brought half a million Scheduled Castes into the streets of Bombay in one of that city's most effective political protests.

Social Control. There is no mechanism for control, other than the example or the chiding of local leaders.

Conflict. Competition and rivalry within the group are keen. Ambedkar was able to unify the Mahar through his Exceptional qualifications, planning, and recognition by outside forces as well as by his charisma; no other leader has become acceptable to all. The Panther groups and the political parties are all factionalized. The Buddhist conversion movement has brought about efforts to unify on the basis of religious morality as well as a general disapproval of political infighting.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The religious beliefs of those Mahars who have not converted now are basically those of most Hindu low castes in Maharashtra: a strong belief in possession, participation in the festival of the god Khandoba, active participation in the warkari cult and the pilgrimage to Pandharpur, and devotion to various non-Sanskritic gods. The Mahars were traditionally the servants of the village goddess Mariai, the goddess of pestilence. Since the conversion, many of the potra] class who served the goddess have given up that work. It is clear from the Gazetteers of the British in the late nineteenth century that Mahars had many somewhat unusual religious practices, but the great rational reform movement has made any recent study of special caste practices impossible. There were devrishis (treatments of illness by ash and mantras) among the Mahars, and there still may be. Some potraj servants of the goddess still operate, but in many villages the care of the Mariai temple is now in the hands of the Mangs. The leadership of the caste discourages Hindu practices, and many that are still performed are done so without majority approval. For those who have converted to Buddhism, the rational, nonsuperstitious, egalitarian form of Buddhism promulgated by Ambedkar dominates. He died shortly after the initial conversion ceremony in 1956, and the converts have slowly built vihāras (monasteries) in which to meet for Buddhist worship, have created a sangha (community) of monks, have taught Pali and given moral lessons to the children, and have attempted to establish connections with Buddhists in other Countries. The Theravada form of Buddhism is the base for Ambedkar's teaching. His grandson, Prakash Ambedkar, is now head of the Buddhist Society of India. Belief in god or ghost possession is common in India, and Mahars not firmly fixed in Buddhist rationality take part in possession rituals.

Ceremonies. No peculiarly Mahar ceremonies have been reported.

Arts. For the Mahar, the neo-Buddhist movement has produced a flowering of arts of all sorts. Mahars traditionally were part of tamasha, the village theater, and song was traditionally a Mahar property. Since the Buddhist conversion, literature has poured forth, creating a new school of Marathi literature called "Dalit Sahitya." Poetry, plays, autobiography, and short stories now are an essential part of the very Important Marathi literary scene. There is also some emphasis on other arts, and most Dalit literary works are illustrated with Dalit art, but no one artist has yet achieved the fame of the writers such as Daya Pawar or Namdeo Dhasal. The latest trend in Dalit literature is writing by women, especially autobiographies of minimally educated women.

Medicine. The Mahar did not develop any particularly Mahar specialties in this area.

Death and Afterlife. Buddhist converts do not hold with the theory of rebirth. Mahars generally hold the standard beliefs of lower-class Hindus.

See also Maratha; Neo-Buddhist; Untouchables


Ambedkar, B. R. (1989). Dr. Babashaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches. 6 vols. Bombay: Education Department, Government of Maharashtra.

Enthoven, Reginald E. (1922). "Mahār." In The Tribes and Castes of Bombay. Vol. 2. Bombay: Government Central Press.

Keer, Dhananjay (1954). Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission. Bombay: Popular Prakashan. 3rd ed. 1971.

Robertson, Alexander (1938). The Mahar Folk. Calcutta: YMCA Publishing House; Oxford University Press.

Zelliot, Eleanor (1978). "DalitNew Cultural Context of an Old Marathi Word." In Contributions to Asian Studies, edited by Clarence Maloney. Vol. 9, Language and Civilization Change in South Asia. Leiden: E. J. Brill.