The word "caste" is of Portuguese origin, being a form of 'casta'. Garcia de Orta wrote in 1563 that no Hindu changed from his father's trade and that all those of the same caste of shoemakers were the same. Caste is the basis of Hindu society, but it is interesting to note that in South India, more particularly in Kerala it has affected the Muslim and Christian social organizations also converts to Islam and Christianity from outcaste men, who remained untouchables even within these respective religious folds . Syrian Christians even observed distance pollution in relation to lower caste Hindus until recently. But, by and large, caste remained a Hindu phenomenon.
Caste system in Kerala brought about a social milieu, where a Hindu's approach to another Hindu was strictly conditioned by the superior-inferior relation of each in the caste hierarchy. The meticulous observance of the institutional regulations as to untouchables and inapproachability, todil and tindal, from the very ancient times resulted in the stratification of the society into mutually excluding antagonistic groups. The belief was that not only the touch but the proximity of certain classes of people would cause pollution to the higher castes. They were, therefore, treated as out-castes, or non-caste Hindus; their movement was restricted to certain areas which the superior ones would not frequent or when they were allowed to use public roads they had to be on their guard while moving about making loud noise, least, unwittingly they defile a Brahmin or a Nayar.
Untouchability and inapproachability were ubiquitous in South Indian society and they had left their mark on the entire life-pattern of the land, in economic, social, religious and political institutions. Socially they created a condition of extreme inequality, the lower orders having been prevented from the enjoyment of elementary facilities of social intercourse. Economically, conditions were created for the rise of serfdom and grinding poverty.
In most cases, these customary regulations and practices had no basis in the scriptures or sanctions of the Dharma Sastras: but the ethics of the Brahmins or Maryads gave a superior religious sanction to them, thus making them stronger than law. To give but one example, no sastraic injunction prevented a sudra or lower caste women from wearing an upper garment. But in Travancore, a royal proclamation in 1829 gave that barbarous custom of prohibiting the lower caste women wearing clothes above waist, the seal of legal authority.
There is no agamic rule prohibiting lower caste from entering the precincts of the temple or approaching the outer prakara. According to Sutasamhita of Skanda Purana, the Hindu temples were meant for the benefit of every community, including the lowest in the social scale.
Untouchability and inapproachability were accorded legal sanction by English law; offences pertaining to these were severely dealt with. Caste offences were punished by courts established by the British in these areas. Those who polluted by approaching or touching temples, houses, tanks or roads belonging to the savannas (upper caste) were awarded severe corporal punishments. They were also compelled to pay compensation to meet the expenses of purificatory rites, refusal being met by civil action.
It is particularly interesting to see that even Christian missionaries, who endeavoured to alleviate the miseries of the low caste men by converting them to Christianity and affording them protection, were not completely free from caste considerations. The evils were in one form or other present in backward areas of Tamil country and Canara.
The British government had granted the untouchables equal right to enter public service, attend public educational institutions, walk along highways, make use of public offices like courts and post offices etc. Equality in regard to the enjoyment of these rights was, however, left aside by these weaker sections, as it was difficult for them to avail of it. On account of their extreme poverty and lack of education, they were forced to forfeit the boon of public service entry.
The lower castes of Travancore will certainly appear as truly representative of South India as a whole. They were not permitted to use public roads open to the higher castes. They were not permitted to enter or approach within certain distance of many courts and public offices. They were excluded from the Government Schools, and they were excluded from public service.
The consequences of these oppressive caste restrictions and disabilities were many. They kept large majority of the South Indian Hindu population into unremitting social and economic backwardness by making them remain in ignorance and poverty. The effect of keeping them in this abject state of positive servitude was to give a very low status to the Hindu religion itself.
Many people in several parts of the Madras Presidency and the princely states of Travancore and Cochin left it and embraced Islam or Christianity, they realized, their stigma was removed and they, in their new religious status, were free to secure all the civic rights, which were denied to them as Hindus. Hinduism lost all its meaning for them because their continuance in that religion only helped them to forgo their natural rights. Consequently they cleared the way for the missionaries of the London Mission Society, Church Mission Society, and Salvation Army, etc., to convert lakhs of outcaste Hindus to Christianity.
It may be noted that a major cause for swelling the ranks of Islam and Christianity in South India was the large-scale exodus of the depressed classes from the fold of Hinduism as a result of caste oppression practiced by the diehard upper-caste men and Hindu rulers.
Social protests of lower caste Hindus and Christian-converts also rent the latter half of the 19th century in South India. The unprivileged started agitating for securing the simple civil rights which civilized governments permitted their citizens to enjoy. Thus the Shanar revolts of 1829 and 1859 were against the oppressive law that prevented these lower caste Shanar women wearing an upper cloth to cover their bosoms. When they started wearing these cloths, the caste Hindus violently reacted and armed clashes occurred in several parts of south Travancore. Lord Harris, Governor of Madras, intervened and finally the Maharaja had to concede the right to the lower classes through a proclamation.
Ezhavas under the leadership of Dr. P. Palpu staged a constitutional agitation for the removal of their social disabilities by submitting a Petition of Rights in 1896 known as the Ezhave Memorial signed by 13176 Ezhavas who were a class of people engaged in agriculture, toddy - tapping, coir making and other productive occupations.Their protests were feeble in the 19th century but became vociferous and a compelling force in the early decades of the 20th century under the leadership of the great spiritual leader, Sree Narayana Guru and the great poet Kumaran Asan. Similarly Ayyan Kali, the leader of the Pulaya community, created a stir in the social life of Travancore by organizing this numerically strong but intellectually, socially, and economically the lowest in the estimation of others, into a potent force. The upsurge of lower classes in Kerala was spontaneous and from within, generated by their own leaders.
But strangely in other parts of South India we find the advocates of change and uplift of the backward classes emerged not from the concerned caste groups, but from the top drawers of the society, namely the Brahmins who were, by and large, liberal-minded social and political propagandists. The Hindu, the Brahmin newspaper, took the lead in producing a new awareness of the need for the material and spiritual well being of the Pariah classes. The Indian members of the Madras Legislative Council mostly Brahmins, also championed the cause of the Harijans, their economic emancipation and educational progress. They exhorted their own caste men to shed their caste prejudice in order to help their co-religionists to come up by preventing their exodus from the Hindu fold. G.A. Natesan, a brahmin leader in Madras city did commendable work in this direction.
As early as 1890 the Pariah Mahajana Sabha petitioned the government for agrarian concessions and in 1898 made a specific request for lowering in the case of pariahs, the standard of qualifying test prescribed for admission to subordinate medical service against educational disabilities of its members. The Panchamas of south Canara also started agitating for educational facilities during the time of World War I. The question of the lower castes of Madras assumed new significance with the initiation of the Justice Movement against Home Rule and Brahmin predominance; a social movement thus turned into a political movement. What seemed almost insoluble in 1917 and in earlier centuries found its solution only when India became free.
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