Thursday, April 11, 2013

Caste of Characters

India is neither a sleeping elephant nor a buzzing beehive.  She’s akin to that unlimited thali served in your neighbourhood restaurant offering a bewildering array of katoris, filled to the brim, with spicy and sweet, light and heavy side-dishes that either leave you with a satisfied burp or a Delhi Belly.
The thali is but a simplistic metaphor. In reality, we are a much more complex package. We are more like a giant platter with 3000 main courses (make that ‘castes’) and 25,000 side dishes (read ‘sub castes’). Anyone with a remote appetite for sociology will be in a perpetual state of salivation as we offer more variety than any civilisation on the planet. 

Studying the rainbow coalition of castes and sub castes can be a fascinating subject as it provides clues to decoding the wonder that was India. Let’s skim the surface by exploring the world of caste nomenclature. 

Have you ever wondered how the Gounders got their name? No. Gounda Mani had nothing to do with it. Linguists say that Gounder is from Kavundan or Kaamindan, the Tamil word for ‘noble protector of the country’. 

What about Vanniars? For all that Tamil talk by Dr. Ramadoss, did you know that Vanniar is a derivation of the Sanskrit word Vahni (meaning ‘fire’)? The fire connection is because the Vanniars believe that they are Agnivanshi kshatriyas. 

Vellalars, the agricultural landlords of Tamil Nadu, trace their lineage to the Velirs – migrant warriors from the lost city of Dwaraka! Kayasths, have a mythological connect too. They are of the view that Chitragupta (Yamraj’s accountant) is the progenitor of their race. Now Chitragupta was created out of the body of Brahma. And Kayastha in Sanskrit means ‘from the body’. That’s why. 

Quite a few castes owe their names to their professions. Kurmis from ‘krishi karmi’ or agriculturists. Gujjars from ‘gau charana’ or ‘cow grazers’. Bhumihars (‘landmakers’), Kapus (from ‘kaapu’ or ‘protector’) and Vokkaligas (from ‘okkalutana’ or ‘agriculture’) also have pastoral roots. While Lingayats (‘one who wears the linga’) and Kammas (from the Buddhist concept of ‘Karma’) have a religious basis.  There are a million more stories to share. But I am forced to hold them back lest I be branded as a casteist!