Caste System in Medieval Period
Caste is the most distinctive (and most discussed) aspect of Indian society. We first need to understand two dimensions of the term ‘caste’. First, the four-fold division of society as specified in the religious texts, referred to as varna. There was a considerable proportion of the population which was outside the varna system. The number of such people increased significantly by the medieval period. This was partly because more and more pastoral and forest land was being reclaimed for cultivation, and the people who lived in these lands were evicted. They had to work as landless labourers for their living, and were often tied to the land like serfs.
In reality, caste was a complex phenomenon. It combined economic and social dimensions and has to be understood under the more common term of jati.
The different jatis were not necessarily at different levels of ranking in a vertical hierarchy, but each still retained a separate identity. The persons who worked in any specific occupation or profession considered themselves as part of a distinct caste. These occupations could be service related or artisanal crafts like weaving, metal work, woodwork etc. In most cities persons working in the same occupation often lived in their own segregated quarters. In general, occupations were hereditary. Technology and knowledge about production processes were transferred orally from generation to generation.
We have extensive information about occupational castes for south India, especially Tamilnadu. The occupational caste groups are sometimes referred to as guilds. They functioned under a leader or small group of leaders who were the deciding authority on all matters pertaining to the caste. Theoretically, any person who worked in a particular occupation could become a member of the group (as was the case in guilds in Europe). In practice, however, there are virtually no instances of outsiders becoming a member of an occupational caste. Muslim craftsmen or weavers could thus not become members of a Hindu group.
Improving the status of their jati was a major pre-occupation for all caste groups. This is particularly evident after the fourteenth century when the traditional local assemblies which controlled the resources and social interactions began to weaken. In traditional society many castes were denied various social rights and privileges. Therefore, caste groups often petitioned the local ruler for permission to use various symbols of higher status, like the right to wear footwear, the right to carry umbrellas, the right to use certain decorations at funerals and so on. Each caste also created a mythical genealogy to establish its origins; this was used to justify the claim for the right to a higher status in the hierarchy. These genealogies are found in many of the manuscripts collected by Colin Mackenzie.
A singular and unusual feature of the caste system existed in most of south India: groups of castes were vertically divided into right (valankai) and left hand (idankai) castes. Each group included castes at different levels in the caste hierarchy, like merchants, land-owning castes and professional castes down to agricultural labourers. This division was found throughout south India, but we have more comprehensive information on the right and left hand castes in the Tamil region because their conflicts are extensively documented in the English records.
Primarily, the conflicts between the two groups were extremely violent. Generally, these conflicts arose from the claims by each group to indicators of superior ceremonial status, which was another manifestation of the constant striving for improving social status in the caste hierarchy.