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Crossing endogamic boundaries

Crossing endogamic boundaries

ilavarasan sketch


Anu Ramdas

In the aftermath of Ilavarasan’s horrific death, dalit movements and leaders in Tamil Nadu have raised the need for a law against honor killings. Even as Ilavarasan’s family, neighbors, dalit activists and leaders cope with the grief and trauma, they have set their minds to examine the underlying processes which led to the series of avoidable tragedies at Dharmapuri. I salute their humanity and grace. This could so easily have been a call for revenge, for counter violence. But that is not the path chosen or available for dalit struggles to humanize this violent society. As they work to create a public conversation around a much needed legislation to ensure the safety and dignity of young people wanting to marry across castes, I want to place the caste violence at Dharmapuri in the larger context of the penalty system for transgressing caste. For this, I have chosen a set of historical and contemporary inter-caste unions to see if there is a common or divergent pattern of punitive action against inter-caste marriages.

ilavarasan sketch

The caste system at its core is a manifestation of a strictly controlled and largely uninterrupted experiment with endogamy, and as of now, there appears no possibility of it being shut down. This is because the principles of endogamy are encoded in the Hindu scriptures and the epics, which hold a fearful grip on the people’s psyche. To be married within caste is a matter of honor. Dishonor this, and you could find yourself at the entrance of a vast cemetery lined with the graves of honor-killed fellow transgressors.

Caste in India means an artificial chopping off of the population into fixed and definite units, each one prevented from fusing into another through the custom of endogamy. Thus the conclusion is inevitable that Endogamy is the only characteristic that is peculiar to caste, and if we succeed in showing how endogamy is maintained, we shall practically have proved the genesis and also the mechanism of Caste.

~ Babasaheb Ambedkar1

In such a society, all social interactions are mediated by the explicit and implicit anxiety over threats to the purity of genes, traits and culture. This anxiety becomes most pronounced with regard to marital choice of partners. The imagined mixing, dilution and pollution of the ‘pure factors’ occurs when the textual scriptures are transgressed by forbidden acts of inter-caste marriages and affairs. Any act that might produce a child of mixed-caste heritage is to be abhorred! The ruination of caste by varnasankara naturally has powerful penalties.

Listen to Arjuna’s apprehension about women and children destroying the sanctity of caste:

adharmaabhibhavaat krshna
pradushyanti kula-striyah
strishu dushshaasu varshneya
jaayate varna-sankarah
sankaro narakaayaiva
kula-ghnaanaam kulasya ca
patanti pitaro hy eshaam

“When irreligion is prominent in the family, O Krishna, the women of the family become polluted, and from the degradation of womanhood, O descendant of Vrishni, comes unwanted (inter-mixed) progeny. “

According to the scriptures2, the degradation of women, followed by the begetting of mixed caste progeny leads to chaos in social life, and hence varnasankara is a matter of grave concern!

When a group of humans nourish the prolonged delusion of being carriers of ‘special traits’ which renders them superior to other groups, and hence restricts group membership through marriage- what we ought to get is, the pseudo-science of eugenics in action. But this would apply only when the groups are distinguished by racial differences. In Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar clearly laid out the arguments for the difference between caste and race by invoking the invalidity of a eugenic explanation for the caste system.

The Caste system cannot be said to have grown as a means of preventing the admixture of races or as a means of maintaining purity of blood. As a matter of fact Caste system came into being long after the different races of India had commingled in blood and culture. To hold that distinctions of Castes or really distinctions of race and to treat different Castes as though they were so many different races is a gross perversion of facts. What racial affinity is there between the Brahmin of the Punjab and the Brahmin of Madras? What racial affinity is there between the untouchable of Bengal and the untouchable of Madras? What racial difference is there between the Brahmin of the Punjab and the Chamar of the Punjab? What racial difference is there between the Brahmin of Madras and the Pariah of Madras? The Brahmin of the Punjab is racially of the same stock as the Chamar of the Punjab and the Brahmin of Madras is of the same race as the Pariah of Madras. Caste system does not demarcate racial division. Caste system is a social division of people of the same race. Assuming it, however, to be a case of racial divisions one may ask : What harm could there be if a mixture of races and of blood was permitted to take place in India by intermarriages between different Castes?

~Babasaheb Ambedkar3

Decades later, genomic sciences also bear him out completely, as they should4. The human DNA does not have signatures for non-biological, artificial constructs. In other words, there are no Brahmin genes, Pariah genes or Maratha genes. Absence of caste genes means no purity when brahmin weds brahmin, and no pollution upon admixture of brahmin and the pariah’s blood. In today’s world, the answer for each of the questions posed by Ambedkar should be self-evident to anyone who has grasped the basics of high school biology and has got over the myth of pure races. But the distance between reason and practice appears to be as vast as the subcontinent itself. We hobble around largely within the endogamic boundaries, convinced that our respective castes are tiny little races, unashamedly exhibiting supremacist behavior, in a top-down fashion along the caste ladder. The endogamic behavior of lower castes and out-castes is explained by Ambedkar as a mechanistic response to the dominant structure of caste society rather than an attempt to safeguard ‘purity’.3

Ask yourselves this question: why is it that a large majority of Hindus do not inter-dine and do not inter-marry? Why is it that your cause is not popular?

There can be only one answer to this question, and it is that inter-dining and inter-marriage are repugnant to the beliefs and dogmas which the Hindus regard as sacred. Caste is not a physical object like a wall of bricks or a line of barbed wire which prevents the Hindus from commingling and which has, therefore, to be pulled down. Caste is a notion, it is a state of the mind. The destruction of Caste does not therefore mean the destruction of a physical barrier. It means a notional change.

~Babasaheb Ambedkar3

Given that the large majority do not inter-marry, the exceptional cases of inter-caste marriages forces the Hindu psyche to clash head-on with the principle of human equality. Particularly with respect to any consenting adult’s choice to marry any other human, across any socially constructed barriers such as castes, races, linguistic groups and religions.

These inter-caste marriages or relationships bring forth societal disapproval in manifold ways, ranging from subtle to intense violence upon the transgressing individuals and their respective families and larger communities.

However, not all inter-caste marriages become targets of caste violence, as we witness the tragic events in Dharmapuri– Ilavarasan and Divya were not the first couple to marry across castes in that colony, several dalit-vanniyar married couples are safe from this targeted wrath. It would appear like caste violence is deployed selectively depending on the local, social and political expediencies surrounding an inter-caste marriage.

A natural question to ask: why do only some inter-caste unions become political baits in the caste society, when the scriptures demand that all such marriages be punished? Highlighted below are a few historical inter-caste unions which can make us think further about the links between scriptures-inter-caste marriage-caste violence, that is, the sequential play of text-action-reaction.

Rashtriya Vivah at Hudali

In the year 1937, a train carrying a wedding party was headed to Hudali, Belgaum. The wedding was one of the many programs that Hudali’s Gangadhar Rao Deshpande was playing host and guard to, he was in charge of the Gandhi Seva Sammelan. No less than 10,000 delegates had congregated at Hudali in April, 1937. This marriage is sometimes referred to as ‘rashtriya vivah’ and some reports even call it as the ‘first inter-caste marriage‘.5

gandhi varnasankara

(Gandhi and Rajendra Prasad in Hudali, 1937)

Gandhi, Kasturba, their son Hiralal and granddaughter Manu along with an impressive list of congress leaders including Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Sarojini Naidu, Rajendra Prasad, Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Mahadev Desai, reached the railway station; the group was confronted by the British police. But nothing much happens at the station, the party proceeds to participate in a week long activities and festivities. The rashtriya vivah between Manu and Surendra Mashruwala was a closed-room affair, so there is very little information about how it was conducted. One can conclude neither the couple nor their respective communities faced a violent backlash for violating the scriptures. And the known repercussion of this ‘inter-caste’ or ‘rashtriya vivah’ is a huge claim that it led to inter-caste marriages happening all over the country. This is of course amnesic history.

Belgaum is not too far from Pune. And 1937 is not too distant from 1889. The group at Hudali were merely reproducing a watered down version of the radical initiatives of the Satyashodaks led by Jotiba Phule and Savitribai against caste and patriarchy. Jotiba and Savitribai’s son Yashwant was married to Radha in the year 1889. It was no closed room affair, it was closer to the present day registered marriage. Hudali was also apparently too distant from another bordering state where initiatives to encourage inter-caste marriages were taken up earnestly under the leadership of Periyar. Though the time period is almost overlapping.

Ganesh and Sharja, 1868

To understand the criminalization of caste transgressions– past relationships have to be reconstructed and re-examined. Some of them are available as public records, most are not. Historical inter-caste relationships like those between the brahmin poet Chandidas and Rami, a poet from the washerman caste have survived as they left behind in poetic form, the story of their love, separation and punishment by the state and society. But many others have left no trace of their inter-caste travails as retrievable documents, and their stories may have been completely forgotten, wantonly erased or recalled only as local oral histories. A few may have been recorded in legal documents and some others in personal letters. One such historical document is Savitribai Phule’s letter dated, Aug, 29th, 1868.6

In this letter written to Jotiba in 1868, Savitribai gives an account of an inter-caste relationship along with the society’s violent response to it and her own intervention.

29 August 1868
Naigon, Peta Khandala

The Embodiment of Truth, My Lord Jotiba,
Savitri salutes you!

I received your letter. We are fine here. I will come by the fifth of next month. Do not worry on this count. Meanwhile, a strange thing happened here. The story goes like this. One Ganesh, a brahman, would go around villages, performing religious rites and telling people their fortunes. This was his bread and butter. Ganesh and a teenage girl named Sharja who is from the mahar community fell in love. She was six months pregnant when people came to know about this affair. The enraged people caught them, and paraded them through the village, threatening to bump them off.

I came to know about their murderous plan. I rushed to the spot and scared them away, pointing out the grave consequences of killing the lovers under British law. They changed their minds after listening to me.
Sadubahau angrily said the wily brahman boy and the untouchable girl should leave the village. Both the victims agreed to this. My intervention saved the couple who gratefully fell at my feet and started crying. Somehow I consoled and pacified them. Now I am sending both of them to you. What else to write?


This brief letter speaks volumes about the Phules. Intervening to stop mob violence is an intimidating task for uniformed personnel invested with authority to control, but here she is, an informed, non-judgmental human rights warrior, armed with the most powerful weapon: compassion. Societal violence sent this young couple into the safety of Savitri and Jotiba’s protection. How many villages would have witnessed similar mobs going after hapless young people, and how many Phules stood up for them? Have we devised some form of protection for today’s youngsters?

Are there common elements between the Hudali and Satara anecdotes?

At Hudali, the intermarriage was conducted with the blessings of society, and produced no apparent violence as a reaction. At Satara, the couple was publicly humiliated, nearly murdered and were left alive only on the condition of compliance with physical ostracization. Evidently, these two couples had variable levels of vulnerability to the dictum of inter-caste transgressions and society’s retribution. The reasons for this are important for us to understand the phenomenon of honor killings resulting from inter-caste unions.

In the reports on Manu-Mashruwalla marriage, Belgaum appears to be a watertight space, resistant to flow of ideas from social movements in the neighborhood, if that is so, then let us focus on inter-caste marriages along the axis of time. What is the history of inter-caste marriages in this region?

Anubhava Mantapa at Kalyan

To the Kannada speaking people, the 12th century is an unforgettable past, it imprinted on their thoughts the revolutionary vision of an equal world. This is an heritage from the Veerashaiva movement.7 Patriarchy, caste and the brahmanic religion as an intertwined system of domination and subjugation was examined closely, and methodically dismissed and replaced with a just system. Led by Basavanna, a new social order based on equality between genders and castes, in both words and deeds was being established. Anubhava Manatapa at Kalyan, played host to the intellectual, spiritual and metaphysical dialectics between diverse people drawn to this radical movement.

Anubhava Mantapa 1

For gender historians, Anubhava Mantapa signifies a time and space where the woman as a cerebral being was fostered, absorbed and celebrated. This academy saw a significant number of women participants. The towering intellectual, poet and mystic Akkamahadevi’s participation at Anubhava Mantapa has given us one of the most spectacular debates on the female body and mind8. This space had naturally identified endogamy as the core rot in brahmanism, and the sharanas used inter-caste marriage as a social intervention to demystify the scriptures. Several inter-caste marriages were conducted, but one of them set off unprecedented levels of violence9. It was the union between Sheelavantha and Lavanya, children of Haralayya, an untouchable cobbler, and Madhavvya, a Brahmin minister, respectively. Both had become sharanas and were to be married with the blessings of Basava, their parents and other sharanas at Anubahva Mantapa.

This being a pratiloma marriage, word spread fast, and pressure mounted on King Bijjala to intervene. Bijjala warned the couple and the parents. The sharanas ignored this and proceeded with the wedding. Immediately after this, the state is said to have executed Haralayya and Madhavya and blinded Sheelavantha and Lavanya10. This gruesome violence sent shock waves through the sharanas and they rose in revolt11. The counter violence resulted in the regicide of King Bijjala. Basava decided to move his base from Anubhava Mantapa to Kudala sangama. The anti-caste movement was in disarray, and it took a long time for it to regain its vigor.

Can this marriage be de-linked from the political climate of those days at Kalyan? The private life-event of two people placed them directly in the path of state action. The newly-married couple, their parents and the fraternity of sharanas paid a heavy penalty. There is plenty for us to think about the way the multiple systems of oppression of caste, gender, class and religion coalesced to penalize the transgression of caste in this case.

A powerful social and religious movement was upending everything Brahmanism stood for; targeted violence against an inter-caste marriage appeared most useful to restore society back to its caste order.

ElehutteSikshe 1

(Elehutte Shikshe: sharanas Haralayya, Madhavayya and Sheelvanta’s capital punishment by being dragged by an elephant)



[1] Castes in India: Their mechanism, genesis and development. Dr Ambedkar.
[2] A critique of the Hindu Council Report ‘Castes in India’. Gail Omvedt.
[3] Annihilation of Caste. B R Ambedkar
[4] The human genome and the view of ourselves. Science 2001, Svante Paabo.
[5] Gandhiji oversaw the first inter-caste marriage. R Uday Kumar, TNN 
[6] A forgotten liberator: The life and struggle of Savitribai Phule. Ed: Braj Ranjan Mani, Pamela Sardar.
[7] And the chief characteristics of their faith and practice are … hostility to brahmans, disbelief in transmigration of the soul, contempt for child-marriage, and approval and habitual practice of the remarriage of widows. They are chiefly found in the Kanarese country; their vernacular is Kanarese; and it is entirely due to them that this beautiful, highly polished, and powerful language has been preserved. They now constitute about 35 percent of the total Hindu population of Belgaum, Bijapur and Dharwad districts. Epigraphia Indica and Record of the Archeological Survey of India, Vol 5.
[8] Vacanas of Akkamahadevi. Menzes and Angadi
[9] A Social Charter For Indian: Citizens Perspective Of Basic Rights. M Dubey
[10] The king caused the pious ‘Halleiya and Madhuveija’ to be tied to a rope and be dragged about the ground till they died. Chanabasavapurana.
[11] Basava,- himself leaving Kalyana for a place named Sangamesvara, – deputed one of his followers, Jagadevva, to slay the king. And Jagadevva with two of his unnamed friends, succeeded in making his way into the palace and accomplishing his errand,– stabbing the king even in the midst of his court. Civil war ensued. Basavapurana.

Images courtesy of the Internet. 


To be continued.