In this fourty-first archive story by Kristian Bertel, we learn about the Hindu caste system based on a portrait of an Indian man taken in Delhi, India. Read the background story of this archive photo by the photographer.
Flies swarm around this Indian man in the Karol Bagh area in Delhi. In the Indian society, people who work in ignominious, polluting and unclean occupations are seen as polluting people and are therefore considered as untouchables. The untouchables have almost no rights in the society. In different parts of India they are treated in different ways. In some regions the attitude towards the untouchables is harsh and strict.
Flies swarm around this Indian man in the Karol Bagh area in Delhi. In the Indian society, people who work in ignominious, polluting and unclean occupations are seen as polluting people and are therefore considered as untouchables. The untouchables have almost no rights in the society. In different parts of India they are treated in different ways. In some regions the attitude towards the untouchables is harsh and strict.

Caste system in India

In regions where the attitude was less stict the untouchables were seen as polluting and theit dwellings were at a distance from the settlements of the four Varna communities. The untouchables were not allowed to touch people from the four 'Varnas.' They were not allowed to enter houses of the higher 'Varnas'. They were not allowed to enter the temples. They were not allowed to use the same wells used by the 'Varnas'. In public occations they were compelled to sit at a distance from the four 'Varnas'.

What is the caste system in India?

The caste system in India is a system of social stratification which has pre-modern origins, was transformed by the British Raj and is today the basis of reservation in India. It consists of two different concepts, 'Varna' and Jati, which may be regarded as different levels of analysis of this system. 'Varna' may be translated as 'Class' and refers to the four social classes which existed in the Vedic society, namely 'Brahmins', 'Kshatriyas', 'Vaishyas' and 'Shudras'.

The Hindu caste system
Certain groups, now known as 'Dalits', were historically excluded from the Varna system altogether and are still ostracised as untouchables. 'Jati' may be translated as caste and refers to birth. The names of 'Jatis' are usually derived from occupations and considered to be hereditary and endogamous, but this may not always have been the case and the 'Jatis' developed in post-Vedic times, possibly from crystallisation of guilds during its feudal era. The 'Jatis' are often thought of as belonging to one of the four Varnas and the Varnas and 'Jatis' have pre-modern origins and social stratification may already have existed in pre-Vedic times. The caste system as it exists today is thought to be the result of developments during the collapse of the Mughal era and the British colonial regime in India and the collapse of the Mughal era saw the rise of powerful men who associated themselves with kings, priests and ascetics, affirming the regal and martial form of the caste ideal, and it also reshaped many apparently casteless social groups into differentiated caste communities. The British Raj furthered this development, making rigid caste organisation a central mechanism of administration.

Between 1860 and 1920, the British segregated Indians by caste, granting administrative jobs and senior appointments only to the upper castes. Social unrest during the 1920s led to a change in this policy and from then on, the colonial administration began a policy of positive discrimination by reserving a certain percentage of government jobs for the lower castes. New developments took place after India achieved independence, when the policy of caste-based reservation of jobs was formalised with lists of Scheduled Castes, 'Dalit' and Scheduled Tribes, 'Adivasi'. Since 1950, the country has enacted many laws and social initiatives to protect and improve the socioeconomic conditions of its lower caste population.

"Dalits were commonly banned from full participation in Indian social life. They were physically segregated from the surrounding community. In regions where the attitude towards the untouchables were more servere, not only touching them was seen polluting, but also even a contact view with their shadow was seen as polluting"

The polluting people of India
Literally varna means color, and was a framework for grouping people into classes, first used in Vedic Indian society. It is referred to frequently in the ancient Indian texts. The four classes were the Brahmins who are priestly people, the 'Kshatriyas' also called 'Rajanyas' who were rulers, administrators and warriors, the 'Vaishyas' who are artisans, merchants, tradesmen and farmers and 'Shudras' who are labouring classes and the varna categorisation implicitly had a fifth element, being those people deemed to be entirely outside its scope, such as tribal people and the untouchables. 'Dalits' were excluded from the four-fold 'Varna' system and formed the unmentioned fifth varna, they were also called 'Panchama'. While 'scheduled castes' is the legal name for those who were formerly considered 'untouchable', the term 'Dalit' also encompasses scheduled tribes and other historically disadvantaged communities who were traditionally excluded from society. 'Dalits' are considered by upper castes to be outside the Varna or caste system. They are considered as 'Panchama' or the fifth group, beyond the upper-caste-proposed fourfold division of Hindu people. In the Hindu caste system, 'Dalit' status is associated with occupations regarded as ritually impure, such as leatherwork or butchering or removal of rubbish, animal carcasses and human waste. 'Dalits' work as manual labourers cleaning streets, latrines and sewers. These activities were considered to be polluting to the individual and this pollution was considered contagious. For instance, they could not enter a temple or a school and were required to stay outside villages. Other castes took elaborate precautions to prevent incidental contact with 'Dalits'.

While discrimination has declined in urban areas and in the public sphere, discrimination against 'Dalits' still exists in Rural areas of India areas and in the private sphere, in everyday matters such as access to eating places, schools, temples and water sources. Some 'Dalits' successfully integrated into urban Indian society, where caste origins are less obvious. In rural India, however, caste origins are more readily apparent and 'Dalits' often remain excluded from local religious life, though some qualitative evidence suggests that exclusion is diminishing.

Untouchability practiced many places in India
Untouchability is most commonly practiced in Madhya Pradesh with fiftythree percent, followed by Himachal Pradesh with fifty percent, Chhattisgarh fourtyeight percent, Rajasthan and Bihar fourtyseven percent, Uttar Pradesh fourtythree percent and Uttarakhand with fourty percent of its inhabitants. The photograph above is a part of a series of Indian photographs. In the north-west Delhi the photo of this tousled man was captured. The interesting part for the photographer is not only the technical skills that matter, but also under which circumstances he has taken them and it gives his photographs a deeper appreciation of each subject and the effort that went into how he catured the photos. With compassionate, realistic views of nature's tragedies and human errors, has turned his camera lens towards the people of the world and the effect is one of the most piercing, poignant series of street portraiture. "- I've heard stories about people from othes castes are avoiding the untouchables. They even avoid to walk in their shadow. Any contact with an untouchable person including their shadow, they will wash away in the Ganges afterwards to clean themselves", the photographer says. With a portrayal of the people of India in their ethnic regalia, he tries to manage and capture that elusive moment of vulnerability when the subjects eyes probe his photographic lens as deeply as he as a photographer can seek entry into the secrets of his subjects existence. At times the subjects reflect loneliness, attention, at times pleas for compassion and at times human inquistiveness.

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More archive stories

India is a land full of stories. On every street, on every corner and in the many places in India, life is rushing by you as a photographer with millions of stories to be told. In the archive story above, you hopefully had a readable insight in the story that was behind the photo of a Indian man in Delhi. On this website of Kristian Bertel | Photography you can find numerous travel pictures from the photographer. Stories and moments that tell the travel stories of how the photographer captured the specific scene that you see in the picture. The photographer's images have a story behind them, images that all are taken from around India throughout his photo journeys. The archive stories delve into Kristian's personal archive to reveal never-before-seen, including portraits and landscapes beautifully produced snapshots from various travel assignments. The archive is so-far organized into photo stories, this one included, each brought to life by narrative text and full-color photos. Together, these fascinating stories tell a story about the life in India. India, the motherland to many people around the world, a land of unforgetable travel moments. The archive takes viewers on a spectacular visual journey through some of the most stunning photographs to be found in the photographer's archive collection. The photographer culled the images to reflect the many variations on the universal theme of beauty and everyday life in India. By adding these back stories the photographer's work might immensely enhanced the understanding of the photographs.