ETHNONYMS: Adi-Dravida, depressed caste, external caste, Harijan, Panchama, Pariah, Scheduled Caste
The word "Untouchable" was first applied to this category of Hindus by the Maharaja Sayaji Rao III of Baroda in a lecture he gave in 1909, to describe their most essential characteristic vis-à-vis higher-ranking castes. Some twenty years later Mahatma Gandhi named them "Harijans," which means roughly "children of God." Later still the government of India drew up a list of the most disadvantaged castes, hence generating a new euphemism, "Scheduled Castes." Drawing on Sanskrit, Untouchables have called themselves "Panchama," or the "fifth varna," a term that is not often heard today; or, in South India, they are "Adi-Dravidas," meaning "original Dravidians." The British have long called them "Pariahs," in reference to a major Untouchable group of Tamil Nadu.
The Untouchables are collectively all those castes, in any part of South Asia, who are Hindus or former Hindus and rank below the Sudra varna. Their numbers are not known precisely, but in 1991 India probably had between 130 and 140 million Untouchables, and the subcontinental total would be close to 200 million.
The low rank of the Untouchables is explained by the general belief that their traditional occupations and other habits are or were polluting to higher castes in a spiritual way as they had something to do with blood, dirt, or death. Thus the families of leather workers, scavengers, and butchers are Untouchables, simply by reason of their traditional occupations. Furthermore, it is felt that this karma comes to Untouchables as a punishment for sins committed in a previous existence. Although these numerous castes all fall below the "pollution line," they are not undifferentiated in rank but rather recognize a range of social distinctions. Some, who rank higher than other Untouchables, serve as priests to the rest, at their own shrines, because it is impossible to get Brahmans or other priests of very high status to serve the religious offices of these people.
The marks of their supposed pollution were traditionally expressed in a variety of ways. Very commonly, a cheri or separated, satellite hamlet was established for the Untouchables of a village; otherwise, they would inhabit a segregated quarter. The use of their own wells and even in some areas the use of their own footpaths and bridges were thought to be ways of protecting the rest of Hindu society from their polluting Presence. In Kerala until a century ago there were various prescribed distances, ranging from 12 to 96 paces, closer than which the particular Untouchable castes could not approach higher-status Hindus. Some were said to be so polluting that they could pollute a corpse—itself considered highly polluting—or should only move around at nighttime. Some groups in Kerala polluted a Hindu of higher caste if only their shadow fell on him; others had to actually touch him or his food to do so.
In modern times the requirements of public transportation and daily living have made many of these observances anachronistic, if not quite unthinkable. Yet the Untouchables remain the most backward and least educated sector of the community. Various sorts of government uplift programs provided especially for the Scheduled Castes have gone some way toward improving the health, education, political representation, and employment opportunities for Untouchables. Yet they remain, in all South Asian countries, a somewhat despised and underprivileged category.
Sizable numbers of Untouchables have over the past century or so been converted to Christianity or Buddhism, partly in response to the relative egalitarianism of these faiths, and partly because membership in these communities might obscure one's Untouchable background and so improve the chances for better employment.
Untouchability is by no means confined to South Asia, for it has also been reported in Japan (the Buraku), Korea (the Paekchong), Tibet (the Ragyappa), and Burma (Pagoda slaves) ; in each case there is no association with Hinduism.
Fuchs, Stephen (1950). The Children of Hari. Vienna: Verlag Herold.
Mahar, J. Michael, ed. (1972). The Untouchables in Contemporary India. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.