It is clear that Mahars were among the earliest inhabitants of the Marathi-speaking area of India, if not the original dwellers. Their myths reinforce the epithet bhumiputra, "son of the soil," which implies original ownership of the land. The first Mahar to figure in history is Chokhamela, a fourteenth-century poet-saint in the devotional religious tradition that allowed participation by all castes. Chokhamela, the Untouchable Mahar, along with his wife, her brother, and their son are all historic figures in the Warkari cult. The sixteenth-century Brahman poet, Eknath, wrote more than forty poems as if he were a Mahar, underlining their importance to the everyday world of that time. In the seventeenth century, Mahars were part of the armies of the Maratha king Shivaji, and in the late eighteenth century and the nineteenth Century, Mahars joined the British armed forces and served until the army was reorganized on a "martial peoples" basis in the late nineteenth century. Former army Mahars were the first to petition the British government for redress and for equal treatment. Mahars who worked on the railways or in the ammunition factories, who were thus free from traditional village work, created a receptive body of urban workers who were ready to join a movement for higher status and even equality. There were a number of local leaders in Poona and Nagpur, but Bhimrao Ramji is still seen by Mahars, Buddhists, and many other educated Untouchables as the supreme example of Untouchable achievement. Statues of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar dot the landscape of Maharashtra, and he is often shown with a book in his hand, symbolizing the constitution of India, for his crowning achievement was to serve as chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution and as law minister in independent India's first cabinet.
Mahars were the largest Untouchable caste in Maharashtra, comprising 9 percent of that area's population. Although the majority have converted to Buddhism, the cultural relations of those remaining in the villages have not changed. Mahars traditionally were in opposition to Mangs, an Untouchable caste of rope makers seen as lower than Mahars. The Chambhars, a caste of leather workers, were held to be of higher status than Mahars. The other two major blocks of castes in Maharashtra are Brahmans, who are seen as the theoreticians of the discriminatory practices against Untouchables and the basic enemy, and Marathas, landowning agriculturists who in the current period are the chief instigators of violence against Untouchables and Buddhists who attempt to free themselves from village duties.