The various hereditary,endogamous castes, called jati, are ranked on a scale of superior to inferior, marked by traditional rules of interaction and sanctions against certain kinds of interactions, especially intermarriage and interdining. The principal castes of Mithila are as follows:
Maithil Brahmans are the highest ranking caste and also, in political terms, the dominant caste. Because the Maharaja of Darbhanga was a Maithil Brahman, other Brahmans came to control much of the land; thousands of villages were in Brahman control, and they are still the largest landowners in Mithila. The other castes are described in rank order according to their traditional occupations as expressed by Brahman informants:
Bhumihars are small landlords who claim to be Brahmans but are considered lower because they have taken up agricultural pursuits and given up priestcraft. Maithil Brahmans serve as their priests for domestic rites.
Kayasthas are record-keepers for landowners and village surveyors and accountants.
The 100,000 Rajputs in Mithila are not native to the area, but came during the Mughal era and became zamindars. This is why Brahmans count them as lower than Kayasthas, even though Kayasthas are technically a superior type of Shudra.The next few castes are the middle agricltural castes, “clean castes” in ritual terms, upwardly mobile in political and economic terms, now pushing against Brahman dominance and getting power in local and state government.
Yadavas are by far the largest caste in the region at one-eighth of the total population. They are herdsmen and cultivators and consider themselves kinsmen to the god Krishna, who was also a cowherd. The Chief Minister of Bihar, Laloo Prasad, is a Yadava.
Dhanuk is another large agricultural caste, though originally they were archers; they are considered a “clean” caste from whom Brahmans can take water, and therefore they often are employed as servants by Brahmans.
Koiri are considered industrious cultivators and among the best tenants in the area, but Brahmans will not take water from them, and therefore their status is lower than the Dhanuk.
Mallah are boatmen and fishermen, and thus are considered lower than the chief agricultural castes, although there is a slight anomaly here, for Brahmans will take water from them, but not from Koiri.
Dusadhs are among the most stigmatized of the large castes, but are also economically very important as agricultural laborers and are gaining real political power in North Bihar because they form a large voting bloc with increasingly powerful leaders. The British knew them as a “caste of thieves” and in some of the larger villages posted special police stations to keep a curfew over them at night.
Chamars carry away the carcasses of dead animals and make sandals, drums, soccer balls, and bicycle seats out of the leather. Musahars are negatively stereotyped by upper castes as “eaters of rats, snakes, and lizards,” who are “expert at getting hidden crops from rat holes.” Mali make garlands for temple worship, and have a special relationship to the smallpox goddess, Sitala.
Dom are basket-makers and assistants at cremation grounds.
There are also many other important but smaller castes, such as:
- Nai, barbers whose wives function as midwives;
- Dhobi, washermen;
- Kumhar, potters.
All these castes perform essential services, practical and ritual, for the superior castes, especially the Maithil Brahmans.
Three Grades of Brahmans
The Maithil Brahmans are stratified in three levels. If you ask why, you will be told The Myth of the King’s Feast . It is impossible to verify the historical accuracy of this myth of origin, but the three categories are real enough, and they are spatially distributed in the Mithila region:
- Jaibar, being the vast majority, are found everywhere throughout the region.
- Yogya are mostly consolidated in villages around Madhubani.
- Srotriyas are mostly consolidated in 36 villages slightly northeast of Darbhanga.
The Myth of the King’s Feast
Once a great king decided to judge the worth of the Brahmans in his kingdom to determine who were the most superior Brahmans. He sent out an invitation to every one of them inviting them to his feast. There was great excitement. On the day of the feast, one large group of Brahmans got up early, took their baths, and headed directly to the palace, arriving in the morning. These Brahmans were the most unworthy of the Brahmans; they became the Jaibar Brahmans. A smaller group of Brahmans took their bath, chanted the Gayatri Mantra 108 times, and arrived in the afternoon. These better Brahmans became the Yogya Brahmans. There were thirteen superior Brahmans who refused to forego all their daily rites even for the king. They got up early as always, took their baths, chanted the Gayatri Mantra 108 times, and did not arrive at the palace until evening. These thirteen superior Brahmans became the Srotriyas.