The various hereditary, endogamous
castes, calledjati,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 BRAHMANSare 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:
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
Jaibar, being the vast majority, are
found everywhere throughout the region.
Yogyaare mostly consolidated in villages around Madhubani.
Srotriyasare mostly consolidated in 36
villages slightly northeast of Darbhanga.
BHUMIHARSare 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.
KAYASTHASare record-keepers for landowners and village surveyors and accountants.
RAJPUTSThe 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.
YADAVASare 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 godKrishna,
who was also a cowherd. The Chief Minister ofBihar,
Laloo Prasad, is a Yadava.
DHANUKis 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.
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KOIRIare 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.
MALLAHare 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.
DUSADHSare among the most stigmatized of the large castes, but are also economically very
important as agricultural laborers and are gaining real political power inNorth Biharbecause 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.
CHAMARScarry away the carcasses of dead animals and make sandals, drums, soccer balls, and
bicycle seats out of the leather.Musaharsare
negatively stereotyped by upper castes as "eaters of rats, snakes, and lizards," who are "expert at getting hidden crops from
rat holes."Malimake garlands for temple worship, and have a special
relationship to the smallpox goddess, Sitala.
DOMare 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;
All these castes perform essential
services, practical and ritual, for the superior castes, especially the Maithil Brahmans.
The Myth of the King’s
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, tooktheir baths, chanted the Gayatri Mantra 108 times,
and did not arrive at the palace until evening. These thirteen superior Brahmans became the Srotriyas.
This is not the end of the story of rank among the Maithil Brahmans. To understand them, however, it is necessary to
look at the genealogical system.