Kristian Bertel | Photography
Archive story
In this archive story we are learning about the Hindu caste system with a portrait of an Indian in Delhi, India.
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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
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.
Kristian Bertel, Photographer By Kristian Bertel, Photographer
– Updated on March 22, 2024

Caste system in India

In regions where the attitude was less strict the untouchables were seen as polluting and their dwellings were at a distance from the settlements of the 4 'Varna communities'. The untouchables were not allowed to touch people from the 4 '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 4 social classes which existed in the Vedic society, namely 'Brahmins', 'Kshatriyas', 'Vaishyas' and 'Shudras'.

An integral part of Indian society
The caste system in India is a system of social stratification that has been in place for centuries. It is an ancient form of social organization based on birth, which determines an individual's status and role in society. The caste system has been an integral part of Indian society since ancient times and is still very influential in modern Indian society. In the Indian caste system, people are divided into 4 main categories: 'Brahmins', 'Kshatriyas', 'Vaishyas' and 'Shudras'. These 4 categories are further divided into numerous sub-castes and communities.

Each caste has its own unique set of rules and regulations that must be followed by its members. The caste system is also an important factor in deciding marriages, business partnerships and other social matters.

Based from roots in the Hindu religion
The caste system has its roots in the Hindu religion and is based on the ancient Hindu texts, such as the 'Rig Veda', which outlines the different castes and their respective roles in society and the Caste system in India has been subject to much debate and criticism over the years, but it is still an important part of Indian society, which has been in place for centuries. Many people have argued that the caste system is an outdated and oppressive system that discriminates against certain groups of people. However, the caste system is still very much alive in India and it continues to influence the lives of millions of people.

The caste system has also been used to justify and legitimize discrimination against certain groups of people. For instance, in India, the 'Untouchables' are a group of people who are denied certain rights and are treated as outcasts by the rest of society and they are also not allowed to enter certain temples or participate in certain religious rituals.

"Despite its oppressive nature, the caste system in India still plays an important role in Indian society. It is a system that has been around for centuries and is deeply ingrained in the culture and traditions of India. It is also an important factor in marriage and business partnerships, which are extremely important in Indian society. While the caste system has been criticized for its oppressive nature, it has also been credited for providing a sense of stability and structure in Indian society. It is also seen as a way of preserving the traditional Indian culture and values"

Segregated by caste
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 'Brahmins' are a social class of Hinduism, found mainly in India, that holds a special status among all other castes. They are the highest in the hierarchical structure of the 4 'Varnas' or social classes, in Hinduism. 'Brahmins' are expected to live a life of spiritual discipline, austerity and self-denial. They are also expected to be educated and knowledgeable in Vedic scriptures and other sacred Hindu texts. They are responsible for teaching, interpreting and preserving Hindu religious knowledge. They are often associated with the Hindu priesthood, though they can take on a variety of roles in the wider Hindu society and are traditionally found in the upper echelons of Hindu society and are respected for their spiritual knowledge and guidance.

'Brahmins' have traditionally had the right to officiate at Hindu ceremonies such as weddings, funerals and other important rituals. They are also often consulted for their spiritual and religious guidance. They are seen as the guardians and protectors of the Hindu faith and its values. As such, they are expected to lead by example and to strive to live a life in accordance with the teachings of the 'Vedas'.

Brahmins' are also known for their skill in various fields such as law, medicine, engineering and the arts. This has allowed them to become respected members of their communities. They are also known for their generosity and philanthropy and are often generous in their giving to charities and other causes and they have a long and storied history in India and have played an important role in the development of its culture and religion. They remain an important part of Hindu society today and are respected for their spiritual knowledge and guidance.

The 'Kshatriyas' are a Hindu caste of warriors, landowners and aristocracy. Historically, they were the ruling class of the Hindu caste system, and were responsible for protecting their communities from external threats and maintaining law and order. 'Kshatriyas' have been around for centuries and the term is believed to have originated in the 'Vedic' period.

'Kshatriyas' are traditionally identified with the Hindu deity Vishnu and are associated with strength and power. The 'Bhagavad Gita', a Hindu scripture, describes 'Kshatriyas' as the protectors of 'Dharma', which means duty and those who are responsible for upholding the social order. They have a duty to fight against evil and maintain justice and the rule of law and they have traditionally been warriors and soldiers, but they have also been rulers, administrators and even priests. In modern times, 'Kshatriyas' are often found in the military and in politics. They are also involved in business and other professions and can be found in almost every sector of society.

'Kshatriyas' have a long and proud history and they have played an important role in the preservation of Indian culture and values and their contributions to Indian society are invaluable and they are an integral part of Hinduism and continue to play an important role in Indian society today.

The 'Vaishyas' are a Hindu social group that has traditionally occupied a middle position in the four-tiered Hindu social system and they are traditionally identified as the third-highest of the four Hindu 'Varnas' or social classes. This social group is often referred to as the merchant class, but historically 'Vaishyas' were also agriculturists, artisans and traders.
The origin of the 'Vaishyas' can be traced back to the 'Vedic' period of India. The word 'Vaishya' is derived from the Sanskrit word 'Vish', which means to settle or to inhabit. Thus, the 'Vaishyas' were traditionally viewed as the settlers or inhabitants of the land.

Within the Hindu social hierarchy, they are considered to be the middle class.
The traditional duties of this caste were related to agriculture, commerce and trade. They were expected to cultivate the land, engage in trade and business and provide goods and services to the other three classes. 'Vaishyas' were also responsible for providing loans and other financial services to the rest of the community and they also occupy a special place in Hindu mythology. In the Mahabharata, the 'Pandavas' and 'Kauravas' were both born into the this caste. Bhishma, a major character in the epic, was a descendent of the 'Vaishyas'. Similarly, in the 'Ramayana', the main character, Rama, belonged to the 'Vaishya' caste.

Today, the 'Vaishyas' are one of India's largest and most influential social groups. They are active in all sectors of the economy, including industry, agriculture and trade. They are also highly represented in politics and government. In recent years, they have been able to use their economic and political clout to improve their social standing and gain increased recognition and respect from other members of Indian society.

The 'Sudras' are the lowest class of the 4 major social classes or 'Varnas', in India. They make up close to 70 percent of the population of India and are traditionally seen as labourers and service providers and they
have a long history in India, with the earliest references to their existence dating back to the 'Rig Veda', an ancient Hindu holy text. Throughout history, the 'Sudras' have been seen as the most marginalized and oppressed section of Indian society. They were denied access to education, land ownership and public services. They were also expected to perform menial labor and service duties for the higher classes.

"The status of the 'Sudras' has improved significantly in recent times, thanks to the efforts of social reformers and progressive legislation. The Indian Constitution guarantees them the right to equality and has abolished the caste system. This has enabled the 'Sudras' to access better education, public services and job opportunities"

However, the 'Sudras' still remain the most marginalized group in India and face discrimination and social exclusion. They are still deprived of access to basic amenities like education, healthcare and employment opportunities. They are also subjected to exploitation and forced labor in some parts of the country. In order to improve their status, it is essential that the government takes effective steps to ensure that the 'Sudras' receive equal rights and access to resources. This includes providing them with access to education, healthcare and employment opportunities. Furthermore, the government should take measures to end discrimination and exploitation of the 'Sudras'.

In conclusion, the 'Sudras' have a long history in India and continue to be marginalized and discriminated against. It is essential that the government takes effective steps to ensure that the 'Sudras' receive equal rights and access to resources. This will help in improving the status of the 'Sudras' and ensure that they can live with dignity and respect.

The varna categorisation implicitly had a 5th element, being those people deemed to be entirely outside its scope, such as tribal people and the untouchables. 'Dalits' were excluded from the fourfold '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 as "untouchables" 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 5th 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 53 percent, followed by Himachal Pradesh with 50 percent, Chhattisgarh with 48 percent, Rajasthan and Bihar with 47 percent, Uttar Pradesh with 43 percent and Uttarakhand with 40 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 and 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.

Photographing the vulnerable in India
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.

Caste system in India:
'Brahmins' which are priests and academic class
'Kshatriyas' which are rulers, administators and wariors
'Vaishyas' which are artisans, tradesmen, farmers and merchants
'Shudras' which are manual labourers
'Dalits' which are street cleaners with menial tasks

See this video about the caste system in India made by Being Indian.

The photographer's own experience with the caste system
"- As an avid traveler, I have had the opportunity to explore diverse cultures and traditions across the globe. However, my recent journey to India unveiled a facet of society that is deeply rooted and often misunderstood, which is the concept of caste. From the moment I stepped foot in India, I was struck by the vibrant tapestry of colors, flavors and sounds that characterized the country. Yet, amidst this kaleidoscope of diversity, I noticed subtle yet distinct social hierarchies that permeated every aspect of life", the Photographer says.
"- Caste, a rigid social stratification system based on an individual's birth, has existed in India for centuries. While the Indian government has outlawed caste-based discrimination, its vestiges remain deeply embedded in society. I observed how caste influenced access to education, employment and even basic social interactions. In some rural areas, it seemed as if caste dictated one's destiny, shaping their opportunities and limiting their potential", the Photographer says again.

"- My journey through India also revealed pockets of resistance to caste-based discrimination. I encountered individuals and organizations actively working to dismantle this antiquated system, advocating for equal rights and opportunities for all. Their unwavering commitment to social justice offered a glimmer of hope amidst the stark realities of caste-based discrimination", the Photographer says again.

"- My firsthand experience with caste in India left an indelible mark on my understanding of social inequality. It reinforced the importance of cultural sensitivity and the need to challenge discriminatory practices wherever they exist. I departed India with a renewed sense of empathy and a commitment to working towards a more just and equitable world", the Photographer says again.

"- With the caste system pictures and a portrayal of the people of India in their ethnic regalia, I try to manage and capture that elusive moment of vulnerability when the subjects eyes probe my photographic lens as deeply as I'm a photographer, where I can seek entry into the secrets of my subjects existence. At times the subjects reflect loneliness, attention, at times pleas for compassion and at times human inquistiveness. 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 again.

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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 an 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.