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culture series...

A brief note on the MALA community of Andhra Pradesh

by v ramchandra rao

The Malas are a large geographically dispersed community found in Andhra Pradesh and several other states of India. Since last few centuries due to various reasons ( discussed later) they are considered to be of low social status, but that hasn't stopped them from rising to the occasion now and then. They are technically "scheduled castes" or "ex-untouchables" but in reality they are a key part of the rural scene, being agricultural workers, and appointed in bygone days as village servants and village watchmen . The upper crust of the Malas in cities are taking to education in a big way and rapidly modernising. (Actually in andhra pradesh many of these urban Malas ought to be considered BC not SC if social indicators are any index).

As far as I know, among Malas apart from farmworkers there is only a small occupational subcaste, that of Mala weavers. They dont seem to have any artisanal speciality otherwise. The surnames and gotras of the Malas indicate some geographical locations like Reddibhoomi for instance.

The Mahars in neighbouring Maharashtra are akin to the Malas. Similar communities are found, the Mala- pahadiyas in Bengal and a similar caste in Tamilnadu. There may be a link to the Mallahs of UP, who are ferrymen (river crossing boats), but I'm not sure. Overall, the Malas are still very poor labourers, but many have taken to education and have joined the middle class. The number of educated professional people with a Mala background, like doctors, engineers is rising steadily. There are many in government service. Long time Mala politicians are quite rich, of course. There are very few Mala industrialists.

History

Accurate history of the Malas in Andhra is not well known or thoroughly researched as yet. As far as neighbouring Mahars go, in the state of Maharashtra due to the military tradition of Shivaji, the Mahars who were village servants gave a good account of themselves as soldiers, fighting shoulder to shoulder with the upper caste Marathas and Kunbis. The Mahars suffered a setback during the later Peshwa times. (according to the funny story a Mahar soldier had something going on with a dancing girl mistress of the prime minister, even after being warned twice, so finally the peshwa fixed the whole community as a punishment). But sufficient democratic military tradition remained, and they were recruited by the british as well. Later however they were barred from enlisting. After independence a Mahar regiment of the Indian army was raised, which is famous and existing to this day. ( The thousands of known and unknown Mahars who sacrificed their lives made it possible for leaders like Dr. Ambedkar to emerge later.)

The Mahars or Malas seem to hail primarily from the drier upland areas like the Deccan plateau. According to researchers like Ambedkar, the mahars and similar communities were actually warriors of some defeated kingdom: they were pushed down in social status. Another story is that the terrible 12 years' drought and famine of 1396 obliged the people to eat anything to survive: some ate dead cattle, and this was noted by other people and they were then pushed down in the social scale from kshatriyas (soldiers) to untouchables. They were disarmed but retained as village servants. (about this dietary taboo--long ago when agriculture was developing, oxen became valuable for ploughing newly colonized lands, and to increase their numbers, a taboo was laid on eating beef. There may also be some folk memory of prehistoric CJD mad cow disease outbreaks. Whatever the reason theres a strong aversion to beef prevalent in India among Hindus, while Muslims have a similar horror of eating pig meat. Jains (and many others, too) are strictly vegetarian.)

It seems the Malas remember something of their past free /ruling status , so they nurse a grievance for their present low status. The community is found all over the Deccan : while some say they were Buddhists and persisted in retaining Buddhism after it had sort of faded away, and were punished by the others who turned to new ideas or brahmanic notions. Some say exactly the opposite, that they were penalised by the turki sultans for stubbornly retaining their old ('hindu' ) ways. (could be true----the malas may have been among the soldiers of the Seunas of Devagiri) Another opinion is that the malas-mahars are not a single community but an amalgamation of several communities, common thread being those excluded from land ownership and status. A large proportion is said to be derived from the various immigrant nomads like Sakas -Ahirs -Gurjars . Now these people were also hierarchical : the uppercrust became rajas and rajputs while the humble horseman or shepherd nomad slowly became absorbed in the mahar or similar group. There is also a deep connection of the mala mahar to the Bhils of central India.

* Note: the ancient people of the same name may not have any "genetic" connection to present day people: the link is mainly cultural. This applies to ALL communities.

Personally I feel it also possible that while there may have been additions over the centuries, the original malas were a very widespread, large, specific pre-agricultural or primitive-agricultural food gathering hunting tribe, who found their way of life vanishing as the agricultural peoples slowly took over the countryside. Finally when the forests were not sufficient to support them, the remaining malas reluctantly joined the new agricultural society.....as labourers. (this seems to have happened to several other tribes, like the madiga too.) (Now this happened many thousands of years ago and is not really associated with the prevalence of Buddhism .) The process is still at work, and can be seen among the Koyas in north andhra pradesh, for instance. Later on the various defeated and fleeing soldiers and horsemen and excommunicated peoples were sheltered by the Malas and admitted into the fold.

By the way, interstingly, some ( some, not all) of the people depicted in the older section of Ajanta paintings resemble Malas and Mahars of today.

As far as specific cultural elements are concerned, there is a link of the Malas to the deity Vetaal ( also called Bhetal), dismissed by upper caste researchers as "goblin". But it is actually a hunter's deity of prehistoric times. Vetal is also depicted as a horse rider, so there seems to be a cavalry connection to the old mala-mahar. Vetal shrines are extremely common in Deccan area, especially maharashtra. Further, it is my observation that in medieval times an important Vetala shrine was modified to become a well known pilgrimage centre for Hindus (pandharpur). The name was modified to Vitthala. . The annual convoys of pilgrims still traverse the old routes. During medieval times the reformers incorporated this shrine in their movements for social reform.

Similarly another old cultural element which could be linked to mala-mahars is the deity Khandoba, or sword bearing protector. Here also hunting and warfare link is seen. (Khandoba is the familiar Skanda/ Kartik /Murgan elsewhere in India). Then there is some connection with the Parsurama cycle of legends, especially his mother Renuka. This group of legends is connected to the Yellama cult. Possibly the stories are a residual history of very long ago times, since they are shared by other old communities.

Today

The Malas are generally healthy, well built, stocky, dark complexioned, with large heads and faces, well proportioned limbs etc.. They are very tough and capable of sustained physical work which few communities can match. Perhaps thats why they have a good sense of humour and are cheerful. By the way Andhra area was renowned for wrestlers and wrestling, locally called Malla yuddha. Martial arts exponents, boxers were called veera mushti. (mushti=fist). A copper plate commendation issued by Krishna devaraya to a group of Veera Mala Mushtis came to light recently.(try google with search words "the hindu mala mashti krishna devaraya" ).

At the same time they are said to be always thinking about some shortcut scheme or the other, somewhat lazy (if they can get away with it). They are said to be unselfish, "have a helping nature" towards everybody, but slightly suspicous of intentions of the forward communites. They are very much attached to their community-caste ( although they act as if they are not --- they act innocent until caught out, when they embarassedly laugh).

Discrimination

They are at a total loss to understand why they face discrimination, since as far as they know they have not harmed anybody, but in fact toiled hard for the benefit of all. The more perceptive of the community understand it is an old method to keep down wages of agricultural labour. The condition of farm labourers (who are mostly scheduled castes) is very bad, especially in dry zone areas. The farmworkers in irrigated areas are slightly better off.

Education:--Several pioneering members have taken to education after tackling great discrimination and jeering : many far sighted forward caste people, christian missionaries gave them a boost---but the malas put in the required effort. Overall the community today clearly understands education is the key. "Maaku sakti ledu saar" --we cant afford it (referring to childrens education) is the refrain heard over and over again especially in rural areas. However the womenfolk are showing great determination, utilising all avenues, and it is only a matter of time. Menfolk unfortunately are susceptible to liquor. The unskilled farm labourers are gradually migrating to the towns and picking up technical subjects as best as they can, and joining the service workers and industrial workers. Some save up money to buy small farms but these are a very small number. The affirmative action programs mandatory on the Government have also helped a very large number to "rise" especially the educational programs. Some members have benefited by joining the various bureaucracies. The youth in cities is keen to take up modern methods like computers, but still lack a bit in confidence in themselves and generally tend to seek patronage of certain upper castes.

The Malas are said to be followers of the Reddis and by extension the Congress. This has its roots in the landholdings of the Reddis, where Malas are said to be traditionally employed. Curiously the Malas who are the subject of (senseless) discrimination from the upper castes, are also culprits of the same mean activity. Unfortunately the Malas look down on the Madigas and traditionally had no use for them, and there is a history of clashes with the Madigas, who are another large SC community of south India. The educated members of the Malas and Madigas regret such a thing should exist but admit this is so. It is not a creation of the "wily brahmins", but is derived from a tribal rivalry which existed before any upper caste ever came into existence. The conflict today is actually fueled by the madigas' assertion the malas have cornered most of the social benefits of affirmative action programs. (Naturally this is a fertile area for others to meddle.)

A section of the Mala also turned to christianity but after noticing the same old caste games, shifted to protestantism instead. They are prominent in the Church of South India, for instance and have made very good use of the educational programs. (more caste based denominations were formed after this, with others saying Malas had picked up the wrong ideas from upper castes.....). For some reason the Malas were never attracted to islam in a big way. Perhaps it was because the sultans realised their tax revenue ultimately came from the agricultural labour and wern't enthusiastic about reducing this. Even today large portion of the crops in India is derived from SC labour.

Overall, at least in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, the Mala-mahar are forging ahead very rapidly. They are very deeply attached to the works of Dr Ambedkar. But few malas have taken to Buddhism in Andhra pradesh. The mala quarters in villages generally have a statue of Dr. Ambedkar. Very soon the malas will become "BC" rather than "SC". i.e. will display better social development indicators as a community.

Similar large and ancient MADIGA community

Discussion--
There's a great deal of discussion nowadays on how to better the condition of the scheduled castes. The views are diverse and summarised here.


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