culture series...

A brief note on the MADIGA community of Andhra Pradesh

by v ramchandra rao

One of the largest scheduled caste grouping in India, the Madigas have a very ancient presence . They are today mainly poor leather workers and agricultural labourers, although there are references in ancient literature and stories which allude to their important role. The Madiga community is known as the Mang in Maharastra, the Chakkaliya in Tamil nadu and possibly the Matang in North India.

They are called Chamar / chambhar and the Mochi/Muchi in other states, all traditionally leather workers. While the Madigas in medieval times and recently too were very low down in the social scale, in ancient times--really ancient times--they were a large hunting food gathering tribe.

* 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.

They probably had the elephant for their totem or symbol. The tribal deity of a section of the Madigas or the Mangs, Matangi devi, became one of the aspects of the greater goddess of nature : some early tribal priest or culture hero became Matanga rishi and entered the brahminical legend. It is also very likely the priests or medicine men of the Madigas merged with the priests of the settled communities, a feature of the assimilatory nature of Indian society. In this sense the madigas share some upper caste affiliations, which the Malas dont seem to do so.

Madigas seem to be a far-flung tribe with similar sounding names like Mandinga noticed in Africa and Southeast asia too. Since they are connected with the elephant from the earliest, presumably they lived in roughly the same habitat.

The Matangas and Ibhyas are mentioned in many old Indian books, and from owners of domesticated elephants they become keepers (mahouts) and finally menials.

Now with modern society and " affirmative action" the Madigas are rising rapidly, though not to the extent some other scheduled castes are. This has led to a curious rivalry between the scheduled caste communitiesfor government benefits.

The rivalry is legendary and traditional , going back to tribal times and manifested clearly in national and regional politics. It used to be called the division between right hand and left hand communities: seems to be based on occupational artisan castes vs. agricultural labour basically. Unfortunately this is also very useful for the exploiting groups to keep down both the scheduled communities. Some of the Madigas turned to christianity, protestantism, and after noting further extension of caste based games, shifted away to other denominations, for instance preferring the Baptist.

The Madigas are light brown to dark complexioned, usually slim and smooth-featured, in some cases delicately built --the girls are said to be of padmini -jati as the old indian saying goes---physically quite different from the Malas. The Madigas are mentioned in very old indian books so they've been in these parts from a long time.

The Madigas have a very old tradition of dedicating a couple of girls to a deity, the girls are then called yogin or basavi. While the origin seems to be a ceremony of initiation of female priests (priestesses) and a reflection of matriarchial society, it degenerated by late buddhist and hindu times into nothing more than dancing girls and worse, prostitution.

The madigas are said to be backers of the Telugu Desam, mainly because their Mala SC rivals support the Congress. Wonder what these equations will look like in a few years time. The bjp in north India has a tie up with the bsp (who have a chamar -madiga orientation, and are not very keen when ambedkar/buddhism are used as 'political icons' by their rivals ie mala- mahar)

In recent times several young people of Madiga origin have taken enthusiastically to computers and machines, which don't care about "social status". All the same the perceptive members of the madiga are particular about retaining their traditional histories and legends, of which only a fraction have ever been written. For instance there is some evidence linking the Madigas to the fabled Indus valley civilisation. There is a wealth of oral tradition which is only now being written down. I'll shortly post more of these interesting stories which throw light on the ancient history.

Anoher similar community, the MALAS

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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