From Chamar to Ravidassi: Recasting Caste as Religion in North West India

  • Jaimal Sandhu

Student thesis: Phd


The chamars are a Dalit (formerly "untouchable") caste group numerically prevalent across North India, traditionally associated with leatherwork and animal carcass disposal. Connoting ritual impurity according to the Hindu religious system of caste hierarchy, the term "chamar" itself is now widely considered pejorative - including among those who work in these trades. Despite such objections, in the face of enduring discrimination by wider Indian society, a sense of collective identity and solidarity remains strong amongst chamars. Many chamars - leatherworkers and non-leatherworkers alike - thus find themselves confronted by a paradox of sorts, rejecting unequivocally the logic of caste but bound together by a strong sense of caste solidarity. It is against this background that a new religious movement has flourished among chamars across North India. Based around the person and teachings of the 15th century chamar religious prophet Ravidas, the Ravidassi movement promises a collective religious identity for chamars outside the existing socio-religious order. Centred around the Punjabi city of Jalandhar, this movement has seen temples constructed across North India, including in the sacred Hindu city of Varanasi. Through these temples, religious leaders and reformers have promoted a separatist religious identity for Ravidassis, one that rejects the ritually impure status afforded to chamars as leatherworkers by Hindu cosmology. This thesis explores the rise of this new religious movement among Dalit chamars in North West India. Based on twelve months ethnographic research in and around Boota Mandi, a prominent leather-producing settlement on the outskirts of Jalandhar, it explores some of the possibilities - for dignity, self-definition, legitimation - this new movement affords to a stigmatised underclass. And it explores some of the contradictions - social, political, theological - confronting Dalit chamars who have looked to religion to escape the stigma of caste.
Date of Award1 Aug 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorRupert Cox (Supervisor) & Soumhya Venkatesan (Supervisor)


  • Senses
  • Visual Anthropology
  • Social Aesthetics
  • Dalit
  • Chamar
  • Ravidassi

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