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Not to be confused with Mahar (Sindhi tribe).
For other uses, see Mahar (disambiguation).
Regions with significant populations
India India (Maharashtra) ~11.23 million
Om.svg Hinduism Dharma Wheel.svg Buddhism P christianity.svg Christianity
Related ethnic groups
Marathi people, Indo-Aryans

The Mahar are an Indian community historically identified as Untouchables. They are found largely within Maharashtra, where they comprise 10% of the population, and neighboring states.[1] As Untouchables they were assigned a very low status in Hinduism, and as a result most of the Mahar community followed social reformer B. R. Ambedkar in converting to Buddhism in the early 20th century.[2][3]


Early theories[edit]

The 19th century activist and social reformer Jyotirao Phule wrote that the Mahars are indigenous people of India belong to Somvanshi Kshatriya (warrior) varna, and they were conquered by Aryan Brahman race, which came from beyond the Indus region to invade India and the established the caste system for social control. The Mahar fought with the Brahman and their ancestors were singled out as untouchables. Phule proposed etymologies "great/terrible enemy" (maha meaning great and ari or art meaning enemy).[4][5][6] The name of Maharashtra state is possibly derived from "land of the Mahars"(Mahāran̄ce rāṣṭra ).[7][8]


Middle Ages[edit]

Though of scheduled caste, during the Bhakti era of Hinduism several Mahar saints such as Chokhamela, Karmamela, Banka, Nirmala., Soyarabai and Bhagu became popular.[9][10][11] Chokhamela, a popular 14th century Mahar poet-saint, was denied basic rights such as education. His Abhangas narrating incidents were orally handed down for generations and this living tradition is continued by the Varkari community and other communities of pilgrims. Chokhamela, his wife, her brother and their son are all historic figures in the Varkari cult.[12]

Peshwa Rule[edit]

The Mahar were subjected to painful degradation during the rule of Chitpavan Peshwa. The Mahar were not allowed to spit on the ground lest a Hindu should be polluted by touching it with his foot, but had to hang an earthen pot around his neck to hold his spittle. They were made to drag a thorny branch behind him to brush out their footsteps and when a Brahman came by they had to lie at a distance on their faces lest their shadows fall upon the Brahman.[13] In Gujarat, they were not allowed to tuck up their loin cloths, which they had to trail along the ground. In Mumbai, a Mahar was not allowed to talk loudly in the street while a well-to-do Brahman or his wife were dining in one of the houses. In Pune, Mahars were restricted within the city between 3 p.m. to 9 a.m. because before 9 a.m. and after 3 p.m. their bodies cast too long a shadow and whenever their shadow fell upon a Brahman it polluted him so that he dare not take food or water until he had washed away the impurity.[13]

British India[edit]

The Imperial Gazetteer of India, writing about Nagpur district, India, described the social status of the Mahars in the early 1900s:

Mahars form a sixth of the whole population, the great majority being cultivators and labourers. The rural Mahar is still considered impure, and is not allowed to drink from the village well, nor may his children sit in school with those of the Hindu castes. But there are traces of decay of this tendency, as many Mahars have become wealthy and risen in the world, with their tenacity and adaptive ability.[14]

The Mahar occupied an important, if low-status, place in the village system of the Deccan.[15] Traditionally, they were made to live on the outskirts of villages. Their duties included those of village watchman, messenger, wall mender, adjudicator of boundary disputes, street sweeper, and remover and processor of carcasses. They also worked as agricultural labourers and held some land, though they were not primarily farmers.[16] Mahars were considered an Untouchable caste in the Hindu community but under British rule they became aware of their social and political rights.[17] As the collective consciousness of the Mahar grew in the 20th century, significant numbers left their traditional villages and moved into the urban centres of India in search of better employment and educational opportunities.[16] They gave up their traditional jobs in cities and to a large extent in rural Maharashtra, and took employment in the mills, docks, construction sites and railways.[18] They created a receptive body of urban workers who were ready to join a political movement for higher status and equality.[19]

In 1873, Jyotirao Phule, the founder of Satyashodhak Samaj—which aimed to abolish religious slavery from the influence of Brahaminical scriptures—organised Mahars particularly. Their first conference was held in Mumbai 1903.[20][21] Mahar were not allowed to enter the Hindu temple and were consider as pollutants. Even their entry into the shrines of Hindu gods was restricted.[22]

Military history[edit]

The Mahar have served in various militaries for the last several centuries. The Maratha emperor Shivaji recruited number of Mahars into his army in the 17th century.[23] They served as guards in hill forts and soldiers.[24] During the colonial period, large numbers of Mahars were recruited for military duties by the East India Company and the British Raj. The Battle of Koregaon (January 1, 1818) is commemorated by an obelisk known as the Koregaon pillar—which was erected at the site of the battle—and by a medal issued in 1851. The pillar featured on the Mahar Regiment crest until Indian Independence; it is inscribed with the names of twenty-two Mahars killed there.[25] The Victory memorial commemorates the fall of Peshwas who oppressed the Mahar and the inauguration of British rule. Annually people gather to remember the victory.[13][26]

The Mahar were initially heavily recruited into British military units, but this process slowed after the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion. The recruitment of Mahars was halted under Lord Kitchener in the early 1890s. Before the Sepoy Rebellion, Mahar regiments made up one-sixth of the Bombay units of the East India Company, but after the Rebellion and the reorganization of British Indian units, Mahars were pensioned off and gradually removed from military service.[27][28] Mahar recruitment reached its nadir in the early 1890s (sources differ as to exact year) when Lord Kitchener halted the recruitment of Untouchables in Maharashtra in favour of "martial races" such as the Marathas and other north-western communities.[29][30][31] The Mahar community attempted to confront this block with a petition circulated among the Mahar, Chamar, and Mang former soldiers—all Marathi-speaking Untouchables—but the movement was unable to organise and submit their petition.[32] In 1941, the Mahar Regiment was formed.[33] During the British Raj the Mahar were encouraged into education to build a modern army, which began the movement against untouchability.[34]



In Nagpur in 1956, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, seeking to remove Mahars from the strictures and discrimination of the caste system, conducted a mass conversion to Buddhism of around 500,000 of his followers.[35] As Buddhists they gave up their traditional Hindu occupations and sought to redefine their social status.[citation needed] Ambedker died about two months after this mass conversion; his Buddhist cremation was attended by half a million people in Mumbai.[36] At the same spot after his cremation, more Mahars were converted in Buddhism.[37] Now this community is the third most populous in Mumbai.[1]

Mahars who have converted to Buddhism are called "Neo-Buddhists". Some Buddhist leaders among the population prefer that the term Mahar is no longer applied to these converts.[38] Buddhism sparked the sense of equality in the Mahar;[39] an intellectual of Mahar origin said, "I have accepted Buddhist doctrine. I am Buddhist now. I am not Mahar now, not untouchable nor even Hindu. I have become a human being".[40] They accepted the 22 Vows given by Ambedkar to renounce Hinduism.[41]


In mid of 18th century Many Mahar converted to Christianity specially in Ahmednagar, and surrounding area.[42] Most Mahar Christians are converts as a result of Christian missions such as the American Marathi Mission, Church Mission Society, and the Church of England's SPG Mission.[43] Around the turn of the 19th century, British Baptist missionary William Carey was instrumental in translating the Bible into the Marathi language.[44] In Sangamner, Fr. Weishaupt travelled between villages to explain the Bible to Mahars but he hardly succeeded.[45] This Christian conversion movement was overshadowed by the emergence of Ambedkar's Buddhist Conversion Movement [46]

In 1927, during the Mahad conference Ambedkar said, "we [the Mahar] want equal right in Hindu society. We will achieve them as far as possible while remaining within the Hindu fold or, if necessary to give up Hinduism it would no longer be necessary for us to bother about temples". In the later years in 1935 , he declared that " it was not in his hands to take birth in hindu religion , but it is in his hands not to die in hindu religion ". And in his last years , he embraced "buddhism".

See also[edit]


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  2. ^ Jaffrelot, Christophe (2005). "The ‘Solution’ of Conversion". Dr Ambedkar and Untouchability: Analysing and Fighting Caste. Orient Blackswan Publisher. pp. 119–131. ISBN 8178241560. 
  3. ^ Smith, ed. by Bardwell L. (1978). "Religion and Legitimation in the Mahar Movement". In Smith, Bardwell. L. Religion and the legitimation of power in South Asia. Leiden: Brill. pp. 88–89. ISBN 9004056742. Retrieved 7 June 2013. "Their economic status changed after joining British Army and some left their untouchable traditional jobs." 
  4. ^ O'Hanlon, Rosalind (2002). "The Aryan invasions and the origins of the caste society". Caste, conflict, and ideology : Mahatma Jotirao Phule and low caste protest in nineteenth-century western India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 141–142. ISBN 0521523087. Retrieved 11 June 2013. 
  5. ^ Kumar Suresh Singh; Anthropological Survey of India (2003). People of India. Anthropological Survey of India. p. 969. ISBN 978-81-85938-98-1. Retrieved 15 June 2013. 
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  9. ^ Anna S. King; J. L. Brockington (1 January 2005). The Intimate Other: Love Divine in Indic Religions. Orient Blackswan. pp. 5–. ISBN 978-81-250-2801-7. Retrieved 9 September 2012. 
  10. ^ Stewart-Wallace, editorial advisers Swami Ghananda, Sir John (1979). Women saints, east & west (1. U.S. Ed. ed.). Hollywood, Calif.: Vedanta. p. 61. ISBN 0874810361. 
  11. ^ Mikael, edited by Aktor, (2008). From Stigma to Assertion : Untouchability, Identity & Politics in Early & Modern India. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press. p. 86. ISBN 8763507757. 
  12. ^ Zezulka-Mailloux, edited by James Gifford & Gabrielle (2003). "Bhakti as a Protes". Culture and the state. Edmonton: CRC Humanities Studio. pp. 129–136. ISBN 1551951533. 
  13. ^ a b c Joshi, ed. by Barbara R. (1986). "Roots of Revolt". Untouchable! : voices of the Dalit liberation movement. London: The Minority Rights Group. pp. 15–17. ISBN 0862324602. Retrieved 16 July 2013. 
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  17. ^ Gupta, Dipankar (May 1979). "Understanding the Marathwada Riots: A Repudiation of Eclectic Marxism". Social Scientist 7 (10): 3–22. JSTOR 3516774. 
  18. ^ Gandhi, Raj S. (Spring–Summer 1980). "FROM CASTE TO CLASS IN INDIAN SOCIETY". Humboldt Journal of Social Relations 7 (2): 1–14. Retrieved 8 June 2013. 
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  20. ^ Mikael, edited by Aktor, (2008). From Stigma to Assertion : Untouchability, Identity & Politics in Early & Modern India. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press. p. 103. ISBN 8763507757. 
  21. ^ Keer, Dhananjay (1997). Mahatma Jotirao Phooley : father of the Indian social revolution. ([New ed.]. ed.). Bombay: Popular Prakashan. pp. 126–127. ISBN 817154066X. 
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  24. ^ edited Shinoda, Takashi; Shinoda, compiled by Takashi (2002). The other Gujarat. Mumbai: Popular Prakashan. p. 4. ISBN 8171548741. 
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