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The Mahar are an Indian community found largely in the state of Maharashtra, where they comprise 10% of the population, and neighboring areas. Most of the Mahar community followed social reformer B. R. Ambedkar in converting to Buddhism in the early 20th century.
The Mahars have often been considered as the original inhabitants of what is now the Indian state of Maharashtra and, according to Shridhar Venkatesh Ketkar, a historian of the region, the state's name derives from theirs (Maharance raṣṭra means land of the Mahars).
The Mahar were subjected to painful degradation during the rule of the Peshwas, who treated them as untouchables. Some Mahars were among those who fought with the British in the final defeat of the Peshwas at the Battle of Koregaon in 1818.
Mahars were considered an Untouchable caste by the Hindu community but under British rule they became aware of scope for social and political advancement. Their traditional role had been low-status but important in the village system. Traditionally, they lived 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. The Imperial Gazetteer of India, writing about Nagpur district, 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.
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. 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. They created a receptive body of urban workers who were ready to join a political movement for higher status and equality.
In 1873, Jyotirao Phule, the founder of Satyashodhak Samaj—which aimed to abolish religious slavery from the influence of Brahaminical scriptures—organised Mahars. Their first conference was held in Mumbai in 1903. Mahar were not allowed to enter the Hindu temple and were consider pollutants. Even their entry into the shrines of Hindu gods was restricted.
The Mahar have served in various militaries for the last several centuries. The Maratha emperor Shivaji recruited a number of Mahars into his army in the 17th century. They served as guards in hill forts and as soldiers.
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 at the Battle.
The Mahar were initially heavily recruited into British military units, but this process slowed after the Indian Rebellion of 1857. 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. Mahar recruitment reached its nadir in the early 1890s (sources differ as to exact year) when Kitchener halted the recruitment of Untouchables in Maharashtra in favour of "martial races," such as the Marathas and other north-western communities. 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. In 1941, the Mahar Regiment was formed.
In late nineteenth-century Sangamner, Otto Weishaupt's attempts to evangelise communities such as the Brahmins, Muslims and Bhils met with little success but his efforts to promote Christianity did appeal to the Mahars of the area. There were also some Mahar converts to Christianity in the Ahmednagar area around the early twentieth century.
The Christian conversion movement became overshadowed by the emergence of B. R. Ambedkar's Buddhist conversion movement
When Ambedkar formally converted to Buddhism at Nagpur in 1956, many Mahars were among those of his followers who chose to do the same. As Buddhists, they gave up their traditional Hindu occupations and sought to redefine their social status. Ambedker died about two months after this mass conversion. At the same spot, after his cremation, more Mahars were converted to Buddhism. Now, this community is the third most populous in Mumbai.
Mahars who have converted to Buddhism are called "Neo-Buddhists". Some Buddhist leaders among the population prefer that the term Mahar no longer be applied to these converts. Buddhism appealed to the sense of equality in the Mahar; 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".
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