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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. 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.
The 19th century activist and social reformer Jyotirao Phule wrote that the Mahars are indigenous people of India belong to 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), or "those who take away dead animals" (mrit har). The name of Maharashtra state is possibly derived from "land of the Mahars"(Mahāran̄ce rāṣṭra ).
Though of scheduled caste, during the Bhakti era of Hinduism several Mahar saints such as Chokhamela, Karmamela, Banka, Nirmala., Soyarabai and Bhagu became popular. 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.
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. 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.
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.
The Mahar occupied an important, if low-status, place in the village system of the Deccan. 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. Mahars were considered an Untouchable caste in the Hindu community but under British rule they became aware of their social and political rights. 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. 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 particularly. Their first conference was held in Mumbai 1903. 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.
The Mahar have served in various militaries for the last several centuries. The Maratha emperor Shivaji recruited a large number of Mahars into his army in the 17th century. They served as guards in hill forts and soldiers. During the colonial period, arge 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. 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.
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. 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. 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. During the British Raj the Mahar were encouraged into education to build a modern army, which began the movement against untouchability.
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. 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; his Buddhist cremation was attended by half a million people in Mumbai. At the same spot after his cremation, more Mahars were converted in 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 is no longer applied to these converts. Buddhism sparked 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". They accepted the 22 Vows given by Ambedkar to renounce Hinduism.
In the early 20th century some Mahars converted to Christianity because of famine in Ahmednagar and Miraj. They converted after evangelization by American Marathi Mission, Church Mission Society and United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel by the Church of England at Ahmednagar. In Sangamner, Fr. Weishaupt travelled between villages to explain the Bible to Mahars but he hardly succeeded. Bhagoba Pawar, Yesoba Pawar, Lakhiram and Yesuba Salve were prominent Mahar leaders who brought the Mahar caste to Christianity. However, this Christian conversion movement was overshadowed by the emergence of Ambedkar and the large-scale conversion to Buddhism.
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". Later, 12 Mahars were converted to Islam by opportunists.
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