Mahishya (Bengali: মাহিষ্য), also spelled Mahisya, is a Bengali Hindu caste, which has an Indo-Aryan lineage. Members of this caste are traditionally found in the Indian states of West Bengal and Odisha. Mahishyas are one of the predominant castes in West Bengal, especially in the southern districts of Howrah, Paschim Medinipur, Purba Medinipur, Hooghly and South 24 Parganas. Many members are employed in the business and service sectors. Their diet and living conditions have changed over time.
Historians such as Jagabandhu Singh have referenced the Padma Purana and the Brahmavaibarta Purana to conclude that the Mahishyas and Kaivarttas (Kaibarttas) are the same caste. In general terms, a child born of a Kshatriya father and Vaishya mother is called a Kaivartta or Mahishya. If one takes the two terms to be synonymous, they are considered Kaivarttas. Mahishyas have a status between Kshatriya and Vaishya and are spread throughout Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and several other states. Bengali cultural historian Sevananda Bharati thinks that the ancient home of the Mahishya race is near present-day Ratnavati on the bank of the Narmada River (formerly known as Mahishamati). The Mahishyas migrated from Ayodhya, entering what is now Midnapore through the Chota Nagpur Plateau. Biharilal Kalye believes that the founder of the Ganga Dynasty of Orissa, Anantavarman, belonged to the Mahishya group. Others (such as Singh) disagree, believing that he belonged to Kshatriya caste of Paralakhemundi. Sir Harbert Risley agrees with Kalye, and states in The Tribes and Castes of Bengal that five leaders established five kingdoms in Midnapore: Tamralipta (or Tamluk), Balista (or Moynagarh), Turkee, Sujamatha and Kutabpur. The inhabitants of Tamralipta were a seafaring race, inhabiting modern Bengal and the southern coast of India.
The Mahishyas were numerically predominant in Midnapore at the turn of the 20th century as a small-landholding community. In 1896 they were identified as local aristocrats by the president of the teachers' college in Nadia, since the number of Kayasthas in Midnapore district was relatively small compared to the rest of Bengal. The Mahishyas formed a tight-knit social group; the movement to gain recognition as a caste separate from the Kaibarttas gained momentum in 1897, when the Mahishyas formed the Jati Nirdharani Samiti (Caste Assignment Forum). At the time, the Kaibarttas were divided into Jele Kaibarttas (fishermen), and Hele Kaibarttas (farmers). As the leading group in Midnapore, the 1931 census found 2.71 percent of Mahishyas proficient in English (the language of the upwardly mobile during the British Raj). In 1921 the demand for a caste separate from the Kaibarttas was conceded, based on data which suggested that they were a socially distinct group and the predominant caste in Bengal; data from the 1921 census indicated that they were the largest Hindu caste in Bengal. In the subdivisions of Contai and Tamluk (now comprising Purba Medinipur district), they formed 44.2 and 54.9 percent of the population respectively. The Mahishyas (through the Mahishya Samaj) endeavored to instill pride in their agricultural roots, since they were the cultivators of the soil. This peasant pride, along with a politically vocal leadership led by British-educated barrister Birendranath Sasmal, forged a Mahishya identity. During the Quit India Movement of the Indian independence struggle in the early 1940s, local national governments at Tamluk and Contai resisted British occupation for two years; the backbone of the resistance was the Mahishya community.
Although many are still involved in traditional work in rural areas, within a generation Mahishyas gave up agriculture in large numbers in favor of engineering and skilled labor in the urbanized areas of Howrah and Kolkata. In Howrah, the Mahishyas are the most numerous and successful businesspeople. At the turn of the 20th century, much of the land and factories were owned by Kayasthas; by 1967, Mahishyas owned 67 percent of the engineering businesses in the district.
Although the financial, social, and political success of Mahishyas is notable, they have often been stigmatized due to their agrarian roots. Mahishyas have not been averse to manual labor (often considered demeaning by higher castes); for example, Birendranath Sasmal was refused the post of Chief Executive of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation by Chittaranjan Das on the grounds that his appointment would offend the Kayasthas of the city. The job ultimately went to Subhas Chandra Bose. Now, the Mashisya community people are well advanced in the society and are settled in countries such as USA, UK, Europe and Australia, while holding premium positions. Pan India Population statistics, survey and West Bengal census have established the West Bengal and Odisha have nearly 40% of the population who belong to the Mahishya community.
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- Birendranath Sasmal, lawyer and independence activist
- Sailen Manna, footballer
- Shakti Samanta, filmmaker and producer
- Rani Rashmoni, landowner (zamindar) and independence activist
- Manilal Bhaumik, US and NRI scientist and entrepreneur, inventor of LASIK treatment
- Paresh Maity, painter
- Ashok Dinda, cricketer
- Anil Biswas, Left Front chairman
- Tapan Maity, footballer
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- Maity, Sachindra (1975). Freedom Movement in Midnapore. Calcutta: Firma, K.L.