Week-8-Thursday: Susan Bayly

Week-8-Thursday: Susan Bayly

Week-8-Thursday: Susan Bayly

Bayly’s work, originally published in 1999, was intended to be a social history of caste during the colonial period for the Cambridge Series in Indian History. In the midst of researching the book, however, Susan Bayly decided that rather than summarizing the recent researches into a particular theme as other works in the series had done, her book on caste would approach it from a more critical perspective. From the very first sentence of ch. 1 “Caste is not and never has been a fixed fact of Indian life” Bayly began a significant intervention into a very controversial debate about Indian history. It had become accepted fact through much of the modern era that Indian society was traditionally divided into four castes or varna (see vocabulary below). That these categories were fixed, hereditary, and mandated by religious and social practice. A new generation of scholars by the time Bayly was writing, however, would argue that this reading of caste was a figment of colonial and orientalist theories. By investigating the history of how historians wrote about caste at different times—from the late 18th century into the modern colonial period, Bayly would attempt to throw a fresh perspective onto these debates.

As you read keep in mind that the chapter we are reading occurs a little later in the book. In the previous chapters Bayly discuses the documented social mobility of the Mughal period, including the early 18th century. We should be familiar with some of this information already, particularly after reading Kolff and Pinch. It might be useful to keep in mind that Susan Bayly is trained as a social anthropologist who blends historical and anthropological approaches Her perspective on social systems, therefore, informs her work.

Also, we will read this chapter in the context of how information gathering functions as a crucial part of Empire making. In this regard pay particular attention to the types of information-gathering systems that Bayly describes in this chapter and the ways in which they catalog societies even as they transform them.



Jati—Subsection of caste-groupings, refers to kinship groups related by blood

Varna—The four tier grouping of caste from older Brahminical texts: Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra

Subaltern School—historians who have proposed “a history from below” arguing that since the majority of South Asians are non-elites and are not included in traditional histories this is necessary.

Tamil mirasidar—local landowner in the South

Vellalas –a warrior-peasant group in the South

Pandits—another word for Brahmin priests

Gazetteers—the first set of local records and histories created by the British for each Indian district

Bhils—a tribal or forrest people in Western and Central India

Kolis—a rural-caste group in Western India that demonstrate greater mobility

Pindari like gangs—Pindaris were irregular cavalry hired by Marathas

Richard Cobden—Parliamentary reformer and advocate of Free Trade, very critical of increased military spending in India

Banditti—highway robbers

Free masonry—secret organization of masons—a somewhat hazy and paranoid fear of these groups persisted in the 19th century


  1. In what ways did the British colonial state collect information about caste or ethnography in India? How did the political circumstances of the late 18th –early 19th century influence the information that was gathered?
  2. To what degree or not was” caste” a European invention?
  3. What were the internal differences within the ways in which Europeans understood “caste” as a social phenomenon?
  4. How does Bayly “historicize” the varied approaches of different colonial scholars writing about caste? How would you evaluate her own approach?
  5. In what ways did Indian practices related to caste interact with British attempts to learn more about this practice?