Dalit Kitchens of Marathwada

    by Shahu Patole and Bhushan Korgaonkar

    Why did beef and pork become part of the diet  of only these communities?  

    As per Vedic tradition, cows and bullocks are important animals.  On the occasions of yagnas, goats, sheep, horses, bullocks, oxen, infertile cows and some kinds of birds were used as sacrifice.  But buffaloes and pigs are not mentioned in this holy sacrifice.  In Hinduism, the formerly permitted practice of eating the meat of cows and bullocks gradually turned around to become an extremely anti-religious and socially unacceptable act over time.  However, it continued to be a sizeable part of the diet of the Mahar and Mang castes for centuries. It would be interesting to know why it became a taboo for the upper castes and not for these two communities: something that is regarded as unholy, anti-religious, anti-cultural and forbidden for the majority is acceptable for the marginalized in the same religion.  

    Why didn’t the religious gurus stop them from eating this if it was such a sin? Did the communities stick to this diet by choice or did the system force them to eat it? Perhaps natural calamities, food shortages, droughts, heavy rainfall and dependence of these communities on others for food may have been some of the reasons. However, the key question persists— why should this be the fate of these two castes? They were the cleaning servants of the village. Were they trapped in this cultural and religious net so that they would continue with their tasks without raising their voice? So that they wouldn’t complain and would go on doing the filthy jobs? It is clear that it was imposed by the varna system, the social stratification system that divided people on the basis of their caste. They were paying for the sins of a past birth. They were living this life for the sake of atonement. Not a single saint or godman came to their rescue to take them out of their supposedly despicable food culture, discouraged them from eating it or provided them with an option of alternative nutritious, simple food. No god assumed any avatar to save them.  

    Legend has it that Lord Vitthal descended to the reserved space in the forest allotted for carcass disposal to help Sant Chokhoba Mahar clean up the dead animals. Chokhoba was a great devotee of Vitthal but he was never allowed to enter Vitthal’s temple as Dalits were banned from doing so. So, probably even a god had to come to this impure place in the  forest so as to prevent a Mahar from entering his temple. What happened with Sant Janabai was no different. Vitthal helped her with arduous chores like grinding, winnowing and so on, but she remained a slave till the end of her life.  

    Before the Common Era, a powerful wave of Jainism and Buddhism had moved and shaken our subcontinent. They were strong advocates of vegetarianism. Fearing that the Hindu religion would become extinct, the upper classes turned away from non-vegetarian food and did their best to follow the path of vegetarianism. They started inventing many techniques, stories and tricks to convince the ignorant population to turn to vegetarianism. However, due to the basic human instinct to resist anything imposed from above, they have not been successful in converting the entire Hindu population to vegetarianism. The movement to create a vegetarian society is still going on in one way or another. 

    References to animal slaughter and sacrifice in the eighth century ce are found in Sanskrit literature and plays. Let alone the yagna era before the ninth century, but even recently in Soma Yuga, goats were sacrificed to satisfy the deities so that they could grant a physically fulfilled life to one’s family members and also lead them to salvation. Goats’ mouths were tied shut and they were tortured until they died. Musical instruments were played loudly to drown out their cries. After the death of the animal, mantras were chanted for the consolation of its soul: No here thou diest not, thou art not injured; only by fair paths to the gods thou goest. 

    After this, the goat’s body was cut up while chanting relevant mantras.  

    This is a description from a very recent twentieth-century pilgrimage to Wai, in Satara district, witnessed by R.B. Joshi  and narrated in his book Majal Darmajal

    According to Manusmruti (5:56), ‘There is no sin or guilt in eating meat, drinking alcohol and having sex. These are natural tendencies to satiate bodily needs, though abstention can lead to great rewards.’  

    Self-proclaimed watchdogs of culture and the current brand of culture chroniclers need to update their knowledge by studying why yagnas were performed, who performed them, for whom and what all would be sacrificed in fire in the form of offerings to god. Is it not right that these two communities have preserved the ancient customs and food culture of yagna practitioners till the twenty-first century in Maharashtra? They did not give it up like others with changing times. They should be proud of this and everyone today needs to know this relevant and important information. 

    As mentioned earlier, Jainism and Buddhism laid the foundation of vegetarianism and rejected the Vedas and orthodoxy. They did not stop at knowledge transmission of their revolutionary principles but also made sure that they percolated down to the common people. Vedic followers would not have been afraid of them if they were not so effective. 

    The roots of the lazy tradition of Chaturmas in Hinduism cannot be traced. But it is quite possible that it had been inspired by Jainism. Because in Jainism, Chaturmas is observed by everyone. On the other hand, Hindus have varied approaches of observing it. Physically strenuous, torturous things such as fasting, abstinence, etc., were probably not so common in yagnik (old Hindu) traditions. Hindus, especially the ones leading a privileged life, have created many loopholes in the name of religion and tradition.  

    Accordingly, farmers are supposed to follow diet restrictions in only one out of four months, Shravan, by giving up non vegetarian food. Manual labourers and workers are exempt, probably because they never have enough food or money, so they can eat non-vegetarian food whenever they can afford it. If they are really god-fearing, they can observe a couple of auspicious days such as Mondays, Saturdays and Ekadashi (the eleventh day from a new moon or a full moon) of pure vegetarianism in this month. This is a shrewd way of making sure that farmers and workers keep working throughout the year without bothering about religious rituals, fasting and abstinence. Otherwise, who will feed the lazy upper-caste Hindus?  

    This system is followed even today. A certain class will observe abstinence from certain foods as this period is considered tough for digestion. But during the same period, people who cannot even pronounce the word ‘indigestion’ and ‘dyspepsia’ are exempt from this abstinence. When both are Hindus, then why different rules? The answer was not given. It never will be.  Because the advocates of the concept of Chaturmas also believe in the chaturvarna system. The progressive revolutionary changes of Jainism and Buddhism were not accepted by them. It was just a selective acceptance of things such as vegetarianism and Chaturmas, which suited them. With this, they had another tool to accentuate the hierarchy of caste, and that was through food practices. In this process of constant judging of everyone based on what they ate, the two communities, Mahar and Mang, who were already downtrodden and marginalized, became the target of further ridicule and disgust. 

    A social pattern of imitating the speaking, eating, sartorial and behavioural styles of rulers and the upper classes has always existed in all the times, places and cultures around the world. The idea is to copy something desirable and ideal—it is aspirational. If one cannot be in that class, at least this way they can experience how it feels to be of that class. This process of upward mobility has been going on forever.  

    Originally, the Hindu religion and culture never advocated vegetarianism. But when they felt the threat of Jainism and Buddhism in the form of the strong emergence of vegetarianism, they too started following and promoting it. This resulted in a false sense of pride in their own food habits, which were regarded as sattvic, holy and superior, and what other people ate as tamasic, unholy, inferior and impure. Thus began a religious and cultural ‘terrorism’. Even today, this vegetarianism (and also the puritan language) of upper-caste Hindus is a nuisance to many. 

    Upper-caste Hindus are divided into those who observe Chaturmas and those who observe only Shravan, during which a strict vegetarian diet is to be followed. A religion having vegetarianism as its core value, with all-vegetarian followers, does not necessarily need to proselytize vegetarianism. Why do they continue doing so even today? They have also come up with different tactics to convert people to vegetarianism such as Kashtha mala or Tulshichi mala (tulsi necklace), which is made of wooden beads or seeds of sacred basil, strung on a holy thread. Those who wear it cannot eat non-vegetarian food.  But it is common knowledge that some such people remove the holy necklace from their necks and keep it safely on a hook whenever they crave non-vegetarian food. Are such cravings psychological or genetic?


    Excerpted with permission from Dalit Kitchens of Marathwada by Shahu Patole, translated by Bhushan Korgaonkar, and published by HarperCollins India, 2024.

    Shahu Patole, a distinguished Marathi-language writer and retired government officer, has a master’s in economics and journalism. He was selected for the Indian Information Service by the UPSC in 1991 and has held positions in the Press Information Bureau, Defence PRO, Directorate of Field Publicity, All India Radio and Mumbai Doordarshan (news sections). Shahu passionately addresses caste, religion, food, politics, sex and social issues in his books, articles and on social media. He divides his time between Osmanabad and Aurangabad in Maharashtra.

    Bhushan Korgaonkar is a multilingual writer, director, theatre producer and translator. Celebrated for his engaging stories on Storytel and popular songs on YouTube, Bhushan is also a featured contributor to Loksatta and Mint Lounge, sharing tales of his culinary adventures. He has engaged with traditional Lavani artistes and written the book Sangeet Bari on their lives. As the founder of B Spot Productions, Bhushan directs award-winning theatre productions and aims to foster community storytelling, sensory exploration and dialogue on taboo topics, while also offering dance and writing workshops, food trails and culture trails.

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