Regions with significant populations
Presidency Division (included Khulna Division then) • Burdwan Division (incl. Medinipur Division) • Rajshahi Division (incl. Malda Division) • Dhaka Division~2.38 million (around a quarter of province's Hindu population c. 1931)

Mahishya (IAST: Māhiṣya) is a Bengali Hindu traditionally agrarian caste,[1][2] and formed the largest caste in undivided Bengal.[3] Mahisyas were, and still are, extremely diverse caste consisting of all possible classes in terms of material conditions and ranks.[4][5]


According to the Brahma Vaivarta Purana, Kaivarta was one born of a Kshatriya father and a Vaishya mother.[6] Some ancient or mediaeval texts like Yājñavalkya Smṛti and Gautama Dharmasutra give identical parentage, that is, one born to a Kshatriya father and a Vaishya mother for Mahishya, who was supposed to be engaged in the profession of astronomy or agriculture.[7][8] According to the Brihaddharma Purana, children of Shudra fathers and Kshatriya mothers are dāsa, an Uttam Sankar (literally, good mixed) and their occupation is agriculture.[9]


The group now known as Mahishyas were originally known as Kaibartas or Kaivartas. From eighth to thirteenth century, there are numerous examples of Kaibartas holding posts of administrators and legal officers.[10] During Pala regime, many Kaivartas, alternately with many Brahmins, acted as ministers in royal courts.[11] In eleventh century, in a rebellious hostility, Divya, originally a feudal chief (Samanta), killed Mahipala II , seized Varendri and established a regime there. For a short time Varendri bowed to the supremacy of three Kaibarta kings - Divya, Rudok and Bhima.[12][13][14] According to historian Romila Thapar, this is perhaps the first peasant rebellion in Indian history.[15][16][17][18] In his rule Bhima dispossessed the brahmanical and other beneficiaries and levied taxes from them, and prioritized the interests of the peasants.[19] During eleventh and twelfth centuries some of the Kaibartas were versed in Sanskrit and composed poetry.[12]

At the end of 19th century scholars appeared to differ on the rank of the Mahisyas in Bengal society. Sankritist and antiquarian Rajendralal Mitra appeared to believe that Mahisyas were a caste of small farmers and could not afford forces of modernity such as school education. But the president of the college of Nadia pandits, Jogendranath Bhattacharya, who published a major book "Hindu Castes and Sects" in 1896, wrote that in the Tamluk and Contai subdivisions of Midnapore, where population of high castes was very small and Kaibarttas were very numerous, they may be reckoned among the local aristocracy and in other districts their position was next only to the Kayasthas.[20] The Mahishya movement during the late nineteenth century was the work of successful men who had seized the new avenues of power opened by commerce, education and professions. Whereas the samajpatis, who as substantial landholding families had from generation to generation stood as the social leaders of different local samajs of the Kaibartta community, were generally opposed to the movement.[21][22] Till then all these individuals were known as Chasi-kaibartta which was an incredibly diverse caste. The Chasi-kaibartta, who numbered more than half of the population in eastern and southern parts of Midnapore, reclaimed the culturable wastelands and thus secured for themselves during the days of Mughal faujdars a dominant position in the agrarian economy, filling up all the strata - zamindars, jotedars or rich farmers, small peasants down to share-croppers and agricultural labourers. In the district of Dhaka all the upper and middle classes of Mahishyas, who were also known as Parasar Das or Halik Das, were zamindars and substantial landholders from the time of Muslim rule. In the districts like Burdwan, Hooghly, Nadia and the 24 Parganas or in the eastern areas like Faridpur, they enjoyed an important position in agriculture, some of them being substantial landholders, grain-dealers and peasant-proprietors.[23][24] There were some major landed families in Calcutta such as Marh family in Janbazar and Bawali Mondal family in Tollygunge[25][26] In the city there was a large mahishya contingent working as traders, manufacturers and professionals like lawyers.[27][21]

Although many are still involved in traditional work in rural areas, within a generation Mahishyas gave up agriculture in large numbers in favour of engineering and skilled labour in the urbanised 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; but by 1967, the Mahisya community owned 67 percent of the engineering businesses in the district.[28][29][30]

Role in Independence Movement

Digambar Biswas and Bishnu Charan Biswas, small zamindars and moneylenders of Nadia, organized the peasants of Nadia and Jessore, and raised an army of Lathiyals and spearmen. They led the Indigo revolt in the region and paid off the peasants' debts after the rebellion. Disgruntled former employees of Indigo factories, village headmen (Mandals), and also members of some other peasant communities participated largely in this rebellion against European planters.[31][32]

Mahishyas played a prominent role in the nationalist movement.[33] Deshapran Birendranath Sasmal[34] led the Mahishyas against Union board taxes in 1919 which later merged with non-cooperation movement in Midnapore.[35] During Civil disobedience movement(1930–34) the mahishyas paved the way for future course of actions leading to virtual breakdown of British Administration in the areas of Tamluk and Contai.[36][37]

By the 1940s, Mahisyas were the backbone of the Congress-led militant nationalist movement in Midnapore and South Bengal as a whole. As a matter of fact, a majority of leaders and foot soldiers of the Quit India movement in Midnapore were Mahisyas. They had set up a parallel government Tamralipta Jatiya Sarkar[38] in Tamluk which ran for nearly two years(1942–44). It had its own army, judiciary and finance department. Biplabi, the mouthpiece of the parallel national government in Midnapore, was later published in English.[25][39]

Varna status

In 19th century Bengal, Chasi Kaibartas were identified as one of the Sat Shudras (clean Shudras), though the Jalia Kaibartas and the priests of the Kaibartas were considered as unclean.[40] The Mahishyas have generally been considered as 'middle-ranking shudras' in the caste structure of Bengal.[41][42] Like South India, the social groups of eastern India have traditionally been divided in two groups - Brahmins and Shudras.[43] In 1901, Mahishyas claimed to be Vaishyas, which status was also claimed by their priests Gaudadya Brahmins for Mahishyas. In 1931 census, they claimed to be recorded as Kshatriyas or Mahishya Kshatriyas. Historian Jyotirmoyee Sarma has opined that the Varna status of Mahishyas is disputed.[44]

Socio-economic condition

Although the financial, social, and political success of Mahishyas is notable, they have often been stigmatised due to their agrarian roots. Mahishyas have not been averse to manual labour, which has often been considered demeaning by elite among "higher castes".[28] For instance, when the battle took place between Subhas Chandra Bose and Birendranath Sasmal for the post of the chief executive officer of Calcutta Municipal Corporation, which then dominated political life of Bengal, Bose deftly emerged victorious.[45] Although Chittaranjan Das had originally proposed to reward the services of Sasmal by offering him the job, he soon backed out when he found out that the choice would offend the Kayastha clique of the city. One of them went so far as to comment: ‘Will a keot from Midnapur come and rule in Calcutta?’[a] Sasmal asked his mentor Das two questions at a meeting of the Bengal Provincial Congress Committee (BPCC): '(1) Subhas Bose had been elected member and his brother Sarat Bose alderman of the Calcutta Corporation by the Swaraj party. Why was the BPCC bent on establishing the mastery of one family over the Corporation? (2) In the highest executive post of the Corporation, it was being proposed that he be bypassed and another man appointed. Was this because he was held in contempt for his low caste?' Das expressed annoyance with the first question and gave an inadequate answer to the second which did not satisfy Sasmal. Sasmal left the BPCC in utter humiliation and anger, and went into his legal practice and his control of local politics in Contai and Midnapore.[46]

In 1921 census Mahishyas were included in the list of "depressed classes" as Chasi-Kaibarta, but affluent individuals refused to accept the depressed class status since they believed that it would seriously jeopardize their claims to "high caste Hindu" status.[25][47][48] In 1946, however, a caste association of Mahishyas had pointed out that they were among the "intermediate and depressed" castes of Bengal being systematically deprived of their legitimate claims and shares in service.They urged the British government to help them by granting electorate separate from that of "caste Hindus" and scheduled castes and by granting special facilities in the matters of education, appointment to all departments etc.[49]

As of late twelfth century Partha Chatterjee considered Mahishyas as the single most important 'middle-caste' group in south-western Bengal, where they are very numerous, consisting districts of Midnapore, 24 Parganas, Hooghly, Howrah; whereas Beech & Beech recognised them as the dominant caste in southern part of former two districts. Nadia and Murshidabad are other two districts where Mahishyas are numerically most dominant caste.[50][51][52][53]

During 1980s there was lack of political will from the West Bengal government in recognising the backward castes in the state.[5] Mandal Commission included both Chasi-Kaibarta and Mahishya in the list of 177 "backward classes" for the state of West Bengal. Since 1989, after the commission's proposals coming into force, a section among the lower middle and lower class Mahisyas mounted a low intensity campaign for OBC status. It was, however, opposed by some individuals of well-off sections, who had even gone to court against this initiative. In late 1990s Sen commission came to conclusion that Chasi-Kaibarta constituted a backward class and Mahishya as such was not a backward class in the state. By early 2000s, the OBC status was granted to Chasi-Kaibartas. Anyone who could produce documents to the effect that they belonged to the Chashi-Kaibarta caste was eligible for OBC status then. Since early 2010s, better-off among Mahisyas have also been campaigning for OBC status for the caste as whole, but the group named Mahishya still belongs to General category and continues to form the largest caste of West Bengal.[54][55][25][47][56]

Notable people

See also


  1. ^ Refer Mohanty, Nivedita (2005). Oriya Nationalism Quest for a United Orissa 1866-1956. Prafulla. Page 263: "In 1924, when Birendranath Sasmal claimed the post of Chief Executive Officer of Calcutta corporation an untoward situation occurred. A newspaper reported that he was greeted with derogatory slogans because of his Oriya origin and his claim for the post was overruled."


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