We arrive at Paangarth Camping ground, owned by the Maharajah of Bijapur, mid-afternoon after a 3-hour trip on a local train and a 90-minute jeep ride. Tonight, we are glamping, India style, all part of the extraordinary itinerary carefully planned by Intrepid whose aim is for us to experience the ‘real’ India. We settle into our tent, with a very comfortable double bed, a proper toilet and lukewarm shower. I’m all for the real Indian experience, but a proper toilet is always appreciated! After a strange lunch of chips (the first on this trip!) and toasted cheese salad sandwiches, we enjoy a leisurely afternoon reading, listening to music, drinking chai and strolling around the campsite which is built next to a man-made lake, where the locals farm water chestnuts.
The muted colours of dusk start to spread across the open skies and the campfire and candles are lit. As we gaze into the flames, our guide, Javed tells us that we are ‘now ready’ to hear about the caste system in India. The caste system has been a part of Indian culture which dates back many thousands of years and crosses the boundaries of all religions and countries in this continent and includes Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Although there has been a softening of the boundaries since India become a democratic country, some of the traditions and beliefs around this system still exist today. Before Independence in 1947 India was not one country but made up of 372 smaller kingdoms, 160 of which were ruled by powerful and wealthy Mahayana’s ( king of kings). Since independence the Mahayana’s and Maharajah’s no longer have power, although many have become politicians and have retained great wealth within their families. After our night camping we move to Bijapur castle, which is owned by the Maharajah of Bijapur and is now run as a heritage hotel. We meet the Maharajah at dinner and he invites us to a yoga session with him on the roof of the castle at dawn the next morning…… a truly magical experience.
Sitting around the fire Javed explains that there are 5 main levels in the caste system, and many sub layers within each level. The highest caste is the priest or Brahmin caste, the next is the warrior caste (which are mostly the maharajahs), then the merchant, lower caste and finally the untouchables. The caste system is not based on either wealth or education, and we learn that caste is identified through surname. In fact, the man responsible for writing India’s constitution, which has revolutionised rights for people from the lower castes was himself from the untouchables caste and studied law at Oxford University. He has ensured that a minimum of 40% of government employees should be from the untouchable or lower castes. The only way you can move from one caste to another is for a woman to marry a man of a higher caste, where she will then adopt his caste as will their children. However as arranged marriages are still very common In India and families ensure that both the prospective husband and wife are from the same caste, this is unlikely to happen. Although traditions are changing some older people from a higher caste would not touch a person from the untouchable caste, or indeed anything that they had touched. The tradition of the Indian greeting where palms are together, fingers pointing upwards, head bowed followed by ‘Namaste’ allows people to greet each other without being touched. As an Indian you would then exchange names (including surname identifying your caste) and a handshake (or not) would then follow depending on your caste.
As our evenings of camping, castles and castes end there are still many unanswered questions, and we have many more weeks ahead of us before we can even begin to understand the complexity of Indian culture.