By E. KATHLEEN GOUGH
This Introduction will appear trite to all who are acquainted with caste in India. It indicates only in a very general way how far the caste system of Tanjore may be treated as typical of caste in India as a whole. An excellent statement of the common characteristics of castes was given by Weber ( Gerth and Mills 1947: 397-415).
Castes in Hindu India are ranked, birth-status groups. The caste, or a subsection of it, is usually endogamous; it tends to be associated with an occupation. A caste is not a localized group, but comprises small local communities, often several miles apart. Local communities of different castes form administrative units as multi-caste villages or towns. Usually, the caste communities of the village have in the past possessed hereditary differential rights in the produce of village lands, these rights being dispensed by a dominant caste group of land managers and village administrators. In towns, caste guilds of craftsmen and traders traditionally had separate organizations.
The formal ranking of castes is defined in terms of the belief in ritual purity and pollution; rules of social distance between castes issue primarily from this belief. Whatever the origins of these rules, their codification, recording and adaptation to local circumstances have been primarily the work of the Brahmans, who from their origin in the Vēdic kingdoms of the North Indian river valleys spread throughout the sub-continent as the highest caste of religious specialists. The ubiquity of the Brahmans and their common possession of a sacred literature and a body of religious laws are apparently responsible for most of the common features of caste in the different regions.
Despite the universality of the Brahman, India cannot be said to possess a single caste system, but a number of regional systems. A comparison of regional systems is required which would permit not only generalizations covering all of them, but, more significantly, statements of concomitant variation. Regional differences are related partly to ecological variation, and partly to political history (which is itself of course influenced by ecology).
Before British rule, India comprised several independent and mutually hostile political units. Within each such unit, or within a relatively autonomous subdivision (for example a tributary kingdom), the rules governing intercaste relationships had a degree of uniformity, for they were articulated with a common body of law administered by a central authority. In Hindu kingdoms,