Uttar Pradesh




United Provinces of Agra and Oudh



Uttar Pradesh is one of India’s twenty-eight linguistically-based states, covering the former United Provinces of Agra and Udah. Uttar Pradesh is India’s fourth largest state, surrounded by Bihar in the East, Madhya Pradesh in the South, Rajasthan, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh and Haryana in the west, and Uttaranchal and parts of Nepal in the north.


With nearly 167 million people in 2010, Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state.


Most people in Uttar Pradesh speak one of a number of dialects of the Hindi language which belongs to the Indo-Iranian Branch of the Indo-European Family. Others speak dialects of Rajasthani which is also of the Indo-European Family.


Located in the historic Indo-Gangetic plain, Uttar Pradesh is one of the most ancient cradles of Indian culture and society. The area is widely mentioned in the works of many of India’s religious and national heroes including Rama, Krishna, Buddha, Mahavira, Ashoka, Harsha, Akbar and Mahatma Gandhi. Prior to the advent of the British East India Company, Uttar Pradesh consisted of semi-autonomous kingdoms ruled by famous leaders from local dynasties.


The vast majority of the people of Uttar Pradesh live in rural villages. The size of the urban population is also significant as Uttar Pradesh has 631 cities. The state’s biggest cities include Cawnpore, Lucknow, Agra, Benares, and Allahabad.

A typical village has a rectangular shaped main settlement with a few hamlets on the outskirts. In the village of Senapur where Opler and Singh conducted ethnographic research in 1950s, for example, most of the villagers lived in a compact central settlement with a long axis running north and south. The many sections (patties of this settlement were separated from each other by lanes, a few of which were so narrow that bullock carts couldn’t pass through them. Persons of untouchable castes, locally called Chamars, were not allowed to live in the main settlement because of their low caste status, their work, and their food habits. The untouchables lived in their own hamlets located apart from the main settlement but still within the village area.



Agriculture is the mainstay of the economy of Uttar Pradesh. Most families earn their living from intensive cereal cultivation combined with animal husbandry.

Major staple crops include wheat, rice and barley. Some parts of the state are highly irrigated.


The most important cash crops included sugar cane and cotton. Benefiting from India’s impressive growth and modernization in the past few decades, Uttar Pradesh has become home to commercial enterprises producing cement, vegetable oils, textiles, cotton yarn, sugar, jute, locks, scissors, brassware, glassware and bangles.


Uttar Pradesh is famous for the traditional industrial arts of carpet weaving, hand printing, embroidery, metal enameling, brocade and brass and wood work.


The occupation of each person was traditionally associated with caste membership which was determined by not by wealth, prestige, character or personality but by heredity. In Senapur village, the major resident occupational castes included the sonars or goldsmiths, nonias or earth workers, kahar or domestic servants, gonds or messengers and palanquin bearers, kandus or (grain parchers and shopkeepers, ahirs or cowherders, nais or barbers, baris or attendants and leaf-plate distributors, lohars or ironworkers and carpenters, kohars or potters, barais or betel-leaf distributors, kalwarsor petty trades and wine dealers, telis or oil pressers, dafalis or Muslim priests, bhats or entertainers, dhunias or cotton carders and weavers, and helas or sweepers. According to this system, a person born into a tali caste would, for example, become an oil presser for lifetime. Individuals who were cast out for breaking some rules took the occupation of lower castes unless readmitted back to their birth caste.


The customary land tenure system at the village level greatly depended on local history and descent from the original founders. In Senapur village, studied by Opler and Singh, for example, most of the land was owned by male descendants of a certain Madhoram who is believed to have founded the village in seventeenth century. According to this tradition, Madhoram was a member of the Thakur lineage (or from the Kshattriya caste) who had six sons by two wives. As a result, the village was divided into north and south halves equally allocated to the sons of each wife. Each section was further divided into three sections specifically named after each son. Over the years, the descendants of these sons inherited the land and served as hereditary headmen of each section.
During the colonial period, the British solidified the class position of these headmen by officially designating them as land owners, locally called zamindars. As a land owner, each zamindar was responsible for collecting rent from the peasants who cultivated the land and for transmitting a certain share of this rent to the British government as land revenue. In 1950, the state of Uttar Pradesh instituted the Zamindari Abolition Act which replaced hereditary village headmen with government appointed local officials. The Act also provided for several incentives aimed at selling the land of absentee landlords to landless tenants at an affordable price (Opler and Singh 1950: 7).



Villagers in Uttar Pradesh recognize many kinship-based groups, ranging from the extended family to lineages of various size that claim common descent from a founding ancestor. Fellow members of kinship groups are expected to trust and help each other by extensive gifts, by loans without interest, and by first preference in all economic dealings. However, Hindu kinship groups, unlike lineages in Africa and elsewhere, tend to be small and internally fragmented. This structural problem is partly solved by the caste system which uses ranking or hierarchy as a major element in relationships among persons and kinship groups.


Local etiquette governing greetings among persons of different castes seem more important than kinship terms of address. In Dhanaura village, the commonly used mode of customary greeting was by folding both hands together. No one, by way of showing respect, touched the feet of a higher caste man. Persons from similar caste status greeted each other by terms that emphasized this relationship. By contrast, person from different caste hierarchies addressed each other with terms that amplified differences. People of lower castes, for example, addressed all the castes higher to them by saying ”Palagan”, literally, “I touch your feet”. In return, the higher caste people greeted back with a blessing uttered as ”khush Raho” or ”sukhi raho”, meaning, that they wish them a happy life (Sankhdher 1974: 41).



Most villages tended to be endogamous and people of a caste were forbidden to marry outside their caste. In Dhanaura village which was studied by L. M. Sankhdher in the 1950s, each caste was divided into a number of endogamous sub-castes. In some cases, smaller endogamous sub-castes imposed further restrictions on the selection of a mate).


The commonest type of domestic group is the large Hindu extended family widely present in many parts of rural India (known as a joint family). A typical Indian extended family consists of many generations of closely related married men and their dependent members living in the same residence under the headship of the oldest male member. Income from all working members of the unit is pooled for common use under the management of the family head and his wife. The head couple also exerted strong control over the domestic chores, child rearing and family rituals.

With the expansion of education and employment opportunities in the post-independence period, there has been increasing structural tensions within the extended family. Most of the tensions have to do with the emergence of nuclear families within the extended family as units with special interests. For example, a man may show greater outward affection to his wife and bestow better care on his own biological children. Other causes of tension include the disregard of the prerogatives of seniority and the greater independence of younger brothers.

Despite all these uncertainties about its future, the extended family remains a very resilient institution. In 1957, for example, four-fifth of the villagers in Senapur lived as members of an extended family. Nuclear families accounted only for the remaining one-fifth of the population (Opler, 1960:5-6).


Individuals were born into families that occupy particular caste and service positions Differences in individual achievements of wealth (e.g. through hard work, inheritance, etc) were acknowledged, but remained irrelevant in changing one’s caste status.


All members of the traditional Hindu extended family have significant roles in child care and socialization. In Dhanaura village, no restriction was placed on the free mixing of children from different castes. They were allowed to play with everybody but usually forbidden to eat anything from lower castes. In most cases, however, children of the same locality formed friendships with one another and tended to restrict themselves to higher caste children who would be their future patrons .



Traditional social structure within the villages was governed by the caste system. The four large ranked caste groups were Brahman, high, low and untouchable. The four caste groups were further subdivided into localized castes, but the actual number and composition of resident castes varied. The village of Snapper in the mid-1950, for example, had 24 resident castes as noted by Opler and Singh. The ranking of castes greatly correlated with differences in wealth and power. The essence of the caste system depended on the practical observance of endogamy, commensality, and a wide variety of ritualized behaviors between members of different castes.

- Castes (564)
- Community structure (621)
- Avoidance and taboo (784)

Castes are linked with traditional occupational specializations. In Senapur, the untouchable castes were represented by the Chamar caste. The occupational specializations of persons of this caste included the lowliest work such as laboring in agricultural work, taking fertilizer to the fields, and disposing of the carcasses of dead animals. In addition, Chamar women served as midwives. Each Chamar family provided these services as a hereditary client bound to one patron. This resulted in a very stable system of social relationships.


The traditional political system was characterized by a hierarchical gradation of all the castes, Brahmans being at the top and untouchables or unclean castes at the bottom. The remaining other castes filled the hierarchies in-between these two extremes.

With the coming of independence, two broad political processes took place among Uttar Pradesh villagers. The first was an organization of the low castes in opposition to higher castes notably the Brahmans, Thakurs, and Kayasthas. The second trend was alignment on a political basis regardless of caste. When Opler and Singh conducted ethnographic fieldwork in 1950s, both of these groupings were present but political mobilization on a caste basis was growing weaker while alignment on a wider political basis was growing stronger (1957: 8). Villagers in post-independence Uttar Pradesh have been governed by elected village assemblies called panchayat.

At the state level, Uttar Pradesh has a Governor and a bi-cameral Legislature established under the Constitution of India. The Lower House is called Vidhan Sabha and the Upper House, Vidhan Parishad. The state has also a High Court.


In addition to the panchayat of elders who dealt with conflicts and disputes (see below), some villages had a watchman who was paid for his services by the villagers in goods. In Dhanaura village in the1950s, for example, the watchman, locally known as Godhit, was responsible for reporting cases of theft and other crimes to the police station.
Disputes involving individuals from different occupational castes with established by patron-client ties were resolved by the action of regional-caste assemblies. If a worker from a low caste, for example, complainsed to his caste assembly that he was mistreated by his hereditary customer, the assembly could forbid other members of the caste from rendering service to the offender. According to Opler and Singh, such a ruling brought even “the most powerful landowners quickly to terms” as there were no other ways of getting specific tasks accomplished (1954: 61-62).


Traditionally, conflicts among villagers were managed by local elders who were respected and trusted by all. When two or more villagers quarreled and could not reach an agreement, they called together several of these leaders to arbitrate their dispute. An assemblage of these men was known as a panchayat, literally “council of five,” although the number was never restricted to five. This system of conflict management declined with the introduction of a modern court system first by the British and later on by the independent government.

- Legal and judicial personnel (693)
- Informal in-group justice (627)
- Special courts (698)



Hinduism is the dominant religion in Uttar Pradesh. The state has also a very large Muslim minority.


The Brahmans, as representatives of the highest caste, served as priests, educators and models of ideal code of conduct. The latter included living on a strictly vegetarian diet and avoiding alcohol and tobacco. In Senapur, every Hindu family of caste, especially among the land owning Thakurs, required the religious services of two kinds of Brahman. One was the guruor family preceptor who came at least once a year, and other times as required, to give advice on intimate family affairs, to look into horoscopes of family members, to tell inspiring religious stories and to read from holy scriptures. The second was the purohit or priest who officiated at ceremonies such as childbirth, construction of new homes, initiation rituals, and marriage processions. Brahman priests however did not extend their services to the eight lowest castes in the hierarchy whose work or food habits are believed to be polluting. For their religious needs, lower caste members mostly depended on shamans (ojha).


By the mid-1950s, the village of Senapur had about 40 recognized calendrical rites and a number of family rituals involving every member of the community. Every family observed one or more sessions of the religious pageant called Ram Lila. The women of each family ritually honored husbands and sons of Tij and Jiutia. Neighbors, close relatives, servants, and caste-fellows attended ceremonies making the birth of a child, marriage, death, and other important milestones or events in the history of an individual or a family.


Uttar Pradesh is known for a wide variety of folklore such as Kajari, Chaiti, Alha, Puran Bhagat, Dhola Bhartrihari, Birha,Rasiya. The Sate also houses a rich collection of traditional dances including the Pandav, Karma, Charkula, Paidanda, Tharu, Dhobiya, Rai and Shera.


By the 1950s, villagers consulted trained medical doctors more frequently than in the past Yet, they didn’t give up more traditional methods of treating sickness including calling on a pandit (Hindu priest) and ojha (shaman). Lower caste members especially depended on the ojha much more than on doctors trained in Western medicine.


Burials would be marked by two clay vessels hanging in a fig tree. Water would drip from one of the vessels through a small hole at the bottom, while a lamp burned in the other. Both jars would be broken on an appointed day by a Brahman priest. The priest would receive religious alms for his services in the name of the dead person. Each family is expected to honor dead ancestors through commemorative annual feasts.