Indian Social Structure

Structure of Indian Society

  • Tribes- Munda, Ho, Oraon, Bhil, Gaddi, Santhal, Kol, Kandh, Khasi, Garo, Mizo, Naga known as Scheduled Tribes

We can identify a tribe by the following features:

  • All members are related to each other by blood
  • All members are equal in status
  • All members believe that they have descended from a common ancestor
  • All members have equal access to the resources
  • The sense of private property is least visible
  • Social differentiation exists only on the basis of age and sex.

Vedic Period

  • Bharatas, Yadus, Turvasas, Druhyus, Purus and Anus are tribes
  • divided society into Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra categories
  • there was no caste hierarchy within the Buddhist and Jain monastic communities

During Shakas, Kushanas, Parthians and Indo-Greeks

  • Growth of urbanisation, craft production, and trade
  • rise of guilds or ‘shreni’which in later times became castes
  • different category of merchants known as the ‘shreshthins’
    (present day Seths of North India and the Chettis and Chettiyars of South India)
  • An important development during medieval times, particularly in South India, was the division of the Shudras into ‘pure’(sat) and ‘impure’(asat) categories
  • Manu noted 61 castes whereas a later text counted hundreds of mixed castes (varnasankara)
  • Kayasthas were traditionally scribes who got transformed into a separate caste
  • The Khatris, an important caste in Northern India, claim that they were of Kshatriya origin, but took to commerce, which
    brought them the contempt of their caste fellows and they had to accept Vaishya status
  • Gurjaras, Jats and Ahirs all claim Kshatriya origin
  • The North Indian Brahmanas are divided not only on the basis ofgotrabut also on the basis of their residence.
  • Thus, we have Kanyakubja, Sarayuparier and Maithila brahmanas belonging to Kanauj, Sarayu river and Mithila respectively
  • Rajput sub-castes- Tomaras, Kacchavahas, Hadas and Chauhanas


  • untouchables (antyajas)
  • called the fifth varna (panchamd)
  • During Gupta period their status fell so much
  • hunters (nishada), fishermen (kaivartas) leather workers (charmakaras), sweepers (kukkusa), and basket makers (vend) all became untouchables.
  • ‘Dom’ and ‘Domb’ was a tribe which became an untouchable category
  • Mlechchas


  • The ‘Arthashastra’states that a man could be a slave by
    birth, by voluntarily selling himself, by being captured in war, or as a result of a judicial punishment.
  • slave markets existed in the 16th century Vijayanagara empire
  • Sultans of Delhi kept a large number of slaves (Bandagans)
  • One of the slaves named Malik Kafur became the commander-inchief of Alauddin Khilji
  • Linschoten has given harrowing accounts of the slave trade at Goa saying, “they drive slaves as we do horses here”.

Concepts of ‘purusharth’, ‘ashrama’, and rsamskara’

  • ‘Purushartha’ means aims of life which is divided into four ‘ashramas’ or stages of life
  • For each of the ‘ashramas’ there are prescribed ‘samskaras’ or rites that need to be performed.
  • The first ‘ashrama’ is known as ‘brahmacharya’
  • There are some forty such ‘samskaras’.
  • Some important ones are: ‘garbhadana’ (conception), ‘pumsavana’(male child), ‘simantonnayana’(safety), ‘jatakarma’(birth ceremony) ‘nishkramana’ (showing the sun) ‘annaprashana’ (first feeding of solid food), ‘chudakarma’ (tonsure) ‘upanayana’ (investiture with sacred thread), ‘samavartana’ (end of the first stage) ‘vivaha; (marriage), ‘antyesti’ (the last rites) etc.

Jajmani System

  • a complementary relationship between the groups of dominant peasant castes on the one hand and service and artisan castes on the other
  • the service castes rendered services to the land-owning peasant castes as well as to the high and dominant castes and were entitled to traditionally fixed shares of the produce and in some cases to a small plot of land

Traditionally the family in India

  • Governed by two schools of sacred law and customs.
  • These are based on ‘Mitakshara’and ‘Dayabhaga’.
  • Most families of Bengal and Assam follow the rules of ‘Dayabhaga’ while the rest of India generally follows ‘Mitakshara’.
  • Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and Jain communities are governed by the codified Hindu Acts of 1955-56


  • Hindu Marriage Act of 1955
  • The Brahmanical Sacred Law considered a marriage indissoluble once the seven steps (i.e. seven phera)


  • During the Vedic period even under patriarchy women participated in all the affairs of the Tribe barring wars
  • They were composers of hymns, they could marry the men of their choice at a mature age.
  • Even Vedic knowledge was closed to women. At this time the heterodox sects gave them some place of respect.
  • Tantric sects of the early medieval period gave woman an important place in their cult and instituted orders of female ascetics.
  • However, Ibn Battutah, a foreign traveller, mentions that in the medieval period, permission from the Sultan had to be taken for the performance of‘sati’. Widow remarriage was not permissible but right to property of the widows in certain cases was recognised
  • In the medieval period, the practice of keeping a veil on the faces for women became widespread among the upper-class women.
  • The Arabs and the Turks adopted this custom from the Iranians and brought it to India with them.
  • With the efforts of Ram Mohan Roy, Radhakanta Deb, Bhawani Charan Banerji the practice of ‘sati’ was banned in 1829
  • Pandit Vishnu Shastri founded Widow Marriage Association in 1860
  • In 1856, through the efforts of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar the first widow remarriage took place

Tribal Communities of India

  • Government of India has specified 427 communities and has included them in the schedule of tribes.
  • three most important tribes are the Gonds, the Bhils and the Santhals
  • Minas, the Mundas, the orgons
  • North Zone (Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, sub-Himalayan Uttar Pradesh, Bihar)
    • Khasa, Tharu, Bhoksa, Bhotias, Gujjars and the Jaunsaris
    • Khasas are a polyandrous tribe. Bhotias make carpets and are involved in the Indo-china border trade
    • Gujjars are a pastoral tribe
  • North-Eastern Zone (seven north-eastern states)
    • Nagas, Khasi, Garo, Mishing, Miri, Karbi and the Apatauis
  • Central Zone
    • Madhya Pradesh to South Bihar across northern Orissa
    • Santhals, HO, Baiga, Abhujanaria, Muria, Munda and Birhor
    • Santhals have discovered a script of their own, called ole chiki
    • Baigas are a prominent shifting cultivation tribe
    • Birhors are threatened with extinction
  • Southern Zone
    • comprises the Nilgiris together with the adjoining hilly regions in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka
    • Toda, Koya, Chenchu and Allars
    • Todas are a pastoral people who practise buffalo herding
    • Allars are cave dwellers, who also live on tree tops.
    • Chencus are a very backward tribe who survive mainly on hunting gathering
  • Eastern Zone
    • West Bengal, Orissa
    • Paraja, Kondhas, Bondas, Bhumiya, Gadabas, Bhuinyas and Sqoras
  • Western Zone
    • Rajasthan and Gujarat
    • Bhils, Garasiya and Meenas.
    • Meenas are a very advanced and well-educated tribe
  • Island Region
    • Andaman and Nicobar Islands, lakshadweep and Daman and Diu
    • Great Andamanese, Santinelese, Jarwas, Onges, Nicobaris and Shampen

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