Ancestor Spirits and Land Reforms: Contradictory discourses and practices on rights on land in South India

Ancestor Spirits and Land Reforms: Contradictory discourses and practices on rights on land in South India

This paper is about Untouchable ancestors' strong emotional attachment to their ancestral land. Ancestrors of Untouchables remain in their ancestral land at the margin of the village, whereas ancestors of high castes leave for the abode of ancestors, after expiating their sins by transferring them to Untouchables. Since land became a saleable commodity during the nineteenth century, many high caste people became the owners of marginal lands. This trend culminated in land reforms, which officially turned the "landless agricultural labourers" in to landowners. From the point of view of the Untouchables, however, they lost their ancestral land as a result of the land reforms. In this paper I describe how Untouchables invoke the power of their ancestor spirits who are believed to be still "sitting" in kaavus ("groves") in the margins of the village. I then discuss why the performance of ancestor worship turns into resistance to the encroachment of the marginal lands by the high caste. I argue that the Untouchables' performance of ancestor worship in the margins of the village re-creates symbolic boundaries that separate a purer centre and impure and dangerous marginal places. Some high caste landowners left the marginal land, for they feared the dangerous power accumulated in the marginal places was activated by the performance of ancestor worship in the kaavus ("groves"). [author's abstract]

  1. How good is this research?

    Assessing the quality of research can be a tricky business. This blog from our editor offers some tools and tips.