Social Status and Occupation in Ancient India

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India today is well known for its historically rigid, hierarchical caste system. While the system may seem limited, definitive, and restrictive, it is also full of complexities in operation. The purpose of this paper is to understand the relationship between occupation and class standing, specifically of the craft-producing working classes in ancient Indian civilizations. This topic generates many questions for study. Among them, was an individual's occupation synonymous with their social class? Were their any opportunities for mobility among the classes? How much choice or control, if any, did people have over their social status and occupation? To examine these questions, it is necessary to start with an understanding of the social foundations for Indian class, namely the four Varnas that make up the basic caste system. Next, an analysis of several modes of production-centralized, decentralized, and administered,-will show how crafts and craft-workers are organized to allow varying levels of social control. Finally, by moving into a deeper analysis of several specific occupations, it will be demonstrated how social prestige, opportunities, choice, and mobility of social ranking are all linked inextricably to the occupational production of crafts. I intend to show the varying relationships between hereditary class, occupation, and social status.

Social Foundations

While the caste system extends far into India's history and social inequality has always been present, the exact origins of the system are yet to be determined. Traditionally, the social hierarchy consists of four varnas, the most basic distinctions. These varnas are Brahmins, Ksatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. There are references to these classes in ancient scriptural texts, although many people believe that the rigidity and hereditary transfer of the titles is only an interpretation. Purity and Pollution are the two guiding principles that construct Indian ideology about social status. Pollution was seen as any activity relating to impurity such as waste management, working with animal products like leather, or washing clothes. The purest individuals with the most status are the Brahmins, who are priests and gurus. Directly below them are the Ksatriyas, who are the warriors and noblemen. The Vaishyas are the merchants and farm laborers; Shudras are the craft workers that are the primary focus of this discussion (Dowling). This type of hierarchical social stratification parallels that of other similar forms in many early complex societies, such as Egypt. Among these four groups, there existed a vast array of jatis, or sub-castes. There was a wide array of jatis which were often specific to local regions. Often, these jatis are thought of as applying to a specific occupation/social status and were also spatially organized. Social organization in many other regions, such as the Andes, can also be archaeologically interpreted through labor organization, as discussed here.

Craft Specialization and Production Modes

Craft specialization is often associated as a trait of complex, socially stratified societies. Some contest this conception; Mark Kenoyer, an archaeologist who has worked in the west Indian Harrappan site, among others, argues that specialization is merely an adaptive process which has been practised in all types of societies, not just highly ranked ones (Kenoyer 46). Regardless of the meaning of specialization, it can be used to determine control, power, and the ensuing social status. Kenoyer clarifies the role of craft specialization as being essential in determining social roles and stratification when the specialization is non-kin related production (Kenoyer 46). In an article published in American Anthropologist in 1988, Carla Sinopoli categorizes this production into three modes which are useful for understanding the relative prestige and social standing accorded to different crafts. The three modes are: administered, centralized, and noncentralized (Sinopoli 581).

Administered Production

Sinopoli defines this type as "production that is directly regulated by some powerful nonproducing group or institution under the control of the political and/or religious elite" (581). The workers are attached specialists, bound to the institution, which is concerned with goods that convey, wealth, prestige, power, or are important to trade and economics. In the archaeological record, this mode can be identified by spatial isolation of workshops and symbols of authority on the artifacts.

Centralized Production

This mode is defined as "large-scale and spatially segregated production by specialists, without imputing any direct involvement by the administrative apparatus of the state in such production systems" (581). Independent workshops and wide distribution are common characteristics, while authority institutions may intervene in some areas, such as taxation.

Noncentralized Production

Production is noncentralized when it happens on a smaller scale, with more dispersed workshops. The relative unimportance of these goods is reflected, as shall later be discussed, in the low social status often associated with individuals who work in this mode.


In his comprehensive, systematic book on the ceramics of central India, Daniel Miller uses ethnoarchaeology combined with archaeological ceramic remains to help analyze the variations, symbolic meanings, categories, and associated characteristics of pottery in the archaeological record. An important finding that permeates all discussion of production of pottery and status of the potters is the association of earthenware with impurity or pollution. Food that has already been touched is considered polluting; metal vessels can be washed to be made pure again, while pottery is believed to absorb and retain the impurity and thus they are ascribed a lower status. He further indicates that the use of more metal vessels is a marker of high caste and prestige (Miller 156). This meant that potters had a very low social position because of the goods they produced. Carla Sinopoli notes that while there is an abundance of evidence in the archaeological record for the use of pottery in elite and non-elite households, in domestic daily life, in rituals and religious ceremonies, and in temples, there is very little textual reference to potters, a further marker of low status (Sinopoli 238). When potters are mentioned in texts and inscriptions, their low social class is indicated. Production was organized in a noncentralized pattern; small workshops produced their wares outside of pressure for standardization from merchants or elite institutions because of their insignificance to trade, and negative connotations of pollution (Sinopoli 595 article). This caste was hereditary, and did not afford the individual much mobility. Potters were born into their low status kin-based community of potters, where they learned their trade and had few options for social advancement.

Textile workers

Members of the weaving castes and others involved at varying levels of textile manufacture were ascribed a relatively high status for someone of their varna, and actually had options for mobility and prestige. This trade affords workers more options and a higher social standing because of the many ways in which textiles can be used. Most
One of the many paintings at the Shaivite temple in Lepakshi. Special attention is payed to the depiction of the garments, which show elaborate designs in rich detail. Source:
One of the many paintings at the Shaivite temple in Lepakshi. Special attention is payed to the depiction of the garments, which show elaborate designs in rich detail. Source:
importantly, textiles were often a symbol of courtly wealth and prestige and also highly valued as a trade commodity. This is consistent with other archaeological findings that show evidence that textiles, especially silk, were of high economic value all over the Eurasian continent. While the archaeological record has little direct evidence of textiles due to their poor preservation, there are several indirect indicators of their value. As this painting from a temple of the Vijayanagara empire shows, there was a great deal of elaborate clothing, probably used to indicate status. The fact that this painting, along with many others like it, takes such care to represent the details and intricacies of the textiles shows that they were valued products.
Because of the significance attached to their craft, textile workers would have had some social leverage and ability to attain a high status. There were many different castes of weavers, and also many different specialized groups associated with the production of textiles. While being born into these castes or social groups was of course hereditary, there were options within the caste because there were so many different specialized jobs. Furthermore, an individual's personal skill level and the quality of their products was a large determinant of social status, so not all of the same occupation would have the exact same social status and opportunity. For example, Sinopoli has documented evidence from the Vijayanagara empire in which certain groups of weavers were granted special privileges by kings because their products were so highly esteemd. Thus, a textile worker could, by perfecting his skill, move up in social ranking (Sinopoli 189).


People born into the Smiths caste had many different occupational, and accordingly, social roles available to them. While it is difficult to measure the exact extent of occupational and social mobility within this social group, they are one of the most interesting communities to study for a variety of reasons. Returning again to Sinopoli's book about the study of Vijayanagara, she describes a hereditary community encompassing five smith trades: blacksmiths, copper or brass smiths, goldsmiths, masons/sculptors, and carpenters. While individuals were a part of this social group by birth, it appears that they had several occupational options available to them, and not all were of the same social status. Another interesting aspect of this group is the discrepancy between how they percieve their social position and how others see it. Inscriptions tell their distinctive origin story where they come from the universal source of all other gods; they do not even acknowledge the social classes above them. People outside of this social group however, still consider them only Shudras, low on the social scale (Sinopoli 191).
Sculptures, such as this one that is a protected monument of the Archaeological Society of India, often depicted Hindu deities. Because of their sacred nature, the lower class sculptors were able to work closely with the highest social classes. Source:
Sculptures, such as this one that is a protected monument of the Archaeological Society of India, often depicted Hindu deities. Because of their sacred nature, the lower class sculptors were able to work closely with the highest social classes. Source:

Amongst these occupations, there is evidence that social status may have varied widely based on the particular proficiency of the individual. For example, archaeological investigations provided an array of bronze sculptures, ranging from basic to elaborate sculptures used in temples. A bronze worker who was skilled in his trade and made an attachment to a temple would have been able to attain a higher socio-economic position than his counterpart, in the same hereditary caste and occupation, whose work was less skillfull and had fewer connections to higher status patrons. Hindu kings, for example, often patronized the artistic Hindu expressions, as explained here by Gutierrez. Stone workers of the smith caste also had a clear connection with temples. They were often attached specialists working in administered production for temples, as evidenced by inscriptions of the administrative sponser found on many sculptures. Various sculptures have also been found with signatures, of the artists, an indication that perhaps master sculptors, masons and other stoneworkers had the opportunity of rising above their peers and being socially recognized for their work (Sinopoli 203).
As mentioned above, sculptors were often attached specialists for the temples in which they worked. In Hinduism, the dominant Indian religion, sculptures of deities are considered sacred. As such, the sculptor creating them is thought to be engaging in a sacred process as his work gradually manifests the presence of the divine. This process is explained in more detail on this page. Sacred texts have recorded that the sculptor maintained a close relationship with the priest while working. Interestingly, despite the fact that a sculptor is a shudra, low on the social scale, he would still be able to participate in a sacred ritual with the highest social class, the Brahmans (Sinopoli 221).


In Mark Kenoyer's 1999 article in World Archaeology, he investigates beadmakers in Khumbat, an area in the western region of India. Before beggining his analysis of the actual craft, he explains that the correlation between craft specialization and social organization is usually a result of far-reaching assumptions that are not properly supported by evidence. He argues that a good way to remedy this problem is to "observe, within living cultural systems, the various cycles of production and the deposition of material evidence that result in the creation of the archaeological record" (Kenoyer 48). Thus he justifies ethnoarchaeological studies as an appropriate way to establish how craft and occupational specialization interacted with social stratification. After a thorough
study of the beadmaking process and technologies (the area he studied still uses the traditional methods that go as far back as Harrappa) he determined exactly how the archaeological record would show a centralized production of beads and what implications that would have for social stratification. The process of making the beads involves many different steps, each requiring a technologically skilled workers. When the remains from each stage of production can be found all in one spot, it is likely that the production was centralized and controlled by powerful merchant families. Similar to textiles, beads could be used as a valuable trade good in both local and international markets. While this may have given beadmakers some social leverage, it also meant that the workers could have been manipulated by the socially superior merchants who would want to control how their goods were produced (Kenoyer 57-59).

Discussion and Conclusion

Although social organization can be difficult to see from archaeological records, it is possible, using a variety of methods and sources, to gain an understanding of basic concepts. Ancient India organized its people into four hereditary social groupings over which they had no control. Within these groups, there existed many different castes and subcastes. People found their identities and social roles inextricably tied to their occupations. For those born in the lower status social groups, including craftsmen, merchants, and artisans, social status could be identified based on their occupation, much like many other socially stratified societies studied in archaeology. However, it was often more complicated. Depending on where an individual worked, what type of production they were involved in, how skilled they were, and how valuable their goods were, individuals of the same caste and occupation may have different social status. For some, mobility was indeed possible. Some castes or social communities would have a range of occupations that were socially acceptable and accessible to its members, so that an individual was not always forced into a single hereditary job. After investigating potters, textile workers, smiths, and beadmakers, it is clear that individuals of similar working class background often had different opportunities available to them and occupied varying levels of the social hierarchy. These differences are directly linked to their associated occupations. This shows how ancient societies organized the social relations of their people in order to maintain regulation and legibility.