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This article is an excerpt from
Castes and Tribes of Southern India
By Edgar Thurston, C.I.E.,
Superintendent, Madras Government Museum; Correspondant
Étranger, Société d’Anthropologie de Paris; Socio
Corrispondante, Societa,Romana di Anthropologia.
Assisted by K. Rangachari, M.A.,
of the Madras Government Museum.

Government Press, Madras


In the South Canara district, there are three distinct classes of washermen, viz., (1) Konkani Christians; (2) Canarese-speaking washermen, who seem to be allied to the Agasas of Mysore; (3) Tulu-speaking washermen. The Tulu-speaking Agasas follow the aliya santāna law of inheritance (in the female line). Madivāla (madi, a clean cloth) is a synonym for [17]Agasa. The word Agasa is derived from agasi, a turban.

The Agasas of Mysore have been described as follows.11 “The Agasa is a member of the village hierarchy, his office being hereditary, and his remuneration being grain fees from the ryots. Besides washing, he occasionally ekes out his substance by carrying on his donkeys grain from place to place. He is also employed in bearing the torch in marriage and other public ceremonies. The principal object of worship is the pot of boiling water (ubbe), in which dirty clothes are steeped. Animals are sacrificed to the god with the view of preventing the clothes being burnt in the ubbe pot. Under the name of Bhūma Dēva, there are temples dedicated to this god in some large towns, the service being conducted by pūjāris (priests) of the Agasa caste. The Agasas are Vishnuvaits, and pray to Vishnu, Pattalamma, and the Saktis. Their gurus (religious preceptors) are Sātānis. A unique custom is attached to the washerman’s office. When a girl-wife attains puberty, it is the duty and privilege of the washerman to carry the news, accompanied by certain presents, to her husband’s parents, for which the messenger is duly rewarded.”

The Tulu Madivālas of the South Canara district, like other Tulu castes, have exogamous septs or balis. They will wash clothes for all castes above the Billavas. They also supply cloths for decorating the marriage booth and funeral cars, and carry torches. They worship bhūthas (devils), of whom the principal one seems to be Jumadi. At the time of kōlas (bhūtha festivals), the Madivālas have the right to cut off the heads of the [18]fowls or goats, which are sacrificed. The animals are held by Pombadas or Paravas, and the Madivāla decapitates them. On the seventh day after the birth of a child, the washerwoman ties a thread round its waist. For purificatory ceremonies, the Madivāli should give washed clothes to those under pollution.

In their ceremonial observances, the Madivālas closely follow the Bants. In some places, they have a headman called, as among the Bants, Gurikara or Guttinaya. At marriages, the pouring of the dhāre water over the united hands of the bride and bridegroom is the duty of the father or maternal uncle of the bride, not of the headman.

Some Marātha washermen call themselves Dandu (army) Agasa.

The insigne of the washermen at Conjeeveram is a pot, such as that in which clothes are boiled.

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