Can Indians tell the difference between Castes Reliably?

Or at least as reliably as we can tell the difference between say Europeans and Middle Easterners?

Is there a visible difference between the castes? Or are there accent differences?

Firstly, it’s important to understand that the word “caste” is a simplification of a concept of social heirarchy that includes a number of elements, including social position, power and class. The simple view of there being four main castes is tremendously complicated by the number of Jatis or sub-castes within the structure. It’s all very complex, and to be honest, as someone who in Indian but never gave a toss about caste, it’s not something I know in a great deal of detail, but here’s a start.

India is a large and very diverse country, which complicates this issue. A caste isn’t an ethnic grouping, so there aren’t characteristics of a caste that you can use to identify them across the country. Appearances and languages vary widely (so it’s well beyond a mere accent change) and it’s impossible in urban India to identify someone as a member of a certain caste unless they choose to advertise it. Brahmins from Kashmir, in the north of India, look very different from Brahmins from Tamil Nadu, in the south, have entirely different languages and customs and culture, and indeed might have very little in common, yet they are of the same caste (in the simple sense of the word).

In rural India, where caste is still a major factor in peoples’ lives, it’s somewhat easier, but even there, appearance and accent aren’t going to get you very far. People who look very similar might be of entirely different castes, and people who look different might be of the same caste.

Names are a slightly better way of going about it; you can tell with some degree of accuracy (not a huge amount, mind you) where someone is from, and what their likely caste and social position is going to be, from their family name. Again, this is merely an indication, and could mean nothing, or be very accurate.


I don’t have much to add to Dervorin’s excellent post, except clarifying that it will often be possible for locals to accurately identify different castes present within their neighborhood or village. In an area you are intimately familiar with, you probably know who is Yadav, Mishra, etc. Travelling just a few hours away from their local village (or even to a different area of a city) they too will have trouble recognizing all the subtle signs (appearance, language, names, etc.) indicating caste/jati. Some are more pronounced than others, but the sheer number and variety of castes/jatis in India that crosses all sorts of linguistic or racial barriers, makes it practically impossible for someone to “know” the system.

Hmm… of even more interest can a Sikh identify a Moslem, or a Hindu identify a Christian ?

To some extent by clothing/jewelry/etc.

And to some extent by name.

Many years ago, I read a biography written about growing up in India, I think around the 1940s. The author’s family was from a high caste. However, he had an uncle, from the same caste, although with dark skin, who, when entering a crowded train, would give the ritual outcast warning to “all well-born people” that he was entering, thus ensuring that he got a seat to himself.

Irrelevant to caste but an example - in the turmoil in Iraq, one way to tell Shiite from Sunni was names; Shiites revered different members of Mohammed’s immediate followers than did Sunnis; as a result, certain names from those groups were only used by one sect or the other. (There was a big market in fake documents with generic names, apparently).

Is the caste name difference from clans, or given names based on history and religion, or just tradition, I wonder?

All of the above and more. Naming conventions vary widely across the board. Last names can signify caste, or place of ancestry, or profession (thereby caste too) etc.

For example, I belong to a priestly/teacher class from South India. And the naming convention is as follows:

1st Name - Place of birth (but with migration, more likely the grandfather’s place of birth)

2nd Name - Father’s given name

3rd Name - Actual Name of the person. Even here there is little choice. The first born is named after the paternal grandparent and the 2nd after the maternal one.

Umar/Omar is one. Popular among Sunnis, anathema among Shiites.

Aren’t certain castes associated with a specific religion? I know most are Hindu, but I think there are others? Of course, that wouldn’t put you any closer to solve it, now you have a caste and are looking for a religion…

Isn’t the caste system exclusively Hindu? I thought I read a few years back about some persons belonging to lower castes finally having enough of crap treatment due to their low caste status, and converting to Christianity.

In a subtle way some muslims,christians etc… have a caste system. This happened as there were conversions were from upper castes and lower castes and they carried on the hindu tradition.

In Goa for example, you have brahmin christians (brahmins who converted to hinduism) who advertise for brahmin christian brides.

In post #13 , please read the line as " brahmins who converted to christianity ".

I don’t know. But you’d think that castes weren’t completely unknown in places like Nagaland (75% Baptist), or Christians/Muslims/Sikhs in more diverse areas weren’t mixed in it.