Here are a few intesting bits of information I picked up while researching caste
1. The Indian society was grouped according to Jatis - not castes.
2. Jatis - Sanskrit for "born thus", were essentially endogamous groups ie they would marry among themselves and not outside the group. They would normally not share meals or water or even a smoke with someone outside this group, as it was considered impure. Even the Brahmins of one Jati would observe these restrictions with Brahmins of another Jati. However, in general, Brahmins were allowed, because of the high regard for them and their own fastidiousness about purity, in to the endogamous groups, if they chose to do so, which wasn't often.
However, the system had a great deal of fluidity as regards work occupations although there were hundreds, if not thousands of trade guilds, protecting the economic interests of their Jatis. This was in addition to the village councils of each of the Jatis called Panchayats, which regulated and enforced their local social codes, including that of untouchability. It is intriguing to know that untouchability was not just a Brahmin phenomena, but all Jatis, even those described as lower castes, used to practice it, especially in matters of food, water and community smoking.
3. Varna means Type, Order, Category and Colour in Sanskrit. Monier Williams speculated in his sanskrit-English dictionary in the 19th century, that Varna could perhaps be related to colour, with fair Aryan conquerors and the dark subjugated Das or natives. But his innocent speculation has become the rule rather than exception in translations of the word Varna. Colour cannot be the meaning in this context, because there are dark Brahmins and fair lower castes all over India. Further, how do you account for the four varnas? Are there people with four different colours in India?
Varna is in fact the Brahmins' theoretical system of classification of the Indian society. The varna categories were a useful way to broadly structure and put some semblance of order into a complex Jati based society.
4. The Brahmins' Varna system was translated as Caste, or racial purity, by the Portuguese and this word was later adopted by the British too, with all its negative connotations. The majority of Indians themselves did not even know about Caste, let alone subscribe to it till late 19th century, when the census operations of British India compulsorily fitted all Hindus into the four Varna categories, and all Muslims into Syed, Sheikh, Mughal and Pathan etc, under caste. All government forms made mention of caste compulsory, even when, say in a railway consignment note, it was obviously irrelevant.
5. The superimposition of an ancient theoretical categorisation template over a living, complex, individualistic and generally fair-minded society has resulted in many anomalies.
a) India is now usually described as a country which has always had a caste system with four castes and the untouchables since time immemorial. No attempt is made to distinguish the Jati based living structure and the theoretical system of the Brahmins. Both have become one in the minds of not only the foreign observers, but even of Indians and many scholars.
b) It goes without saying that the unjustness of a system that relegates certain groups to perpetual inferiority and freezes their occupations, is obvious even to a dense person. A society cannot have even survived, let alone thrived under these manifestly unfair conditions.
But India was a thriving economy till the advent of the British. It was arguably the wealthiest country in the world, along with China and unarguably, the largest manufacturing power, with a quarter of the manufactures of the world till 1750. India's share in the world gross product declined from 22.6 percent in 1700 to 3.8 percent in 1952. The reason is that while the Jati guilds promoted skills specialisation, there was a great deal of fluidity in occupations. The laws of economics were no different in that era.
However, the hypothetical unfairness of the caste system has been seized upon by many of the economically disadvantaged sections of the society to explain their prevailing situation and to demand and gain recompensatory measures at the cost of the so called higher castes.
c) Due to these supportive measures, belonging to a backward or lower caste has become a privilege in modern India. And given their numerical strength, these castes are unlikely to part with these privileges in the foreseeable future. So strangely enough, the Brahmin's theoretical system has for the first time ever in history, become a reality in the twenty-first century democratic India. But with a twist. It is the "lower" castes which are now "higher", and this time it is for real!