In this latest episode of In Theory, Disha Karnad Jani interviews Divya Cherian, Assistant Professor of History at Princeton University, about her book, Merchants of Virtue: Hindus, Muslims, and Untouchables in Eighteenth-Century South Asia (University of California Press, 2023). 

Cherian’s book examines the central place of untouchability in the constitution of the Hindu subject, through a precise and wide-ranging study of the kingdom of Marwar in eighteenth century South Asia. Via disputes over access to temples, wells, hunting grounds, and other spaces, and through legal, courtly, religious, and other mechanisms, Cherian documents how the caste ideal shifted in Marwar over the course of the eighteenth century. She shows how the rise of merchants in the region and in the court ushered in dominant practices such as vegetarianism, chastity, and austerity. Set against the backdrop of sweeping global changes in state-making and trade networks, Cherian’s granular study of eighteenth-century Marwar shows how this process fashioned a new elite and destabilized social relations and longstanding ways of life in caste-oppressed communities. By tracing ideas and ideals through legal orders, court decrees, and everyday life, Cherian makes a powerful claim about the longevity and precarity of caste’s operation in precolonial South Asia, and in India today.

Disha Karnad Jani is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Research Training Group “World Politics” at Universität Bielefeld. Her current book project is an intellectual history of the League Against Imperialism, 1927-1937. She is the co-host of In Theory, the podcast of the JHI Blog. 

Featured Image: Jodhpur State (orange) within Rajputana (yellow), in the Imperial Gazetteer of India. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.