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This essay is an attempt to write the social history of the Chakkiliyar community of South India, often classified in the colonial records as a caste occupying the lowest position in the caste hierarchy. This paper argues that the colonial period was marked by lowering opportunities for economic and social mobility for the community. Traditionally involved in the manufacture of leather goods that were central to irrigation, the Chakkiliyars had relatively better opportunities and some even occupied the status of petty landowners. But the advent of pumpsets and the mechanization of leather processing during the colonial period severely affected their economic opportunities. Adding to this, the colonial and missionary records, inflated with the prejudices of their upper caste informers, repeatedly portrayed their low social existence. Therefore, despite certain genuine motives and formidable social reforms, the colonial and missionary documentation of the caste in fact further strengthened the existing social stereotypes and thus added yet another layer into its history of discrimination. Besides recovering the various ways in which Chakkiliyars were described in the documents of colonial officials and Christian missionaries, this paper also analyzes the recent attempts by the members of the community to produce a counter narrative to the stereotypical representations of their caste.
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