See also this web page for a different discussion of the caste system in bengal and the associated myths. A somewhat different perspective is also available as part of a book description.
Even though formally there are four castes in hinduism: brahmins, ksatriyas, vaishyas and shudras, the social reality is very different in different parts of India. The social rules enjoined by the religions also differ in different regions. In Bengal, much of the development of the first distinct bengali hinduism took place during the rule of the sena and barman kings: and is described in the writings of bhavadeva, aniruddhabhaTTa, vallAlasena, lakSmaNasena, guNaviSNu, halAYudha etc, as well as in the bRhaddharma and brahmavaivarta purANas. To a large extent, they codified, formalized and made immutable some of the existing social structure, as well as making it very much more rigid. In fact according to traditional stories, which however are not history, brahmins originated in bengal during this time.
The society described therein does not contain (though they still appear in origin myths) any kSatriYas or vaishyas except when some of the rulers are referred to as kSatriYas and today most of the people who call themselves kSatriYas have variations of varman or malla as their surname; and some jewellers claim descent from the vaishyas. The brahmins were divided geographically into rADh.I and bArendrI with a variety of village associations, but according to aniruddha had forgotten their vedic tradition. The rADH.Is are divided into kulInas and vaMshajas, and the Barendras into kulInas and Kaps. The Kulins are organized into 56 villages and 36 mels and thAks like phUle, vallabhI, khardA and sarvAnandI. In addition, there were vaidika brahmins who came (according to tradition, during shyAmalavarmA's rule) from the north (including sarasvati region) and south (including utkala) India, who acccording to halAYudha were the only brahmins who knew the vedic tradition. They are organized as a pAshcAtya and a dakSiNAtya group. Mention is also found of brahmins from shAkadvIpa (who, according to tradition, came during shashAGka's rule and were called grahavipra; the latter, according to brahmavaivarta purANa, however, are children of devalas, who are true shAkadvIpI brahmins, and vaishya women) who were not respected in society. A subcaste of them called agradAni used to perform shrAddha ceremony for the shudras. Also found is another group of brahmins not respected in society: the bhaTTa brahmins, presumably related to the Bhattacharyas.
According to the rules developed in this period, the respected or shrotriya brahmins could not perform priestly duties for anyone other than the 20 high shudra subcastes. (According to vRhaddharma purANa, these shUdra subcastes arose from mixture of castes forced by king veNa; the upper subcastes had parents belonging to unmixed caste, the middle ones had fathers of unmixed caste, and the lowest had both parents of mixed caste.) Those that violate the rule get the subcaste of that person and thus we find, in addition, varNa brahmins who could not even serve water to the true brahmins. In additions, certain occupations like teaching shudras, doing priestly duties for them, practicing medicine or astrology, or performing painting or other artistic activities, were forbidden; though certain others like farming and fighting, or working as a minister, go-between, religious leader or general were all allowed.
The non-brahmins in Bengal were almost all classified as formally 36, but actually 41, subcastes of shudras and came in three categories. The exact enumeration varies somewhat, but the list in vRhaddharma purANa is presented here as an example. The top subcaste (from whom the brahmins can drink water, and for whom they can be priests) consist of record keepers (karaNa or kAYastha; karaNa seems to become less prevalent with time, kAYastha more, though there are exceptions), doctors and medicine makers (ambaSTha or vaidya; doctors in the early part are being described as karaNa; in south India some doctors were also brahmins; in bihara, one can also find the ambaSTha kAYastha caste, said to be descendants of citragupta and zobhAvatI; in bengal, ambaSThas seem to merge into vaidyas), fighters (ugra), envoys and messengers (mAgadha), weavers (tantuvAYa), scent traders (gAndhikavaNika), barbers (nApita), writers (gopa), ironsmiths (karmakAra), betelnut traders (taulika), potters (kumbhakAra), brass smiths (kaMsakAra), conch smiths (shaGkhika), farmers (dAsa), betelleaf farmers (vArujIvI), sweetmeat makers (modaka), florists (mAlAkAra), praise singers (sUta), rAjaputra, and betelleaf traders (tAmbulI). Some of these people, the kAYastha/vaidyas (these terms have taken much broader meanings) often call themselves (in accord with their origin myths as found in, for example, brahmavaivarta purANa) kSatriyas or vaizyas, and some of their origin myths are closely tied to those of the brahmins. Manu also provides origin myths for many of these as arising out of violation of caste rules: thus ambaSThas of brAhmaNa father and vaizya mother (two degrees apart is not considered proper), karaNas of some kSatriYas who had given up his duties. As a result, some of them consider themselves vaidya-brahmins (and use both the vaizya indicator gupta and brAhmaNa indicator sharmA), and like the non-shudra castes in ancient texts have limited rights to the veda and sacred thread ceremony.
The Kayasthas divide themseves into the uttararADh.Is, the dakSINarADh.Is, and the vaMgajas. The dakSINarADh.Is include the kulIna ghoSa, basus, and the mitras and the maulikas who divide themselves as the upper dey, datta, kar, pAlit, sena, siMha, dAsa, and gUha, and the lower seventytwo. Among the vaMgajas the gUha are the only kulInas.
The middle subcaste consisted of engravers (takSaNa), washermen (rajaka), goldsmiths (svarNakAra), gold traders (svarNavaNika), milkmen and cowherds (AbhIra), oil traders (tailakAraka), fish traders (dhIvara), alcohol traders (shauNDika), actors and magicians (naTa), descendants of buddhist leaders(?,shekhara), fishermen (jAlika; possibly, buffalo keepers arose from these later) and another unidentifiable category (shAbAka). The lowest subcaste (who are untouchables) consist of cleaners (malegrahi), those that cremate the dead (cANDAla), carpenters (takSa), leatherworker (carmakAra), boatmen (ghaTTajIvi), chairbearers (dolAvAhI), wrestlers (malla) and two unidentified groups (varuD.a and kuD.ava). In addition are desribed the mleccha or foreign groups like pukkasha, pulinda, khasa, thara, kamboja, yavana, sumha, shavara etc, who were left outside the entire classification. In contrast, brahmavaivarta purANa mentions the top subcaste exemplified by gopa, nApita, bhilla, modaka, kuvara, tAmbuli, svarNakAra (later demoted), and vaNika; followed by karaNa and ambaSTha. Then of the nine sons of vishvakarmA by a shUdra: mAlAkAra, karmahAra, shaGkhakAra, kuvindaka, kumbhakAra, and kaMsakAra are explained as being high, and sUtradhara and citrakara are also demoted. suvarNavaNika is also demoted because of association with svarNakAra. After this there is a long list of fallen subcastes including aTTAlikAkAra, koTaka, tIvara, tailakAra, leTa, malla, carmakAra, shuNDI, pauNDraka, mAMsaccheda, rAjaputra, kaivarta, rajaka, kauYAlI, gaGgAputra, and yuGgI. The really low subcastes included vyAdha, bhaD.a, kola, koJca, haDDi, Doma, jolA, vAgatAta, vyAlagrAhI, and cANDAla. Traditional stories try to explain the bizarre patterns with mythological stories: thus the goldsmiths claimed they were vaishyas who were insulted by vallAlasena who invited and placed them with the satshUdras at dinner, and who, furthermore borrowed a lot of money by force. When they tried to revolt against him, he lowered their status; and he further disallowed wearing of the sacred thread by traders. Overall, however, the low position of the artisan class fit well with the agrarian turn at the beginning of the pala period.
The rules developed in this period prescribe strict limits on brahmins intermixing with the rest of the society. Some examples can be provided. They were not allowed to eat food cooked by shudras, except for fried items, rice cooked in milk and in time of distress. However they could not drink even water touched by the untouchables, neither could they be touched by untouchables. Elaborate rituals were needed to clean oneself of violations of these rules. Similarly, even though intermarriage between upper caste men and lower caste women was allowed, the normal rule was marriage within ones own caste. Rules made it clear that a wife of a lower caste had less rights than one of the same caste. Marriage rules for brahmins, and possibly upper category of shudras, had to follow the endogamy/exogamy rules of sapiNDa (exogamy for parts of an extended family), sagotra (exogamy for a group of paternally inherited markers called gotra) and samanapravara (exogamy outside related gotras). Marriage was also forbidden if it took place according to high ceremony and any of the seven male ancestors along the father's line and five along the mother's line coincided. Low marriage ceremony only required exclusion for five and three generations, but pushed one to the shudra caste. Even the kAyAstha kulIna rules are complicated today: the first three sons who married had to obey rules to stay in the caste, whereas the fourth (madhyAMsha dvItIya), fifth (kaniSThya), and the younger (vaMshaja) ones had laxer rules, as they were not considered as high in caste status: they traditionally married elder maulikas.
Note that this does not imply that the society, either before or during the sena period, was very spartan or puritanical in the modern sense of the word. vAtsAyana's kAmasUtra (3rd/4th cent AD), as well as kalhaNa's rAjataraGgini (describing 8th cent AD puNDra), decribes the dancers who attracted the young men. bhaTTa bhavadeva's writings, sandhyAkara nandI's rAmacarita and poet dhoYi's pavanadUta sings praises of the beauty of the city and temple prostitutes, thus providing supporting contemporary and internal evidence. Though brahmins marrying shudra women was looked down upon, extra-marital relationship between them was overlooked. During the 10th day of durga puja, during the shAradotsava festival, men and women with mud and leaves only on their body used to sing and dance to primal images; as descirbed in the contemporary kAlviveka and slightly later kAlikApurANa. bRhaddharmapurANa seems to speak against it, unless the participants were followers of shakti. Similar festivals during holaka=holI and kAma-mahotsava are also known. Poetry (e.g. govardhana's ArYa satashatI, jaYadeva etc.) also desribe physical love. Descriptions of fine clothes, gold, silver and pearl ornaments, palacial houses and temples also abound. The village society, however, often shunned many of these behaviour and considered them shameful as is clear from descriptions in saduktikarNamRta.
Though we can clearly see this in Bengal even today, a lot of this varies as we move across the different districts of Bengal. For example, the kAYasthas who were the top of the non-brAhmin hierarchy, are rate in places like rural bÃkurA, vIrabhUma, varddhamAna, and medinIpUra, where the farming sadgopas are at the top of the hierarchy. The advent of vaishnavism in the middle ages also led essentially to a new caste, which was to be reviled by the traditional society.
Up to the ancient period in the history of Bengal