In his column, “Madras Miscellany”, in The Hindu today, Mr S.Muthiah reports on a program hosted by the Chennai Freemasons last week. Referring to one of the speakers there, he asks:
“Who are the Left Hand and the Right Hand Castes about whom K.R.A.Narasiah spoke? From the first days of Madras till well into the 18th century, they were at odds with each other, participants in the most common communal rioting during that period. With generally known caste-communities being found in both groups, the basis of the two groups remains a mystery. Narasiah felt it could be a division based on merchants being the right hand group and artisans the left hand group- but going through the caste-community lists of each of the two groups which kept changing over the years you’ll find even that broad definition comes nowhere near solving the mystery.”
Curious, I logged on to Google Books and found several references to the ‘left-hand, right hand castes”, in books dating back to 1800 AD.
A sample is reproduced below from page 79 of the book, “ Journey from Madras through the countries of Mysore, Canara and Malabar’ by Francis Buchanan, MD, Fellow of the Royal Society and of the Society of Antiquaries, London and a Fellow of the Asiatic Society of Calcutta. The research was commissioned by Lord Wellesley and the book was published in the year 1807.
In this country ( Mysore), the division of the people into what are called Eddagai and the left and right hand sides, or Eddagai and Ballagai, is productive of more considerable effects than at any place that I have seen sides' in India, although among the Hindus it is generally known....
The origin of the division of Hindus into the right and left hand sides, is involved in fable. It is said to have taken place at Kunji, or Conjeveram, by order of the goddess Kali; and the rules to be observed by each side were at the same time engraved on a copper plate, which is said to be preserved at the temple of that place. The existence of such a plate, however, is very doubtful; both parties founding on its authority their pretensions, which are diametrically opposite.
The different casts, of which each division is composed, are not united by any common tie of religion, occupation, or kindred: it seems, therefore, to be merely a struggle for certain honorary distinctions. The right hand side pretend, that they have the exclusive privilege of using twelve pillars in the pundal, or shed, under which their marriage ceremonies are performed; and that their adversaries, in their processions, have no right to ride on horseback, nor to carry a flag painted with the figure of Hanumanta.
The left hand side pretend, that all these privileges are confirmed to them by the grant of Kali on the copper plate; and that they are of the highest rank, having been. placed by that goddess on her left hand, which in India is the place of honour.
Frequent disputes arise concerning these important matters; and on such occasions, not only mutual abuse is common, but also the heads of the divisions occasionally stir up the lowest and most ignorant of their followers to have recourse to violence, and encourage them by holding out the houses and shops of their adversaries as proper objects for plunder.
A very serious dispute took place at Seringapatam since it fell into the hands of the English. Thirty families of the weavers, belonging to the left hand side, joined themselves to the Teliga Banijigaru, and were encouraged by them to use all the honorary distinctions claimed by the right hand side. This gave great offence to the Panchum Banijigaru, and the Whalliaru were let loose to plunder : nor could they be repressed without an exertion of military force, by which several people were killed. In order to preserve the peace of the garrison, and to endeavour to bring the two parties to an agreement, it has ever since been thought expedient to prohibit any marriages from being celebrated within the fort.
(Pages 77 and 78 provide the names of nine castes included in the Eddagai ( left hand) group and the eighteen castes included in the Ballagai or right-hand group).
I am sure that a more diligent search through Google Books will clear the 'mystery' fully.
P.S: Browsing through the book, I also found this sketch of a “Brahmin with his wife and a son”.