In pictures: The many lives of India’s Dalits


In the image above, a Dalit (formerly known as untouchable) woman worker limps past an open-cast coal mine in India’s Jharkhand state, where underground fires have burned for over a century.

The photograph is part of a black-and-white series titled “Broken” by Asha Thadani, who has been chronicling the lives of Dalits for seven years.

India’s 200 million Dalits find themselves among the nation’s most marginalised citizens, condemned to the lowest echelons of society by a rigid caste hierarchy.

Quotas in state institutions for Dalits have narrowed gaps in education, income and health. Dalits now boast a thriving chamber of commerce filled with millionaires. Many organisations actively champion their rights. Two Dalits have served as heads of state.

However, a significant number of Dalits continue to find themselves in occupations shunned by others, such as the disposal of dead animals and cleaning sewers.

Short presentational grey line

Theyyam is a religious ritual that originated in the northern part of Kerala.

Here is a Dalit theyyam performer from the state, where these dancers in trance are thought to embody the very divinities they venerate.

“When they become theyyam artistes they become story-teller and medium – living representations of the gods. Even though theyyam is rooted in the caste system, during the performance the upper castes must respect and obey this divine dancer who is of the lower caste,” says Ms Thadani.


Musahars, which literally means ”rat people,” are so poor that their staple diet often comprises mice.

A Dalit community in Bihar state, the Musahars mostly work on the farms owned by landlords and go without work for up to eight months a year.

Facing the challenge of survival and dependent on the unpredictable generosity of landlords, the Musahars have found alternative livelihoods, such as the Nachaniya – a group of gender-fluid entertainers within their community.

These male entertainers, aged 10 to 23, dress as women and perform at village weddings, particularly during the monsoon season.


In a visual hymn to devotion, a Ramnami woman stands pensively at a doorway, her face and shaven head tattooed with the rhythmic repetition of “Ram” in Devanagari script, which is used to write Hindi – an eloquent manifestation of chant in written form.

With each stroke of the wooden needle, infused with ink derived from kerosene-lamp soot, intricate concentric circles and linear patterns emerge, fashioning a sacred tapestry on her skin. The tradition extends to a shawl, gracefully draped around her shoulders, bearing the sacred word.

Born from a late 19th-Century act of defiance, the Ramnamis of Chhattisgarh state embody a distinctive protest, etching visible devotion on both skin and soul – a timeless fusion of faith and identity.


Emerging from the sacred depths of the Ganges in the holy city of Varanasi, a skilled Dalit diver surfaces with coins clenched between his teeth – an evocative snapshot of a life intricately woven into the river’s narrative.

Known as a ‘Gotakhor’ or an expert diver, he holds the coins – offerings from seekers of absolution – between his teeth, leaving his hands free to navigate the river’s current.

The divers are also tasked with recovering the bodies of people who have drowned in the river and are compensated with cheap alcohol, according to Ms Thadani.

“Each dive is a ritual, and every coin retrieved serves as an offering to ease the symbolic journey across difficult waters,” she says.


In a corner of Bihar, these Dalit women resisted upper-caste restrictions on jewellery by developing a unique form of adornment – tattoos.

Using cow dung, bamboo, straw, twigs, and palm leaves to construct their huts, they transformed the walls into canvases.

“Forbidden from depicting Hindu deities, they found inspiration in nature. Today, their [style of] paintings are renowned, serving as a source of livelihood and a testament to the creativity and courage of these women,” says Ms Thadani.


These women are professional mourners, practicing the ancient Oppari mourning ritual deeply ingrained in a community of Dalits in Tamil Nadu.

Traditionally performed as a soulful response to the loss of close family members, Opparis are sung on behalf of or directly to the bereaved family.

These women are summoned to homes where death has occurred, expertly externalising grief in a profound ritual.

This task, deemed “polluting” and reserved for Dalits, challenges societal norms that associate the external display of grief with weakness, a perception traditionally confined to women.


Shiva, from a community of Dalits in Karnataka, is part of a group that burns goat heads outside the meat market in Bangalore (Bengaluru) city .

Goat heads are fire-processed to remove the fur, making it easier to prepare and sell the most expensive organ – the brain. This process is a necessary step in the preparation of the meat.

Exposed to scorching heat, toxic smoke and coal dust daily, those doing this work have a life expectancy of 35 to 45 years. The metal skewers that are used become extremely hot during burning, affecting the sensitivity of their hands as they hold them throughout the working day.

This job is exclusively performed by Dalit males, some as young as 10 to 12 years old, who receive a payment of 15 rupees (18 cents) for processing a goat head.

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