Sambhavi Ganesh – ECR Spotlight

The making of Brahmin womanhood

by Sambhavi Ganesh

Me – “Hello, I would like to book a place at your training event.”

Organiser – “How old is your child?”

Me – “I am asking for myself, and I am 24.”

The same conversation played out yet again as I tried to negotiate the booking process with the event organisers. I was attending a cultural training event in late 2021 for Brahmin[1] girls aged 10 to 25. Upon hearing my voice, the organisers assumed I was a mother booking a place for a child. Unsurprisingly, I was a visibly senior attendee at the event among a hundred girls, many of whom were accompanied by their parents (primarily mothers). The event aimed to induct the attendees into becoming ‘good Brahmin girls’ by teaching caste and religion-based activities such as tulsi plant worship, sloka chanting, and about festive events structured by the Hindu lunar calendar.

A ceremonial offering with a plant, flowers, ritual powders and betel leaves. The tulsi plant we were handed as part of our workshop kit is believed to be auspicious, especially for women and girls. “File:Newly made Choodi 1.JPG” by Ananthkamath1995 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Being Brahmin is associated with the Hindu priestly class and the Vedic corpus, which signify male Brahmin-ness to the extent of being forbidden for women. Meanwhile, Brahmin women have primarily derived their identity from maintaining domestic ritual purity and raising children. In the present context of their increased access to secular lifestyles, I am curious as to how women situate themselves as Brahmin.  Although caste[2] and gender have been studied together, the process of gendering within dominant caste communities, such as Brahmins, is scarcely researched. My PhD explores how womanhood is constructed, performed, and passed on to future generations among the Tamil-speaking Brahmin caste in southern India.

In this blog post, I draw on two ethnographic encounters in which I attended cultural training events for Tamil Brahmins to showcase how caste-specific gendered behaviour is learned and enacted. I also portray how I felt the entanglement of caste and gender while conducting fieldwork amongst members of my own caste community.

The sartorial choices of the attendees in both events revealed their stages in life. At the first event, intended for girls, I was almost the only person to wear a six-yard-long sari – a relatively modern drape one generally sees in Indian public spaces. In contrast, the younger attendees were dressed in skirt-blouses and two-piece saris, the traditional clothes meant for girl-children and adolescents across castes in the region. Their mothers and other married women were dressed in nine-yard saris, the traditional drape of (endogamous) married Brahmin women.

The second event, meant for Brahmin women, did not have age restrictions. The invitation welcomed all Brahmin women and encouraged them to bring their teenage daughters along. As neither a mother nor an adolescent girl, I nevertheless registered my interest. The organisers announced a dress code for entry: attendees were to wear traditional clothing according to their biological and marital status. As an unmarried adult woman, I went in a six-yard sari, possibly the least traditional of all outfits. On several occasions that morning, I was told that rooms were available to change my outfit into a nine-yard sari. I explained that although I looked old enough, I was not married. This led to them praising me for showing interest in cultural activities as a ‘young girl’, a sentiment I often heard in other ethnographic sites. This event had several speakers highlight the importance of raising culturally minded children and following in the footsteps of Brahmin ancestors.

Both events helped me understand that, for my interlocutors, teaching girls is akin to saving a future family as it is a woman’s divinely-ordained duty to raise traditionally–oriented children. The first event I attended was organised to teach traditional (caste-based) values to young girls because of the perceived lack of mothers devoting time to this duty. The second event reminded mothers not to neglect their duty of raising children with caste values intact, with a warning of the impending extinction of the Brahmin community due to inter-caste marriage. At these two sites, I saw how caste-led gendering occurs at various stages of women’s lives. Community organisations were replacing family elders in the making of Brahmin women.

As a woman in her mid-20s, I was a ‘young girl’ in the awkward netherworld between childhood and adulthood (a married state). I could not fit into either event despite our similarity in caste and gender. People located me socially, not by singular identities (like my age, gender, or caste) alone. Instead, my ethnography showed me that ritual status intersects with caste and gender performance in crucial ways that define our social locations.


Sambhavi Ganesh is a PhD researcher in South Asian Studies at the School of Social and Political Science. Her work on the intersections between caste, gender, and family is hoped to contribute to studying social identities in tandem. She can be reached at and @sambhaviganesh.


[1] Brahmins are a caste community considered to be at the top of the caste hierarchy.

[2] Caste is a category of hierarchical social classification in South Asia. Based on birth, caste categories decide the life chances and marriage alliances of much of the contemporary population in the region.