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[children of God], in India, individuals who are at the bottom of or outside the Hindu caste system. They were traditionally sweepers, washers of clothes, leatherworkers, and those whose occupation it was to kill animals.
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persons belonging to castes occupying the lowest levels of the caste hierarchy in India.
According to Hindu dogma, untouchables are outside the traditional division of Hindu society into four varna (hence, the Hindu designation panchama, that is, members of the fifth varna). During the Middle Ages untouchables in India included community slaves, serfs, and people engaged in “unclean” occupations, such as leatherworking, removal of human feces, laundering, and fishing. In recent and modern times the majority of untouchables have served as enserfed farmhands, unskilled workers, washermen and washerwomen, tanners, and lavatory attendants. In Hinduism, association with untouchables is considered to be polluting for individuals belonging to higher castes. In southern India restrictions on associating with untouchables are even stricter; there “untouchability” becomes “unapproachability.” In contemporary India untouchables make up about 20 percent of all Hindus. After India gained independence (1947), discrimination against untouchables was prohibited by law (1955). However, even now certain traditional restrictions remain—in many areas untouchables cannot use community wells, for example.