International Encyclopaedia
of the Histories of Anthropology

An Anthropologist and Historian Ahead of His Time: L. S. S. O’Malley in British India

Chris Fuller

London School of Economics

To cite this article

Fuller, Chris, 2023. “An Anthropologist and Historian Ahead of His Time: L. S. S. O’Malley in British India”, in BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology, Paris.

URL BEROSE: article2913.html

Download the PDF

Lewis Sydney Steward O’Malley (1874-1941), one of the most scholarly colonial, ‘official’ anthropologists in British India, was a member of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) from 1898 to 1924. L. S. S. O’Malley, as he always signed himself, spent his entire career in Bengal, mostly as a district officer. But he also edited the revised ’Bengal District Gazetteers’ and wrote 30 of the 38 volumes himself, which were mostly published in 1906-11; he was then the superintendent of the 1911 census of Bengal and finished his report, including a detailed chapter on caste, in 1913. O’Malley completed his most important writings in retirement in England, however. The most valuable of his four books were Indian Caste Customs (1932) and Popular Hinduism: The Religion of the Masses (1935); he also edited a multidisciplinary volume, Modern India and the West: A Study of the Interactions of their Civilizations (1941), and wrote a large part of it. Indian Caste Customs described the caste system’s main features, but its theoretical perspective was its most significant and original aspect. O’Malley, who thought the occupational dimension of caste was normally exaggerated, was the first official anthropologist to conceptualise caste as first and foremost a hierarchical system that is pan-Indian and predicated on a relational logic. In Popular Hinduism: The Religion of the Masses (1935), he described the religion’s main characteristics and explained that people’s conduct, not their beliefs, is what matters most in Hinduism, an extremely diverse religion in which ‘higher and lower’ forms coexist. Although O’Malley sometimes indulged in conjectural evolutionism in this book, it was more informative and sympathetic, and made the unity and diversity of ordinary people’s Hinduism throughout the subcontinent more intelligible, than any other work on the topic published until many years later. In Modern India and the West, O’Malley’s own chapter on the Hindu social system emphasised its non-individualist, collectivist characteristics and discussed the modern changes in it. Many scholars have covered similar ground since the 1940s, but the combination of anthropology and history throughout O’Malley’s work was unusual at the time, both in Modern India and the West and his other more anthropological books. It is hard to assess O’Malley’s influence on anthropologists (or other scholars) writing about India after the Second World War and Independence. Nonetheless, his books still look uncommonly modern in comparison with those of other colonial anthropologists of India and even today scholars may find that they contain much to interest and inform them.

Lewis Sydney Steward O’Malley was one of the most scholarly colonial anthropologists in British India. Like most colonial, ‘official’ anthropologists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, he was a member of the Indian Civil Service (ICS), the elite administrative corps of the British Raj, and he spent his career in Bengal. It was in retirement in England, however, that he wrote his most important works on caste, folk or popular Hinduism and other aspects of Indian society. As an author, his name always appeared as L. S. S. O’Malley.

O’Malley was born on 23 September 1874, the son of a Church of England vicar in a village in Norfolk. He was educated at Norwich Grammar School and Hertford College, Oxford, from where he graduated in classics in 1897. After he was successful in the ICS entrance examination and passed the final examination two years later, he joined the service and arrived in Calcutta on 7 December 1898; two days later he took up his first appointment as a junior district officer (an assistant magistrate and collector) in Gaya district in the Bihar region of Bengal province. His subsequent appointments to district officers’ posts were in adjacent Shahabad, followed by Bankura in Bengal proper and then Cuttack in the Orissa region; he was transferred to the Bengal government’s secretariat (administrative headquarters) in Calcutta in 1903. In 1905, O’Malley became the superintendent in charge of revising the earlier ’Bengal District Gazetteers’, which were included in volumes of W. W. Hunter’s A Statistical Account of Bengal (1875–77), and he wrote thirty of the thirty-eight new gazetteers in the series he edited, most of them published between 1906 and 1911. [1] In 1910, the government appointed him to superintend the 1911 census of Bengal and he completed his report in 1913. In the same year, O’Malley went on furlough to England, but when war broke out, he was recalled to India and posted to Rajshahi district in east Bengal as a district officer. In 1916, he was promoted to a departmental secretary’s post in the Bengal secretariat. He retired from the ICS in 1924, although he had actually been on leave for most of the previous three years. He wrote all his books after retiring and died on 10 May 1941.

During O’Malley’s time in Bengal, the province was reorganised twice, which complicated production of the gazetteers and delayed the 1911 census report. When he first arrived, Bengal was a vast province that included present-day West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and parts of Odisha (Orissa) in India, as well as Bangladesh (east Bengal). Following the Partition of Bengal in 1905, the eastern districts of Bengal were detached to become part of the new province of Eastern Bengal and Assam; in 1911, partition was revoked, so that east and west Bengal were reunited and Assam became separate again, but a new separate province of Bihar and Orissa was created as well.

Gaya and the Gazetteers

The majority of the ’Bengal gazetteers’ had the same format, including one chapter on ‘The People’, which contained information on their demographic, educational and other ‘general characteristics’, as well as their religions, and also ethnographic sketches of the district’s principal castes and tribes that usually depended fairly heavily on previous sources, such as H. H. Risley’s 1891 handbook of tribes and castes. Some gazetteers, however, had supplementary parts to cover a district’s special features and the Gaya volume – one of the first to appear in 1906 – included three extra chapters headed ‘Buddha and Bodh Gaya’, ‘The Gaya Pilgrimage’ and ‘Popular Religion’. O’Malley began his ICS career in Gaya and it was probably a special place for him, judging by the unusually lyrical opening chapter in which, for instance, he described the scenery outside Gaya town as ‘a country green with crops and groves of palm-trees’ and said of the cold season that ‘it would be difficult to find a more delightful climate’. But Gaya was unusually interesting, too, because it was ‘the Holy Land of Buddhism’ in which the Buddha attained enlightenment beneath the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, a village near Gaya town. [2] The famous Mahabodhi temple stands close to the tree and a pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya was and is immensely significant for Buddhists. For many Hindus as well, a pilgrimage to Gaya, which involves a series of rituals in several sacred sites in and around the town, is especially important and is undertaken by both men and women to release the spirits of their deceased ancestors and other relatives, so that they can reach heaven or escape from the cycle of rebirth. The pilgrims are looked after by low-status Brahman priests known as Gayawals, who have monopolistic rights to perform the key rituals. Like other similar pilgrimage priests, such as those in Banaras, they commonly have hereditary ties with the pilgrims they serve, whose names and home villages are recorded in their registers, although they also compete with each other for pilgrims who are unattached.

O’Malley discussed the pilgrimage and the Gayawals in the gazetteer, but he also wrote about them in his first publication, an article in which he explained that the Gayawals were an endogamous group whose numbers were then in decline, mainly owing to a shortage of marriageable girls. [3] The Gayawals partly solved this problem by adoptions within their own group. In a minority of cases, a boy was transferred from one family to another in accordance with Hindu family law. But most adoptions were not of this kind, because an adult male was adopted, frequently by a widow with no sons, and he inherited her late husband’s rights without losing any of his rights in his own family; furthermore, the transfer was not always permanent, for the adopted son could be repudiated and replaced for disobeying or disgracing his adoptive family. These irregular adoptions, O’Malley argued, amounted to an expedient to meet a practical problem and ‘like most of the organization of the Gayawals, it [was] partly spiritual and partly commercial in its character’, since it ensured that the group retained its lucrative monopolistic power to release ancestral spirits. [4] O’Malley’s article was brief, but it was nonetheless an interesting examination of an aspect of Gayawal family law and custom that modern anthropologists and other scholars have more fully discussed with reference to several other Hindu priestly groups. [5]

The 1911 Census of Bengal

The commissioner in charge of the 1911 census of India was Edward Albert Gait (1863–1950), the most experienced census official in India, who had been the 1891 census superintendent for Assam and the 1901 superintendent for Bengal, as well as the 1901 commissioner after he took over from Risley in 1902 and wrote most of the final report. In a preliminary circular to provincial superintendents in 1910, Gait told them they should make their reports concise, but not by omitting interesting new material, especially of an anthropological kind, and he forwarded part of a letter from James George Frazer (1854–1941), who told Gait how valuable the Indian census volumes were, especially about the ‘special customs and beliefs of the tribes and castes’. [6] After the census was completed, Gait especially praised O’Malley, who not only overcame the difficulties arising from the decision to revoke the Partition of Bengal in 1911, but also wrote a ‘full and interesting’ report containing ‘a very valuable account of the system of caste government’ – that is, how castes regulated their own affairs and enforced their own rules – and other ethnographic topics. [7]

At the 1911 census, religion was by far the most controversial matter, because after the recent constitutional changes brought in by the Morley-Minto reforms, Hindu and Muslim political leaders alike were concerned about their own communities’ population numbers, which would be crucial for ensuring that they were fairly represented on the new legislative councils. Two particularly contentious questions were whether Sikhs, Jains, Untouchables and partially ‘Hinduised’ tribal animists were included among ‘Hindus’, and whether all converts to Islam or Christianity, even if they retained Hindu customs, were excluded. Gait’s circular to superintendents about ‘misleading’ census returns that ‘include millions of people who are not really Hindus at all’, which surfaced in an Indian newspaper in 1910, made Hindu leaders yet more concerned and suspicious about the census results. [8]

In the chapter on religion in his census report, O’Malley discussed the definition of ‘Hindu’ and identified Brahman supremacy and objection to cow slaughter as salient criteria, while also explaining that ‘extraordinary divergence of opinion’ existed among Hindus about the matter. Furthermore, he thought it was much easier to define ‘Muslim’ than ‘Hindu’, even though many Muslims held ‘unorthodox’ beliefs and many Muslim converts retained Hindu customs. [9] In this chapter, O’Malley looked at various aspects of Hinduism – as well as Islam and other religions – ethnographically and historically, but his coverage of the field was highly selective. [10]

Gait, who oversaw a reduction in the amount of attention paid to caste in 1911 compared with previous censuses, explained that the provincial reports contained ‘comparatively little fresh information’ on the subject, except for caste government and caste councils or panchayats, on which more information was needed by senior officials. In many provincial reports, the chapters on caste were short, but O’Malley’s was long and included a detailed ethnographic and historical examination of caste government throughout the province. O’Malley particularly looked, too, at how Risley’s inquiry into social precedence in 1901 had left a ‘legacy of trouble’ that led to renewed agitation a decade later and hundreds of petitions arriving in his office, despite the official decision that ‘there should be no classification of castes by status’ at the 1911 census. He also discussed contemporary theoretical debates, for example, about the relationship between castes and subcastes. On the question of caste and race, he dismissed Risley’s claim that caste originated in racial distinction, mainly on the grounds that anthropometric data could not actually determine racial ancestry, as most anthropologists acknowledged by 1911 or thereabouts. [11]

O’Malley incorporated material from his census report chapters into his books, to which I now turn. After retiring from India in 1924, his first was The Indian Civil Service: 1601-1930, published in 1931; and the next three were Indian Caste Customs, India’s Social Heritage, and Popular Hinduism: The Religion of the Masses, published in 1932, 1934 and 1935, respectively. His fifth and last was his edited volume, Modern India and the West, posthumously published in 1941. O’Malley was exceptionally well read in the colonial anthropological and historical literature on India and – with the partial exception of his ICS history, which I do not discuss – he generally wrote with academic detachment from his subject matter, so that his books contained relatively few of the colonialist assumptions and prejudices that were quite common in his earlier gazetteers, census report and other official works.

Indian Caste Customs (1932) and India’s Social Heritage (1934)

Both Indian Caste Customs and India’s Social Heritage, as well as Popular Hinduism, were obviously written for educated lay readers who probably had some prior knowledge of India, rather than academic specialists. Indian Caste Customs begins by describing the main features of the caste system as a whole, and the following chapters cover caste government, the pre-colonial rulers’ powers over the system, penalties imposed by caste councils, the regulation of marriage, restrictions pertaining to food and drink, and occupations and the division of labour. In the last two chapters on the Untouchables and on modern change, O’Malley discussed the anti-untouchability campaigns of Ambedkar and Gandhi, and the Non-Brahman movements in Bombay and Madras, as well as the impact on caste of factors such as economic development, urbanisation, and Western education and ideas, though he also argued that ‘fundamentally caste remains the same’, because change was more in forms than substance. In conclusion, he contended that despite the caste system’s many evils, it had good points as well and did ‘its best work as a guardian of morality’ and as an anti-revolutionary ‘stabilizing influence’. [12]

The first chapter of India’s Social Heritage is also about the caste system and the second discusses the ‘depressed classes’, a term current in the 1930s to refer to Untouchables and other backward castes. The rest of the book describes the tribal groups on the North-West Frontier and in the Himalayas and north-eastern region, the ‘primitive’ hill and forest tribes in the interior regions, the village community, the family and marriage, and the purdah system and status of women. To illustrate the work, I briefly consider the chapters on the village and the family.

O’Malley called the village ‘the unit of communal life in India’ and followed the conventional wisdom of the colonial period by describing it as forming a ‘separate community, a self-centred and largely self-supporting society’, which has existed and survived since ancient times. Mainly relying on the authoritative work of B. H. Baden-Powell (1841–1901), he particularly discussed the two main types of villages: ‘joint’ villages in which land was held by s of kinsmen or ‘brotherhoods’ claiming descent from a common ancestor, and ‘severalty’ or ryotwari villages in which individual cultivators or ryots owned the land. [13]

In the following chapter, O’Malley identified the family as the ‘fundamental’ and ‘most closely knit’ unit of Hindu society, and discussed the structure of both joint families and separate families. In its complete form, a joint family has common property, a common dwelling and kitchen, and a common household shrine, but when it divides into separate, usually nuclear families, its members may establish separate households, for example, but still retain joint ownership of their lands, which was and is particularly common when some of them work in towns, while others stay in the village as farmers. O’Malley’s understanding of the structure and development of Indian families was vitiated by his uncritical acceptance of social evolutionism and Henry Sumner Maine’s (1822-188) discredited notion of the patriarchal ‘ancient family’, which purportedly fitted the form of the contemporary patrilineal Hindu family. Consequently, O’Malley assumed that the joint-family system ‘belong[ed] to an earlier stage of social growth’, so that although it had ‘some admirable traits’, its decline was ‘not to be regretted’. [14] The existence in Assam and Kerala of ‘matriarchy’ – as matrilineal kinship was misdescribed – was briefly mentioned as exceptional at the end of the chapter.

India’s Social Heritage was ‘intended merely to give a simple statement of the principal features of the social system of India’, which it mostly did, although it was also rather disjointed and lacked a unifying theme. [15] In Indian Caste Customs, by contrast, caste itself supplied the main theme and in my view the book was the most coherent and accurate anthropological work on the caste system and its main features published during the colonial era, even though no modern reader is likely to agree with some of O’Malley’s conclusions, for instance, about the ‘good points’ of caste. The book was partly based on O’Malley’s personal experiences as an official in India, but mostly on his extensive reading of the ethnographic and historical literature available in the 1930s, though he did not cite all his sources consistently. Thus for example, he hardly ever specifically mentioned Risley or Gait, his two senior colleagues in Bengal, although some of his evidence and arguments were obviously taken from their work. Unlike a comparable text on caste written after Independence, Indian Caste Customs is not illustrated and enlivened by any ethnographic sketches of village caste systems. On the other hand, it contains considerably more historical information than many more recent books. In the chapter on ‘external control’, for example, O’Malley explained how pre-colonial Hindu and Muslim kings, as well as the early British rulers, exercised a degree of supervisory control over local caste systems – for instance, by fixing the rank of different subcastes – and why, especially in the wake of Risley’s 1901 census, many latter-day Indians believed that colonial census officials had a similar responsibility. [16]

The most important and original feature of Indian Caste Customs is its theoretical perspective, which is largely set out in the first chapter. O’Malley identified hierarchical ranking, commensal restrictions, hereditary occupations, and endogamy among the caste system’s critical features, although in India’s Social Heritage he insisted still more unequivocally that the system was hierarchical because it was ‘based on the principle that men neither are nor can be equal’. [17] On the other hand, in an implicit criticism of Risley, he saw caste ranking as a ‘graduated scale’ from Brahmans to Untouchables, not a ‘detailed warrant of precedence in which each individual caste has an assigned place’. [18] O’Malley explained how castes are divided into subcastes, as well as exogamous kin groups; he emphasised, too, that caste is both social and religious, for it is ‘the steel frame binding together the many beliefs massed together in Hinduism’. [19] He recognised that the occupational dimension of caste was important, but thought it was normally exaggerated and mentioned numerous examples of people departing from their ‘hereditary calling’. [20] Partly reflecting the features emphasised in his approach, O’Malley devoted very little space to caste among Muslims and other non-Hindus. [21]

O’Malley’s conceptualisation of caste as a hierarchical system, like Risley’s and Gait’s, was almost certainly influenced by his own English upper-middle-class background interacting with the elitist understanding prevalent among Bengalis belonging to the bhadralok, the English-educated, urban, professional middle class, who dominated the provincial civil service in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and were almost all Hindus from the high-status Brahman, Baidya and Kayastha castes. [22] O’Malley was inspired, too, by the French Indologist Émile Senart (1847–1928), whose ‘brilliant monograph’ on caste he acknowledged. [23] Following Senart, he was the first official anthropologist to state clearly that the caste system is pan-Indian and predicated on a relational logic, so that throughout India, despite regional diversity, ‘caste remains the basis of the social order, with its numerous divisions, each of which has a social value in relation only to other divisions … The differences are of form and not of substance [and] there is a fundamental unity of system’. [24] This passage led Louis Dumont (1911–98) to praise the ‘excellent’ O’Malley’s insight into the segmentary, relational structure of caste. [25] In India’s Social Heritage, O’Malley indulged in some evolutionist conjectural history when discussing the caste system’s putative origins and development. [26] But he did not do so in Indian Caste Customs and, most importantly, O’Malley was the first author to write about caste in a manner resembling a modern, synchronic structural approach, so that his work, more fully than any other official anthropologist’s, anticipated the ethnographic and theoretical studies of caste written by anthropologists and sociologists after Independence.

In concluding this section, let me briefly mention the work of Edward Arthur Henry Blunt (1877–1941), O’Malley’s contemporary, who was the 1911 census superintendent for the United Provinces and author of a book on caste in north India published in 1931. Like O’Malley, Blunt wrote a long, detailed chapter on caste in his census report and criticised Risley’s racial theory. But in his report and more fully in his later book, in contrast to both O’Malley and Risley, Blunt emphasised the significance of hereditary occupations, rather than status and hierarchy, and broadly endorsed the occupational theory of caste. [27] Blunt’s book on caste was not as intellectually coherent as O’Malley’s, but it was nonetheless a valuable work that also anticipated post-Independence studies, partly because it was the first predominantly functionalist ethnographic analysis of the caste system in a specific area, albeit a region, rather than a village.

Popular Hinduism (1935)

Popular Hinduism: The Religion of the Masses was mostly based on ethnographic and historical materials, but O’Malley also referred to textual scholarship and sometimes drew on his own observations. The religion of ordinary people in India, mainly Hindus and Muslims, was extensively described in many census reports and tribes and castes handbooks, as well as books and articles by official anthropologists, such as William Crooke (1848–1923). [28] O’Malley’s book, however, was the only one to portray the unity and diversity of popular Hinduism throughout the subcontinent.

The first three chapters of Popular Hinduism are headed ‘Beliefs’, ‘Ideals’ and ‘Moral Influences’, which might have misled the majority of the book’s original readers, who almost certainly had a Christian background, into thinking that belief and morality are pre-eminent in Hinduism. But O’Malley quickly made it clear that in Hinduism – an extremely diverse religion that is simultaneously a ‘social system, of which the basis is caste’ – what matters most is people’s conduct, not their beliefs. Hinduism, he said, has ‘neither a common creed nor uniformity of worship’, for it was ‘a conglomerate of cults and creeds’, in which the ‘higher and lower forms of religion still coexist side by side’, and he reverted to conjectural racial evolutionism in assuming that the higher and lower forms had Aryan and tribal non-Aryan origins, respectively. [29] The dichotomy of forms was plainly displayed in the pantheon, especially in the differentiation between the great gods and goddesses and the uncountable host of lesser deities. Among the great deities, all with multiple names, the most important were Vishnu and his consort Lakshmi, and Siva with his consort Parvati or other female forms, such as Uma, Durga and Kali. To ‘more advanced thinkers’, this pantheon represented ‘not … a multiplicity of gods but … the multiformity of one God’, even though ‘the unintellectual’ saw all gods as separate beings. [30] O’Malley’s concept of Hinduism’s higher and lower forms, together with evolutionist suppositions about Aryans and non-Aryans, was commonplace among writers of his time and indeed later, but except for its evolutionism it also closely resembled the modern anthropological idea that Hinduism is constituted by its ‘Sanskritic’ and ‘non-Sanskritic’ (or Brahmanical and non-Brahmanical) forms or levels, or its ‘great’ and ‘little traditions’. O’Malley argued, too, that the ‘godlings and evil spirits’, whose cults are associated with ‘animistic beliefs’ as opposed to ‘Brahmanical doctrines’, mainly attract ‘votaries from the lower castes, particularly those of Dravidian origin’, whereas ‘Brahmanical worship’ prevails higher up the social scale. [31] Once again, the evolutionist thinking is outdated, but his argument plainly anticipated the modern thesis that high-status Hindus – whether they belong to traditional high castes or today’s educated middle classes, for example – are generally predisposed to Sanskritic Hinduism and low-status Hindus to its non-Sanskritic forms.

The last five chapters in Popular Hinduism are on ‘Worship and Ceremonies’, ‘Godlings and Evil Spirits’, Modern Deifications’, ‘Brahmans, Priests and Holy Men’, and ‘Sectarianism and Toleration’. They all contain copious ethnographic and historical data from different regions of India, which O’Malley discussed clearly and informatively, quite often through comparison with Christian cases. Thus for example, ‘a temple is a sanctuary of a god or goddess and not a place of public worship like a church. Divine service consists, not of common prayer, but of ceremonies performed by priests’. [32] With or without assistance from priests, however, individual worshippers also made votive offerings or carried out other forms of private worship to ask the deities for help with personal or family problems or simply to express devotion to them. O’Malley filled out his summary description with illustrative material from the great temples of Jagannath (Vishnu) and Lingaraj (Siva) in Orissa. [33]

One notable feature of O’Malley’s book is his cogent discussion of various questions on which misinformation was and is very common. One of these is the Brahman priesthood: as he correctly explained, most Brahmans are not priests and never have been, and many priests are not Brahmans; moreover, the Brahmans’ primary religious duty is to study, teach and recite the sacred texts, not to perform rituals, and Brahmans who work as priests rank below those who do not. [34]

O’Malley’s illustrative Christian examples, which tended to be English Protestant ones, were sometimes prejudicial. Yet he also insisted that Christian or Western judgements were often wrong, as they were, for instance, in condemning sexual expression or imagery in Hinduism, such as the glorification of Radha and Krishna’s celebrated love affair, which symbolised self-sacrificing devotion, not obscene immorality. [35] On the other hand, much like Risley and other ICS officers, O’Malley repeatedly displayed his elitist English class prejudice, so that he described low-status Hindus attracted to the ‘lower forms’ of Hinduism as ‘illiterate and ignorant’, and associated the widespread ‘deification of human beings’ in popular Hinduism with the ‘ignorance, credulity and superstition [of] the masses’. [36] When discussing Hindu tolerance towards other faiths near the end of the book, O’Malley also drew attention to the ‘intolerance in practice on the part of the masses’, both Hindu and Muslim, that he saw as a significant factor in many communal riots. [37]

The great majority of general books on Hinduism have always examined ideas and doctrines in the sacred texts, rather than popular, practical religion, and in the early twentieth century, O’Malley’s focus on ‘the religion of the masses’ in Popular Hinduism was exceptional. As we have seen, his book was not flawless; nonetheless, it was more informative and sympathetic, and made the unity and diversity of popular Hinduism throughout the subcontinent more intelligible, than any other work on the topic written by an official anthropologist or anyone else before the latter part of the twentieth century.

Modern India and the West (1941)

Modern India and the West: A Study of the Interactions of their Civilizations is a bulky volume edited by O’Malley, who died while it was in press in 1941. The publications committee of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) oversaw the work, and although the papers in its archives do not explain why O’Malley was appointed as the editor, his expertise and literary skills presumably impressed leading members of the Institute, notably Lord Meston (1865–1943), a retired, high-ranking ICS officer, and Arnold Joseph Toynbee (1889–1975), a distinguished international historian. O’Malley initially selected the work’s contents and contributors before discussing them with Meston and Toynbee in 1937–8. The volume’s original title was Cultural Relations Between the West and India, but the final one better conveyed its intellectual objective, as well as its implicitly political one. The provisional lists of chapters and contributors differed slightly from the final one, which had sixteen chapters of which O’Malley wrote five, including one on ‘The Hindu Social System’, as well as four that were mainly historical: two introductory chapters, one on technology and a concluding ‘General Survey’ of almost 250 pages, which was a masterly overview of the volume’s subject matter. [38]

In his chapter on the Hindu social system, O’Malley identified its three chief institutions as caste, the village community and the family. Parts of his discussion replicated material in his earlier books, but he also stated more emphatically than before that the institutions’ crucial characteristic was that they were ‘not individualist but collectivist’, and the key social unit was ‘not the individual but the family’. All three institutions ‘maintained ideological control over the individual’, who ‘scarcely existed except as a member of the group’. [39] In the modern age, however, there had been considerable change, which was the main focus of the chapter. In particular, village autonomy was largely destroyed by the colonial administration, and the caste and family systems were modified in various ways by economic change and the social reforms encouraged by Western ideas.

The caste system, as O’Malley pointed out, had never been immutable, but it was now changing further and faster than ever before in response to economic development, new industries and new forms of employment, particularly in urban areas, where caste rules and restrictions were becoming more relaxed. Caste was also significantly weakened by social and political reform movements, especially anti-untouchability campaigns, as well as a broader opposition to the very principle of inequality. Economic change and reformist ideas both contributed, too, to the perceived disintegration of the joint family. Thus by the late nineteenth century, although the colonial government pursued a general policy of non-interference in Indian social and religious customs, progressive Hindus were increasingly demanding legislation to support reform, which eventually led to new laws – for example, to permit widows to remarry and to prohibit child marriage – which undermined some communities’ traditional family systems. [40] For today’s readers, there is little new or surprising in O’Malley’s discussion of social change, because since the 1940s so many scholars have covered similar ground and greatly expanded the scope of both the data and analysis. By the standards of the time, however, his wide-ranging combination of history and anthropology was unusual, both in Modern India and the West, where he wrote primarily as a historian, and in his other more anthropological books.


It is hard to assess O’Malley’s influence on anthropologists, historians or other scholars writing about India after the Second World War and Independence. Dumont’s praise for his insights into the caste system was mentioned above, but nobody else has been equally laudatory, although David Mandelbaum (1911–87) acknowledged O’Malley’s valuable contribution to knowledge and other leading anthropologists, such as M. N. Srinivas (1916–99), were familiar with his writings and cited them in their own. [41] The historian Percival Spear (1901-82), writing in the late 1950s about earlier British historians of colonial India, singled out O’Malley as one of the very few who fully recognised the nationalist movement’s importance, as he showed in Modern India and the West. [42] But he was also ahead of his time as a colonial, official anthropologist, because Indian Caste Customs and Popular Hinduism in particular still look uncommonly modern in comparison with any other anthropological work on India written before Independence. O’Malley’s publications, especially the three just mentioned, have rarely received the attention they deserve and even post-colonial scholars in the twenty-first century may find they contain much to interest and inform them, especially about caste and Hinduism, and structure and change in Indian society.


Books and Articles

Baden-Powell, B. H. 1896. The Indian Village Community. London: Longmans.

Blunt, E. A. H. 1931. The Caste System of Northern India. London: Oxford University Press.

Crooke, W. 1896a. The Tribes and Castes of the North-Western Provinces and Oudh, 4 vols. Calcutta: Government Printing.

Crooke, W. 1896b. The Popular Religion and Folk-Lore of Northern India, 2 vols. London: Archibald Constable.

Dumont, Louis. 1970 (1967). Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and its Implications. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Fuller, C. J. 2016. Colonial Anthropology and the Decline of the Raj: Caste, Religion and Political Change in India in the Early Twentieth Century. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 26, 3: 463–86.

Fuller, C. J. 2022. Ethnography and Racial Theory in the British Raj: The Anthropological Work of H. H. Risley. BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology, Paris.

Fuller, C. J. 2023. Colonial Ethnography and Theories of Caste in Late-Nineteenth-Century India. BEROSE International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology, Paris.

Hunter, W. W., ed. 1875-7. A Statistical Account of Bengal, 20 vols. London: Trübner.

Mandelbaum, David G. 1970. Society in India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

O’Malley, L. S. S. 1903. Gayā Çrāddha and Gayāwāls. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 72, pt. 3: 1–11.

O’Malley, L. S. S. 1906. Gaya (Bengal District Gazetteers, vol. 3). Calcutta: Bengal Secretariat Book Depot.

O’Malley, L. S. S. 1931. The Indian Civil Service, 1601-1930. London: John Murray.

O’Malley, L. S. S. 1932. Indian Caste Customs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

O’Malley, L. S. S. 1934. India’s Social Heritage. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

O’Malley, L. S. S. 1935. Popular Hinduism: The Religion of the Masses. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

O’Malley, L. S. S.(ed.) 1941. Modern India and the West: A Study of the Interactions of their Civilizations. London: Oxford University Press.

Parry, Jonathan P. 1994. Death in Banaras. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Risley, H. H. 1891. The Tribes and Castes of Bengal: Ethnographic Glossary, 2 vols. Calcutta: Bengal Secretariat Press.

Senart, Émile. 1930 (1896). Caste in India: The Facts and the System (trans. E. Denison Ross). London: Methuen.

Spear, T. G. P. 1961. British Historical Writing in the Era of the Nationalist Movements, in C. H. Philips, ed., Historians of India, Pakistan and Ceylon, 404-15. London: Oxford University Press.

Srinivas, M. N. 1996. Social Change in Modern India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Census Reports

Census of India, 1911, vol. 1, India, pt. 1, Report, by E. A. Gait. Calcutta, 1913.

Census of India, 1911, vol. 5, Bengal, Bihar and Orissa and Sikhim, pt. 1, Report, by L. S. S. O’Malley. Calcutta, 1913.

Census of India, 1911, vol. 15, The United Provinces and Oudh, pt. 1, Report, by E. A. H. Blunt. Allahabad, 1912.

[1Hunter 1875–77. For a full list of the gazetteers edited by O’Malley, search for ‘bengal district gazetteer o’malley’ in the Archives and Manuscripts catalogue of the British Library (www.bl.uk).’

[2O’Malley 1906: 4, 15, 44.

[3O’Malley 1906: 59–72, 217-18; O’Malley 1903.

[4O’Malley 1903: 11.

[5See, e.g., Parry (1994: Chaps 3 and 4) on Mahabrahman funeral priests in Banaras.

[6E. A. Gait to all provincial superintendents, 30 March 1910, India Home (Census) Proceedings, April 1910, p. 45, IOR/P/8452, India Office Records, British Library.

[7Census of India 1911, vol. 1, India, Report, x.

[8See Fuller 2016: 472–3.

[9Census of India 1911, vol. 5, Bengal, Report, 227–9, 251.

[10Fuller 2016: 475–7.

[11Census of India 1911, vol. 5, Bengal, Report, 451–95, 440–4, 495–6, 517–20. See also Fuller 2022 on Risley on social precedence and caste and race.

[12O’Malley 1932: 175, 180.

[13O’Malley 1934: 101, 102–7; Baden-Powell 1896.

[14O’Malley 1934: 118–27.

[15O’Malley 1934: iii.

[16O’Malley 1932: 56–63.

[17O’Malley 1934: 7.

[18O’Malley 1932: 11.

[19O’Malley 1932: 4-6, 19–20.

[20O’Malley 1932: 122–3.

[21O’Malley 1932: 2; 1934: 30–32.

[22See also Fuller 2022: 3, 8–9.

[23O’Malley 1932: viii; Senart 1930 (1896).

[24O’Malley 1932: 21.

[25Dumont 1970: 63.

[26O’Malley 1934: 9–12.

[27Census of India 1911, vol. 15, United Provinces, Report, 321-73; Blunt 1931: 5–8, chap. 12. See also Fuller 2016: 474–5; Fuller 2023 on the occupational theory of caste.

[28Crooke 1896a; 1896b.

[29O’Malley 1935: 1–2.

[30O’Malley 1935: 4–7.

[31O’Malley 1935: 129.

[32O’Malley 1935: 93.

[33O’Malley 1935: 93–101, passim.

[34O’Malley 1935: 187–8.

[35O’Malley 1935: 89–91.

[36O’Malley 1935: 17, 170.

[37O’Malley 1935: 235–7.

[38Chatham House library, archive file 16/33, ‘Modern India and the West’, 1941, including letters to O’Malley from Margaret Cleeve, 14 August 1937; Toynbee, 24 November 1937; Meston, 25 November 1937; O’Malley to Toynbee, 25 November 1937; Provisional synopsis, 18 November 1937; Provisional synopsis (revised), 14 June 1938.

[39O’Malley 1941: 355.

[40O’Malley 1941: 354–88 passim.

[41Mandelbaum 1970: 12; Srinivas 1966 (q.v. ‘O’Malley’ in index).

[42Spear 1961: 412, 414.