ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Dalit Women and Colonial Christianity

First Telugu Bible Women as Teachers of Wisdom

The paper focuses on the history of the first three Bible women, Mary Wesley, Martha Reuben, and Bathsheba, who came from marginalised communities in Rayalaseema, and emerged as new leaders of social change in the context of colonial modernity and Christianity in the region. The emergence of a modern profession of Bible woman for Dalit women in the 1870s was transformative, opening doors of education, learning, and transforming them into local leaders. Bible women played a pivotal role in the history of Dalits, gender, and missions by shaping the life and community of Dalits and spreading Christianity in Rayalaseema.


The author is grateful to K Satyanarayana from EFLU, Hyderabad for his supervision and comments on earlier drafts, to Rupa Viswanath (CeMIS-Goettingen) for her discussions and encouragement to publish in the EPW and to James Elisha Taneti (Union Presbyterian Seminary, US) for his inputs on the paper and to reviewers for the comments. The author also acknowledges the support given in 2016 by Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship and AHRC research network “Writing, Analysing, Translating Dalit Literature” (hosted by Nottingham Trent University and the University Paul Valery Montpellier) to collect archival material from SOAS, the British Library of London and Weston Library of Oxford.

While historical studies have examined Bible women and their contribution to the missionary movement in South Asia (Sebastian 2003; Haggis 1998; Kent 1999; Taneti 2013; Mohan 2017), relatively little a­ttention has been focused on studying how the profession of Bible women started in India, particularly in the Telugu-speaking regions, especially the endeavours of the first Telugu Bible women. Based on insights from some of the studies mentioned above, this is an effort to listen to the voice of the first three Bible women of Rayalaseema1 that have remained silen­ced by the missionaries and unnoticed by historians. More­over, in doing so, it analyses their emergence as new leaders of social change and their contribution to the transformation of gender roles and patriarchal structures among the people in Rayalaseema society. The paper draws on archival material, such as colonial administrative reports, as well as a wide range of missionary sources, and additionally uses oral interviews from the field.

In Rayalaseema, Dalit communities (Malas and the Madigas) were the lowest in the social order. For centuries, they were despised and degraded, kept in a state of servitude by the dominant castes.2 Further, they were subjected to untouchability and unseenability. Their presence and approach, considered impure, was despised by other castes and even their shadow was believed to be polluting. The caste system, with its ­hierarchical social structure, did not recognise their social value and did not treat them as human beings. In addition, Dalits were not allowed to access public places, such as temples, schools and drinking water wells (Cornish 1874: 118). However, their encounter with Christianity brought visible changes in their life.

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Updated On : 13th Mar, 2021
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