Beth system and Bethus of Himachal Pradesh

In the annals of history, there exists a complex system of personal service known as "Beth." This system, prevalent in various regions, particularly during ancient times, revolved around the provision of agricultural services in exchange for specific privileges. Those who were bound by this complex system of service were known as "bethus" or service tenants. This article delves into the depths of the Beth system, shedding light on its nuances and the lives of those who were part of it.


The Essence of Beth: Service and Agriculture

Bethus were individuals who bore the responsibility of cultivating land that technically belonged to their masters, be it a Raja or zamindar. In this mutually beneficial relationship, bethus worked on a part of the land to feed themselves, while also taking care of the remaining portion for their owners. This system thrived on cooperation and the division of agricultural profits.

The Burden of Obligation

Beyond the toil in the fields, bethus were bound by various obligations. One of the most notable was the task of carrying loads. This physical exertion further underlined the demanding nature of their service. However, the rewards for their toil were not negligible.

Rewards and Privileges

In exchange for their unwavering services, bethus received certain provisions from the state or their masters. These provisions included daily meals, an annual set of clothing, housing, and a small parcel of land to cultivate for their own benefit. At first glance, it might appear as a mutually beneficial arrangement, but beneath the surface, it was one of the more oppressive forms of forced labor.

A Historical Perspective

Bethus were the lower-caste residents of Western Himalayan villages, believed to be the region's original inhabitants according to their origin myths. They faced displacement and subordination when the Khash tribe, a part of the Aryans, arrived and now dominate the population.

  • Descendants of Khash include Kanets, Bhat Bramhins, and some Rajputs.
  • Tribes subdued by Khash are collectively known as Nagas, with references in Smriti literature to the Karavaras attributed to this group.
  • The Kolis, the largest Bethu segment, are thought to have descended from them.

Bethus played specific social roles, as outlined in the Smritis:

  • Carrying conveyances
  • Providing agricultural labor for higher castes
  • Performing menial tasks

They were predominantly agricultural laborers bonded to the chief's land, referred to as Bassa. Despite their ritual ties to the land and its lord, they were unable to own land themselves. Bethus primarily worked in the fields, characterized as "hardworking cultivators" in Settlement reports. They also provided daily labor in the chief's household.

Bethus could be physically transferred, and the transfer of ownership was common. For instance, land donations by rulers or as part of dowries for daughters/sisters. Kanet proprietary peasants also employed Beth labor for various purposes, but without similar semi-proprietary control.

Beth labor was organized through systems similar to the Jajmani system, with specific Khash clans utilizing seasonal labor from local Koli groups. The latter were also responsible for all menial and, in some cases, ritually significant work in local religious ceremonies and the village Bhaichara.

Population estimates

In various regions of the Shimla Hill States, Kolis represented 1/4 to 1/7 of the population, according to Settlements and Gazetteers. The 1911 Census used terms like Koli, Bethu, agricultural laborer, and later, tenant-at-will interchangeably, accounting for 17.1% of the Punjab Hills' population.The Shimla District Gazetteer of 1888-89 noted that Bethus cultivated approximately one-fifth of the land. Although it doesn't provide precise population figures, it underscores their significance in the agricultural economy, even in areas directly under British administration following the displacement of local chiefs.

In the Shimla district (distinct from the Shimla Hill States under local rulers), the rural Kotgarh and Kotkhai areas had Kolis comprising 23.5% of the population, while Kanets accounted for about 69%.

Classifications of Bethus

Bethus were not a homogenous group. They were categorized into different classes based on their affiliations and working conditions:

Class I Bethus (Employed by the State and Jagirdars)

This class comprised bethus who worked directly for the state and were involved in cultivating Basa land or crown estates. The produce of their labor was given to the ruler or state. Bethus employed by jagirdars, local landholders, also fell under this category.

Class II Bethus (Employed by the Zamindars)

Class II bethus worked in the fields of zamindars, landowners. They generally had relatively better conditions compared to those employed by the state since they had closer daily interactions with their masters.

Class III Bethus (Indebted Bethus)

Indebted bethus had a different predicament. They had borrowed money from their masters and, in return, agreed to work and provide goods as interest payments. In many cases, the principal amount of their debt remained unpaid for generations, effectively keeping them in a state of permanent servitude.

Inheritance of Status

Interestingly, bethus could inherit their status from their fathers as long as they effectively cultivated the land and fulfilled their service obligations. This perpetuated the cycle of service across generations. Regardless of their class, bethus faced harsh treatment and were often treated as subordinates by their masters, whether they were rulers, jagirdars, or zamindars.

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Bethus' Struggle

The discontent among Bethus came to the forefront during India's struggle for independence. At this time, the Praja Mandal launched a movement that sought the amalgamation of Hill States into the Indian Union, the complete abolition of forced labor known as "Begar," and the establishment of representative government in the region. The Suket State Satyagraha of 1948 stands as a significant moment in this struggle, during which Bethus actively participated alongside various other sections of the population. It is worth noting that, although Bethus were deeply involved in this movement, leadership remained predominantly in the hands of the Kanet community.


In retrospect, British policies and administration exerted a profound influence on the lives of the Bethus. The introduction of cash payments marked a pivotal transformation in the nature of surplus extraction, but it did not lead to the full emancipation of Bethus from their various forms of servitude. Importantly, there were two parallel processes at work during this time – the reform of Beth and the broader abolition of forced labor. Each process had its distinct causes and consequences. While Beth reform aimed to rationalize tenancy structures, it did not generate significant anti-Beth agitation during the period of British rule.

In conclusion, the story of the Bethus offers a fascinating glimpse into the complex social dynamics of the Western Himalayas. Their struggles and the impact of colonial policies remain integral to the region's historical narrative.


1.Who were the Bethus?

A.Bethus were individuals from the lower castes in the Western Himalayas, primarily known for providing agricultural labor and menial services to the higher castes.

2.What was the significance of Bethus in the region's economy?

A.Bethus played a pivotal role in the agricultural economy of the Western Himalayas, constituting a significant portion of the population.

3.Did British policies lead to the full emancipation of Bethus?

A.British policies introduced cash payments but did not entirely free Bethus from their various forms of servitude.

4.What was the Suket State Satyagraha, and how did Bethus participate?

A.The Suket State Satyagraha was a movement for the amalgamation of Hill States into the Indian Union and the abolition of forced labor. Bethus actively participated in this movement.

5.Was there significant resistance against Beth reform during British rule?

A.Surprisingly, there was no major anti-Beth agitation during the period of British rule, despite efforts to reform the Beth system.

6.How did the Beth system eventually decline?

A.The Beth system declined with changes in societal structures and the emergence of modern labor practices.

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