The forgotten caste history of an everyday practice: Drinking Filter Coffee

In last week’s class, we discussed Ambedkar’s observations on how caste draws its power by regulating everyday practices: what one wears, what one eats, etc. In this post, I want to point out one such common cultural practice that has its origin in caste prejudice. In Chennai (where I’m from), a section of society (typically upper-caste, middle-class) drinks what is called filter coffee. In fact, it’s one of the distinctive things about Chennai, and Tamil Nadu as a whole, to Indians from other states. Filter coffee is typically drunk from a cup-saucer combination called the davara tumbler, which looks like this:


(Photo source:

This is where I disclose that I love filter coffee, and grew up in one such upper-caste, middle-class household, albeit one that was rationalist and anti-caste. I’ve drunk coffee from the davara tumbler all my life, and till a few years ago, never wondered why the tumbler (cup) has the weird design that it does.

A few years back, I read an essay on coffee drinking in the late 19th and early 20th c. in Tamil Nadu. At this time, coffee slowly started to become fashionable with the middle classes. So, when Brahmin families had guests over, they were expected to serve coffee. This was a problem for orthodox Brahmin families that have strict restrictions to avoid caste “pollution,” which includes sharing utensils used for eating and drinking. In an urban setting, ritual caste practices are hard to maintain–oftentimes the family would not immediately know the caste of the guest, and would not risk the impoliteness of offering coffee in a cup different from what was used by the household. As it turns out, the tumbler has its unique design (with the curving rim) so Brahmins could pour the coffee down their throats without their lips touching the cup. I’ve never drunk it like this, though I’ve seen older people in my family do so, although I’m pretty sure they have no idea that the practice was originally casteist. What a devious way to avoid pollution while still keeping up the pretense of hospitality!

For some reason, nobody I know has any idea what the origin of the davara tumbler is. At some point it appears that anxieties over pollution became less intense, though families held on to the davara tumbler as a cultural tradition. Now, it’s a cultural marker of South India, and the use of the davara tumbler is widespread among all castes.

Source: AR Venkatachalapathy, “Coffee Drinking and Middle-Class Culture”


Posted on March 27, 2016, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Ravishankar Sridharan

    I think this obsession of inventing a caste story to every practice is india is hitting record high these days. I grew up around Brahmins and I remember that even within Brahmin families they will not let each other touch the tumbler with their mouth. This was a hygiene issue which they called as ‘Paththu’. If you really would like to see the caste variation, please take a trip down to Kerala or Coimbatore where the upper caste of ‘Gounders’ who own farm lands will DRINK coffee from a cup and pour it in coconut shells for the ‘lower caste’. Try Karaukudi devars who will not see a person of lower caste as the first sight in the morning. Not sure why Brahmins are always the subject of caste distinction. Yes, they like their coffee in a tumbler. Save the caste discussion for something else.

  2. Missed the Starting Gun

    This is a labored “explanation” that explains nothing. I was raised in a Tamil Brahmin family, though there is not much of either left in me. The described method of drinking is exactly the way everybody in my house drank _water_, not coffee. For one thing, it is difficult to drink hot coffee this way.

    To me, it makes sense to drink from shared utensils in this manner. If there is a casteist element to this practice (a) you don’t make a convincing argument for this and (b) the connection to coffee is tenuous.

    Caste discrimination is ubiquitous in India and is indefensible in a modern society. But this is shoddy writing by an academic interpreting everything through the lens of their expertise . . .

  3. And then CoVid happened and all such practices suddenly started making damn good sense once again… ALL over the world.. that too…


  4. This caste explanation makes very little sense.

    If the drinker is holding the cup, why would they be worried about their lips touching the cup when their fingers are already holding the cup?

    They would have already been “polluted” the minute they accepted the cup, never mind drinking from it.

  5. Someone sent this on Twitter today.

    This is incorrect. Within the family itself people aim to maintain hygiene and utensils that are used by all are handled with respect for the other. Even childrnare taught to drink without the lip to the cup. I think it’s ingenious and a good design that makes sure one can pour without spilling.
    Everything need not have caste brought into it. And Brahmin-bashing is totally unnecessary.
    My FIL amd grandmom were brought up in families of farmers. Classified by the British as Brahmins then. They have all spoken highly of people working for them who were classified as other castes. They were treated as family, had access to all parts of the house, brought up their children, lived with them for years, a couple of them even for 67 years. Both mentioned of cohesive living amongst castes.

    Would appreciate if people did qualitative research on important issues of speculating.

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