What were the reasons for the development of a right-left division of South Indian castes? Why has this division become less of a focus of rivalry in modern times? This article uses observations collected in the Coimbatore region of Madras State between 1964 and 1966 to suggest that this earlier opposition expressed a fundamental economic principle: the distinction between castes who held direct or indirect rights in land and those who were primarily dependent on renumeration for specific professional services. This contrast was expressed symbolically by the use of the terms “right” and “left,” and in day-to-day activity by the opposition of instrumental to ritualistic values in the evaluation of social status. Use of the terms right and left had gradually become outmoded, due to substantial changes in economic organization. The social correlates of this earlier opposition, however, have continued to endure in certain regions. It is hypothesized that this persistence of social contrasts is related to the absence of Brahmans as an important land-owning group in such areas.

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