Traditionally, the Teli are an occupational caste of oil-pressers. The traditional wooden oil press was driven by blindfolded oxen around a mill. This labour intensive mill has been replaced by motor operated mills. However, many of today’s oil mills are owned by other communities. Consequently, the Teli have been forced diversified into other vocations.
Teli are a large group numbering around 17.5 million and are distributed in one hundred and twenty-one districts throughout India and spread across fifteen states.
They derive their community name from the Hindi word tel which means oil. The Sanskrit word for oil, tailika or taila, is also derived from tilli, meaning sesame. The mythological origin of the Teli is traced to Shiva. Legend has it that he created the Teli to destroy five demons. The Teli have many other legends concerning their origin, one being that the first Teli was created by Shiva to massage him with oil. There is another belief that when Mahadev (a synonym of Shiva) needed oil he created a man from the dirt of his body and gave him a bullock and told him to produce oil. Yet another myth maintains there was man who had three sons and fifty-two mahua (Bassia latifolia) trees whose produce he decided to divide among the sons. One son picked up the leaves; another collected the flowers, while the third took the fruit kernels and crushed oil out of them, thereby becoming the founder of the Teli.