The formation of the Dalit Panthers and the flourishing of Dalit literature in the 1970s saw the advent of a new connotation for the Marathi word ‘Dalit’. Chosen by the Mahar community leaders themselves, the title ‘Dalit’ was used by them to replace the titles of untouchable, Backward or Depressed Classes and Harijans, which had been coined by those outside the Dalit communities to describe the Mahar and Chambhar jatis. ‘Dalit’ identified those whose culture had been deliberately ‘broken’, ‘crushed to pieces’ or ‘ground down’ by the varna Hindu culture above them. As such, it contained an explicit repudiation of all the Hindu cultural norms of untouchability, varna structure and karma doctrine which varna Hindu society had imposed. The adoption of this new title was an affirmation of the Dalit community's struggle for cultural independence and separate identity. Yet this struggle for an independent cultural identity was not merely a cultural struggle of the 1970s, but one which stretched back almost a century to what, retrospectively, must be seen as the inception of Dalit literature and culture in the activities of the Anarya Dosh Pariharak Mandal and the first Dalit writings of Gopal Baba Valangkar in 1888. This article aims to recover this much-neglected early history of the Dalit communities of western India at the turn of the twentieth century. In particular, it examines how these early Dalit communities came to articulate an emergent Dalit cultural identity through the construction of a syncretic form of bhakti Hindu culture.