Former president K.R. Narayanan, 85, the first "untouchable" from India's pernicious caste system to occupy the office in a validation of the nation's democratic roots, died Nov. 9 at an army hospital in New Delhi. He had pneumonia and kidney failure.

Although the president's post in India is largely ceremonial, Mr. Narayanan showed during his tenure from 1997 to 2002 that he was no rubber-stamp executive. He broke from precedent twice to defy the government that appointed him.

Mr. Narayanan's rise to the top was remarkable in a country where "untouchables," now known as "Dalits," are the lowest members of society, having faced ridicule and hostility for centuries.

The Dalits -- literally "broken people" -- are outside the caste system, a 3,000-year-old hierarchy dividing Hindus into four categories of descending social importance. Because they are without caste, the Dalits, nearly a fourth of India's billion-plus people, are considered unclean.

Discrimination based on caste was outlawed in 1950, and much progress in social equality has been made since, but centuries of entrenched habits have been hard to break.

In his public statements, Mr. Narayanan never harped on the caste discrimination he faced growing up, instead emphasizing the positive.

"In fact, if you can see one consistent tendency in India, one trend in India, from the time of the Buddha onwards, it is the slow but steady movement of the lower classes among the scale of the class system," he said in a 1998 interview with state television.

"But it has been very slow. It took 2,000 years. But it is something which is going on," he said.

The son of a doctor who practiced traditional ayurvedic medicine, Mr. Narayanan was born in a poor household in the village of Uzhavoor in the southern state of Kerala on Oct. 27, 1920.

He received a bachelor's degree from the London School of Economics and worked as an English teacher, journalist and diplomat.

He once was barred from primary school because he could not afford the fees, but he stubbornly stood outside the classroom to listen to lessons.

He did so well on his final high school exams that he was given a government scholarship to continue his education. He also received help from a fund set up for oppressed Indians by independence leader and social reformer Mohandas Gandhi, and an Indian industrialist later paid for his studies in London.

He returned to India in 1948 with a letter of introduction from a prominent economist to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The prime minister personally recommended Mr. Narayanan for the Indian Foreign Service.

Mr. Narayanan served as India's ambassador to China and the United States, two of the most important posts in the service.

His first posting as a diplomat was to Burma, where he met his future wife, a Burmese woman who had studied social work in India.

They married in 1950, with special permission given by Nehru because Indian diplomats are not allowed to marry foreigners.

Mr. Narayanan turned to politics in 1980, winning a seat in Parliament on a Congress Party ticket. He was vice president before being elected the country's 10th president in 1997.

K.R. Narayanan was the first "untouchable" to become India's president -- a remarkable feat, given the nation's caste system.