Brave chants: Enterprising Dalit youth refuse to bow down to the "virtuous" men
Thursday, April 12, 2001 (Ayodhya):
Ayodhya has more than 8,200 temples. But till untouchability was formally abolished under the Constitution, few Dalits had the right to pray and thus they built their own temples.
The schedule caste, Khatiks are mainly rickshaw pullers and vegetable vendors. Lowest down in the Dalit hierarchy they are also amongst the poorest. But ironically, to attract devotees and pay for the maintenance of their community temple, these people are forced to keep a Brahmin priest. "The brahmins are the rulers of Ayodhya. They are supposed to be above untouchability. Keepers of Hindu faith, religion and society. If we keep a schedule caste priest no one will come to this temple. They will treat it with disgust, specially the sadhus who are in large numbers here. These hundreds of temples are only for their community. So for the sake of the temple, we had to keep a brahmin pujari. If no devotees come here, then what is the purpose of its existence," said, Gulabchand who is a trustee Panchayati Khatik Mandir.
However, even today high caste priests believe in spatial segregation. They don't visit these temples or encourage Dalit pujaris to visit their temples. They still practice untouchability with sadhus from the lower castes, especially when it comes to eating food or drinking water with them. "I was not allowed inside a temple when they came to know I was from a lower caste. I started searching for a guru and didn't want a guru who would not accept water from my hands and refuse to give me water when I wanted it. There are many people here who think they are virtuous and spiritual but practice untouchability with the poor and oppressed," stated Sadhu Bhakta Ram, Pasi Panchayati temple.
Most of these temples fell into disrepair once Dalits began to be allowed to worship anywhere they wanted. They began patronising the bigger, more lavish ones leaving the priests here with a feeling of betrayal. "Earlier there was unity in the caste. There was a system, there were rules which everyone followed. People respected old caste ties, gave donations and worked for the temple. But all that has now changed," remarked Mahant Ram Sewak Das of the Rajakvanshi Dhobi Panchayati Mandir.
But among the younger generation of Dalits there is a new assertion of identity and self-worth. The Ravidas Ahkhar panchayati mandir dedicated to Sant Ravidas, the 15th century bhakti poet from Punjab and patron saint of the Chamar community, is a statement of pride and gathering place for Dalit students in Ayodhya. "In the temples of Ayodhya, very often if we tell them our caste, they do not let us enter. We are students here. We need a place to stay. But because of our caste they turn us off. Which is why we must have our own temple," complained, Gautam Kumar, who is a student.
However, the boys are unhappy that even after ten years their temple is incomplete while those run by high caste priests are flushed with funds and ideas of expansion. "For temples like Kanak Bhawan and Hanuman Garhi, the money comes from the government treasuries but not for the Ravidas mandir and other places of worship. Also the people who donate money to these temples are rich. We Dalits are poor and don't have the capacity to donate," informed, a student Pradeep Kumar.
The Dalit pujaris and their flock supported the Ramjanmabhoomi movement for the construction of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. In 1992, these temples housed hundreds of kar sevaks. Today they feel betrayed and used by the movements leaders, many of whom are the same upper caste priests who discriminate against them socially. For instance none of them ever attend any of the Ravidas Jayanti celebrations. "Most of the pujaris in Ayodhya believe in untouchability. They don't treat us as equals, nor are they going to keep us as pujaris in the Ram temple, so neither are we interested in it nor do we oppose it. The upper caste pujari-leaders are selfish. When they need our help, they come to us. But once their work was done we were sidelined," said, Ghanshyampati Diwakar, member of the Shri Rabi Das Mandir.
Fifty years after Indian independence and at the end of a momentous century, a puzzling combination of unyielding deprivation and successful self-assertion characterizes that large section of the population known as Dalits. Despite growing awareness and considerable political organization among them, the Dalits still commonly lack the resources to provide an adequate material life for themselves or even secure a better future for their children through education and the explosive issue of barring Dalits from praying in temples is still alive in Ayodhya - the religious heartland of North India.