This Saturday, daybreak came in more ways than one at the famous Gauri Shankar temple at Chandni Chowk. Among the devotees who crowded the temple premises in the morning hours, most, 150 to be precise, were from a section once considered among the lowest rungs of society—Valmikis—Dalits of the scavenger caste.
The Valmikis collected from across Delhi to perform the sacred Rudrabhisheka ritual in the heart of this upper caste bastion from 1620 and bathed the shiva linga in milk and honey.
The initiative to invite the Valmikis to perform the ritual was taken by Swaraj, an NGO of professionals led by Sambit Patra, a doctor. The organisation mooted the idea, which was promptly accepted by temple trustees, the Acharya Mahasabha—of which all Shankaracharyas and major Akharas are members—and the All India Brahmin Mahasabha.
Brahmin priests assisted the Dalits in the puja. “The priests are here to help them with mantras,” Patra explained.
“The Acharya Mahasabha has always said there should be no caste discrimination in temples. We will list this puja as an achievement in our next meeting,” said R. Venkatanarayan, general secretary of the Mahasabha.
Why is this basic—rather, mandatory—social inclusion an achievement in 2009, one may wonder. After all, the Protection of Civil Rights Act 1955—amended in 1976—guarantees to the Scheduled Castes the right to worship in any temple. In fact, refusal is punishable with imprisonment up to six months as well as a fine.
The organisers expressed the view that the novelty lies in the public gesture made to Dalits as a community.
“This is a symbolic gesture to end discrimination and unite all castes,” said Brahmin Mahasabha working president R.K. Sharma.
Temple authorities believe the temple has a history of religious inclusion and with this step has bridged the caste barrier too. "After all, emperor Shah Jehan-a muslim-had a major role in the coming up of this temple," secretary Prem Shankar Gadodia said.
The Valmikis seemed to welcome the gesture. “What we appreciate is the fact that we have been invited as a community to this famous temple," said Ram Lal Balmiki of Valmiki Yuvak Samaj. Bholaram Shastri, another Valmiki lined up for the puja, said: “It is a matter of pride to pray in this temple.”
One could classify this as an example of Sanskritisation—imitation of upper caste practices. But, perhaps not, as offering prayers in a temple is a statutory right of Dalits and to see this as an imitation of a “Brahmanical function” is, in fact, to legitimise Brahmanical control over community prayers.
But like most other dawns, this too was not all gold. Some Brahmins were heard sticking to caste prejudices even as they welcomed the move on the face of things.
“Brahmins have always shown the right way to society and have never discriminated,” one said. "It is the Mandal Commission that has divided Hindus on caste lines." Another declared: "Most freedom fighters in colonial India were Brahmins."