There is a certain unease in Hariharapur village as around 300 policemen stand guard at a fair, Udusalammana Jatre, being held at the temple of Udasalamma, said to be an incarnation of Durga.
While most Dalits participate “willingly” in the rituals, some—the educated youngsters—are opposed to the age-old practice, deemed casteist towards them.
As part of the rituals, a tree has been placed on a wooden pulley with its base tethered to a boulder to anchor it.
Below this tree, eight women, from four Dalit houses in Chakenahalli, sit facing the temple, separated from the rest of the crowd. They have their mouths covered with thin metal needles for a ritual called Baayige beega (locked mouth).
By 2 pm, three temple cars enter the village, pulled by groups of Vokkaliga youth, many wearing jerseys with the words “Gowdru Boys” prominently emblazoned on the front.
The procession, led by a group of Dalit men, proceeds to the entrance of the temple, where three Dalit men have been fanning the embers of burning coal and tree bark.
One by one people started walking over the coal. It is considered a test of their purity, because falling on the embers would mean the person’s soul is tainted, either by their own or their ancestors’ misdeeds.
After the temple cars pass, the crowd gathers near the horizontally placed tree for the main event—Sidi.
Sidi is a ritual in which, one by one, four Dalit men are attached to the tree through metal hooks drilled into their backs, and the tree is then made to rotate.
It is believed Sidi is the penalty Dalits agreed to pay to Udusalamma, when one of their forefathers was caught stealing paddy. However, nobody could say how long the ritual has been taking place, or for how much longer Dalits would be penalised.
Speaking on the centrality of the practice, an elderly Sidappa Gowda said it was the reason people came to this fair. “Nowhere else is Sidi conducted with such grandeur.”
“I have seen this being performed for at least 50 years now,” Gowda said.
There was a change this year though.
A group of Dalits had petitioned the district administration asking it to stop the ritual as it amounted to promoting caste discrimination.
Raju Sigarnahalli, a Dalit youth from neighbouring Sigarnahalli village, said activists had submitted the petition as early as March 10. “We had even built a consensus among Dalits, who had agreed not to participate.”
However, a few days before the event, a letter, signed by Dalits, surfaced, in which they said they wanted to participate in the rituals of their own “free will”.
“We have no idea what happened, why they decided to change their stance on this issue,” Raju said, adding that officials had told him and other activists that the letter made their protests irrelevant.
Activists feel that there was pressure from the dominant Vokkaligas. Hassan district is considered a stronghold of former prime minister H D Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular), a predominantly Vokkaliga party.
Advocate Clifton Rosario questioned how the district administration could have allowed the event, saying the very act of a second letter surfacing should have been reason for further investigation.
“How can a casteist practice be allowed to take place?” he asked.
For Mahadevappa, one of the Dalits who participated, this was a ritual he had to take part in. “My father had shifted to Ooty, but used to still come here to participate in this ritual. Similarly, I had to also come to take part in this because it is the practice of my forefathers.”