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Enter at your own risk

Untouchability reigns supreme among the Vaishnavs in Nathdwara — both among those who live there and those who visit the place, writes Kumkum Chadha.

india Updated: Feb 27, 2008 22:30 IST
Kumkum Chadha

Fateh Lal Bapu is dead. His baithak near the Shreenathji temple in Nathdwara, Rajasthan, has also wound up. The younger generation, be it devotees or residents, have no clue of the bloody scenes this temple town witnessed in 1987. It all began when Ganesh Lal Mali, a former MP, escorted Keyur Bhusan of the Akhil Bharatiya Harijan Sevak Sangh for darshan at the Vaishnav temple. Later, as they sat and sipped tea at Bapu’s baithak, a crowd swelled and demanded that Bhusan be handed over. His sin: being a lower caste, his entry had polluted the house of the Vaishnav Lord. Bapu swore to protect his ‘guest’ with his life. While threatening to set his baithak on fire, a mob tore Mali’s clothes and nearly killed Bhusan.

Bhagwati Prasad Deopura is among the few who witnessed the bloody caste battle. He rewinds 20 years and he spits venom, blaming ‘outsiders’ for ‘disturbing the peace’ in Nathdwara. In other words, for making Dalits aware of their constitutional rights.

Deopura is among those who continue an anti-English campaign. Given his stiff resistance, English newspapers and literature are not allowed in Nathdwara. The Sahitya Mandal, of which Deopura is ‘Pradhan mantri’ organises

an ‘Angrezi Hatao Diwas” (Ban English Day) every year. As far as the Dalits are concerned, Deopura, like most people here, would turn a blind eye to a ‘quiet entry’. But a ‘declared’ Dalit would have to face the consequences: “Joote parenge.” (They will be clobbered with shoes), says Deopura.

It is, therefore, all about silence. Sneak in quietly and even if you are noticed, no one will bother you; declare your identity and you are asking for trouble. The influx of ‘outsiders’ has blurred caste identities. With thousands thronging the temple daily, it is impossible to identify a Dalit from one who is not. The problem, however, is faced by the lower caste locals who cannot venture anywhere near the temple, for fear of inviting the wrath of the high castes. A vermilion-smeared Vaishnavite, for instance, has no qualms about hollering “Harijan!” to a sweeper if he wants a job done. Sip tea with an educated shopkeeper and he will ask you to throw the

kulhad (earthen cup) on the street: “Harijan le jayega” (a Dalit will pick it up), he says brazenly. In the 80s, Dalits had to go as far as Udaipur for a haircut because the barbers in this temple town would not touch them.

It is against this mindset that there is a proposal of modernising the temple town. While bulldozers cannot invade minds, they are preparing to demolish the ancient structures of Nathdwara. That apart, expensive food courts will replace the saffron tea sellers selling a kulhad at Rs 3 and a poha for Rs 5 at their makeshift shops. The crowds at Dilli Chowk will be pushed into marble-tiled waiting halls and the janata rooms will make way for donor cottages. The damage has begun. The Temple Board is on record stating that its properties have been demolished. However, agitation by residents have stalled the modernisation plan. But before the year is out, Nathdwara will get a ‘facelift’. The estimated cost of the two-phased extension plan is Rs 40 crore.

The victims are sentiment, history and heritage. The Vallabh cottage has already been razed to the ground; the ancient Priyatam Pol is on its way out; the sanctity of the Giriraj Parvat Parikrama has been lost because a motorable road is running right through where devotees are supposed to tread barefeet. The musical fountains proposed in Lal Bag are all set to mute the sound of conch shells and temple bells.

Responding to artistes Mallika Sarabhai and Amit Ambalal, Intach has sought a heritage assessment of the buildings and conserving ancient wall paintings. A disgusted Sadashiv Shrotriya, who has penned several protests against the modernisation drive, says business interests have overtaken religious ones. It is in this context that he sees the backing off on the Dalit issue because increased footfalls

to the temple mean more cash. “Money overrules caste,” says Shrotriya. Gone are the days when priest-rulers like Goswami Goverdhanlal dared decision-makers to keep the railway line some kilometres off Nathdwara on the grounds that it would be a threat to the cows of the temple.

Untouchability reigns supreme among the Vaishnavs in Nathdwara — both among those who live there and those who visit the place. The inner chambers of the temple are, however, out of bounds for those who have not had a ‘holy dip’ or are not attired conventionally. An influential non-Vaishnavite can sneak in cohorts with the priests. But once there, he has to face the wall when those in the duty of the Lord pass by. Set your eyes on them and you have sinned. Like you have if you do not know your caste. Inside, when a priest clandestinely sought to know mine, he was relieved at my non-Dalit entity. “You have,” he pronounced “not sinned in the house of Vaishnav Gods.”