Dashain and the Dalits

All their services notwithstanding, Dalits are still forbidden from entering Durga temples. notes the writer.

Mitra Pariyar

Mitra Pariyar

The Kathmandu Post


File photo by The Kathmandu Post

October 18, 2023

KATHMANDU – People often ask me: Are you a Hindu? I seem to find no easy answer to this very ordinary query. I am a Hindu by birth, of course, and have not converted to any other religion. But my religion itself deserted me, many many generations ago. We are not allowed to become a bona fide Hindu!

As a member of the “Shudra” community, we have no right to touch, let alone read, the holy text of the Vedas. In the past, according to the Muluki Ain introduced by Jung Bahadur Rana in 1854 shortly after his official visit to the United Kingdom and France, my tongue would be cut off if I read Vedic verses; and molten lead would be poured into my ears if I listened to any Brahmin chanting those sacred texts.

Now those legal restrictions no longer exist; I am an equal citizen of a (supposedly) secular republic. But the modern statutes are blocked off by customary laws as dictated by the laws of Manu. If you want to understand how this plays out in the community, go and observe the customs and rituals associated with Dashain.

Social significance

I do not discount the social significance of Dashain as the country’s biggest holiday. This is a great occasion to take a break from work, relax and reunite with loved ones. Many people return to the country from their work in foreign countries, and from the towns to their ancestral villages.

This is even more important now as growing numbers of people, mostly the young, go abroad for work. A large section of the Nepali population is an unskilled labour force in Arab countries and Malaysia. Many of these migrant workers try to come home during Dashain.

Thus, Dashain is a great occasion for reaffirming national, caste, clan, village and familial ties. It is a time to revive and reinforce social bonds. That vital social link is symbolised by the red tika. As classical German sociologist Max Weber famously stated, breakdown of social solidarity and connection creates many problems in personal and social life, and contributes to negative things such as suicide. In this regard, for both Hindus and non-Hindus, Dashain serves a great social purpose. Sadly, caste barriers too became consolidated in the process. This is what infuriates me.

For Nepali Hindus, Dashain is a great religious occasion when Goddess Durga is widely and elaborately worshipped. The festivities have yet to begin in earnest, but the worship of the goddess began at various temples on Sunday itself. Altogether, nine avatars of the mighty goddess are worshipped during Dashain.

Durga is a great feminine power in Hindu belief. Puranic stories tell us that even the top gods—Brahma, Bishnu and Shiva—had to seek her support in fighting powerful and seemingly invincible devils and demons. Thus, the 10th or the main day of the festival is also called Vijaya Dashami. It is a celebration of the great victory of the good over the bad.

It seems the “lower castes” are thought of as the modern avatar of the evil demons of bygone eras. The mistreatment of Dalits at Durga temples across the hills and mountains seem to suggest this fact. Their self-respect is badly damaged. Let’s see some examples of how Dalits are humiliated and excluded during the worship of the great Goddess Durga.

Every Durga temple sees nine days of elaborate worship by the local community. Hindus of all castes, including Dalits, are required to materially contribute to this puja. The tailors provide the flags and pieces of cloth; the blacksmiths supply the bells, swords, metal lamps and bronze pots and whatnot. Sometimes, the statues themselves are created by the blacksmiths.

Moreover, the puja is invariably accompanied by the Pariyar drums and horns. There is no puja without the performance of these traditional musicians. The drums are created, of course, out of the leather traditionally processed by another Dalit group, the Sarki.

All their services, and their veneration to the deity notwithstanding, Dalits are forbidden to enter the Durga temples. Every Dashain we hear reports of some Dalits getting beaten up, if not killed, as they try to assert their religious rights and enter the Durga temples for worship! They must worship and pray to the goddess from outside the temple doors!

Worse still, the drummers (Damai) are offered the tail of the sacrificed animals. This is significant to the caste order from at least two ways. First, as Manusmriti dictates, Dalits should not be provided with nutritional food. The tail of a goat or buffalo does not have any meat on it. Second, the tail symbolises the social position of the Damai: A stark reminder that he belongs to the bottom rank of society.

There is a popular understanding that Dalits should be excluded from sacred spaces, such as Durga temples, to keep the gods happy. People fear the wrath of the violent and angry Durga if her place is defiled by physical contact of the Shudra. If Durga gets angry, they believe, she will cause death and destruction in the community.

Now my secular question is this: Is this concept right? If the gods do actually get so offended by our contact, we should look for some other gods to pray to, we should get out of Hinduism. Respect should be mutual; if the gods hate us so much, why should we continue to respect them?

If the Bahuns (the spokesmen for the Hindu) think it is not the gods but only the people who get angry because of touch, shouldn’t these people change with the changing times? Shouldn’t they abide by the modern constitution and laws? The state must give a clear answer to these questions.

State-sponsored discrimination

The guilty party here is not the religious or spiritual community, but the state. The government is responsible for enforcing the new laws and eradicating the traditional customary laws that exclude and humiliate a large section of the population based on caste.

Nepali politics is full of Marxists or communists; the former commander-in-chief of the Maoist insurgency himself is the current prime minister. But neither these fake Marxists, nor any other parties and leaders, see anything wrong with what has been going on. Being Brahmins themselves, the leaders are not interested in changing the status quo.

And, as pawns of high-caste leaders, Dalit leaders and activists also keep quiet. The Dalit movement has never raised a voice against the discriminatory customs and rituals such as those popularly observed during the festival of Dashain.

Instead of modernising caste laws, the state has reinforced the same. The government provides sacrificial animals and money to some of the important shrines, including Goddess Gorkha Kalika, housed in the historic palace of King Prithvi Narayan Shah in Gorkha. Even in this temple, to date, the drummers cannot enter and see the image of Goddess Kalika!

In sum, we have modernised the state laws; but there is a great need to modernise the customary laws too. Let’s start by cleaning up the customs and rituals associated with Dashain. The state should ensure that, as Hindus, people of all castes have access to Durga temples. To do that, the state must take the problem seriously and reform religious beliefs and practices.

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