Making history of sorts, the ongoing Maha Kumbh here Thursday saw 100 former scavenging women, considered "untouchable" for centuries, take a holy dip at the Sangam here and share food with top Hindu seers.
It was a kind of salvation for the former 'night-soil' carriers from Rajasthan's Alwar and Tonk districts as they dined inside the famous Baghabanbari Akhara of Swami Narendra Giri with hundreds of high caste Hindu religious leaders and mahants after a dip at the Sangam ghat.
The welcome departure from being an outcast for centuries was a rare sight at the confluence of the Ganga, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati - usually thronged by ash-smeared sadhus and Hindu priests.
One of the liberated scavengers, Guddi Athwal said: "It was like rebirth for low-caste women from orthodox Rajasthan when top Hindu priests and Mahamandaleshwars of the country gladly accepted us as part of the Hindu society."
The initiative was taken by social reformer Bindeshwar Pathak of Sulabh International, and it was probably for the first time in the history of Maha Kumbh that such an effort at social engineering was taken up.
"The reason behind such an event is social uplift and sending a message to the people that the former scavengers are part of our society and not untouchables," said Pathak, who has been since 1970 spearheading a crusade to remove social discrimination against scavengers, condemned for cleaning and carrying away human excreta manually.
Lauding the role of Sulabh in promoting sanitation, the Hindu seers pointed out that Pathak has played a significant role in liberating untouchable scavengers from their sub-human occupation - a practice nearly 5,000 years old.
Sulabh has converted 1.3 million bucket toilets into flush toilets and lakhs of scavengers have been freed from manual cleaning of human faeces, Pathak said.
The women from Alwar and Tonk were engaged in cleaning of human waste till they were emancipated by Sulabh, which has now rehabilitated them by providing gainful employment.
"This initiative will go a long way to end the practice of untouchability," said Guddi, a resident from Tonk.
Forty-year-old Usha Chamour from Alwar appreciated the gesture of top Hindu religious leaders in allowing her and others to take a holy dip at the Sangam and perform the Maha Kumbh rituals.
The former untouchables formed part of a procession with around 150 Sanskrit scholars, seers and pundits up to the Sangam ghat to perform religious rituals and later ate with them inside the camp of Swami Anand Giri.
Mahamandaleshwar Swami Gajanandji of Niranjani Akhara hoped such Sulabh initiatives would aid in ending the practice of untouchability.
Mahamandaleshwar Gahanand Maharaj of Anandi Akhara, Maharaj Gajanand and Jagdishwar-ji of Niranjani Akhara and Swami Anand Giri of Bagambhari Gaddi were among prominent Hindu seers who shared food with the liberated "untouchables".
The Sulabh initiative comes days before parliament's budget session where a bill seeking to prohibit manual scavenging is pending.
Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh recently said that the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Bill can be passed in the budget session if parliament exhibits its resolve to eliminate this despicable practice.
The Supreme Court has pulled up the central government for failing to enact the law.
According to the bill, every district magistrate has to ensure that no person within his/her jurisdiction is engaged as a manual scavenger or constructs an insanitary latrine and that manual scavengers are rehabilitated. Those employing scavengers or making insanitary latrines face jail terms of up to an year or fines up to Rs.50,000 or both.
The law also makes it mandatory for municipalities, cantonment boards and railway authorities to construct adequate number of sanitary community latrines within three years of the act coming into force.