Politicians flock to Dalit temples for votes in Bihar

Politicians flock to Dalit temples for votes in Bihar

Memorial of Dashrath Manjhi where he is worshipped like a god.

At a time when right-wing politics is on the rise in the caste-ridden Bihar society, Dalits and Mahadalits have looked for their own symbols in the Hindu pantheon.

So while Chhatth, worship of the sun in mother form (Chhatti maiya), which does not require entry into a temple or elaborate rituals and recital of Sanskrit mantras, was already a favourite of Dalits, now, specific temples of Dalit characters, that find their mention in scriptures have come up. And in an election season, they are the hot spots for politicos as every political party is scrambling for 16 percent of Dalit votes in the keenly contested 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

Mountain Man Dasharath Manjhi, who himself is an icon and who now lives in stone after his death, had experimented with the Mushar’s Hindu identity by constructing a temple in the memory of Shabari Mata, the mythological character from the Ramayana, who had offered sweet berries after testing them to Lord Rama. The story from the epic in which the Lord born in a higher Kshatriya Varna himself moves forward to break the barriers of untouchability is integral to the theme of social cohesiveness.

The candidate of secular grand alliance from Jehanbad Parliamentary seat Surendra Yadav made a personal visit to the shrine of Dashrath Manjhi at the Gehlore valley. Now Manjhi, who had broken a hillock to create a road, has acquire a saintly status with the shrine also running “Dashrath Baba Nirog Dhaam”. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar visited the shrine last year.

Meanwhile, the Mushhar community has also constructed two Shabri temples at Sitamarhi and the other at Tapovan. While Sitamarhi is named after the district of the same name owing to its association with the birthplace of goddess Sita, Tapovan is a Hindu pilgrimage site in Nawada district. Ram Swaroop Das, the priest says, “there is a satsang on 11th of every month at both these Shabari temples. A massive puja is also organised at the advent of winter in Hindi month of Aghan (October-November) there.

Call it God divided but in Sitamarhi village of Nawada, there are odd half a dozen village of different deities owned by different caste groups from OBC and Dalits as well apart from the priestly Brahmin.

Dalits are also turning vegetarian under the influence of religion. “We stop consuming ‘Maans Manchchali (meat an fish) at least one month before Chhatth,” says Sukan Manjhi of Manjhuli Bhuintoli. He also proudly claims to be organising Kaali Puja for years.

The deities that the Dalits have chosen typifies a rebellion streak, which breaks from the stereotypes—be it Kaali, who defies conventions by looks and dressing or by the sheer act of putting her leg on the chest of Lord Shiva or Shabari, a Dalit woman who dares to offer jootha (already tasted) berries to the lord. The Mushhar (mouse catcher) community of Bihar, traces its origin to Shabari.

In Gujarat, there is a famous Shabari temple in Surat, where, it is believed that Lord Rama had met Shabari while searching for his wife Sita and had eaten the berries given by her. Lord Ayappa’s shrine in Kerala is called Sabarimala, which means the hills of Shabari.

In Bihar capital, Patna’s famous Hanuman temple, Phalahari Suryavanshi Das, a Dalit had become a priest way back in 1993, when former IPS officer Kishor Kuna headed the Bihar State Board of Religious Trusts. Lalu Prasad’s first tenure of Chief Minister had also made a strong pitch for Dalits at priests, saying he would bring a legislation for that. In an editorial in 2006 in its mouthpiece Panchjanya, RSS has also batted strongly for “Dalit priest heads”.

It seems now Dalits have moved beyond that. They want their own temples, their own deities and their own discourse finally. Is the political class listening?