At Indian temple, widows from lowest caste are exalted as priests

At one temple in southern India, widows from 'untouchable' caste land high positions

They file into the Hindu temple at midday: tittering schoolchildren in untucked uniforms, office workers on lunch break, camera-wielding European tourists glassy-eyed from the heat.

The faithful gather at the altar of a saint for a brief prayer punctuated by jingling bells. They bow before a priest, hands cupped, to receive a spoonful of holy water.

Such services take place daily at countless shrines across India — except that here, the priests aren't the shaven-headed, upper-caste Brahmin men who have long dominated the Hindu clergy. They are widows from India's lowest social class, the Dalits, or "untouchables."

"I didn't think someone like me would ever hold such a job," said Laxmi, a newly minted priest in her 60s dressed in a simple golden sari, her graying hair tied back with white flowers. On her forehead, streaked with the traditional white ash of the priesthood, was the round red bindi many Indian women wear after marriage.

Laxmi, who has only one name, lost her husband to sudden illness two years ago. With her three adult children barely eking out a living in shantytowns in the coastal southern city of Mangalore, she worried that she would spend her remaining years penniless.

In the summer, officials at the Kudroli Gokarnath temple announced they would train Dalit widows to become priests, and Laxmi submitted her name. After three months of schooling in Hindu scripture, she performed her first puja, or prayer ritual, in October during Dussehra, one of the holiest festivals of the Hindu calendar.

"Now, when I go home at night, people in my neighborhood give me more respect," Laxmi said.

India's centuries-old caste hierarchy, which deemed those born on the low end to be so unclean that they shouldn't be touched, was officially outlawed in 1950. But many in this overwhelmingly Hindu nation still regard Dalits as unfit even to prepare food, let alone perform sacred rites. A major national survey released in November found that 35% of Hindus would not allow a Dalit to enter their kitchen or use their utensils.

The sentiment runs strongest among Brahmins, who in recent years have sought to block liberal Hindu groups from ordaining women and members of lower castes, including Dalits.

For years, Dalits did not enter most conservative temples. Across India, they continue to perform the lowliest of jobs, such as removing human waste from sewers.

Even here, in the relatively educated state of Karnataka, India's high-tech hub boasting a literacy rate of nearly 90%, Dalits experience shocking debasement. Some temples still observe an annual ritual known as madey snana, or "spit bath," in which Dalits prostrate themselves atop scraps of food left by Brahmins in the belief that it will cure them of skin ailments.

The Kudroli Gokarnath temple, rising like a gold-encrusted wedding cake in a neighborhood of low, shabby buildings, is a pioneer. In 2011, trustees at the privately funded temple invited more than 2,000 widows to perform puja services during Dussehra and pull a ceremonial silver chariot through the temple's stone courtyard.

The ceremony broke the long-standing stigma attached to widows, who in many parts of India are regarded as cursed and are banished from their homes. The women were given saris, flowers and bangles as gifts, defying orthodox beliefs that widows should dress austerely and mourn their husbands for the rest of their lives.

Last year, two widows were appointed as priests and allowed to enter the inner sanctum where the deities' icons reside. The temple went a step further in September by ordaining the two Dalit widows in what trustees and some experts describe as a first in India.

"The message to the entire world is that so-called untouchables should not be prevented from performing pujas," said Janardhan Poojary, the temple's chief trustee. "They are also the children of God."

Poojary, a former government minister who sports thick glasses and a pencil-thin mustache, is the force behind Kudroli Gokarnath's progressive zeal. The 77-year-old is a disciple of Narayan Guru, a reformist philosopher who founded religious institutions free of caste distinctions across southern India in the early 20th century and whose statue occupies a prominent place in the temple.

Born into poverty in Mangalore, Poojary said he faced discrimination because he belonged to a lower caste, the Billavas, who were barred from upper-caste temples. He went to school shirtless because his family couldn't afford clothes. Once, on a visit to his ancestral home outside the city, he and his father stopped for tea at a roadside restaurant but were told they would be served only outside, in empty coconut shells, so they wouldn't sully the cups.

He earned a scholarship to study law in Mumbai and rose through the ranks of the Indian National Congress, the party that has ruled India for most of its independent history. Now retired, he has poured his energies into the temple, which was renovated in 1991 and has become a symbol of resistance to southern India's religious establishment.

Thousands of government- and Brahmin-run temples in southern India still maintain unspoken prohibitions on women and Dalit priests. For now, Poojary's temple remains an outlier, not a model.

"Most of these temples are run by very conservative people," said K. Marulasiddappa, a prominent writer in Karnataka. "What he has done is an important symbolic gesture and a very good beginning. But it is not going to change the whole social atmosphere until the government takes a similar bold step."

On a recent afternoon, Poojary led a visitor to a second-story balcony above the temple's offices. "You see the foreigners?" he smiled, pointing to the sun-splashed courtyard below, where a group of Europeans, most likely passengers on one of the cruise ships that routinely dock in Mangalore, were clicking their cameras.

"Some people cursed me. They said God would punish me for allowing widows and Dalits to perform pujas," he said. "On the contrary, we have worshipers coming here in the thousands."

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