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Feb 10, 2013 at 08:54am IST

Maha Kumbh: Dalits take part in ritual bathing, mark the dawn of a new tradition

Allahabad: It's the beginning of a new tradition at the ghats of the Ganga. Around 100 manual scavengers from Rajasthan are taking a dip in its holy waters, washing away centuries of discrimination. Among them is 35-year-old Usha Chomar. As she offers her prayers to the mighty river, she says she was at first hesitant to come here. "On my way here, I was a bit hesitant, a bit embarrassed. I wondered if I would be allowed to bathe here. But when I came here, I saw that all the people were in it together. They were all one. They were all bathing, praying together. I liked it a lot," she says.

Manual scavenging - a sub-human, caste-based occupation still employes 50,000 Dalits - mostly women. For centuries, their touch, their voice, even their shadow, has been considered polluting by the upper castes. These women may have left the profession but the caste stigma continues. For Dr Bideshwar Pathak, the founder of Sulabh sanitation, the spiritual egalitarianism of the Kumbh made it the perfect place to make a point. "In Hindu rituals, the Sangam is a place where everyone wants to come and take a dip. Therefore it was very important that untouchables also come here. I think it will help them get acceptance in society," he says.

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Dr Pathak has found an unusual ally in Maharaj Anandgiri, the mahant of the local Hanuman temple. He's the one hosting these women, in the belief that this social mixing was long overdue.

At the Sangam - the confluence of the Ganga, the Yamuna and the Saraswati, the whole world is one family. As they leave, these women have just one prayer on their lips, that no one else ever has to go through what they did.

All may be equal in the kingdom of the mighty Ganga. But 64 years after Independence, the civilization it spawned has still not been able to pass a law banning the most inhuman form of slavery. The manual scavenging bill is still pending in Parliament. It will take more than a dip in these holy waters for it to be passed in the next session.

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