The Voices Of Untouchables
In the medieval period a few voices of untouchables emerged. In the fourteenth century in Maharashtra, Cokhamela and his family of the untouchable Mahar caste were part of a religious movement generally called bhakti devotional religion. Intensely personal, the movement included all castes, and their songs have come down through the ages. Cokhamela complained bitterly about the concept of purity, and one of his poems calls out, "We are born in impurity, we die in impurity, O God, who is pure?" (unpublished translation by Anne Murphy). He is saddened by his inability to enter the temple of his god. According to legend, he was born to a mother and father whose duty as Mahars was to take the village produce to the ruler, and he died while mending the village wall. Eknath, a Brahman bhakta, wrote two centuries later as if he were a Mahar, and more duties can be noted: caring for the horses of government officials, sweeping the village streets and hauling out the dead cattle, getting firewood for the village headman, and guarding the village.
Another poet-saint's voice is that of the Ravidas in the sixteenth century, who refers to his caste as an untouchable Chamar and his duties as working with leather: "O, people of the city! My notorious caste is Chamar! In my heart is the essence of all good qualities.… I carry cattle-hides all around Benaras." He believed in purity beyond caste: "Whether one's heart is Brahmin or Vashiya, Shudra or Kshatriya, Dom, Chandala, or Malech (a foreigner), through the worship of the Lord, one becomes pure" (unpublished translations by Anne Murphy). Ravidas is honored by both Sikhs and Hindus. Untouchables who convert to Sikhism from Chamar castes often take the name Ravidasi. It should be noted that anything to do with a dead cow or its hide is the work only of untouchables. A caste of drummers in the south known as the Parayan contributed the word pariah (outcaste) to English. In this case, the drumhead made of hide is polluting.
We do not hear from untouchables again until the nineteenth century. Then there are again direct voices: a plea from Mahars to be allowed to reenter the British army, closed to them after a century of employment; an adi-Hindu (first or pre-Hindu) movement in the north, an adi-Dravida (original Dravidians) movement in the south; a movement among toddy tappers to secure their economic base, become educated, and be considered no longer untouchable. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the British began recording and codifying caste, and more untouchable castes based usually on occupation emerged: Bhangis or removers of human waste in the north; Doms, the caretakers of the extensive burning grounds in the holy city of Benaras (Varanasi); Dhobis, laundrymen who handle polluted clothing.
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