A group of low caste 'manual scavengers' have been allowed to take a holy dip in the sacred Ganges River. But will that remove social stigma from the lives of India's untouchables?
Hindus believe a dip where the Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers meet will cleanse them of their dirt and sins of the past and help them attain salvation. And for the first time, a group of people referred to as "manual scavengers," who are called that because they use wire brushes or shovels and iron pans to clean up and cart away feces from houses that still have bucket or non-flushing toilets, were welcomed by priests to bathe in the Ganges.
Manual scavengers, or toilet cleaners, are viewed as the lowest of the low caste Dalits and are considered to be "untouchables." They are shunned by powerful, high caste Hindus and are not usually allowed to perform such rituals as the Kumbh cleansing dip.
Yet last week, 100 women who used to clean toilets for a living bathed at the site of the Kumbh Mela near Allahabad last week. And afterward, high caste Hindu priests blessed them in ritualistic style, chanting hymns, blowing conchs and smearing them with holy ash.
More than 150 priests and religious leaders, who took part in the ceremony of "Liberation of the Untouchables" as it was called, announced that following the rituals the former manual scavengers were cleansed of all "dirt" of their past.
Maharaj Gajanand, a Hindu priest, believes the ceremony marked an important day in Hindu history.
"From today, these sisters will not be considered untouchable in our society," the priest told the media.
One of the liberated scavengers, Usha Chaumar, looked overwhelmed after the rituals.
"We have been forced to live as outcastes in society. In most cases, we are looked down upon by high caste people who don't socially interact with us," Chaumar, who comes from the Alwar city of the Rajasthan state, told DW.
"I could not believe it when top Hindu priests and community leaders shared meals with us. It felt like I had been reborn."
Chaumar started cleaning bucket toilets of upper caste Hindus when she was a child. But in 2003, she stopped working as a manual scavenger when the social organization Sulabh International offered her help. The organization developed an eco-friendly and cheap underground toilet systems which convert human waste into fertilizers and bio fuels. These are known as sulabh toilets in India.
The organization has converted thousands of bucket toilets into sulabh and flush toilets in Alwar and has helped the city's 300 manual scavengers, including Chaumar, find other jobs. Chaumar started an apprenticeship at a Sulabh vocational center and later on became a tailor.
Sulabh International has converted 1.3 million dry toilets and has rehabilitated 1 million manual scavengers across the country in the past four decades, the organization claims.
"By converting bucket toilets and then rehabilitating former scavengers, we help upgrade their economic standard," social activist and founder of Sulabh International Social Service Organization Bindeswar Pathak told DW.
"We helped these people take part in religious rituals at the Kumbh festival. They feel dignified being part of the mainstream now."
'Once a scavenger, always a scavenger'
About 2.6 billion people in India do not have access to toilets and defecate in the open
However, many believe that the social stigma attached to manual scavengers is too difficult to remove, and that they will not be accepted by the mainstream Hindu society any time soon.
Paras Valmiki, member of the manual scavenger community who works as a peon in a government office in Patna, says that though he has never cleaned toilets, he too is identified as a bhangi, or scavenger, in the society.
"A high caste Hindu peon in my office fell in love with me. But when she learnt that I originally belonged to the scavenger community, she refused to marry me," Valmiki told DW. "It is difficult for us to get rid of the stigma that this society has put upon us."
Jeevan Ram, a railway officer in Hajipur city, is also of the view that taking a holy dip at the Kumbh Mela will not upgrade the societal position of manual scavengers.
"In this heavily caste-based society, it is useless to take some former manual scavengers to temples or help them take dips at Kumbh. When they go back to normal life after these rituals, their social status remains unchanged."
Once a scavenger, always a scavenger, say people like Valmiki and Ram.