No one is certain when or how the practice started in the non-descript village where 38 houses form the Dalit colony at Mullyakajje on the foothills of the Western Ghats.

Come January 11, and for the first time in centuries, Dalits of this remote village on the Karnataka-Kerala border will henceforth be allowed to witness a temple procession pass through, instead of being evicted. However, it was not social reform, but Rs. 1 lakh spent as “offerings”, as “demanded by the temple deity” that has stopped the caste-discriminatory practice. Dalits will also be allowed to enter the temple from now on.

No one is certain when or how the practice started in the non-descript village where 38 houses form the Dalit colony at Mullyakajje on the foothills of the Western Ghats. What they do know is that when the annual Bhandar (procession of donations from a smaller temple to a larger one) of the Bajjapila Ullakullu temple passes through, all the Dalits – some 200 of them belonging to the Adi Dravida Scheduled Caste – evict the village in silence.

“We lock our doors, and leave the village in the morning. We come back next morning. Schoolchildren miss school, we skip our day of work. There is no choice,” said K.S. Prasad (17), an agricultural labourer.

His grandmother, Chennu (60), has been doing this for as long as she can remember. “Even my grandparents did this without knowing why. There is fear of the wrath of Ullakullu (the temple deity),” she said.

The mythology

Unsure of the specifics, 85-year-old Bhatiya offers the bit-piece mythology behind the practice: “There is a belief in the temple that some 300 years ago, when Ullakullu was being taken on a procession, inebriated members of our caste obstructed their path by placing buffalo meat on the road and threw stones at the deity. Angered by this, God cursed us to leave the place during the procession.”

When asked if he believed this, he said he did not know, and all that “mattered” was the temple and the upper-castes — around 200 other-caste households surround the colony – believed it.

It isn’t only during the procession that they face discrimination; until a week ago, Dalits did not have entry into the Bajjapila temple.

“We give our harake (vows) and donations through other castes who can enter the temple. I am yet to see the deity, though I have been offering money, areca, and coconuts for decades,” said Bhatiya.

Around six months ago, a few educated Dalits – a rarity in the village – had asked, through other castes, for permission to enter the temple. When this reached the ears of G. Shankarnarayan (88), head of the Bajjapila Ullakullu Temple Committee, he offered to perform the ‘tamboola puja’ wherein the deity is asked to offer a solution.

“During the puja, the deity told us that the Dalits had to donate a six-foot high bronze lamp and five kg of ghee made from buffalo milk. The deity would forgive past sins of the community,” he told The Hindu. Incidentally, the temple is at Moodekoolu, the hometown of the former Chief Minister D.V. Sadananda Gowda.

Since then the Dalits, most of them daily-wage workers, scrambled to collect funds. The puja itself cost Rs. 20,000, pujas at three other local temples, and the lamp made in Coimbatore took the cost up to around Rs. 1 lakh.

‘Paying for sins?’

“Each house paid Rs. 2,500, after months of saving. We don’t know if it is a bribe or we’re paying for the sins of the community. But we’re happy this is over and we can go inside the temple,” said Sundar (38), whose family, including his mother Ammani (68), and his one-year-old child Mokshita, hitherto braved the winter cold on the streets of Sullia around 8 km away during the procession.

Discrimination

However, the people of the village said there continues to be forms of that cannot be rectified by pujas.

The Adi Dravida still have no entry into the house of upper castes; are considered untouchables by the upper-castes who do not touch them even while giving wages for working in their fields; they do not have access to water in their wells while food is served outside the house only on plantain leaves.