Tuesday, 28 April 2009

The tale of Dakkalis, the "lowest of the low" caste people

Syed Akbar
Hyderabad: As the sun sets, a group of people gather at a village corner. A half naked elderly man sporting a garland of rudraksha beads and holding a sickle in his right hand appears on the village platform. A few moments later, another man donning saffron robes joins him.
As the loud applause settles down, the duo start performing a caste mythology that had been passed on from generation to generation for over 800 years. The elderly man is enacting the role of Jambava, the ancestor of Dakkalis, the "lowest of the low" caste, while the man in saffron robes is a Brahmin, the local temple priest.
The play is based on the ancient mythological character of Adi Jambava, the primordial god of the Dakkalis, a sub-caste of Madiga community. The Jamba recites verses from the Jambava Puranam, the religious scripture of the community to challenge the supremacy of the Brahmin. The Brahmin also counters the Jambava through his witty and sharp dialogues and the audience bursts into bouts of applause.
The Jambava Puranam is one of the 18 Indian Puranas which speak of the creation of the universe, the origin of man and the birth of the caste system. The Dakkali community regards the Jambava Puranam as their religious scripture and the holiest of the holy books in the world.
The Jambava Puranam and the Dakkali community got a new lease of life thanks to the intervention of University of Glasgow, UK, through Pottisriramulu Telugu University and State Oriental Manuscripts Library and Research Institute. The manuscript of the Purana, as old as eight centuries, is now preserved for posterity. The Dakkali community shot into limelight with international anthropologists taking up research on its unique customs and traditions.
According to the Jambava Puranam, Adi Jambava is the creator of the universe. He is the forefather of the vedic deities Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Dakkalis are regarded as the lowest sub-caste among Madigas and hence "untouchables". Even Madigas, who themselves are regarded as "untouchables" by upper castes, treat Dakkalis as "untouchables". Madiga women are barred from looking at the face of a Dakkali man.
"They are untouchables among the untouchables. Since people of all communities keep Dakkalis away, they lead a nomadic life. Dakkalis have their own priests and though they are regarded as untouchables, Madigas engage them as priests for marriages. It is incombent upon Madigas to feed Dakkalis," says Prof Jaidhir Tirumala Rao, director of Oriental Manuscripts Library and Research Centre.
Tirumala Rao has done considerable research and brought out the Jambava Puranam in a book form for the first time in a millennium. The Dakkalis follow a strange system. They regard paper as a taboo. So they never use paper and the Jambava Puranam is always written on palm leaves. They have a base at a Shaivite caste centre at Kolanupaka in Nalgonda district where they maintain one amongst a number of small caste temples dating from the 13th century.
Dakkalis spend half of the year travelling round the large set of Madiga village communities allocated to each, staying with them and performing their services, which include narrating the Jambava Puranam.
"Adi Jambava is the beginning of all things even before the emergence of Om, the original god (aadidevudu) or Parabrahmasvarupam. It shows Jambava as instrumental in the birth of Adishakti, her discovery of Jambava, and her giving birth, with the assistance of Adidevudu, to three eggs from which the Trimurthis, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, would emerge," Prof Tirumala Rao explains.
Jambava Purana is one of the few caste puranas which speak of socio-economic conflict among castes to to establish supremacy in society. Jambava Purana is treasured by Dakkalis, "the untouchable among the untouchables".
Dakkalis are unique in many ways. They feel that they are a cursed lot and lead a rigid way of life. They regard five things as taboo and none of the Dakkali community members dares to violate this ancient tradition.
Dakkalis live in make-shift tents since it is a taboo in the community to build pucca houses. They travel by foot or on donkeys as it is a sin for them to travel by bicycles or other modern means of transport. They do not keep a stove and move from place to place. They lead a complete nomadic life, carrying with them the Jambava purana inscribed on palm leaves and a cloth poster depicting events mentioned in the scripture.

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