Updated: February 27, 2021 10:59:55 am
This year for the first time in almost two decades, the Begumpura Express, a special train from Jalandhar to Varanasi, was cancelled due to the pandemic. This train has played a big role in Punjab’s connection with Varanasi. Professor Santosh K Singh, a sociologist who has researched the caste dynamics of Punjab, and keenly followed the Ravidassia identity articulation through Jalandhar-based Dera Sachkhand Ballan over a decade talks to The indian Express about Punjab and its connection with Varanasi.
Why is the Begumpura Express so central to the Ravidassia identity articulation and what is the concept of Begumpura?
Guru Ravidass had propounded and advocated the concept of “Begumpura” or a city without sorrow (“gam”), where there will be no taxes and where there would be no discrimination and all would be located horizontally in the socio-economic landscape. Many of the legends and hagiographical accounts related to Guru Ravidas attest to his equalitarian philosophy, his non-combative sahajbhao or persuasive mode of preaching.
Train no. 12238, formerly Jammu-Tawi- Varanasi Express via Jalandhar, is now known as Begumpura Express.
On the occasion of Ravidass Jayanti every year, special reserved trains of Begumpura Express, carrying thousands of pilgrims begin their journey from Jalandhar Station to Varanasi, to commemorate the birth of Guru Ravidass.
The train engine’s front carries a full-size flex poster of Guru Ravidass and the compartments are all decked up with balloons and posters of the gurus of Dera Ballan. It has now become a tradition since early 2000.
The DJ system in the background, playing the songs of Dalit singers such as Ginni Mahi, Roop Lal Dhir and others, young Ravidassia frenetically dance outside the railway station as the decorated train starts for Varanasi.
Why is Varanasi so significant for Ravidassias of Punjab?
The 15th century Bhakti poet Guru Ravidass was born in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, in a family belonging to a community that worked with leather and considered lowly and ‘polluting’ in the caste-ridden social hierarchy. But through his sheer intellectual brilliance and by preaching the philosophy of inclusive coexistence, based on a casteless and classless society, he received widespread appreciation and reverence from people across all strata. Many from the then princely states, including Mirabai, became his disciples.
For over more than a decade the Dera of Ballan in Jalandhar has been singularly and actively in the forefront of developing the birth place of Guru Ravidass in Varanasi in Seer Goverdhanpur, close to the Banaras Hindu University campus, with generous financial support from its followers, a major chunk coming from the diaspora. Guru Ravidas Janamsthan in Varanasi in that sense over the years has emerged as a major pilgrimage centre for the Ravidassias of the region.
What is the relevance of Guru Ravidass’ teachings in the present scenario?
Guru Ravidass and his teachings are just as relevant even today. Guru Ravidass had a unique way of critiquing the discriminatory caste system and ritualism prevalent in the society. Guru Ravidas, preached without any irreverence to those who did not follow him.
He continued to practice his traditional caste-profession throughout his life, despite accolades and the status of an enlightened soul, essentially to communicate a message that the work or labour is what takes the human beings closer to the almighty or Hari and there is no hierarchy of professions. When the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs, was being compiled, 40 shabads of Guru Ravidass were included in it, signifying the prevailing ethos of syncretism and religious co-existence.
Have you travelled in Begumpura Express ever?
Yes. One has to travel and be part of it to actually experience it. In UP, the local Ravidassia groups will assemble with bands and much fanfare to greet the Dera Mahant and the pilgrims. On these occasions, stations get filled with the thunderous chants of “Jo Bole So Nirbhaya, Sat Guru Ravidas Maharaj Ki Jai”, the salutation of the Ravidassia, meaning “Be fearless, the disciple of Guru Ravidas”. The salutation announces the community’s public presence and demonstrates its growing strength and aspirations.
Can Begumpura dream be achieved when caste dynamics has been a complex issue in Punjab?
Indelibility of caste as an institution is well documented. Punjab society too experienced this phenomenon where caste markers continued to stigmatise some as the lowly and ‘polluting’ despite a vibrant and egalitarian culture of social existence propagated by Sikhism. The mushrooming of Dalit-Deras of all denominations and the phenomenon of separate Dalit gurdwaras and cremation grounds in the villages of Punjab represent that collapse of that collective dream of Begumpura, as Ravidas envisioned.
Ravidassias of Punjab, especially those associated with the Dera Ballan, have been the most vocal about this changed scenario. Dera Ballan belongs to the prosperous Doaba region, often referred to as the NRI region of Punjab. The community has historically been affluent and influential owing to its traditional monopoly of leather business since colonial times. Backed by the head start in the economic sphere, the Ravidassias over the century have spread across continents with sizeable numbers in countries like Italy, Austria, Canada, UK and the USA.
Locally placed Ravidassias, almost entirely non-landed in Punjab, like the other Dalits, too benefitted from access to non-farm occupations, mostly in urban areas, as the local agrarian relations became less favourable with the entry of migrants from other poor pockets of the country.
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