The hills of Uttarakhand are witnessing a social change. Shunned by upper caste Brahmins,who reportedly do not want to perform rituals for them,the Dalits have started having priests from their own community. Referred to as Vritti,these priests,also called Panditji by the community,perform all rituals be it those pertaining to marriage or last rites. And much like the Brahmins,they offer diksha or initiation to people from their community,and ensure that their sons continue their trade.
Pratap Ram Arya (37) is one such priest. A native of Runibata Tok village under Kapkot Assembly constituency of Bageshwar district,Aryas educational qualification include a high school degree,which he got in 1991,and a Sanskrit Diksha course from Haridwar in 2000. My thread ceremony was performed by Pandit Joga Ramji of Sani Ujar village. He was the first Dalit priest from this area, he said. Arya started his priesthood at the marriage of his sister-in-law. Today,he gets around Rs 3,000 for performing marriage rituals. He looks like a Brahmin priest,complete with a kanthi mala,tilak and choti. Arya visits villages like Jhakra,Jakhni,Malsona,Sehri and Jarti. The demand for Dalit priests is very high; I have also started sending my son Shankar to perform religious rituals, he added. Shankar is an intermediate student at a Sanskrit school.
Joga Rams sons,Bhopal Ram and Mohan Ram,are also priests like their father. Our father was a carpenter. He became a priest in 1960 after being trained by his friend Bhola Dutt Pant, said Bhopal. Joga Ram died in 1986. We offer diksha to those interested to become priest in our caste, said Bhopal Ram.
Bhagat Prasad Aryas career as a Dalit priest began in the 1980s and now his son Harish has also been introduced to priesthood. A native of Bamrari village,Bhagat became a priest at the age of 18. My father wanted me to become a priest. We had no agriculture land. Brahmins were reluctant to perform rituals for us. So,I thought I should become a priest, he said. He wears dhoti,kurta and topi for performing rituals. No other caste approaches these priests. Only people of scheduled caste invite me, he said.
Prominent Dalit priests include Kishan Ram of Maudiyar,Ram Prasad of Bajura Nakuri and Keshar Ram of Kulgara.