Cast In The Caste


On a beautiful sunny morning in 2014 as I was returning home from my early morning jog, I saw Somashekara, a Pourakarmika (street cleaner) prostrating from the road barefooted, his slippers kept aside facing the Temple near my house. I slowed down my pace and went to him to find out what in the world he was doing. To my utter shock, he was worshipping the temple deity standing on the street.

“What are you doing standing in the middle of the road and praying like a street urchin? Why don’t you go inside to pray?” I asked him.

“Sir, I feel petrified to go inside. People inside make faces if I go and I feel very jittery and humiliated”, he said.

“What people? People in charge of running the temple?” I asked him.

“No, they have no issues. It is some of the visiting devotees that glare at me”, he said. Blood rushed to my head, and I swallowed hard but not knowing what else to do, I left him standing on the street. 

While the Constitution of India affirms a life of liberty, equality and fraternity to every citizen of India, continuance of the age-old custom of the caste system defies that very core vision.Political parties use the Caste card as a means of mustering support from the illiterate and politically ignorant masses of India ensuring that it not only continues but also that it flourishes.

The paradox of ethics in religion and morality behind some customs and traditions in our country is always troubling. Is it my Dharma to follow and adhere to the hierarchical and fixed caste relations that is our religious custom or to fight against it since it is against my personal ethics? 

Mallamma was our only maid for the most part of the decade of the ’60s during my toddler and growing up years at our house where 14 of us lived.  With a little help from her daughters, she washed utensils and swept all the floors. She was an obedient worker rarely missing her work and was liked by us all. I used to wonder why she was not allowed to pass by, let alone enter, the Prayer room by my Grandmother ‘Avva’, an extraordinarily kind but vehemently religious to the point of being an extremist old lady. In keeping with the age-old Hindu custom, she had shaved her head after the death of my grandfather wore only a simple dress to cover her body and did not put a red dot on her forehead.

Even on those rare occasions when Mallamma was forced to pass in front of the Prayer (pooja) room when the back entrance that was her permitted entry point was bolted from inside, she would do so by covering her face with her ragged Saree. She was not allowed inside the Kitchen too. As an eight-year old when I asked my elders, they merely said: “That is the way it is supposed to be”.  

I grew older pondering about these issues being in a cosmopolitan family ambience. Sometime in my early twenties, I asked an austere aged Brahmin “Is it their fault that they are born into that creed?” and he said, “It is due to the past Karma that they are born there”, he said. “Is it not our Dharma to try to uplift them?” I asked him. His reply was a disdainful indifferent silence.

In keeping with our age-old customary guideline; ‘Shoot an arrow and choose a spot beyond where the arrow falls for your nature calls’, toilets were always constructed way behind the house during my childhood years and only workers from a particular creed came occasionally to clean them. It is only in the last 20 years or so that toilets are an integral part of the house and often near the bedrooms. 

The devotees needed Somashekara and Shankara to collect their garbage discharge and keep the surroundings clean and tidy for the small local tax they paid but did not want to see them at places where they prayed. 

The next day while I was on my way to the office in my Car, I saw Shankara and Somashekara emptying the Garbage bin.  I stopped my car, rolled down my windows and said to them “Why don’t you guys build your own temple in your locality? I will help you with the money” internally setting aside my disdain for temple worship. They looked at each other and said, “We will speak to our association president and get back to you”.

Shankara came along after a few days with a team of lads from a suburb called Navodaya Badavanewith an estimate for construction of a Maramma temple in a vacant piece of land right in the heart of their colony. They gave me a budget of Rs.28 Lakhs ($40000/-). I wanted to see the spot where the temple would be constructed and also meet up with the elderly and prominent leaders of their locality. These colonies have been created by the government and sold to these classes at subsidised rates for their welfare and to uplift these socially backward classes that have been the target for suppression by the ‘upper castes’ for hundreds of years.

The president of their Colony was one Mr Das, and he took charge of the entire project. I was very particular about the temple being more attractive and cleaner than the temple that they admired from the road side.

A ‘ground-breaking’ ceremony was held in April 2014, and the construction of the temple began. After a year of dedicated efforts from the team of youngsters from the colony, the temple became a cynosure of all eyes. The estimated cost of Rs.25 Lakhs (US$40000) escalated to Rs.55 Lakhs (US$ 90,000) but I had the satisfaction that the temple turned out to be beautiful and a perfect place for worship.

Hindu priests qualified and specialised in the construction of temples are the only ones who can direct temple constructions. Das brought along Krishnachar from Davangere to my house when the temple construction was nearing completion. He was one of the only two or three priests specialised in the consecration of idols and temples in my home state of Karnataka. Krishnachar was a pious looking man, of medium height and a very fair complexion in his late seventies with a clean-shaven face. With his ponytail formed with the little hair on the head, his saffron Shawl matched beautifully with his white Dhoti with green borders and gave him a very holy appearance. 

 “Namaskaara Mohan avare,” said Krishnachar folding his hands and demonstrating reverential respect towards me that made me blush and feel embarrassed and continued “It is an honour to meet someone who is building s temple for the poor’.

“Please do not use such big words. A wise man once said “You give little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give. I believe that what I am doing is easy since it is not affecting me in any major way. It is guys like Das and Shankar who put in their hearts and souls that need to be honoured”, I said.

He recited a Sanskrit Shloka and said, “In the Skanda Purana it is mentioned that just by starting the construction of a temple, sins committed in seven births will be wiped out, and one will deliver his forefathers who are suffering in the hellish planets.” I smiled within myself remembering a funny quote about hell; ‘hell will be heaven with my friends in it’. I kept a serious face. I had no secret agenda of enticing ticket issuers to heaven; I just wanted a temple where the socially suppressed could pray in peace.

After learning about the details of the dimensions of the temple and the Maramma deity, Achar asked Das to note down a few points for clarification and get back to him.

I asked Achar about the steps involved in going about making a temple and the deity in it worthy of worship.

 “There are many aspects involved in the consecration of a temple”, he said. 

“Temple is usually in the centre of the village so that everyone has access to it. Is this so in your case”?

Both Das and Shankar nodded their heads and almost yelled, “It is right at the centre of the colony”.

After learning about the details of the dimensions of the temple and the Maramma deity he asked Das to note down a few points for clarification.

“Have you made sure that the stone used for the main Maramma Idol is pure granite?” he asked. Since Das and I had personally approved the stone after taking an expert with us, I quickly said, ” Yes we have had it analysed and approved”.

“When are you planning on opening the temple?”

“January 2015”, said Das.

“Good. We have more than three months. You have to grow some grass at the place of construction first and feed it to cows in the following weeks” Achar said. Das nodded and said emphatically ” we will make sure”.

“Carry out a thorough inspection of the premises and take out undesired things like bones from the ground” Said Achar.

Das noted it down.

Achar further explained the steps involved

 “We will be placing the Kalasha over the main Gopura (holy tower). The procedure again involves creating cavities filled with gems minerals seeds etc. and then the pinnacles are placed. I will bring all those items”, he said as we listened to him with rapt attention.

“We then place a pot made of five metals that we call Panchaloha kalasa sthapana at the place of the main deity and then the main deity is installed”.

“Finally the main deity is then charged with life/god-ness”.

“What about the rituals punditji?” Das asked. 

“Yes. Firstly, I, as the priest will have to, takes permission from devotees and Lord Ganesh to begin the ritual”.

” I will then conduct Vastu and Santi Homas”.

“Kalasa installation will have to be carried out by the person who is constructing the temple. In olden days kings used to carry the installation, but now the person who is constructing the temple will have to do it” said Achar.

“Finally I will be opening eyes of the God-image, installing it and giving it life” Achar concluded. 

The temple was opened on the 18th of January 2015 and stood as the cleanest and the most attractive temple in all the colonies of their community in this part of our state. 

It was one of the most gratifying contributions that I have made in my life. Every member of my extended family came on the occasion and was very happy that something so beautiful had been created in memory of our parents. I carried the ‘Kalasha’ and carried out the ‘Kalasha Prathistapane’. 

Kalasha (kind of a small metallic Stupa) on top of the sanctum sanctorum of a Hindu temple represents the roots of the inverted tree concept found in the Upanishads. The significance of the shape of the Kalasha is that it symbolises the potentialities of life. The bud of which is the leading portion and signifies new life and growth. Apparently except for kings and holy men the opportunity for Kalasha Prathistapane is bestowed upon only a rare few individuals! My mother when she was alive had shared the faith of the poor and God-fearing workers at our incense factory particularly with their immense trust in Goddess Maaramma. Goddess Maramma is a manifestation of mother goddess that is worshipped in South India, especially in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh. She protects people from epidemic diseases and is also known as Mari, Masanamma, Chaudi, Kali, and Karali. Some people believe she is an incarnation of Goddess Parvati and refer to her as Maheshwari.

As I sat in my ‘man cave’ sipping my Glenfedich the next evening, I felt a sense of uplift of my self as I watched out of the window and looked the temple near my house. I closed my eyes and thanked the Cosmos for giving me a chance and the strength to make a small difference in the lives of those that socially regarded as less fortunate and an underprivileged community. I felt fulfilled with a sense of responsibility for the world in which I found myself.  Do watch the video on YouTube….’Maramma Temple Navodaya Badavane’.

With my wife and children


  • Anonymous
    20th March 2019 - 9:15 pm · Reply

    Dear Sir,
    Very happy to read and see your contribution towards creating happiness in the downtrodden people.
    I am happy that i have read this on this “International day of Happiness” . I am sure this happiness will be on day to day basis in those people


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Inner Trek
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After being threatened by a Bangalore mob boss, retired Indian businessman Mohan Ranga Rao takes a vow to trek around Mount Kailash, a holy Tibetan Mountain revered by over a billion people. What starts out as merely a challenging high-altitude trek soon becomes a life-changing adventure. With a blend of humour, honesty and keen insight, Mohan journeys toward a deeper understanding of the world around him. A memoir of a road less travelled and a true story of self-discovery at 19,000 feet.

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