Delhi’s other gods
One of the many gods worshipped in Delhi is Guru Ravidas. The Delhi Walla spotted him near American Center on Kasturba Gandhi Marg. Guru Ravidas was polishing shoes. His hair was long and he had a flowing coal-black beard. He resembled the popular image of Jesus Christ. The colored portrait pasted on the pavement wall was garlanded with plastic flowers. Ramesh Kumar, a 42-year-old shoe shiner, had purchased the poster from the Sunday Book Bazaar in Daryaganj. Pointing to Guru Ravidas, Mr Kumar said, “He is 634 years old. He is our saint.”
Mr Kumar lives in Seelampur, north Delhi, and commutes to his pavement stall on KG Marg in the metro train. He is stationed here daily from 11 am to 7 pm. “I charge Rs 5 for shoe shining. Sometimes, good people give me double that amount.”
There were two posters of Guru Ravidas at Mr Kumar’s stall. One was so old that its colours had faded. There were other gods too: Krishna, Sai Baba, Vaishno Devi. “These are our gods as well but Guruji is the most special.” Guru Ravidas, a shoemaker who belonged to the chamar caste, was a 15th century mystic and is the patron saint of menial shoemakers. The position of shoemakers – a hereditary profession – in the Hindu caste system ranks towards the bottom of the list.
Mr Kumar told me a story about Guru Ravidas: “One day a Brahmin was walking towards the holy Ganga when he passed by Guruji’s hut. He was sewing a shoe. Guruji gave a coin to the Brahmin and asked him to offer it to the river. The Brahmin did just that and he got a gold bracelet from the river. It was encrusted with gems. The Brahmin gave the bracelet to the royal family. When the queen desired another such bracelet, the king personally went to Guruji to make a special request. The saint closed his eyes, mediated for a while and the river Ganga appeared in female form. She produced another bracelet and presented it to Guruji who gave it to the king.”
The remarkable thing about the story is that a Brahmin and a Khastriya – both being upper castes – were obliged to a shoemaker, an ‘untouchable’.
Mr Kumar, whose ancestors were ostracized as ‘untouchables’, hails from a village in the Khandwa district of Madhya Pradesh, a state in central India. His family has been in the leather footwear trade for generations. His father was the first member to leave for a city. The migrant’s son doesn’t remember being treated as an ‘untouchable’ in Delhi. However, when he visits his ancestral home, the high caste people of the village do not come close to him.
“Earlier, even in cities, people won’t touch us,” Mr Kumar said, “but this great man changed things for us.” He pointed to a portrait next to Guru Ravidas. This ‘great man’ was wearing spectacles. He was clean-shaven and his hair was short. Dressed in a suit, he looked like a strict professor. Born into a family of ‘untouchables’ in 1891, Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar is an icon of modern India. He famously rebuffed Mahatma Gandhi’s patronizing gesture of renaming ‘untouchables’ as ‘Harijan’, meaning people of the God. Dr Ambedkar studied in the US and UK, practiced law in India, and inspired millions of his fellow low caste Hindus to convert to Buddhism. The chief architect of India’s constitution, he was awarded Bharat Ratna, the nation’s most prestigious honour, 34 years after his death. “Because of this man we are able to mingle with the rest of the society,” Mr Kumar said. “Before him, people would not touch us. He spoke for our equality. I worship him.”
Though Guru Ravidas looks content with the shoes, Mr Kumar is more affected by Dr Ambedker. He does not want his children to follow the leather trade. “I’ve four sons and a daughter. I want them to study and get regular jobs. My life is over. They must have it better.”