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Dhaka Tribune

An expression of social justice

It is high time we recognized the strengths of intangible cultural elements to create a more inclusive and diversified society

Update : 09 May 2023, 04:15 PM

Whenever we hear about cultural heritages, mostly we think of large monuments or spectacular architecture. But another domain of cultural heritages has largely gone unnoticed. That is intangible cultural heritage.  

Unesco recognizes the knowledge, skills, practices, representations, and expressions associated with instruments or objects as intangible cultural heritages. It identifies five domains of intangible cultural heritages -- oral traditions; performing arts; social practices, rituals, and festive events; knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; and traditional craftsmanship. 

Some of the religious ideologies or rituals are often considered the strictest rules and regulations of life, eventually marginalizing a group of people. 

The Hindu caste system is widely denounced for this reason. The caste system, a social stratification in the Indian subcontinent primarily governed by the idea of purity and pollution, consists of four major Varnas (Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra) and numerous subcastes.  

Outside the caste system, a large class of people was regarded as untouchables, and many inhuman customs were practiced against them. 

Though untouchability was formally abolished long ago, these people are still marginalized in different spheres of this subcontinent. 

Despite people from other religions working to reinforce these inequalities, Hindu scriptures are largely held responsible for this exclusion. It must be acknowledged that Hindu mainstream scriptures significantly influence the derogatory discourses against them. 

But the question remains: Does the Hindu caste system constitute the whole religion? 

We often emphasize the Hindu caste system so much that we ignore the anti-caste tradition or rituals which speak for those unfortunate and underprivileged human beings. I have encountered some of these rituals in a small town in Bangladesh. 

As a part of a research project that investigated the multiple dimensions of Dalit marginalization, I went to short-term fieldwork. From some secondary sources, I had already come to know that Dalit people observe some rituals fundamentally different from caste Hindus. But when I asked about these rituals, they clearly denied the fact and claimed that there existed no differences between them and other Hindus. 

From their expressions, I came to realize that I mistakenly humiliated them by indicating their Dalit identities. So, I adopted a different technique. I asked them about Saint Ravi Das and told them if they knew about him. Then they enthusiastically described how they recited the Bhajans of Saint Ravi Das on different occasions.  

Saint Ravi Das was one of the most famous saints in the Bhakti movement. In the middle of the 14th and 15th  centuries, a widespread movement (largely known as the Bhakti movement) was formed to resist the social injustices against lower caste people. Bhakti poets/ saints disseminated egalitarianism and social justice notions through folk songs, poems, moral stories, bhajans, etc.   

Saint Ravi Das belonged to the Ravi Das caste (who were considered untouchable then). During that time, the larger section of people (untouchables) in society faced enormous discrimination and stigma. In other words, they had to lead animals' lives without dignity. 

As a preacher, he defied the fundamental roles of caste in the individual relationship with God. For him, all persons regardless of their caste identities were “untouchables.” He also envisioned “Begumpura” (a city without sorrow) where no inequality would exist. 

Those days were gone a long ago but Dalit people still recited the bhajans of Ravi Das. It works like a hidden weapon for Dalits, which speaks for their struggle against caste inequality. In other words,  they negate the ideological justification of Brahminical exploitation in this way. 

Unfortunately, due to the stigma associated with the Dalit identity, the recitation of these local bhajans is increasingly being decreased like other cultural elements. 

From my short-time field-based experiences, I have understood that the situation of Dalits in Bangladesh is quite complex. It has been widely claimed that caste-based discrimination doesn't exist in Bangladesh, but it does work subtly in reality to make their lives more difficult. 

While there is an overwhelming tendency among Dalits to assimilate into the wider society, little to no effort has been made to preserve these traditions which carry the voices of people struggling against the constant suppression. It is high time we recognized the strengths of these intangible cultural elements to create a more inclusive and diversified society.         


Aditi Sharif is an Anthropologist, currently working as a Research Assistant at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), Dhaka.  

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