India holy men urge ban on low-caste food rolling

Food rolling at the Subrahmanya temple, Karnataka
Image caption Believers contend that rolling in the leftovers will cure skin diseases

A group of holy men in India's Karnataka state are seeking to outlaw a century-old ritual in which low-caste Hindus roll in the remains of food eaten by members of a higher caste.

About 25 religious leaders threatened to take action if the government did not ban the practice, known as made snana.

Hundreds of people performed the ritual at temples in Karnataka in December.

Followers believe rolling in the food will cure them of skin conditions.

The ceremony involves rolling on plantain leaves that contain the leftovers of meals served to high-caste Brahmins.

The annual event is held at the Kukke Subramanya temple in the coastal district of Mangalore and at the Sri Krishna temple in Udupi town.

Lower-caste Dalit organisations have called the ritual "inhuman" and "unacceptable".

They say such customs are being used by upper-caste Hindus to subjugate low castes.

"If it can cure diseases effectively, the state government should close down all the medical colleges and hospitals," said Panditaradhya Shivacharya Swami, drawing applause at a meeting of holy men in Bangalore.

"This evil is not less than the tradition of Sati [the banned practice of burning widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands] and child marriage and the government must act tough," he said.

"This is to protect human dignity. [A ban] is to oppose obnoxious values and to bring about a progressive change," said campaigner Veerabhadra Channamalla Swami of Nidumamidi Mahasamsthana Mutt.

However, people at the temple in Kukke Subramanya have opposed any move to ban the ritual.

In December, activist KS Shivaramu was beaten up by supporters of the ritual for protesting against it. Proponents say the government has no business to interfere in matters of faith.

The issue has also divided the state's Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, with senior minister VS Acharya - a high-caste Brahmin - defending the ritual, and Social Welfare Minister A Narayanaswamy, who represents the Dalit community, supporting a ban.

Correspondents say although caste discrimination is illegal in India biases remain in many areas.

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