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Sunday, 4 November, 2001, 23:00 GMT
Hindus convert to escape caste
Buddhist monk shaves moustache of Ram Raj, right, chairman of All India Confederation of Schedule Castes and Tribes
Some came for conversion, others to give support
By the BBC's Frances Harrison in Delhi

Thousands of lower-caste Hindus have taken part in a mass conversion ceremony in the Indian capital Delhi to become Buddhists, in a bid to escape the social stigma of the caste system.

The organisers had hoped for a million converts and blamed the police for preventing more people from attending.

Buddhist monks in saffron robes led the prayers as the crowd sat cross-legged on the ground repeating the chants.

Hindus at mass ceremony to convert to Buddhism in New Delhi
Lower-caste Hindus wait to be converted to Buddhism

Many in the crowd said they had left home in the morning as Hindus but would return in the evening as Buddhists.

Some even received certificates saying they had embraced Buddhism voluntarily.

But others said they had come not to change their faith but just to lend support to their community, which makes up about quarter of India's one billion-strong population.

It was one of India's biggest conversions in recent years and a strong sign of protest against the caste system.

Taboo to draw water

Whether they are called Untouchables, Children of God or Dalits, lower caste Hindus say their plight has not improved in centuries.

It has been nearly 50 years since the caste system was abolished, legally at least.

But in many Indian villages it is still taboo for lower castes to use the well to draw water or enter Hindu temples temples or the homes of their high caste neighbours.

Many of those at the bottom of the caste system still feel there is no way out but to change their religion.

But in many cases even that has not removed the prejudice felt by the rest of society.

See also:

06 Sep 01 | South Asia
Indian groups raise caste question
06 Sep 01 | Africa
Impasse at racism conference
11 Aug 01 | South Asia
India caste row deepens
08 Aug 01 | South Asia
Couple hanged for forbidden love
28 Sep 99 | South Asia
Dalits' political awakening
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