Unorthodox Hindu Funeral
" The Ayogava, the Cshattri and the Chandala, the lowest of men, spring from a Sudra in an inverse order of the classes, and are therefore, all three excluded from the performance of obsequies to their ancestors." (Manu, x. 16.)
MANU gives as the origin of the debased classes irregular intercourse between members of the four castes, and the intermingling of the despicable offspring resulting from such irregularities.' During their lifetime they must exist in a most abject condition, living apart from the upper castes in mountains, groves, or places for burning the dead, anywhere outside of the towns inhabited by their superiors. Their clothing, food and general surroundings must be of the most miserable nature, and their occupation of the most degrading character. This is not only so, but even after death the curse of their birth must follow them. The quotation at the head of this chapter shows that these poor unfortunates are not to have even the consolation of funeral rites for their dead.
All that has been said in the preceding chapters about funeral rites and periodical shraddhas has only to do with the four castes, and particularly with the three higher ones. The non-castes or out-castes are not supposed to have anything to do with such things. These non-caste people do, however, perform certain funeral rites and have shraddha ceremonies of a kind. It is not very clear with what object they perform the various ceremonies. Probably they have in view, the spiritual good of the departed; but their ideas on this head appear to be very confused and uncertain. The motive that seems to actuate them is fear. It is thought well to treat the departed spirit kindly and to divert its attention, so as to prevent its inflicting any injury on the living. In fact, these observances seem to be a survival of ancient Dravidian rites tinged with an admixture of Hinduism.
The Midas, or Telugu Pariahs, are representatives of the middle line between the Hindus proper and the lowest pagans. The funeral rites of the Midas represent generally those of the classes here intended. The Malas, as a rule, burn their dead ; but though this is considered amongst them as the more respectable way, yet there are very many exceptions to the rule. There are some sections of this class who always bury ; and many who would cremate if they could afford it, but who are driven by poverty to the less expensive method of disposing of their dead. There seems to be a general notion amongst these latter, that the soul of the deceased somehow suffers on account of such a departure from custom. They bury children and small-pox victims as the caste people do. In times of pestilence, also when cholera is prevalent, they bury. This is merely from being generally panic stricken, or from the difficulty of getting any help from their neighbours who fear contagion. At such times the dead are often disposed of in a very summary way.
When a person is at the point of death, there do not appear to be any religious rites or ceremonies whatever amongst these people. They follow out the customs, already alluded to' of taking the dying person outside the house so as to prevent possible pollution to the dwelling place. Should the household ascertain from the Pariah priest that the day is a lucky one, they suffer the patient to die in the house ; otherwise, they are as particular as the upper castes are in putting the sufferer outside to die. Amongst Hindus, in the event of a person's dying inside the house during an unlucky conjunction of the stars, not only must that particular household vacate the dwelling for a period of time, but the neighbours also must do the same. Hence public opinion is very strong in the matter of suffering any one to die inside a house. It must be very trying, particularly in the rainy season, for the sick person to have to turn out of his house and live in a temporary shed ; it may be for some months.
The dying person is placed on the ground to die. Should the poor sufferer seem to be a long time in dying, a cruel custom, which seems to be practised by the upper castes also, is carried out. It is thought that from excessive love for some one, the husband for the wife, or the wife for the husband, or the parents for a child, as the case may be, the spirit is loth to quit the body. If this is the case, a little water or some other liquid is poured into the mouth by the one supposed to be thus excessively loved, or perhaps by several, one after the other. If it should be thought that through an avaricious disposition the spirit is loth to depart some coins are taken and washed in water, the water being then poured into the mouth of the dying person. Such a practice may often hasten death, even in cases where, perhaps, a recovery might otherwise have been possible.
Burial or cremation follows quickly upon death. Three or four hours after the last breath, there may be nothing left of the departed but a heap of ashes.
When life has left the body, it is bathed. The priest, if present, says a slokam or verse of some kind, but, if he is not present, no prayers are said and the body is merely dressed up and fastened to the bier.
Some of the Malas are Vaishnavas of the Ramanuja sect, and a few are Saivas ; but the bulk of them are practically pagans, idolaters of a very low kind. In some things they appear to follow Hindu rites in a very feeble sort of way ; but it is merely an apeing of what they see the higher castes do, and their religion, if they may be said to have any at all, seems to be a relic of ancient Dravidian idolatry just tinged with Hinduism, largely admixed with demonolatry. This latter class of Malas take the dead person straight off to the burning ground or burying place and dispose of the body without any rites, except that the karta will carry water three times round the pile and then throw it away. The Vaishnavas, however, offer a sacrifice before taking away the body. A fowl, or in some few cases of d comparatively wealthy people, a sheep or a goat is killed, and its blood is allowed to drip on the spot where the deceased breathed his last. A cocoanut, at least, will be broken over the spot and the water allowed to drip there. This is done even by the very poorest who are not able to procure a fowl. This is to satisfy the spirit just departed and to keep it from harming any one near. The karta also cooks some food of which the slain fowl will form a part, and a portion of this is offered to the deceased by touching the mouth with some of it three times. The portion thus offered is then thrown to the crows. Arrack (country spirit) also is poured into the mouth of the corpse. All this is done to please the departed spirit. The rest of the food and arrack is then given to those who are to carry the bier, the karta placing the food into their hands and giving them the arrack to drink.
After this the body is fastened to the bier and borne to the cemetery. The Vaishnavas have a peculiar arrangement attached to the head of the bier, the reason for which is not easy to find out. Two sticks are tied across each other, which again have cross pieces, the whole forming a kind of St. Helena cross. At three of the four ends of the projecting cross pieces a lime is fastened. This whole arrangement is fixed to one end of the bier so as to form a canopy over the head of the corpse. This may have had its origin in serpent worship, and the idea may be that of the cobra with expanded hood swaying over the head. Vaishnavas other than the Mala ones appear also to adopt this device. Four men carry the bier, and when the bearers lift up their burden they raise it up a little and then lower it again, doing this three times and each time crying out Narayana ! or Govinda !names of Vishnu and Krishna respectively. The bier is set down three times on the way to the cemetery, when on each end of the two main poles of the bier a coin is placed. These coins are taken up by the dasari as a perquisite. This ceremony of placing coins is also done by the upper castes. When the bier is on the ground some grain and saffron are scattered round it. The grain is afterwards eaten by the birds. Each time the bier is lifted up, it is with the three upliftings and the shouts of Narayana! or Govinda ! Some of the Midas who bury the dead place the body in the grave in a sitting position, thus necessitating a peculiar shaped bier ordinarily, however, the recumbent posture is observed. The funeral procession is much the same as with the orthodox Hindus. The karta carries the fire and, as a rule, no women follow.
The Mala cemetery is always distinct, and often at some considerable distance, from that of the caste people ; for even in death there must be no contamination by too close proximity. The place is, if possible, a more dreary and miserable spot still than that of the orthodox. The idea of paying any attention to the keeping of a cemetery tidy seems never to enter into the mind of a Hindu.
The actual burning or burying details are, to a certain extent, the same as those already described in the case of the orthodox, except that there are no mantrams or homams. The body is carefully stripped before being put into the grave or on to the pile. In the case of the death of a pregnant woman, when the corpse is placed on the pile, or just before putting it into the grave, a kind of rough Caesarean operation is performed by the husband, the details of which are too revolting to mention. This custom, which appears to be prevalent amongst all classes of Hindus, seems to be connected with the same idea as that which causes the body to be stripped quite naked. ' We brought nothing with us into this world and we must carry nothing out." Each must depart as he came.
The karta carries a pot of water round the pile three times before setting the fire alight, and then throws it over his shoulder ; in the case of those who bury, the water is carried round the grave. There is very little by way of ceremony of any kind, except that when the body is placed on the pile or into the grave the name of Narayana or Govinda is called on. No prayers or slokas are said. The grave is dug and the pile also is placed so that the body shall lie, whether buried or burnt, with its head towards the south. This custom arises from the idea that it is unlucky to sleep with the head towards the south. Whilst some Hindus will not sleep with the head to the south, others think it most unlucky to sleep with the head towards the north. The company all bathe after the funeral and that finishes the ceremonies for that day. The members of the funeral group usually then go to a drinking shop to drink arrack at the expense of the karta. Nothing is done at the house, except that the women clean up the place after the funeral party have gone. They purify it by smearing it with the dung of cows and by sprinkling it with water in which that purifying substance has been mixed.
For several nights after a burial, a small fire of some kind is kept on the grave, even if it should only be a smouldering wisp of straw. This is to frighten off the jackals which might otherwise unearth the body. This precaution, however, does not always prevent such a revolting thing taking place. The corpse is never put into a coffin by Hindus, though some of the Christians who can afford it, especially in the towns, adopt the European fashion, using wooden or bamboo wicker basket coffins. In the villages, the Christians have few facilities for such refinements, and a winding sheet with an outer covering of matting supplies all that is really needful for decency and reverential regard for the dead. Sometimes when cholera or any other pestilence is prevalent, or when any one happens to die whilst on a journey, the survivors may merely cast out the body to become a prey to the vultures and jackals.
I now describe funeral obsequies which represent the nitya karma and sapindi rites of the Brahminical religion. There are two such ceremonies amongst the Malas, called in Telugu the chinnadinamu and the peddadinamu, or the little day and the big or important day. The former of these may be observed on the very day of the funeral, or on the third or fifth day afterwards. It is generally done on the fifth day. The day fixed upon will depend upon the position of certain stars, which matter is decided by the &sari. It can never be on an even day, as odd numbers are lucky whilst even ones are unluckly. The peddadinamu is always observed on the fifteenth day after the death. Until the chinnadinamu rite has been performed, it is proper for the karta to take his food sitting on the spot where the death actually took place. It is also usual to place a light there each night until that rite has been performed.
Amongst the Midas there is a very peculiar division into those who perform funeral observances in the day time, and those who only do so at night. According to the Brahminical religion no such observances should take place at night at all, and it is curious how this night-observing sect sprung into existence. Those who observe these rites in the day time are called in Telugu pakshivęsevaru or those who throw to the birds. The reason for this will be seen further on. Those who observe the ceremonies in the night time are called tirupallivaru. It is not clear what this word means, but it is of Tamil origin and comes from a word meaning a tomb. Although these two divisions are very distinct amongst the Malas, it does not appear to manifest itself in any other way than in the differences in the observances of those funeral rites. This distinction also exists amongst some other sections of the community.
On the day fixed upon by the dasari for the chinnadinamu, there is a gathering of friends at the house of the deceased. The observances amongst the two sections are very much the same for this rite, except that one section begins the rites in the morning and performs them during the day, and the other section begins them in the evening and carries them on through the night. I shall point out where the usages of the day-observers differ from those of the night-observers.
The &sari and a few friends' assemble at the house of the deceased, The whole dwelling has been previously cleaned up by the women of the house and the floors well smeared over with the all-purifying mixture of cowdung and water. The dasari then takes a vessel of water and with a bunch of leaves proceeds to sprinkle the people present and the room in which they are congregated, repeating at the same time various names of Vishnu and the sankalpam, or a declaration of the place, time, tribe, and name of the deceased. It includes also a prayer for pardon of sin. He then prepares a place on the earth near the spot where the death took place, and with white powder draws a cabalistic figure, formed of two parallel lines drawn at right angles across two other parallel lines, the ends of the four lines being all joined together by cross lines. This is called ashtaksharam or the eight figures. Near this figure a heap of rice is placed. This is a perquisite of the dasari who grumbles much, if the heap is not as large as he likes. He then brings certain figures, called in Telugu perumallu and places them on the heap of rice. The figures represent the gods and their retinue. The karta slays a fowl or a sheep over the spot, as on the day of the funeral, and this is given to the women of the household to cook. When the rice and curries have been duly prepared, a portion is placed near the perumallu and another portion is placed into vessels which the (Maui and karta, with a few friends, take to the cemetery.
On arriving at the cemetery, if they are night-observers, they proceed to gather together the ashes of the funeral pile and pour water upon them, the whole being flattened down and made smooth. In the case of those who bury, the top of the grave is thus prepared. A leaf-plate is put on the prepared place and the food brought is laid upon it. The dasari then places on a separate leaf three lumps of the food. This is supposed to be for the departed spirit, but it is eaten by the karta. The remainder is divided by the dasari amongst the others present who forthwith eat it. A little arrack is also given to them to drink. On thus dividing the food, the dasari, in the name of the karta, says words to the following effect :-
" As this departed spirit has committed sins, it cannot appear before god; therefore these ceremonies are performed in the hope that it may thereby be fitted to enter heaven."
This ceremony closely resembles the feeding of the Bhoktas by the orthodox, of which it is probably an imitation. In the case of the day-observers, the food is placed on the spot where the cremation took place or on the grave, but those present do not eat of it. They simply place it there and then go away a little distance to allow the crows and other birds to come and take it. When the birds have once begun to eat the food thus placed, the persons are satisfied and take their departure. On placing the food the dasari says words to the following effect :-
" O Narayana, who bearet the conch shell, the wheel and the club, I make namaskaram to thee. Grant that by the giving of this food this spirit may be satisfied."
Amongst this section of the people, each day from the funeral to the chinnadinamu, the karta before he partakes of his meals places a portion of his food on the house to attract the birds, and until a bird has begun to eat what is thus placed he does not taste his own meal. This must be very tantalizing to a hungry man, especially if there should happen to be no birds in the neighbourhood. The Indian crow, however, is ubiquitous and it really seems to know untuitively when anything of the kind is going on by which it can get something to satisfy its rapacious, omnivorous appetite. This is why the day-observers are called pakshivesevarn, or those who throw to the birds.
After this ceremony a small feast is prepared at the house and partaken of by the dasari and a few friends. The dasari must be well fed and must also have an extra liberal share of the arrack provided for the feast. After the meal is over it is customary for the dasari to make a funeral oration in which he sets forth the good qualities of the deceased.
Nothing further is done until the fifteenth day when the most important ceremonies are performed, answering to a certain extent to the sapindi rites of the orthodox. The ceremonies on this day are very different amongst the two sections. In the case of night-observers, the dasari and friends assemble at the house of the deceased, when the karta and. the friends and relatives of the deceased, who are of the same surname (house-name), all shave the head and the face. The karta also has his moustache shaven off, and in some cases even the sikha. The killing of the fowl or sheep, and the ceremony of the ashtaksharam are all gone through as on the chinnadinamu, except that there is no visit paid to the cemetery. As a very large number of people gather together for this ceremony, a pig may possibly be killed. On this occasion there is feasting and drinking as at a great wedding feast.
Sometime after the sun sets the dasari proceeds to tie together with some' sticks a contrivance about two or three feet high. Cross pieces are also tied so as to make two little platforms inside, one of which is for a lamp. Some cotton cloth is tied round the upper part of this arrangement so as to form a shelter for the lamp, and also to make it look like a little shrine. The name given to this in Telugu is triteru or the three-storied car. A light is placed inside this shrine and. it is taken up by the dasari who is accompanied by the 'assembled friends both male and female. Strumming on his guitar-like instrument, he proceeds, singing a song, to some place near an adjacent main road. A specimen of the songs thus sung, supplied to me by a dasari, is a meaningless composition referring to Rama in a pantheistic way, as being all things and pervading all things. There is no allusion in it whatever to the ceremony itself or anything connected with it. Arrived at a suitable spot they all sit down round the temporary shrine, now lighted up, and the dásari repeats some verses, during which recitation, the men and women come up to him, one by one. He then touches their foreheads with some coloured rice. Each one gives, as a fee to the priest, a copper coin of small value.
After this ceremony has been gone through, if the one who died were a man leaving a widow, the rite of declaring her widowhood is then performed. The dasari and several relatives, male and female, take the widow apart to some adjacent place, probably the bank of the village tank. Here the dasari, repeating a slókam, cuts the mangalasutram off the widow's neck and breaks the glass bangles from her wrists and puts on her a pair of brass bracelets, which have been brought for the purpose and which amongst these people are a sign of widowhood. The head of the Mala widow is not shaven, and she is at liberty to marry again if opportunity should offer. A new cloth is produced which is thrown over the head of the widow, and then blindfolded she is led back to the group around the triteru. During the whole of this operation there is much weeping and wailing by the women assembled. If the deceased person should be a woman, her husband is taken aside in the same way and. his loin-cord is cut off with some little ceremony. This loin-cord is a very important part of the man's attire, but it is not easy to understand the meaning of this ceremony. The following is a free rendering of the words, which do not seem very relevant to the circumstances; repeated by the dasari when cutting off the magalasutram from the widow, or the loin-cord from the man : '
"I (god) am the destroyer of all diseases. I absolve thee from such sins as the killing of infants, of women, of Brahmins, and of cows, the causing abortions, of drunkenness, stealing of gold, adultery, robbery, slander and the like. Do not lament."
On returning to the group around ' the little shrine there is usually much drinking of arrack, or country spirit, alter which the assembly proceed to the house for a big feast. Each one of the relatives to show respect or affection to the memory of the deceased, brings a portion of arrack to add to the amount for consumption.
In the case of the day-observing section, there is no triteru, but the friends repair to the bank of a neighbouring tank, or to some other water, where the shaving and widow rites are all gone through in much the same way. After this they all bathe and then return to the house for a feast.
When the feast is over, it is usual, as at weddings, for the friends and relatives to signify their respect for the deceased by presenting money and other things to the karta, for which purpose grain is brought. This custom is really a way of mutually assisting each other in the heavy expenses of the ceremony, and it is expected that the recipients of such aid shall in like manner assist the givers on any similar occasion. This help is called katnam, a word meaning dues or gifts. The way these gifts are collected is rather peculiar. After the feast is over the dasari receives from each one a gift, and as he takes it he holds it up above his head, shouting out that so and so has given such and such a sum in the name of so and so (the deceased). He then gives a leap up into the air and repeats a verse. This goes on until each one who intends doing so has presented his contributions. The dasari receives a fee for his trouble. After this he sits and tells stories until night or day light, as the case may be, when the company separate.
The reason given for all this feasting and drinking and telling of stories is that the departed spirit may be satisfied and go away, without causing any harm to the living. They fear that, if it were not thus satisfied, the spirit might take away some one to be with it, especially one whom it had loved in its lifetime. A further idea in these ceremonies is that not only will the departing spirit be benefited ; but also that if it reaches heaven it will intercede for the survivors. A fear of demons and evil spirits is one that dominates the minds of these people to a fearful extent, and there is little doubt but that this feeling, more than any other, prompts the masses of India in their funeral rites and observances for the dead.
The Malas, like the orthodox Hindus, have a ceremony for the dead every month for the first year after the decease, and on the last of these there is a feast something like that of the peddadinamu. There is also an annual ceremony made by those who can afford it.
The description given of the funeral rites and ceremonies of the Malas may also serve for those of the Madigas, or dealers in skins and leather. There are minor differences, but substantially their ceremonies are the same. This description will also be sufficient to give a general idea of the funeral rites of most .of those castes or tribes who, though not regularly included within the pale of the Brahminical religion, still to a certain ,extent perform, in an illegitimate kind of way, rites and ceremonies of evidently Hindu origin ; which at the same time are mixed up with ceremonies derived from undoubted pagan sources.
Having no personal knowledge of the death ceremonies of tribes totally, or almost so, unconnected with Hinduism, I have consulted a few of the Government District Manuals for information on the subject, and the rest of this chapter is chiefly taken from these sources. The Nilgiri District Manual compiled by the late Mr. Grigg contains most interesting information which will answer all my purpose. It describes a great variety .of customs current amongst non-Hindu tribes.
The most interesting of these ceremonies are those of the Todas. At the funerals of these people a number of buffaloes are killed to supply the deceased with milk in the next world, of which they seem to have some distinct ideas. The viaticum for a dying Toda is a drink of milk, and after death he is wrapped up in a garment, into the pockets of which is placed a supply of grain and sugar for use on the ghostly journey. There are two funeral ceremonies called the green funeral and the dry funeral. The former is the actual funeral ceremony, and the latter is that which answers somewhat to the sapindi rite of the orthodox.
Very soon after death the body is carried out to the burying ground and a small herd of buffaloes is driven along with the procession. Each animal has a little bell hung round its neck and each one is driven close up to the funeral pile. The mourners present include women and children. Each one present takes up three handfuls of earth and throwing it upon the body says, " Let him go into the soil." The rest of this touching ceremony may be best given in Mr. Grigg's own words : " The recumbent corpse is now lifted up in the arms of the relatives, and each cow in succession is dragged by two men up to her master, whose arm is raised and made to touch the animal's horns. After this the pyre is lighted by fire made by the friction of two sticks. The body is lifted up and swung three times from side to side, then laid on the burning wood face downwards. As the flames devour the body the people cry, ' shall we kill buffaloes for you ? You are going to Amnur (heaven) ; may it be well with you ; may all thy sins go.' One or two buffaloes are now killed, and, as each creature falls dead from a blow from the butt end of an axe, the people crowd round it, sobbing and lamenting and kissing its face. After this they sit round the bier in pairs with their faces together and their foreheads touching, weeping bitterly and wailing in true oriental fashion."
The skull and bones are preserved for the dry funeral. There is no religious ceremony at the cremation nor is it necessary for any priests to be present. The dry funeral is not celebrated at any particular period after death ; it seems that, owing to the ceremony being a large one involving considerable expense, opportunity is taken for two or three dry funerals to be celebrated together. The whole lasts for three days and the chief feature is the slaughter of buffaloes, two or three for each of the dead commemorated. The carcases of the slain buffaloes are a perquisite of the Kotas who act as musicians on the occasion. Rites are performed with the blood of one of the slain animals. This may lead to the supposition that some way or other, it takes away the sins of the deceased. A buffalo calf is also let loose as a " scape-goat," with shouts of, " May he enter heaven ; may it be well with his good deeds and his sins." The whole ceremony concludes as follows. What is called the ked is burnt with some ceremony. It is not explained what the ked is, but it appears to be some receptacle containing the skull and bones left from the cremation. In the early morning, before dawn, this lied is burnt, together with a miniature bow and three arrows, a sickle, an axe, a palm-leaf umbrella, and some coarse sugar and pulse. Sitting round the fire the mourners wail for the dead, whilst the Kota musicians play on their instruments. At dawns water is sprinkled on the embers and a pit is dug into which the ashes are scraped, the whole being covered with a large stone. " Finally a dim figure enters the circle, and raising a chatty high over his head, dashes it into pieces on the stone covering the ashes, bends down, touches the stone with his forehead, and hastens away. All the others perform in turn the same prostration, and, flitting silently down the hill, a procession of hurrying shadows fades into the mist, through which twinkles the distant fire of the kedmanei. Imagination might easily transform them into the departing spirits of the propitiated dead."
I have already referred to the simple marriage rites of the Badagas. Their funeral ceremonies appear to be much more elaborate. When a person is seen to be dying, a very small gold coin is dipped in ghee (clarified butter) and placed between the lips. If this is swallowed, so much the better ; if not, it is tied to the arm. This is supposed to pay the expenses of the journey to the next world. This small coin is said to be a Mysore one called a birian-hanna or viria raya and is valued at four annas (four pence). After death, messengers are sent forth to call together friends and relatives, and also to summon Kota musicians. A funeral car is made with wood and the branches of trees, and draped with cloth. The body is placed on a cot underneath this construction. All the next day a kind of death dance is kept up. The relatives do not join in the dance, but walk round the bier carrying food. in their hands and repeating with much weeping the good qualities of the deceased. As with the Todas, a calf is chosen to be a " scape-goat," and at this ceremony there is much chanting of prayers, concluding as follows : " Let all his sins be forgiven, and may it be well with him, yea, may all be well." The body with the car is then taken and burnt near to some neighbouring stream, and the ashes are collected and thrown into the water.
The Kotas, who act as musicians to the other hill tribes, seem in their funeral rites to copy both the Badagas and the Tódas. They have the car-like erection of the former, which they burn with the implements of the deceased. They also have a dry funeral in imitation of the latter, when skulls are placed on cots and burnt, together with bows and arrows and various other implements.
The Kurumbas, another tribe also described by Mr. Grigg, whenever they can afford it, administer the small gold coin to their sick when dying, in imitation of the Badagas. They also place the body under a car draped with cloths. After dancing round the car to the sounds of music, they burn the corpse with the car and the ceremony is complete.
The Irulas, whose simple marriages I have already described,' bury their dead without much ceremony. The body is placed in the grave in a sitting posture, with a lamp by its side ; the friends dance round the grave for some time, after which they fill it up and place a small upright stone to mark the spot, and that is all.
" The Vellans of Cochin either bury or burn their dead. The sons are the chief mourners and perform the funeral rites. The pollution lasts for sixteen days. On the morning of the sixteenth day the hut of the dead man or woman is well swept and cleaned by sprinkling water mixed with cowdung. The members of the family then bathe."
I have given these instances, as they seem to be representative of the various funeral rites of the nonHinduised tribes of South India ; and, as such, they may perhaps be representative of other parts of India.
( Originally Published 1908 )
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