By Debasis Tripathy from Kendrapara
Women are considered embodiments of the Divine Mother in Hindu philosophy. Since ancient times, they have been enjoying equal rights with their male counterparts, specially in the field of worship and knowledge. It may sound unbelievable but they are engaged in performing puja as priests in some temples. There is an oldest temple in the coastal belt of Kendrapara district in Orissa where no one other than women are permitted to perform the daily rituals.
Differing from the age-old practice of male priesthood, many widows belonging to a lower fishermen community perform the worship of Devi Panchubarahi at the Panchubarahi shrine, which lies adjacent to the Bay of Bengal. It is 50 kms from the district headquarters of Kendrapara .
This shrine, one of the most popular shrines of Shakti cult, is said to be built in 8th century during the reign of the Bahaumakar dynasty. Since the last 1300 years it stands as a milestone in gender neutrality in the Stabhaya hamlet. According to the natives, the daily rituals in worship of the Goddess Panchubarahi and other idols placed in the sancturn sanctorum of this temple were performed by a male priest many years ago. One day a mishap occurred, which brought about a drastic change in the temple management. A young priest, while undressing the idols to perform their bath ritual, became attracted towards the physical beauty of the Goddess. The idol seemed to him to be a living deity and aroused his perverted feelings. He attempted to satisfy his urge. But, how could the Divine Mother tolerate this? So the wicked priest was crushed and the Goddess now came to be worshiped by women, which continues to this day. Women, widows and unmarried girls from the fishermen community serve as priests. Under no circumstances are the female members of other castes allowed to do so. ?There does not arise any question of the priesthood being given to men, even if he is a Brahmin or anyone else,? said Sita Sethi, one of the priest of the temple.
The women priests read the Gita and other scriptures like other Brahmin Pundits and chant the ritualistic hymns. They get equal rights for reading scriptures without any restrictions.
Though many devotees come here daily, there is neither any resting place nor a permanent road. Furthermore, the gradual advancement of the sea is a serious threat to the existence of this old temple. Silence of the authorities over the issue is causing a lot of resentment among the locals. If not protected, this unique shrine will become a thing of the past soon. “The Archaeological Survey of India should undertake the reconstruction and preservation of this historic temple,? demands Golakha Chandra Behera, district Karyavah of RSS.