There was a time when only upper caste men– could enter, let alone lead the prayers in temples. Today Janardhan Manjhi a dalit priest officially presides over the religious proceedings in the temple.
When it comes to rituals, it is alleged that Hindu religion follows patriarchy. For centuries priesthood in Indian society has been the domain of men, but now things are changing and women priests in India are also gaining prominence. 40-year-old Megha Gokhle has been performing the duties of a priest in Navi Mumbai’s Belapur Township for the past three years. In spare time, she conducts teaching classes for some 50 boys and girls, on the nuances of conducting pujas, rituals, ceremonies and performing religious incantations. Like her Chitralekha is working as a female Hindu priest in Pune.
Female priests are quite popular in many parts of Maharashtra. Even in other parts of India, there are so many temples where women are assuming the role of priests.
The centuries-old tradition of replacing women with male priests started with the 900-year-old Pandharpur temple in Maharashtra. The Bhadhve and Utpath –high caste brahmin families claimed total control over one of the richest temples. Every day some Rs 20,000 used to be collected for the Vithal arti and Rs 7000 for Rukmani arti and some Rs 1.5 to Rs 2 lakh were collected in donations daily. This was the status when the Supreme Court intervened and stripped the right of the high caste brahmin families to appoint priests and pocket all donations. At the behest of the apex court, the state government appointed a managing committee, which invited non Brahmins and women to perform the duties of priests. Today the total annual earning of more than five crore rupees goes to the Temple Management Committee.
This is how tradition of appointing women priests and backward class (Mahants) priests be started in the Vittal-Rukmani Devi Temple. Some 139 applications were received from non-Brahmins, Dalits and women willing to perform the duties of priest.
“Ours is the first temple in the
country to break the tradition and
opening the gates of allowing non-Brahmins and women to perform puja and other rituals,” says a member of the Vitthal Rukmini Temple Trust.
Today according to estimates Pune’s Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Jnana Prabhodini, Shankar Seva Samiti have trained around 1,600 women priests. Around 600 women have been trained as purohits and priests in different parts of Maharashtra. These women currently enrolled in the one-year priesthood course come from all Hindu castes. Most of them are housewives between 40 and 65 years of age. Before anything else they’re taught Sanskrit in which the Hindu religious mantras are chanted. Most of the applicants are said to hail from OBCs, Marathas, the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) and other castes.
Some other institutes are Sola Bhagwat Vidyapeeth and Somnath Sanskrit Vidhyaylaya both of which were started as a move to socially integrate the women from scheduled & backward castes from downtrodden castes when Narendra Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat.
As a result of the winds of change today many schools are formally offering to train women to conduct Sanskrit verses from ancient texts to perform, rituals, prayers, engagements, marriages, house warming and last rites.
The Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam temple that has decided to give training to non-Brahmins in temple rituals has started an initiative called ‘Dalita Govindam’ and opened its Vedic school to Dalit students. All this is part of an initiative to give rigorous training to around 200 people from dalit and backward communities as part of a pilot project. This is the first time that the administration of the world’s richest temple is offering a certificate course in Vedic rituals for dalits and backward classes. The certificate course will be conducted in collaboration with Sri Venkateswara Vedic University.
Significantly District judge Anil Kumar Shukla of Raigarh, Chhattisgarh district court sentenced a priest Raja Pandey (63) to two years’ rigorous imprisonment for not allowing a Dalit woman to enter the temple in the year 2013. The priest was also fined Rs 2,000 for prohibiting the Dalit woman Mayawati Sarathi, to step into the temple.
In yet another case, a group of Dalit women who entered a Hindu temple in Karnataka were asked to pay a fine for defiling the worship place banned for the lower castes. In yet another case scheduled caste women were told to pay the fine for purification of the temple located in Hassan. The incident enraged the community in Sigaranahalli in Holenarsipur taluk. Meanwhile the women refused to pay the penalty forced on them by the ‘upper caste’ Hindus.
It all began when nine upper caste Hindu women from Vokkaliga
community and four dalit women formed a self-help group and decided to make a special prayer offering at the temple. This was objected by some members of the upper caste
community who wanted the priest to hold special purification ceremony.
The famous Vitthal Rukhmini temple in Pandharpur, Maharashtra- the Southern Kashi of India was the first to appoint the first-ever non-Brahmin and women priests. These priests with a deep understanding and knowledge of Vedic rites are appointed on a
Lord Vitthoba, a local version of Lord Krishna, and his consort Rukmini are worshipped here by the 1,50,000-strong population of the town. A trip to Pandharpur means a visit to some other famous temples in and around the town, including the Goddess Tulja Bhavani Temple, the family diety of the great Maratha warrior king Chhatrapati Shivaji; Sri Swami Samarth Temple; Lord Sri Kshetra Temple and Lord Dattatreya Temple.
Incidentally, the world-famous
2,00,000 dabbawalas of Mumbai are staunch devotees of Lord Vitthoba and Rukmini and they take a brief vacation for their annual ‘jatras’ to Pandharpur. The dabbawalas belonging to the ‘Varkaris’ clan walk hundreds of kilometers from different parts of the State in processions taking two-three weeks during the Hindu months of Chaitra (March-April), Ashadh (June-July), Karthik (October-November) and Magh (January-February).
Over 10 lakh Warkaris devotees visit the temple on the occasions of Aashadhi and Kartik Ekadashi every year. n
(The writer is a senior journalist)