A group of feisty women wrest the right to worship at the inner sanctum of Hindu temples in Maharashtra, if only for a stipulated 90 minutes.
Last Thursday, when members of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly were readying themselves for a debate on granting 50 per cent reservation to women in local self-government institutions and the state legislature, a group of women was making another kind of history in Kolhapur, nearly 500 km away from Mumbai.
These women stormed into the iconic Mahalaxmi Temple at Kolhapur, demanding the right to worship this goddess in the sanctum sanctorum which is otherwise out of bounds for women. The priests of the temple cursed them, and warned that the wrath of Goddess Mahalaxmi would befall them. The angry curses, however, gave way to demure pleas as the women stood their ground. Unwilling to relent, the women entered the forbidden area and offered haldi kumkum to the idol. A giant step had been taken.
Word soon spread and when the Women’s Reservation Bill was presented in the Legislative Assembly two hours later, it was to a packed house. Without much ado, the Bill was passed by the Lower House where the number of women members can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
There was disbelief at Vidhan Bhavan, where the Budget Session was in progress. While a handful of male MLAs welcomed the women’s actions, the majority felt that it was a breach of tradition. As news channels beamed the incident across the state, the reaction of women was astounding. The minister of state for home, Satej Patil, was forced to call a meeting and declare the sanctum santorum open to all women. This, though, came with a rider: it would only be open from 10 am to 11.30 am in the morning for a fortnight as a test case. If successful, the restriction on timings would be lifted and women worshippers will get to enter the forbidden area through the day.
“Though it is only for one-and-a-half hours every day, it is still a victory,” says Neeta Kelkar, the state unit chief of the BJP who was among those who had initiated the Kolhapur move. “We have demanded, though, that women should be allowed to visit the temple all the time. Why should there be fixed timings?”asks Kelkar.
The priests argue that since Goddess Mahalaxmi is decked in all her finery that includes a substantial amount of gold, allowing women into the sanctum santorum would see a surge in crowds and threaten the safety of the jewellery worn by Her. “It could be robbed. Right now, not many men worship in the disputed area. In the case of women, everyone will want to touch the Goddess. What if something gets stolen or robbed?” demands one of the priests.
Since then, the move has sparked sporadic incidents across the state. Except the Saptashrungi Temple at Wani (near Nasik), Renuka Temple at Mahur, and Tuljabhavani Temple at Tuljapur, women are banned from entering the sanctum sanctorum of any other temple in the state. For decades now, only men have been allowed to worship in the area, while women offer prayers from a distance.
The argument for disallowing women worshippers into temples across the state is that the deity could be defiled if touched by a woman who is menstruating. “Even among Hindus, there are women who go to temples when they are menstruating. How can we stop women from other communities who can touch the deity during this inauspicious period?” asks another priest.
“Are we women fools? It is a tradition in any family, be it Hindu or Muslim, that women do not undertake auspicious activities during their menstrual cycle. The main thing is that priests will lose their extra earnings. Now, since women cannot worship the deity, many have yearly pujas in their houses. Now if we are allowed to touch the deity, why will we call priests home?” reasons Sevanti Gaikwad, a Mumbai resident.
Though there have been murmurs of dissent in the past, it was largely confined to debates in closed rooms. Recently, the issue was raised in the Legislative Assembly by Maharashtra Navnirman Sena MLA Ram Kadam. Though Kadam was aggressive in his demand that women be allowed to worship in a temple’s sanctum sanctorum, the solution he offered was timid. But after Kelkar and her brigade entered the temple, Kadam reached the place the next day.
The historic move at the Mahalaxmi Temple has seen record attendance of women devotees from across Maharashtra and the neighbouring states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. On a single day since the Kolhapur protest, about 10,000 women turned up to pray at the temple within the stipulated one-and-a-half hours. The swelling numbers are proof that the move is a success, points out Kelkar.
Though Maharashtra has been home to radical social reformers such as Mahatma Jyotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule, Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj, Sant Dnyaneshwar and Lokmanya Tilak, to name just some of the prominent ones, the issue of allowing women to worship in the sanctum santorum of temples has been largely left untouched. In fact, in Alandi where Dynaneshwar took samadhi (the act of giving up worldly life), women are banned from entering the area or even reading the Dynaneshwari, penned by the saint.
In a village in Sangamner in the state’s Ahmednagar district, there is a religious tradition of women pulling the chariot of Lord Hanuman during annual celebrations. Folklore has it that decades ago during a war, all the men of the village were rounded up and taken away by enemies. So in a breach of tradition, the women of the village got together and pulled the chariot. Since then, the practice has been followed.
In modern-day Maharashtra, the Kolhapur incident will serve as an example many women will emulate. “Women in urban areas have more inhibitions than their rural counterparts. Village women are more liberated. This will definitely catch on as a social movement,” says Mumbai-based sociologist Promila Basu.
Interestingly, Maharashtra is also home to a sizeable number of women priests. These women are housewives from Brahmin as well as non-Brahmin families who have studied the Vedas and are trained to perform rituals. But what typically happens is that most people ask for Brahmin women priests to perform their rituals, thereby defeating the gender-led spirit of the movement.
Some years ago, a woman collector in Pathanamthitta, Kerala, the district where the well-known Sabarimala Temple is located, decided that she would enter the main area of the temple with a band of women devotees. Women are not allowed to enter the Sabarimala temple. Though the move would have made history in a state that boasts of one of the highest literacy rates in the country, not even a handful of women came forward to support the collector. The issue was never broached again.
Many women feel that anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare must also concentrate his efforts on getting women equal worshipping rights at the state’s temples. Ironically, the majority of well-known temples whose presiding deities are goddesses do not allow women to touch the idol. The issue has found resonance among women from various walks of life. “Menstruation helps procreation. So why is it made out to be a crime against a woman?” asks Hema Ranade, a high school teacher.
Sociologists feel that Maharashtra’s temple movement also needs political support to grow into a successful social movement. “When it comes to women’s issues, there is just noise, no action. If vocal women politicians took up this issue at a national level, it will be successful. Otherwise, it will not gain momentum. In villages, there is the fear of being ostracised,” says Basu.