The historic temple of Vitthal Rukmani in the temple town of Pandharpur is all set to get its first woman and non-Brahmin priests. The temple management committee finally cleared the roadblocks for appointment of the priests earlier this week.
Located on the banks of the Chandrabhaga river, the 900-year-old temple is the heart centre of the Warkari community. Spread across the neighbouring state, the Warkari community is an casteless movement, which centers around the devotion of Lord Vitthal in Pandharpur. Every year, during the annual pilgrimage of Palkhi, lakhs and lakhs of devotes converge at Pandharpur.
Traditionally, male members of the Brahmin families of Badve and Utpat have been serving as priests in the temple for many centuries. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court had quashed the hereditary rights of the families, following which the state government had appointed a temple management committee to manage the affairs of the temple.
In the month of May, the said committee led by former minister Anna Dange had decided to invite applications from non-Brahmin and women candidates also for the positions of 10 priests in the temple. Following this decision, 199 applications were received, of which 23 were from women.
Interviews were conducted for the selection also. Sanjay Teli, the chief executive officer of the temple, had said that a panel of experts had conducted the interview and quizzed the applicants on their prowess in religious matter.
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Although the Warkari community prides itself for its egalitarian characteristics, entry for Dalits was banned in the temple till 1950. Also, the decision of the temple committee had sparked protests from various leaders of the community who said it was against their tradition.
However, early in June, the temple committee did a U-turn when it came to announcing the names of successful candidates. Instead of announcing the names, they decided to refer the matter to the law and judiciary department of the state government asking it if they had the right to appoint priests.
While Dange had cited the protests by Varkaris as the reason for the delay, insiders had pointed out that possible political ramifications as the reason for the temple committee’s sudden cold feet.
Although, the opinion from the law and judiciary is yet to be received, the temple committee in its meeting decided to go ahead with the announcement of the names of the priests. Teli mentioned that of the 10 selected five are Brahmins(which includes both the successful women candidates) and five non-Brahmins.
Teli, mentioned that the temple committee has arranged for special training for the successful candidates from July 26 and they would be inducted in the service of the temple from August 1. “We have organised for two Utsav Moorthy of the idols, where we will teach them the various rituals and poshak (dress) ceremonies,” he said.
Urmilla Bhate, one of the successful woman candidates termed her selection as an overwhelming victory for the woman kind. “This would give women their rightful place in the temples, which has long been denied to them,” she said.
Dange on his part hoped that this tradition would continue for years to come in the temple.