IT’S TWO in the afternoon at the village Shani Shingnapur. A group of 8-10 women are sitting under a porch. Generally, their conversations revolve mundane routine, rising prices, weather or some gossip going around the village. However, today they have come together for a purpose. They are discussing the upcoming protest that will be held on January 26 at the Shani Shingnapur in which they are determined to participate in order ‘to safeguard the age-old belief’.
This village has been in news for some time now following the controversy around the temple’s rule that forbids women from entering the core shrine area. It all began in November when after a woman entered the shrine area, the villagers allegedly performed “purification” of the area — which was later denied by the trustees, attracting criticism from activists for being gender-biased.
While a group named Bhumata Brigade has announced a move that will break the temple’s “rule” on January 26, the temple management too has started “preparing” for the big day. The manager of the temple, Sanjay Banr, said, “It is not about men or women but about following the age-old ritual. No veda, purana or shastra says that the puja of Lord Shani is performed by a woman,” said Bankar, adding that the crowd will start gathering at the temple from the night of January 25 itself and everyone will be “alert” to catch miscreants. Almost 3,000 people are expected to join the protest. Security staff will be increased to double its capacity.
Anita Shete, who became the first woman to hold the position of the president of Shani Temple Trust last week, maintains that her appointment proves that the temple is not against women but she stresses that the appointment will not change the age-old practice. Bankar’s claim about the villagers supporting the temple trust appears true when one goes around speaking to people. The villagers believe in the temple’s rule and with an equal zest they are set to stop Bhumata Brigade against storming the temple.
Kamaldyandevi Sable, former sarpanch of Shani Shingnapur, has been going around the village urging women to participate. She says she is upset that the controversy is bringing bad name to the village that has always commanded respect for being a ‘village without doors’.
“Barring a handful incidences of thefts, the village has never had any bad experiences. And it’s all because of the presence of Lord Shani in our village. It’s not superstition but our faith. Almost 15 years ago, Narendra Dabholkar tried to do the same but failed,” she said.
All set to take part in the protest, 65-year-old Shevantabai Belekar says, “Muslim women have never demanded an entry in the mosque. Why should only the Hindus let go off their beliefs ?”
Interestingly, Bankar’s claim that from the past five years, even men except the priest, have been banned from entering the core shrine area does not hold ground because at the temple, any man who has a receipt of Rs 11,101, can find an entry in the core shrine area during the maha-aarti. Asked how many men take such receipts, he said, “A lot of men do that on a daily basis; only one man at a time can perform the maha-aarti.” Besides, even in the month of shravan, men are given entry to the shrine area.
Meanwhile, Trupti Desai of Bhumata Brigade says that their team has mobilised women from across the state to participate on that day.
“We are demanding equal rights to worship Lord Shani. If they have nothing against women, then why can’t they allow us or atleast have a woman priest? We have hired a helicopter and have sought permission from the collector. If we will not be able to get ‘darshan’ the normal way, we will reach the chauthara with the helicopter,” she said.