Dressed in a simple sari, with a mangalsutra, a haldi-kumkum tika and bangles as accessories, Hema Ashtekar looks a bit out of place in the mostly male group. Like them, she is here to appear for an interview for the posts of eight priests for the ancient Shri Vitthal Rukmani temple in the pilgrim town of Pandharpur, Solapur district, Maharashtra.
Ashtekar is one of 23 women candidates who have applied for the position of priest for Goddess Rukmani. On May 18, 161 applicants appeared for the interview, in response to an advertisement placed by the temple committee, which mentioned that non-Brahmins and women were eligible to apply. Out of the 199 responses to the advertisement, 93 were from Brahmins.
Sitting in the long corridor of the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC)’s guest house, Ashtekar looks nervous as she waits for her turn. Soon her name is called out. “What are the various mantras for the preparation of panchamrita (a mixture of honey, milk, curd, ghee, and sugar used for libation during a ritual called abhishekh)?” asks Mohan Date, head of the interview panel comprising six men. Ashtekar fumbles at first, but after some prompting by Date, recites the mantras. Next, the 45-year-old is asked to recite the sri suktam, and a more confident Ashtekar starts, her pronunciation perfect, the ancient hymn that celebrates divinity in female form.
Situated on the banks of the Chandrabhaga river, Pandharpur is the centre of the Warkari cult, which has followers from across the country. The annual pilgrimage of Wari (wherein Warkaris walk from the temple towns of Dehu and Alandi in Pune, carrying the padukas of Sant Tukaram and Dyaneshwar, to Pandharpur) sees more than 4 lakh devotees congregating in this town.
The Warkari cult revolves around the teachings of sants, who spoke of an egalitarian society not bound by caste and creed. However, until now, the priests here have been Brahmin males, most of them from the families of Utpats or Badves, to whom the administration of the 900-year-old temple was entrusted till the 1970s.
After the enactment of The Pandharpur Temple Act, 1973, a committee was appointed for the administration of the temple. Even Dalits were banned from entering the temple till the 1950s. The ban was reversed when social reformer Sane Guruji went on a fast-unto-death against the exclusion. Ironically, the Warkari cult has had many Dalit sants. Pilgrims pay obeisance to the samadhi of Sant Chokamela, who was not allowed inside the temple, as he belonged to the Mahar community. It has had many women sants, too, but none have served as a priest in the continued…