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 temple.
In January this year, the Supreme Court ended the hereditary rights of the Utpat and Badve families. A meeting of the temple committee, headed by former minister Anna Dange, then decided to invite applications from non-Brahmin and women priests. Sanjay Teli, the chief executive officer of the temple, says the move was taken to demonstrate that no single caste or group of people could claim monopoly on God.
When she spotted the advertisement, Ashtekar was thrilled at the prospect of serving as a priest in the famous temple. A home-maker, she has been associated with various reform movements in the area for reclaiming women’s right in the religious sphere, and has two graduation degrees in science and education. “The scriptures say that those who know the supreme one can be called Brahmins. They should follow the right path, the right rituals and not claim supremacy by birth alone. Besides, Rukmani herself is a woman, so why should men serve her?” asks Ashtekar.
Even the Act governing the temple does not bar the appointment of women priests, says Teli. “This is, perhaps, the first instance when an ancient religious shrine would employ women priests,” he says.
Urmilla Bhate, 50, believes that women can be as effective as men when it comes to priesthood. “Our scriptures have examples where women have led religious rites. But somewhere in the annals of history, it (that right) was taken away from us by a group of selfish men. We have to get that back and that is why I am here,” says Bhate, who has a Master’s degree in Marathi.
Both Bhate and Ashtekar are Brahmins by caste and several men of their families have been associated with the temple as priests or servers.
With this long tilak, dhoti and a flowing chadar, Venkatesh Jilla is a picture of a traditional priest. Armed with a laptop, which has clips of him conducting complex rituals, the 32-year-old is confident of getting a position. “Given a chance, I will prove myself as an efficient priest,” says Jilla, who belongs to the Padmashali caste (included in the Other Backward Castes), and is here to fulfil his father’s dream. A graduate in commerce, Jilla is a priest in a local Ram temple. The Padmashali caste is known for its proficiency in priestly functions and its members serve in various small temples of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and other states, but usually they are not employed by big temples. “This move will break the hegemony of Brahmins,” he says.
But Ramesh Pawar, a devotee from Beed in Maharashtra, is not sure how the new system will work. “In none of the bigger shrines do we have women or non-Brahmin priests. What will women do on their days of ritual impurity?” he asks. In Pandharpur, devotees hold the cymbal and the mridangam in their hands as they circumbulate the temple, singing songs. When it was pointed out that he was singing a song composed by Sant Janabai, a woman saint, a while ago, Pawar said saints were “different”.
Vasudev Utpat and Babasaheb Badve, the scions of the two priestly families who held sway over the temple over the last 2,000 years, are upset. “The rituals of Vitthal are unique, and no one but the Utpats or the Badves can perform them. The ancient mantras are also known only to us. The people who are conducting the interviews and those appearing for them do not know these, and they will not be able to continue the time-honoured practices of the temple,” says Utpat.
What they do not talk about is that the state government decided to take over the temple management from the two families in the late 1970s, because of allegations of corruption, mismanagement and fleecing of the pilgrims. It had become a custom to auction the right of worship on special days to the highest bidder; the bids sometimes ran into several lakhs of rupees. “Yes, there might have been some black sheep, but that has been blown out of proportion,” says Utpat. He points out that the hereditary rights of the priests of the Tuljapur shrine or the Jejuri Khandoba shrine in the districts of Osmanabad and Pune, respectively, had not been withdrawn just because they were non-Brahmins.
But then the move has found voices of support, too. Hari Narke, professor, Mahatma Phule chair, University of Pune, says, “I hope it is taken up at all levels. (Social reformer) Mahatma Jyotiba Phule had asked for the opening of posts for all Hindus and I am glad that is happening now,” he says, adding that even Babasaheb Ambedkar had passed a resolution in 1920, asking for religious appointments only through merit.
This story appeared in print under the headline Rukmani’s People