Let the bells ring

In a first-of-its-kind move,two widows find place as priests in a Mangalore temple

Written by Harsha Raj Gatty | Published: October 13, 2013 12:20:26 am

The who’s who of Mangalore follow two women draped in turmeric coloured saris as they halt at pedestals of every deity at the Kudroli Gokarnatheshwara Temple. Under the tutelage of senior priests,their knowledge of the temple’s basic rituals has been perfected. A devotee,seeking their blessing,throws himself at their feet.

In what may be termed a milestone in the history of Mangalore Dasara celebrations,two widows on October 6 took the lead in performing rituals at the temple and were formally appointed as temple priests.

Lakshmi,67,from Mooda village in Bantwal taluk,and Indira,45,from Bannur village in Puttur taluk,were approached by the temple trustees four months ago,when they were asked to join as ‘archakas’ or priestesses.

Indira,mother of three,lost her husband five years ago. Although she readily agreed when the temple authorities came to her home to seek her consent,she was stunned by the unprecedented move. “Even though people in my neighbourhood are friendly,there is some apprehension about inviting widows for family functions or festivals. In fact,widows don’t expect to be invited,” she says.

The two women were welcomed into the temple’s sacred areas by a grand procession,flanked by music bands. The temple houses deities like Narayanguru swamiji,Annapoorneshwari,Hanumana,Krishna,Dattathreya,Shiva and Subramanya.

Only men have performed rituals in these sacred areas. “Widows have been considered inauspicious for centuries. It is ironic that women,who are honoured as the child bearers and goddesses,are thought to be inauspicious when their husbands die. It’s absolutely ridiculous,” says Harikrishna Bantwal,a trustee of the temple.

In the past 30 years,the condition of widows,however,has significantly improved. Ancient practices such as the shaving of their heads or confining them in a room have begun to slowly fade away in the Dakshina Kannada region. Bestowing Lakshmi and Indira with priesthood marks a break from former practices wherein widows have been barred from attending social gatherings and were considered to be bad omens.

Lakshmi passes the aarti to devotees,never looking into their eyes,as she has grown accustomed to doing after 20 years of being a widow. She devoted her life to educating her children and getting them married. Although she politely refused to be interviewed,she thanked the temple authorities for the opportunity to be in the service of god.

The women have already undergone four months of training at Narayana Guru Mandir in Bantwal Cross road (B C road). They will serve as trainees for a while at the temple in Mangalore before being inducted as full-time priests.

Their routine begins at 6.30 am when all the priests gather to offer their morning prayers for an hour-and-a-half. Priests are then assigned to different pedestals where they welcome regular devotees.

Like their male counterparts,the two will receive Rs 6,000 every month and live in accommodations within the temple premises.

This step towards reform,however,has not gone down well with a few male priests. “There should be a mythological reference for such action. Some members of the trust are trying to obtain political mileage,” a priest said.

The appointment of the widows is thought to be the brain child of Congress leader and former union minister Janardhana Poojary,who has been on the forefront of restoring the rights of disadvatanged women in society.

Ramesh,a resident of a village in Bantwal,claims it is unholy for women between the ages of 14 and 60 to enter the sacred areas of a temple. He says he and other village elders will approach the temple authorities.

Dismissing the possibility,Bantwal says,“If women are considered polluted,we must stop worshiping goddesses like Lakshmi,Saraswati and Durga. Those who think this way lack rationality and are insecure within the confines of their own beliefs.”

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