What could not happen in 400 years, finally fell apart in barely four months at the Shani Shingnapur temple in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra. No, there were no political parties raising the decibel level or going berserk to have their way. It was a simple act of marching ahead with heads held high and a determination that was simply unputdownable.
And the act was performed by none other than womenfolk themselves. As Priyanka Jagtap (21), a student and Pushpak Kevadkar (31), who runs a driving school, entered the sanctum sanctorum of Shani Shingnapur temple – the sacred platform where the rock idol of Shani had been installed – and offered worship at 5.15 pm, they broke an age-old distasteful custom widely prevalent in temples across the state and one that turned women into a second-class citizens in Maharashtra.
Significantly, many believe their maiden entry into the inner sanctum of the temple has restored the credibility of a state known for its progressive ideas and where revolutionary women like Jijabai, Savitribai Phule and Ahilyabai Holkar led from the front.
That the shackles came off on Gudi Padwa day, the Maharashtrian New Year, speaks eloquently of the rich Maharashtrian tradition of embracing the new and shedding the old on their path to peace and progress.
Both Jagtap and Kevadkar belong to Bhumata Mahila Brigade. They were earlier part of Trupti Desai-led Bhumata Brigade. Desai, who had remained unflinching and unwavering in her commitment to uphold women’s fundamental right to pray, deservedly then climbed on the sacred platform at exactly 7.05 pm and offered worship. As she famously said, “Ye Naari Shakti ki jeet hoyee hain (This is a victory of women’s power),” Desai walked the path which few dared to do in over 400 years.
The trigger for her battle for the women activists came on November 28 last year, when a woman entered the inner sanctum. The “sacred platform” is called the sanctum sanctorum, where from 2011 both men and women are prohibited from entering. Only the temple priest – a male – had been given the rights to the “pious spot”.
After the woman entered the inner sanctum on November 28, all hell broke loose. The villagers of Shingnapur – where educated folks are hard to locate – lost their cool. They protested, cried foul and shut down business for a day.
As many as seven security personnel, who made themselves short from the spot where the woman managed to gain entry, were sent packing. The security around the inner sanctum was tightened, more cameras were placed and everyone was warned to be more vigilant to keep women at bay. Nobody “knew” where the woman came from and where she disappeared. Her identity remains unknown till date. Whether she did it deliberately or it happened accidentally, nobody has a clue. Even if they knew, none is ready to bare it all.
The incident “shook” Shingnapur like never before. The collective bunch of villagers, temple trustees and priests couldn’t digest the fact that a woman entered the sacred platform. Apparently, that night they couldn’t get a wink. Next day, they got up and performed a “purification” ceremony called “dhoodh abhishek.”
As the entire village watched, the platform was bathed in milk and mantras were mouthed as if to purify the air too in a village where the dust constantly gets into your lungs and eyes, and smears your face with a thick layer. With their village getting more eyeballs for an act described by intellectuals in Maharashtra as undesirable, the villagers and trustees strained themselves to vehemently deny that any purification drama was enacted at the temple precincts.
When The Indian Express tried to speak to the trustees and temple priests and questioned them as to whether they resorted to any such act, they feigned ignorance and described milk purification as a daily practice. But Trupti Desai would have none of it, she found it not just unpalatable, but an act too demeaning for women in a country which swears by equality for both the sexes.
“Even 66 years after our Constitution guaranteed both men and women equal rights, women are being blatantly humiliated in places of worship, their fundamental rights are being crushed publicly and completely regressive notions that question women’s purity are being played up brazenly,” said Desai, a commerce graduate, who took to activism during her college days and has never looked back since.
Desai said the November 28 incident and the behaviour of Shingnapur villagers in its aftermath hit her hard. “The villagers reacted the way they did because wrong ideas have taken root in their minds; of menstruating women being unclean and impure.” And these outdated mindset, says Desai, has been spreading far and wide resulting in temple after temple in Maharashtra ousting women from the inner sanctum. “What has been unnerving is the response from both the state and the central governments, who had played spectators to perfection. Therefore, I thought it is time to take up the cudgles and put a conclusively stop this hate-woman campaign being practised in the temples and assert our fundamental right guaranteed by our Constitution,” says Desai, mother of a seven-year-old child.
On December 20, Desai and three members of her Bhumata Brigade then made an attempt to enter the inner sanctum of the temple. But failed to carry out their intent as the security personnel thwarted their bid. The Brigade then gave 8 days to the Shingnapur temple management to change their stance or face their wrath. It didn’t work. On January 26, Desai along with 1500 women drawn from different parts of Maharashtra decided to storm the Shingnapur temple but their attempt was foiled against as the Ahmednagar police stopped and detained them some 50 km from the temple.
As television channels played and replayed a feisty Desai and her aggressive bunch sprawled on the floor, resisting police attempts to stop their march, the nation watched the way its womenfolk were being treated. It apparently moved the Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis who tweeted that men and women deserved equal respect in places of worship. He then met Desai and her team, promising in person about honouring women’s right to pray.
Desai meanwhile turned her gaze on Trimbakeshwar temple in Nashik where too women suffer the same fate – of being barred from inner sanctum. “The Kashi Vishwashwer temple like the Trimbakeshwar temple is one of the 12 jyotirlings of the country. In Kashi Vishwashwer temple, women are allowed into the core shrine area but not at Trimbakeshwar…How can there be two sets of rules in temples which swear by same principles and rituals? It seems to boil down to the conservative mindset of male-dominated society…”
Desai said it’s high time that the nation nipped the tendencies that seek to subjugate women. “For centuries, our male-dominated society had its way. As a result, women never got the pride of place they deserved. If the birth of child is the biggest celebration in our families, how can then they call the process, without which the child cannot come into this world, impure?” she asks.
“Even our scriptures regard a man incomplete without a woman. Lord Shiva was called incomplete without Parvati alongside him…. Then why are women getting secondary treatment….Why can’t they be on equal footing with men. ”
Meanwhile, on March 31 and April 1, the Bombay High Court on a petition by activist Vidya Bal and others directed the state government to uphold the fundamental right of women to pray. “Those who prevent women from entering the places of worship should be arrested…they face six months jail under the Act,” the court ruled.
Armed with Bombay High Court ruling, Desai and 30-odd women of her Bhumata Brigade had decided to storm the Shani Shingnapur temple on April 2, which incidentally was Saturday, a day when devotees of Lord Shani throng the temples.
With the Maharashtra government itself filing an affidavit in the high court that it respects equality of men and women in gaining access to places of worship, it was widely anticipated that on April 2 the women activists will have their day out and Maharashtra would be able to turn over a new leaf in giving women their pride of place at places of worship. As the day unfolded, it became clear neither the power-that-be nor the people holding archaic mindset were prepared to show any shred of respect to their mothers, sisters and daughters.
And as it turned out the women activists where virtually chased out of the sacred temple premises through, what the activists, said a well-planned strategy. “It was clear that the police, the district administration, the villagers, the temple trustees had all joined hands to chase us out of the temple premises just when we had just stepped inside. Despite the high court order that emphasised that women had fundamental right to pray, we were not even allowed to pray forget about allowing us to offer worship in the core shrine area of the temple,” grumbled Desai.
“Anything could have happened…We are lucky to be alive today. The way the villagers charged at us, we thought they would lynch us…The way they came charging at us showed their intent. They scratched us with their nails, pulled her hands and used filthiest language against us. One of them was holding a knife, a few of them were holding strong lathis. The men too charged at us in the state of stupor. If they talk of protecting the sanctity of the temple by keeping menstruating women away, then how do they justify men come drunk and women using filthy language?” she had alleged. Desai’s charge was vehemently denied by villagers and Shingnapur sarpanch.
Desai said they had not expected things to turn out this way, especially in view of the strong words used by high court in its ruling and the government putting in writing that it does not believe in gender discriminiation. “But we were left wondering whether this government has any respect for law of the land or not…Does it care for what the high court says? Does the Constitution of the country, which gives equal right to men and women, means anything to the state government?” asked Desai, describing April 2 “as the black day when the Constitution of the country which upholds equality of men was murdered”.
Today, after she broke the 400-year-old tradition, Desai said she was hurt by Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis’ comment. “The CM had said that we were doing this for publicity….We were really hurt by his comment. And today, we haven’t heard anything from him so far…,” she said.
The Shingnapur temple management had always contended that both men and women are barred from the inner sanctum. “So where is the question of allowing women where men are not allowed?” said village sarpanch Balasaheb Bankar. “It is not about purity or impurity of women. Actually, the platform where the Shani idol has been installed hardly has any space for anyone to put their feet on. On the small space, people offer flowers, garlands and oil. The place itself is slippery. How can anyone put their feet there…We only allow an male priest to enter the core shrine area,” he said.
But on Gudi Padwa Day, Bankar clammed up and allowed women activists to have their day. Desai had argued that when the temple was allowing a male priest to enter the sanctum sanctum, why were they not hiring the services of a woman priest?
“Actually, because of their regressive thinking that women are impure, they keep women out of the temple,” said Desai.
On Friday, the Devasthan Trust relented only after some villagers entered the inner sanctum as part of the ritual bath of the deity – which is performed thrice in a year. “Since the Bombay High Court has said that if men are allowed, women should also be allowed in the inner sanctum, we therefore agreed to open the gates to all devotees.” Desai said the trust had no other option.
“The fear of high court action made them fall in line.” Desai who heads the Bhumata Brigade and the Bhumata Rangini Brigade in her capacity as the founder-president, has now given a call to break outdated and anti-women tradition and beliefs at all places of worship across the country. “Yeh Jung Jaari Rahengi…we will fight till our Constitutional right to pray is honoured in all temple in Maharashtra and across the state. The Bhumata Brigade has 21 branches across the state with 4000 members.
Desai, who has already become the face of women’s movement for right to pray in Maharashtra, plans to take her movement nationwide. “Today it is Shani Shingnapur, on April 13 it will Mahalaxmi temple in Kolhapur and then in May it will be Sabrimala temple. Wherever gender discrimination is practised, womenfolk of this country will assert their right to pray. We will also be meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi and would press for a law to ensure our fundamental right to pray in the sanctum sanctorums,” she said.
Hailing the women activists, Hamid Dabholkar, son of slain rationalist Dr Narendra Dabholkar said, “It was Dr Dabholkar who had first started the movement in 1998. He along with Dr Shriram Lagoo, Baba Adhav and other were arrested after they had started a march from different parts of the state. In 2001, my father had also filed a PIL in the high court which has remained pending till date.”
Hamid said, “Today’s development is a justice for the thoughts and ideals for which Dr Narendra Dabholkar stood.”