Shashimani Devi, the last living Mahari of Jagannath temple and “human consort” of the Lord, passed away on Thursday at the age of 93 after a brief illness.
The Maharis were the temple dancers or Devdasis who danced and sang before Lord Jagannath in the 12th century temple as part of the daily rituals.
Shashimani was the last remaining Mahari of Jagannath temple. Dedicated to the temple by her parents at the age of 7 through a ceremony called Sari Bandhan, she was formally married to the Lord. Once the ceremony was over, the Maharis were considered to be wedded to the god for the rest of their life.
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Sashimani’s foster daughter, Rupashri Mohapatra, said till she was fit Sashimani would dance in the morning and at night. She was a Bheetar-gani Mahari, one who would dance inside the sanctum sanctorum. Wearing silk sarees, gold jewellery and bangles the Maharis would dance and sing before Lord Jagannath.
Like a devoted wife, she regularly observed Savitri Brata for the Lord like married Oriya women do for their husbands. Though the customary ‘devadasi nritya’ has been stopped in the Jagannath Temple a long time ago, Shashimani Devi danced during rituals like Nabakalebar, Nanda Utsav and Duar Paka during Bahuda Yatra.
Shashimani stopped dancing in the temple more than a decade ago as she no longer had the stamina to continue. She continued to live with a foster family who took care of her food and other needs. The Maharis were expected to remain spinsters for rest of their life. In the initial days, the job commanded respect and awe but the the devdasi culture slowly degenerated.
In early 90s, a controversy raged when the temple priests decided to enroll new girls as temple Devdasis. Protests were held all over the country and allegedly, no girl volunteered. More so, the residing devdasi also did not encourage any more girls to be a part of this tradition.
Shashimani would be cremated at Swargadwar in Puri this evening where her foster son Somanath Panda would light the funeral pyre brought from the kitchen of Jagannath temple.