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Orissa temple a statement for Dalits and womanhood

The Maa Dhamarai temple in Bhadrak district is more than a typical Hindu place of worship

Written by Debabrata Mohanty | Dhamra,bhadrak | Published: July 3, 2012 3:11:45 am

The Maa Dhamarai temple in Bhadrak district is more than a typical Hindu place of worship; it goes against two trends in Orissa. The temple is not only accessible to Dalits but also has women priests — again Dalits — in a state where a patriarchal society frowns on this very concept.

Denial of access to Dalits has been a rule,usually unwritten,in a number of Orissa’s countless temples. In July last year,chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes P L Punia was denied entry to a temple to goddess Kali in Puri district. In 2005,four Dalits had faced massive opposition from upper castes when they tried to enter a 300-year-old Jagannath temple in their village in coastal Kendrapara. Those Dalits did gain entry a year later following a directive from the Orissa High Court,but the general trend continues elsewhere.

The standout Maa Dhamarai temple is on the outskirts of Dhamra,a fishing village about 20km from the ballistic missile launchpad of Wheeler Island.

“Before Maa Dhamarai,there is no caste or gender discrimination. She is a woman after all,” says Rabindra Nath Majhi,who looks after the temple’s day-to-day affairs. “It is the priestesses who are allowed to perform certain rituals. We men don’t even dare look at the goddess in the dark. Only a woman can look at her from up close,” says Nityananda Das of the temple management.

At the break of dawn every day,hundreds of Dalits as well as upper caste members from villages throng the temple as priestesses Bimali Majhi and Laxmi Behera perform the rituals,chanting hymns and making offerings to the goddess.

The temple caters to villages under Dhamra and Jagula gram panchayats,which are dominated by Kaibartas,a fishing community. There is also a legend around how Dalits came to have their “own” temple. According to local folklore,the goddess,a vegetarian living at a place called Satabhaya,had five sisters who were non-vegetarian. The legend goes that they disliked their sister’s food habits so much that they pushed her into the sea.

Some five decades ago,when some members of a fishing family cast their net,it became so heavy that they could not lift it for days. When they finally managed to do so,what they found in the net was a large rock. The king of Kanika,Sailendra Narayan Bhanjadeo,under whose kingdom the Dhamra panchayat fell,claimed to have had a dream the same night,in which the goddess had sought a temple built for her near Dhamra. The stone was first worshipped in a thatched house,and later shifted to a concrete temple in 1998. One of the goddess’s specific wishes was that she should be worshipped by widows from the fisherfolk community.

That is how Bimali Majhi got her job. Majhi,over 70 and Dalit,is a widow from a village in Chandbali block of Bhadrak district. Married in her teens,she lost her husband to a violent land dispute a decade later,came back to her parents’ home and looked after her three children as well as those of her brothers. Shortly after the children married,the presiding Dehuri of the temple died and the search for a new one stopped at Majhi’s door. Her roots lie in one of the two fisherfolk clans that had been “ordained” for the job.

“I don’t know any formal hymns like the Brahmins do in pujas. For me it’s a heart-to-heart talk with the goddess,” says Majhi,who has been serving in the temple for 15 years along with co-priestess Laxmi.

For fisherfolk,the goddess is the only insurance for a successful trip into the Bay of Bengal. “All fisherfolk who make a trip to sea offer their prayers at the temple before they start out in the morning. I have never seen any fisherman who has gone to sea without visiting the temple,” says Sudarshan Behera,an elderly villager. “I have even seen scientists from DRDO offering prayers at the temple before they go for the launch of a ballistic missile.”

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