Shani-Shingnapur is 75 km away from the famous Shirdi pilgrimage centre in Western Maharashtra. Thanks to late film producer Gulshan Kumar, who in the 1990s produced a feature film `Suryaputraâ€™ based on the Lord Shani temple, Shani Shingnapur, an otherwise obscure village, became a national pilgrimage centre often clubbed with Shirdi to make it into a twin holiday package for tourists from across the country.
The deity of Lord Shani is a 56-inch black rock pillar located on an open platform. So the canopy of this sanctum sanctorum is literally the open sky. According to the hard core centuries-old beliefs of the villagers, there is no need of man-made security as Lord Shani is the protector. Hence, the houses of the 3,500-odd villagers are bereft of doors and there is no locking system. However, in recent times, one sees sliding doors and a bank (which was forbidden earlier) has also crept in with electronic locking systems as locks are not permitted.
Nevertheless, what villagers also believe is that Lord Shani can be accessible only to men and so women are debarred from entering the sanctum sanctorum â€“ that is climb up to the platform to pay obeisance. Last week though, a young girl quickly broke the barricades, climbed up the platform, quickly offered oil, paid obeisance and got out. All in 30 seconds flat! While one of the 90 CCTVs caught her movements, which have been playing over and over again on Marathi TV channels, over two dozen security personnel were left flabbergasted. One of them has resigned owning moral responsibility, and seven of them have been suspended.
However, it is not an innocuous security lapse as women are debarred and here comes a woman, who by defying tradition has put the entire village in a quandary. Village Sarpanch Bankar organised a successful one-day protest wherein the entire village did not light their gas stoves in their homes. Women of the village are also up in arms and are protesting against this impure act of a young lady. They give no scientific reason as to why women should be banned but simply say that is the way Lord Shani wants it and that is the tradition since their great grandparentsâ€™ days and hence the deity has become impure.
So, what is the solution? To purify the deity of the impure touch of a woman! Last weekend, hundreds of litres of milk were poured by men priests to cleanse the deity of impurity. Now, herein lies a controversy.
People are questioning the sanctity of men who undertook this purification process. Says a young activist Akshay Javadekar, â€śIt is indeed shameful that in this progressive 21st century, there should be discrimination between men and women in temples and that a woman should be considered impure. Also, what are the credentials that make these men pure enough to remove the impurity?â€™â€™
Another youngster Kunal Shirsathe says, â€śA person, in this case the priests and the villagers of Shani Shingnapur, who have no scientific reason for forbidding women to enter the sanctum sanctorum and explain how milk can purify the deity, have no right to impose such rules. This is slavery and I think we have the right to reject any religion, which does not give freedom to a person â€“ man or woman. In this case, I think, women should come forward to assert their right.â€ť
Maharashtra is not new to such instances. In 2012, the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) protested against the trustees of Mumbaiâ€™s famous Haji Ali Dargah for barring women from entering a particular part of the shrine. It had filed a complaint with the state government as well as the Minorities Commission but nothing has changed.
During the 1990s, several womenâ€™s groups in Pune and Mumbai protested against women not being allowed to read Dnyaneshwari (Marathi version of Bhagwad Gita penned by Marathi Sain Sant Dnyaneshwar) and against the Kanifnath Temple atop a hill near Pune. A complaint was lodged with the National Commission for Women, which directed the Mumbai police to institute an inquiry against both the temples.
Interestingly, the sanctum sanctorum of the Kanifnath Temple is the size of a telephone directory and men of all shapes and sizes enter it by removing their shirts. They have to retreat from the sanctum sanctorum through the same tiny door, leg-first. So, the cool response by the trustees of Kanifnath was to reiterate the manner of entry and as for Alandi, things remain the same today.
These occasional uprisings, though at a small level, are a sign of things to come in future â€“ that of women asserting themselves in religious places where they are discriminated against. Already, Maharashtra has a proliferation of women priests, who were earlier barred from pursuing this profession.