For over four centuries, no woman has entered the Trimbakeshwar’s inner sanctorum. When the fear of heaven and hell fails, the threat of mob violence looms over the activists, who are determined to break the taboo.
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For over four centuries, no woman has entered the Trimbakeshwar’s inner sanctorum. When the fear of heaven and hell fails, the threat of mob violence looms over the activists, who are determined to break the taboo.
When the residents of Trimbakeshwar town arrived at the police station, the sun was still up, baking the cracks on the land, wrinkles of an ageing drought. Even the Godavari river that originated on the towering hilltop of Brahmagiri had choked and shrivelled. The Ganga of the south, the second longest river in India, was dying.
As a city-bred journalist, I had arrived in Trimbakeshwar that very day. I was trailing the dramatic and anecdotal journey of social change, from the courts of law to sanctums of faith. For the manmade water crisis wasn’t the reason we had gathered in the station’s community hall. To the residents, the reason was far graver. Trimbakeshwar was a temple town dominated by the purohits (priest community). The entire town’s economy thrived on the temple’s activities, especially occult pujas. After almost 500 years, an unquestionable tradition was being threatened.
While the crowds trudged up the stairs and settled into plastic chairs, the gravity of the situation weighed them down. A Senior Cop was still preparing himself for the meeting.and I — crouch amidst the ruins of demolished homes in the village of Barkuta , in Korba, when the blasting from the mine begins, sending earth and rock from flattened fields and forests into the air. We are asked by those whose houses tremble why the story of India ramping up its coal production at their expense is not explosive enough.
To anyone privy to the karmic laws that governed official transfers, the reality was obvious. ‘High-handed’ behaviour implied messing with the powerful and corrupt, if the two weren’t synonymous already.
He had spent the past few hours in his cabin going through legal documents, highlighting important lines with a fluorescent marker. He was a man of law (a PhD in fact), employed to protect it in letter and spirit, even if it conflicted with the traditions and beliefs of the people under his jurisdiction. Yet, the cooperation of these very people was critical to his work. He, of all people, would know. The Senior Cop was transferred from his last posting for ‘high-handed behaviour’, after raiding an illegal gambling den. To anyone privy to the karmic laws that governed official transfers, the reality was obvious. ‘High-handed’ behaviour implied messing with the powerful and corrupt, if the two weren’t synonymous already.
As he entered the hall, the Cop made an extra effort to hide all traces of vulnerability and nervousness. He stood behind a wooden table to address the gathering of agitated folk.
Constables, trustees of the temple trust, priests, tantric babas, ordinary folk, all were present to address the conflict that tragically started on the auspicious day of Mahashivaratri. On Mahashivaratri, the night that Shiva wedded Parvati (for the second time), a female activist tried to enter the temple’s garbha gruha. The garbha gruha, or the womb chamber, was the sanctum sanctorum of the shrine. And within the womb was the jyotirling. The jyotirling represented different things to different people. To some, the ling represented Shiva’s phallus. To others, it represented the infinite pillar of light that he transformed himself into. To the locals, this particular jyotirling was unique because it had three faces, representing the ultimate trinity in Hinduism. At the metaphysical level, it was the centre of this daily universe. At the practical level, it was their biggest source of livelihood.
The cosmic radiation of the chamber was said to strongly damage a woman’s womb, and her presence in turn would deem the deity impure.
Ever since the temple was constructed around 450 years ago by a Peshwa ruler, no woman had entered the garbha gruha. The reasons for this were circular in fulfilment. The cosmic radiation of the chamber was said to strongly damage a woman’s womb, and her presence in turn would deem the deity impure. The entry of a woman would lead to a Hindu Apocalypse to those who believed in one. Crimes against women would increase, especially rape, if women entered the sanctum sanctorum of a god who didn’t ordain it, declared an ageing Swami who had spent crores on real estate near Trimbakeshwar. The women who had entered the Shani-Shingnapur temple (also in Maharashtra) to break a similar tradition were responsible for the hundreds of lives lost in the fireworks disaster in a temple in the distant state of Kerala, according to him.
A week before the meeting at the police station, the Bombay High Court had directed the state government to ensure women’s entry into all temples. On hearing a Public Interest Litigation to allow women entry into the Shani-Shingapur temple, the judges cited an Act, in existence since 1956, in their verdict. The Act said, ‘no Hindu of whatsoever section or class shall in any manner be prevented, obstructed or discouraged from entering such place of public worship or from worshipping or offering prayers, or performing a religious service.’ Somewhere in the antediluvian language lay an endorsement for all Dalits, women, and the diversity of all those historically discriminated against in Hinduism to access their gods with equal rights. The Court, running out of patience with slow learners, made the directive clear. “It is your own law, you are obliged to uphold it,” it said
The Senior Cop also found himself obliged to explain why. In the past, when two female activists tried to enter the temple’s garbha gruha on separate occasions, the police cooperated with the villagers. Citing law and order concerns, they asked them to return. This wouldn’t be possible anymore; these were the direct orders of the state’s Chief Minister.
Moreover, the eyes of the entire nation were on the battle for Trimbakeshwar, thanks to a gluttonous monster-media that thrived on hysteria and drama. The media’s role, one would quickly learn from the events here, wasn’t as simple as pure documentation. They created plot points where none existed, fashioning confrontations out of conversations. A few cameras and journalists were already present in this meeting. Among them was a television channel reporter, a man responsible for directing the reality into a reality show. And then there was our team, a group of documentarians. To the town’s residents, all media were the same. But to us, the difference between a reporter and a documentary filmmaker was the difference between shooting with a gun and shooting with a camera.
Image Credit: Harshad Marathe
“Anyone found guilty of preventing the women from entering at the right time, in compliance with all the conditions, could face up to six months in prison under the Indian Penal Code.” The Senior Cop followed this up with the importance of character certificates for employment and higher education. The table (along with a few metres of vacant space), served as a barricade against the voices of dissent and anger flooding the room. For despite his crisp uniform, impeccably erect posture, and clear communication, the Senior Cop was cornered in his own turf.
Patriarchy paraded itself as a logistical, almost well-intentioned concern. Some explained how claustrophobic and suffocating the garbha gruha was — a windowless chamber that was seven feet underground. A priest compared the breathlessness one experienced inside it to the high altitudes of Kedarnath, a temple more than 3,500 metres above sea-level. “No one can deny that women were physically weaker, then why put them through this?” he pleaded. “The entrance to the chamber was especially narrow and steep, increasing chances of unwanted brushes between the sexes. This in itself could spark off riots, especially since women these days tend to fight more than before.”
“The entrance to the chamber was especially narrow and steep, increasing chances of unwanted brushes between the sexes. This in itself could spark off riots, especially since women these days tend to fight more than before.”
No one highlighted the power of temple trustees to regulate the number and flow of people into the garbha gruha. A few years ago, a conscientious trustee had reduced the public’s entry to only one hour in the morning. Just as rivers eroded mountains, the ritual bathing with milk and water had deteriorated the jyotirling, a rock structure. The deity was crumbling under the excessive display of faith. As a direct result of the trustee’s action, the clients at the centre of the temple economy reduced. When he himself got a heart attack and died, a few murmurs called it the way of the divine.
So when the temple trust banned all public from entering the garbha gruha, in response to the High Court order allowing women, local public protests forced them to revoke the action within a week.
Then there was the oxymoronic science of cosmic radiation itself. A man described as an ‘ex-scientist of National Chemical Laboratory and an explorer of the aura of palm leaves’ by an online site, had written a book in Marathi that claimed the radiation emanating from the jyotirling was so high a woman in the garbha gruha would implode with infertility. Like popcorn in a microwave. A tantric baba, sitting in the first row, agreed with him. Even if the women who entered were to conceive, their children would be cursed and deformed.
As for menstruation, Hindu women aren’t allowed to enter any sanctum sanctorum when they bleed. Some also avoid pujas, kitchens, and pickles. If a menstruating woman touches pickle, it is believed, the rotting food would rot further. More than a week after this meeting, the Supreme Court, the highest court of the country, would hit the nail on the head by asking, “Is menstruation a tool to measure the purity of women? How will you measure the purity of men?” It would ask this question to the board of trustees of the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, who prohibited women aged between 10 and 50 years from entering the temple.
The Supreme Court would hit the nail on the head by asking, “Is menstruation a tool to measure the purity of women? How will you measure the purity of men?”
“But lok bhavana (public faith) is the basis of law, and not the other way around,” the tantric baba stood up to the Senior Cop. His voice erupted directly from his belly, which couldn’t be contained within a plastic chair. Dressed in a black sleeveless kurta and lungi, the tattoo-toting baba fashioned his dreadlocks into a turban, along with rows of chains and rings that threaded together precious stones, rudrakshas, with other occult trinkets. The baba had arrived at the police station on his Royal Enfield motorcycle, and carried this badass attitude to the community hall.
Image Credit: Harshad Marathe
The Senior Cop, an image of sobriety and fitness in contrast, countered his statement with the well-known examples of Sati and child marriage, where law, not lok bhavana, was the engine of social change.
“Sati took place to protect the woman’s honour.” As soon as the baba said this, the rest of the public pounced on him, urging him to keep quiet. The baba ignored them, as they ignored him for the rest of the meeting.
“I was given this uniform to follow the law, not nurture dharma-shastra,” replied the Senior Cop, even as the baba mumbled about human rights. He urged the people to appeal to the High Court and Supreme Court. “Or else, declare Trimbakeshwar an independent state.”
“You can arrest 15 to 20 people,” a man who stood in a corner asked. “But can you arrest 4,500 people?”
“Now I understand your plans,” the Senior Cop’s reply led to a chorus of laughter in a tense situation. He represented the police force of an entire nation state, he explained, not one police station; In simple language, he could always call for back-up if needed.
As dusk surrendered to complete darkness outside the room, a local offered an overview, for the benefit of all those present. “It all boils down to whose god is this? The archeologists’? Devotees’? Priests’? Trustees’? The law has been around since 1956. But lok bhavana kept the tradition alive so far. In fact, lok bhavana gives birth to god. Even when President Pratibha Patil and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited in the past, they didn’t try to enter. So then what has changed now?”
The crowds slipped into an unexpected silence of contemplation. At that very moment, a temple trustee, a man so preoccupied with his own thoughts that he wasn’t paying attention to the discussion, hit a brainwave. The temple rules clearly stated that only the people (men, that is) wearing either wet cotton clothes or a sola (unstitched silk dhoti) could enter the garbha gruha. Unless a woman fulfilled these conditions, she wouldn’t be allowed. This revelation led to spontaneous applause.
Meanwhile, few of the voices present went unheard. Besides a few off-handed comments like “we are also women, why doesn’t the government listen to us?” and “why can’t the police stop them?” the women were audible only to themselves.
5 min read
It all started when a woman broke into the garbha gruha of the Shani Shingnapur temple near Pune. Forbidden by hundreds of years of tradition and public opinion to do so, the priests performed a purification ritual immediately. The news agitated a local activist so much that she and her brigade took it upon themselves to enter that very temple and all other such temples, mosques, and places of worship that denied women their deities.
Feminists had been battling for this very cause for more than a decade. A veteran feminist had filed a Public Interest Litigation challenging the discriminatory practice in the Bombay High Court. “I do not believe in God,” Vidya Bal had said in an interview . “I am an atheist, but that does not stop me from taking up cudgels on behalf of women who want to perform puja at temples. No one has the right to deny them that right.” The High Court ruled in favour of women’s entry.
“I am an atheist, but that does not stop me from taking up cudgels on behalf of women who want to perform puja at temples. No one has the right to deny them that right.”
– Vidya Bal, social activist
Armed with a favourable verdict, the activist entered the Shani Shingnapur temple and performed a puja. Her daredevil attitude, iconoclastic ways combined with unbridled media attention helped the activist turn into The Activist almost overnight. So threatened were her opponents, one even resorted to calling her ugly. Vanity at least, they hoped, would bring her down. Over the next few weeks, her brigade tried to storm into the Mahalakshmi temple in Kolhapur and got thrashed in the bargain. On Mahashivratri, The Activist visited Trimbakeshwar temple too. Her uneventful exit implied hidden and sinister twists in the tale. Rumours of a sting operation used to blackmail The Activist and her brigade were rife.
For the sake of a simple overview of events, this is how it all started. But how did it, really? Did the answer lie in a historical quest, documenting movements against patriarchy? Did the journey to the answer involve a larger understanding of inequality, one that united gender, caste and all other binaries of discrimination? And did the invasive role of a camera change the outcome of the current developments altogether?
Was the canvas of the story the court of law or a temple, mosque, or gurudwara? If yes, did it begin with the failed satyagraha organized by Dr. Ambedkar at Kalaram temple in Nashik, in pre-independent India? After six years of protest, the priests still didn’t allow untouchables into the temple. Barely 30 kms and 86 years of history separated the Kalaram Satyagraha from present day Trimbakeshwar.
Did it also include individuals like Parvati Khan, a Caribbean-born pop singer turned into messenger of peace and unity? Best known for her disco number Jimmy, Khan had taken it upon herself to enter all the jyotirlingas and offer bhajans to Shiva, even if this meant calling herself Parvati Mata, as non-Hindus weren’t allowed. Parvati lived on in the memory of the residents of Trimbakeshwar as the last time a woman tried to disrupt tradition.
Best known for her disco number Jimmy, Khan had taken it upon herself to enter all the jyotirlingas and offer bhajans to Shiva, even if this meant calling herself Parvati Mata
The more I researched, the more I stumbled on resonances and juxtapositions in place of cause and effect. Connections emerged between the history I read in books, news I saw on TV, the bastardized brand of Hinduism in existence, daily observations, and even the film I saw in the cinema.
The closest I came to a conclusion was in an interview of Nagaraj Manjule, the director of the runaway Marathi hit Sairat. “I am tired of this world created by men, ruined by men,” he had said. “Now I want a woman to build the world or mess it up…a woman is the Dalit in every case… When you look at savarnas [forward castes], the woman is secondary. Even a Dalit man would look down upon a savarna woman. Yet, the fact is that half the world is populated by women. We are fighting small fights — Hindus versus Muslims, Dalits versus upper castes. Gender is the bigger battle. I am tired of the man within me…”
So was I. I was tired of the man in me – the OCD man who neatly arranged discrimination into mutually exclusive brackets. The cynical man who constantly judged all such efforts as futile. The insecure man who noticed the hairstyle and colour of the activists.
In the amorphous logic of patriarchy, the activists were disdainful. Why couldn’t they focus on issues that really mattered to women, like domestic violence, dowry, adoption, equal wages?
In the amorphous logic of patriarchy, the activists were disdainful. Why couldn’t they focus on issues that really mattered to women, like domestic violence, dowry, adoption, equal wages? The average consumer of headlines and dinnertime news even connected the anti-tradition efforts of these women to the anti-national activities of the JNU students in Delhi, joining the dots to insinuate a polity in trouble.
Decades ago, Dr. Ambedkar, the visionary architect of the Indian Constitution, countered such weak arguments in his resignation speech in the Parliament, when the Hindu Code Bill didn’t come into existence, despite all his efforts. “To leave inequality between class and class, between sex and sex, which is the soul of Hindu Society, untouched and to go on passing legislation relating to economic problems is to make a farce of our Constitution and to build a palace on a dung heap.”
Sixty years after his speech, activists were still daunted by the dung heap. Tai (elder sister in Marathi) was another such activist. Compared to The Activist, Tai was obscure in the media and had achieved little else besides various failed attempts at entering temples. She had even faced flak from The Activist for landing up unprepared and giving the cause a bad name. The rivalry between the two was palpable.
Tai, as she was reverently called by her followers (including her husband), had been refused entry into Trimbakeshwar on various occasions.
Tai, as she was reverently called by her followers (including her husband), had been refused entry into Trimbakeshwar on various occasions. After her previous attempt, she had even filed a police complaint against almost 250 villagers for obstructing her right to enter. Before she left the temple town, Tai resolved to return, this time with a busload of women supporters. Three hundred to be exact.
In Mumbai, Tai spent an entire day waiting in the Chief Minister’s ante-room. When the day ended without any sign of reception from the CM, she left for her hometown of Pune. Three hundred women were waiting to travel with her to Trimbakeshwar that very night, she informed the media. Eager to catch the moment, our crew left for the temple town immediately. The next morning, we witnessed the lonely entry of a single car.
14 min read
Tai arrived outside the temple gate fashionably late, establishing her role as an unreliable hero of the piece. The media and the onlookers, her diligent audience, had been waiting for her for over an hour. As she got out of her car, stuffed with relatives, supporters and children, her overweight bodyguard (the sole man accompanying them) grumbled away. “I had told them not to take so many breaks” he said.
According to the temple rules, the garbha gruha was open to the public for only one hour in the morning, between 6 and 7AM. It was 6.40AM. Tai joined the artificially bloated queue, more than a kilometre away from the deity. Hidden from them all, the Henchman, a temple trustee responsible for the temple’s security and order, pacified the restless people as they waited outside the temple’s entrance. “Today is our test, not yours,” he told them
Tai joined the artificially bloated queue, more than a kilometre away from the deity.
The Henchman was the informal face of a family trust of ancient flame-bearers, brought in by the Peshwas to protect the temple at the time of its construction. Since then, the brood of flame-bearers had multiplied into a significant and influential clan in temple politics. They were the only non-Brahmins who could conduct pujas in the garbha gruha. Even now, the family trust handled all matters of security related to the temple. Burly and tall in appearance, the man’s unique form of intimidation was a polite and frank demeanour. It was a testimony to his power and influence that even when he spoke softly, people listened.
The cops and their informers would apprise him of all of the activist’s movement in their jurisdiction. Tai’s delay this morning was a divine blessing. Ever since Mahashivaratri, the temple compound had transformed into a war zone: public barricades, random security checkpoints, dozens of guards (both male and female), all preventing a smooth crowd flow and group formation.
Tai spent an hour waiting in the queue. Once inside the main temple structure, she found herself standing right behind the Henchman. Taller than her by an entire foot, his shadow was enough to obliterate her silhouette in the dimly lit interiors of the temple. When her turn arrived, the Henchman slowly bent over to inform Tai of the time. It was 7.30 AM. The activist bowed down to touch her forehead to the garbha gruha’s stone entrance. All eyes were on Tai’s next move. Tai looked sideways at her supporters. Let it pass, her eyes seemed to say.
Once outside, people asked about her next move. “Tomorrow,” she said, “karenge ya marenge.” We will do or die.
Once outside, people asked about her next move. “Tomorrow,” she said, “karenge ya marenge”. We will do or die.
That was fine, but why was she late today?
“Please wait till tomorrow”.
As the group of women drove out, we all stopped at a tea stall for our first cup of chai. When I complained of its saccharine taste, the chai-wallah insisted the milk was naturally sweet in Trimbakeshwar.
As we stood around, a lanky man halted his bike right next to us. “What did that woman tell you?” he asked us. The man was a temple purohit, like the majority of the people around us. “She said she will come again,” I replied.
“Let her,” the biker told us. “The whole village is united. We will hit her if it comes to that, but we won’t let her enter.”. The conversation then veered to informal introductions, and the man told me about the dying Godavari. That was the real story, not this political stuntsmanship.
An onlooking constable decided to pursue the subject, the only one people around here spoke about. “So many great women have visited this temple,” he began. “Rani Lakshmibai, Savitribai Phule… None of them dared enter. Why these women? Will they gain extra punya? Even we take darshan from outside…”
Exhausted by the early morning events, we decided to return to our hotel rooms. A filmmaker decided to stay back and chat with the man on duty. The town thrived on visitors from all over the country, then why shouldn’t the same country’s laws be applied here, he asked the constable. The constable went on to explain his point in lurid male banter. If you want to impregnate a woman, you don’t enter her from behind. There is a right way of doing things. “These women are outsiders.”
The constable went on to explain his point in lurid male banter. If you want to impregnate a woman, you don’t enter her from behind. There is a right way of doing things.
When it came to women demanding their place in matters of the Trimbakeshwar temple, the history of both insiders and outsiders had followed a similar struggle. The court of law was the catalyst of social change.
After the High Court issued the historic statement allowing women to enter all temples, two local women wrote to the Trust requesting to enter. Not only were the saas-bahu duo refused entry, the incident itself was suppressed and a similar demand wasn’t made again. The perception of a town united to protect its traditions, come what may, was a disputed territory. Despite a diversity of opinion within the community, a few extremists had managed to dominate. And fear, not faith, fueled the extremism.
According to the TV Reporter, no one came to a temple out of faith. It was fear that brought people here. The greater region of Nashik had experienced the volatility of a real-estate boom. This roughly coincided with the temple’s reputation for conducting the Narayan Nag Bali and Kaal Sarpayoga puja, both dubiously occult in their origin and impact. Luck, not good deeds, was the secret to overnight success. In that unstable world of luck, fear, superstitions and the momentary slump in commercial fortune, a woman entering a temple for the first time in 500 years was the prelude to an Apocalypse.
In that unstable world of luck, fear, superstitions and the momentary slump in commercial fortune, a woman entering a temple for the first time in 500 years was the prelude to an Apocalypse.
Later in the day, we found ourselves sitting on a bench inside the fortress of the temple. The sun had begun to set, and if it wasn’t for the presence of the towering rock temple at the centre of the square, the evening was like any other in a mofussil Indian town. Children played cricket and football while the men and women sat separately, sharing the day’s gossip and events.
“I want you here by 5.30 AM,” one of the many trustees told a group of women. “The drama will start then. She will try to be the first in line…” The women nodded in agreement. The drills had become muscle memory by now, but the enthusiasm had begun to wane.
The next morning, the activists arrived at the temple gate by 5.15AM, ensuring they would be the first to enter. I arrived shortly after. As we waited in unexpected tranquility, I chatted with the women who accompanied Tai, ordinary women who left their homes with their young offspring. They would keep a look-out for me. They would sneak me into queues and shove me ahead of others, since I lacked the confidence. An old frail woman we all called maushi, would sit in a corner guarding all the chappals (slippers) and phones as the women prepared for larger battles.
“Aren’t you afraid?” I asked a woman who wore a pair of thick glasses and seemed to be in her 40s. She had pulled me closer to her, lest the crowd push us apart.
“Why? I haven’t done anything wrong,” she replied, studying my face for a reaction.
“One needs courage to do what you are doing.”
“If I sat at home and didn’t come here, then how would we have met?” she asked me. I smiled.
When the gates didn’t open on time, the crowd began to bang and rattle the barricades in retaliation. At the entrance, the security guards selectively frisked the people, causing the small group of activists to dissipate among the locals. By the time I entered the main structure, Tai and her women were conspicuous by their absence. No one knew where they were.
: I tried to focus on her words, conjuring images of Hindus taking holy dips in an open sewage drain that once was a river
In my search for them, I chanced upon all the Trustees of the temple, seated in a straight row of chairs in the compound. A row of ageing men sat topless in their dhotis, waiting for something to happen. Hidden behind them was the sole Female Trustee, sitting alone on the compound steps. Uncomfortable with the way things were shaping up, I decided to join her on the steps. Warm and forthcoming, the woman decided to take this time to educate me about saving the Godavari, her pet project. I tried to focus on her words, conjuring images of Hindus taking holy dips in an open sewage drain that once was a river, but my attention was somewhere else: a commotion had erupted inside the temple. Screams and shrieks resounded through the compound.
The Henchman was the first to storm out on the red carpet covering the temple’s exit. “So long as you are behind me…” he told the trustees. He didn’t need to complete the sentence. The confident tone of his voice implied victory. The activists followed soon after, yelling and shouting, their saris and hair in a state of disarray. A disjointed account of events emerged. The temple authorities had prevented them from entering, citing the clause stating wet cotton clothes as a prerequisite to enter the garbha gruha. So the women returned with drenched hair and wet saris, sticking to their bodies. The usual tactics of detention and halting the queue ensured that once again it would be 7AM before their turn came. At this point, the women revolted. A verbal fight soon turned physical.
The trustees remained seated in the dress-circle arrangement, while the women contained their drama to the red carpet. The women cursed the emasculated government and police, as mobile cameras recorded the scene from all sides. One of the women fainted almost on cue, falling in a straight line. The trustee seated in the corner instructed his assistant to get the woman some drinking water. Before it could arrive, the woman got up unassisted, and walked out of the compound with the rest of the group.
Phone camera videos and images of women being manhandled appeared on different channels in different coloured fonts
Within two hours, the morning’s events were magnified and repeated incessantly on Marathi news channels. Phone camera videos and images of women being manhandled appeared on different channels in different coloured fonts. Unlike reality, the commentary left no space for nuances and complexities. For those who were present, the second-hand horror of seeing it on television proved to be greater than actually witnessing it.
Tai filed yet another police complaint against the trustees and locals. Only three arrests were made, as the remaining defendants had already fled. At the centre of the case was a mobile phone clip that showed a security guard pushing aside a young boy aside, causing his mother to slap the man across his face. This indicted the temple security by establishing who was the first to break protocol.
Challenging any form of status quo threatened the entire fabric of conservatism.
The Biker Purohit who had befriended us at the teashop called me later that evening. The townspeople were planning to meet at Kushavarth, an ancient bathing tank. The police had promised the women full protection to enter the temple the next morning. With a majority of the trustees gone, arrested, or giving television interviews, the final line of defense fell solely on the ordinary people. He willingly shared this information, but was afraid to be seen in public with me. After the morning’s drama, a tidal wave of suspicion and distrust had drowned the town out. He feared he would be viewed as a sympathizer, especially since he was involved in the campaign to save the Godavari. Though I saw no correlation between reviving the Godavari and women’s right to enter the temple, the man knew better. Challenging any form of status quo threatened the entire fabric of conservatism.
Halfway into the phone conversation, the real motive behind the phone call emerged. Yesterday, he had told us how the locals would even resort to violence to protect their deity. “I just want to protect my god,” he told me now. He wanted to defend himself, in the light of what had happened.
The TV Reporter texted me soon after. It wasn’t safe to be seen with a camera or be seen snooping around town. The people were in a volatile mood. Already, someone had thrown and missed a stone at our camera unit and missed.
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Among the many alternate histories of the region, there was one that proclaimed an ancient hill, one that pre-dated even the Himalayas, as the true jyotirlinga. The hill was shaped like a massive shivalinga. It also gave birth to the river Godavari. Over time, vested interests forced the truth to be compressed into a miniscule rock deity, controlled by men who controlled the temple. The temple prospered, while the river and hill deteriorated. The TV Reporter, the source of this fable, described himself as an atheist. He had witnessed fear parading as faith, superstition and selfishness as tradition. Theories like this fit into the narrative of his experiences much better than the one on offer, one of a three-headed deity whose radiation charred women into ash.
Among the many alternate histories of the region, there was one that proclaimed an ancient hill, one that pre-dated even the Himalayas, as the true jyotirlinga.
As I walked through the town’s empty streets at 5AM, a cup of chai was all that I could think about. The town had declared a bandh to protest the police’s support of the women. Besides stray dogs, cows, and the police themselves, there was no hint of life on the streets. Dozens of constables in riot gear, commanded by two high-ranking officers, were the only people out.
My only hope was a lanky woman serving tea to the cops from her makeshift stall, balanced on a stool. Fed up with the sweetness, I asked her for a cup without sugar. She would have to make one separately, she told me, and there were at least twenty cups to be distributed in the police van before my turn. I left.
Never before had I seen the temple in this light. The sinuous queue, the human blockades of locals and temple security had all but vanished. The temple itself was brightly lit and breezy, with all the tubelights, ceiling fans, and floor fans in full swing. Without any crowd, or purohits seeking out the crowd, I found myself standing next to the activists, peering from stone steps into the garbha gruha, seven feet below, like Alice into the rabbit hole.
As we stood there, waiting for the constable to give us the green light to enter, I saw a group of boys watching us from a distance. Over the past few days, the boys had kept a watch on me, and I a watch on them. We were both voyeurs, aspiring to be more. All the residents of Trimbakeshwar were wide awake, but indoors that morning. But these young ones were prepared to take a chance, willing to take on a battalion of cops to protect a way of life, because it was the only one they knew. In the spur of the moment, I decided to leave the activists and join the boys.
They stood behind the statue of Nandi the bull. Through a strategically opened door, the activities inside the garbha-gruha were clearly visible. A huge ceiling mirror placed at an angle above the jyotirling reflected the entire chamber for everyone outside to see, an ingenious attempt at capturing everything live, like a rudimentary CCTV.
Image Credit: Svabhu Kohli
Dressed in printed sweatpants and bright T-shirts, leaning on each other’s shoulders as they watched the impossible occur, the boys resembled the ones loitering in a TV showroom, watching a cricket match. The conversation meandered between pelting stones, revenge, droughts, Muslims, and the Bollywood film Bajirao Mastani.
“The government is doing all this to divert attention from the drought,” someone said.
“Even Muslim women are now fighting to enter the Haji Ali dargah. But Muslims don’t listen to their women. They are all terrorists. It’s a fact,” another piped in.
“Is she entering right now?”
“Not yet. Did you see Bajirao Mastani? Mast picture…”
The boys were lost in discussing the actress Deepika Padukone, as three women entered the garbha gruha. By the time they realized what had happened, they were all confused. How many had entered? What were they doing?
“She dare not touch the jyotirling.”
“She didn’t.” They were relieved to hear that, desperate for any detail that might save them from Apocalypse,
Everyone fell silent. For a brief moment, we were one group, united by what we had witnessed. As the enormity of what had just happened sunk in, one voice spoke up.
“Now we are all Muslim.”
The women got into their car and left town immediately. One by one, all the constables and officers retired to their police vans and left, too. The journalists and curious folks were directed to the police station for a Press Conference. I hung on, tempted to explore life after the impossible.
“Let them enter! Let them die!,” a dishevelled old man, dressed in western attire of trousers and shirt, shouted outside the temple. “Let Hinduism die!”
Someone asked him to keep it down, afraid it would lead to an altercation. “I’m sad!” he retaliated. “Let them enter! Let them be cursed!” his voice trailed into oblivion.
The word on the street, it seemed, was the opposite of what had happened. People here believed that the women got cold feet and needed the police to escort them out.
As I walked aimlessly through the streets, the lone tea-seller called to me. She was free to customize my cup of chai now, and she offered me a box to sit on. Every beggar, fodder-seller, and hanger-on here knew who I was. To them, I was the ‘media’.
“So did they enter?” she asked me. Yes, I replied.
“Did you hear that?” she shouted out to the fodder-sellers. “The women didn’t get scared and run away. They took darshan respectfully and left.”
Exploiting one’s desperation to earn good karma, some people sold fodder to the temple visitors, to feed the army of cows loitering around. The sellers also worked as informers in this town, especially useful in spreading rumours and scandals.
The word on the street, it seemed, was the opposite of what had happened. People here believed that the women got cold feet and needed the police to escort them out.
The tea-seller, encouraged by the news, shared her views with me. She believed that if all the women came together, they could enter the temple. She herself would like to enter the garbha gruha, but the women of this town weren’t united against the Brahmins. The Brahmins were sitting on too much money, power, and bullying people.
She herself would like to enter the garbha gruha, but the women of this town weren’t united against the Brahmins. The Brahmins were sitting on too much money, power, and bullying people.
Before serving me, the woman served a blind beggar and drunkard, who deferentially stood at a distance. Bandh or no bandh, all the poor, needy and desperate had shown up for duty, as they always did.
As I sipped on my chai, a dhoti-clad purohit, probably on his way to the temple, halted by her stall. “Don’t you know today is a bandh?” he told her. “People will throw stones at your stall. Go home.”
The cops forced her to open her stall, she said. After the purohit left, she was confused for a moment. Her husband, a drunkard, had left her to fend for their three daughters. Every penny was important for her, but she was scared. At that moment, fear united us all. It made us human.
“Don’t be scared,” I told her. “There is too much bandobast here for anyone to attack you.”
The blind man and the drunkard returned their cups and left without paying. As I sat there chatting with my new friend, a group of cows ran towards us. Behind them, the fodder-sellers were hitting them, chasing them away with sticks.
Why are they hitting them?” I asked her. “Don’t they feed them?”
“There are no customers today,” my friend explained. “So the cows are eating the fodder directly from their hands. But fodder is expensive and they can’t feed them for free. There is no water in Trimbakeshwar, these people buy it from Nashik.”
Now I had seen it all. Beating a cow came as a bigger shock to me than beating a woman, in the insular bigotry of this town.
Follow the female activists in VR. Watch Right to Pray, directed by Khushboo Ranka.