Ambabai's inner circle

Below is an article from our Affirmative Action Media Monitoring Project. These articles represent a wide variety of views. These views do not necessarily represent the views of AAPF but instead are intended to provide you with an overview of the current affirmative action debate. April 17, 2011

By Anosh Malekar

The Anna Hazare blitzkrieg, which shook up the entire system, proved that India is changing fast. A similar tremor of change was felt at the heart of the Mahalaxmi Temple in Kolhapur on Saturday. In this case, the pride of the patriach, the ultimate male bastion fortified by centuries of rules loaded against the fairer sex, was finally breached.

The garbhagruha (sanctum sanctorum) of the important twelfth century temple in a city of half a million, nestled in the lush corner of south Maharashtra’s sugar belt, was witness to a change in the course of history, with one line shouted out by a trustee of the temple a few minutes past 10.30 am: “Let the women devotees in.”

The trustee requested the male devotees to empty the tiny space and make way for the women. What followed was a group of women, who walked up the silver-coated staircase leading to the innermost shrine of Ambabai with a quiet zest in their steps, even as the few priests inside watched, aghast.

The centuries-old barrier had been broken at last, even as the hardcore traditionalists, which most of the priests in the garbhagruha are, watched in dismay because to them the sanctity of the divine abode of Ambabai, one among the Shaktipeeths, had been defiled.

However, for the women devotees, this was nothing short of a glimpse of heaven. Gavlanbai Badhe, a 65-year-old from Ambajogai, could not believe her luck. “I did not know they were allowing women inside the garbhagruha. I could get so close to Ambabai. I must be really lucky,” she said, on being told that she was one of the first few women to be so close to the deity.

Priest Manoj Munishwar tried putting on a brave face. “Nobody ever objected to women entering the garbhagruha. But, according to the tradition and culture of this city, only women from the royal family are allowed to enter and touch Ambabai. The king is an avatar of Vishnu and, hence, his wife is considered Vishupatni or Laxmi. Not everybody can claim that status,” he told Mirror.

However, the air was clearly filled with a sense of freedom and relief, as many women devotees got the chance to make a wish come true, which till now they had thought they would have to take with them to the grave. Advocate Anuradha Kulkarni from Goregaon was overwhelmed. “Today I met my mother without any barrier between us,” she said, her eyes moist with joy. A diehard devotee of Ambabai, the 54-year-old would make it to the Mahalaxmi temple whenever her busy schedule as a lawyer and an amateur actor would permit.

“I have been here many times. Frankly I never expected to get so close to my mother in this lifetime. But yesterday when I saw on television that the government was going to let women inside the garbhagruha I rushed in to be among the first to catch a glimpse of the goddess,” she said. Kulkarni happened to be in Kolhapur after a tour of Karnataka. She told Mirror that she was now raring to come back with her husband for a “very special darshan,” may be later this year.

Shruti Bele, another devotee from Jalgaon, was so excited that she had entered the abode of Ambabai, she could hardly express herself. “Today I have earned a lifetime’s punya. That is how I feel deep down in my heart.”

Hemlata Mankar from Ahmednagar, who was with her extended family of sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren, she had sought peace and prosperity for her family. “I am sure my whispers could be heard by Ambabai. I could get so close to her.”

While the city, a principality under the British, still swears by the progressive ideals of Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj, who initiated the earliest affirmative action in the country in 1902, many of its residents are unhappy with the happenings of the past few days.

Eighty-year-old resident Sulabha Shikhare, who had walked a kilometre for her daily darshan, refused to enter the innermost shrine as a mark of protest. “What is this? They are breaking all traditions. Women are not supposed to touch Ambabai. The goddess will get angry and strike back with a vengeance,” she warned, loud enough for everyone present to hear.

Chetan Chaudhary, who is from a family of priests, said this was a political stunt. On Wednesday, Bharatiya Janata Party state women’s wing chief Neeta Kelkar stormed the sanctum sanctorum with a group of women activists, taking the priestly class by surprise. She had taken a cue from Maharashtra Navnirman Sena MLA Ram Kadam’s demand in the State Assembly that such discriminatory practices be done away with. Kadam and Kelkar were present on the temple’s premises to celebrate their victory in front of television cameras so that the world could see the change.

“Ambabai spares none. She will teach the guilty a lesson,” said S T Sarate, a former Army personnel and security chief of the temple, watching the drama from the sidelines. “The residents of Kolhapur are enraged. But we trust Ambabai to settle the score.” The few trustees present nodded in unison. One of them, Dhanaji Jadhav, said there was little the trust could do as the matter was sub-judice and the trust’s writ was limited to the outer premises of the temple.

In 2000, Narendra Dabholkar of the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti (the anti-superstition brigade) had filed a case in the Supreme Court seeking the removal of restrictions on women’s entry inside the temple. While the members of the Mahalaxmi Temple trust have maintained that they are in favour of allowing entry to women, the temple pujaris have refused to bow down.

However, Saturday was a different day and the priests watched it unfold helplessly. “What can we do? It is for the government to decide,” Aniket Ashte, a young priest, said. The day after the BJP women’s wing forcibly entered the sanctum sanctorum, Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar intervened to throw open the doors of the temple to the fairer sex. On Friday, the Minister of State for Home Satej Patil, who hails from Kolhapur, rushed in to announce that women will be permitted inside the garbhagriha between 10 am to 11.30 am daily.

The trustees and the priests believe this is only a temporary measure to calm the frayed nerves of a few women activists and political opportunists. While the argument if the move is politically motivated or not will attract many, the priests of them temple raised a practical problem that will have politicians scratching their heads, especially women leaders.

“Do our politicians know that to maintain sanctity of the goddess it is essential for a devotee to be draped in a single piece of cloth that has to be without a stitch on it. Now, would a decent woman agree to enter a temple with only a saree draped around her and nothing else?” asks Narhar Ramchandra Joshi, a septuagenarian resident of the locality. He also pointed out that the garbhagriha was so tiny, 5 feet x 6 feet, that it would be difficult for women to maintain their dignity with so many men around.

Neeta Kelkar had no answer to that, but clarified that this was not a political stunt but a genuine fight for equal rights in the land of Shahu Maharaj. “Ram Kadam, though from a different political dispensation, is like a brother. And we have got together for a just cause,” she said. But the priests were sceptical. “They will be judged in Kolhapur by their deeds,” warned the priests.

While the debate on whether Ambabai will bring her wrath down on Kolhapur is unlikely to end any time soon, the truth is that our society has finally moved another step closer to creating a society that thrives on individuals, and not just women and men.

About the temple The Mahalaxmi, locally known as Ambabai, temple traces its history to 664 BC, during the Chalukya era and is dedicated to the worship of Shakti. The temple is believed to be constructed over the centuries and took its present form around the 12th century. The architecture of the temple is purely Chalukyan and not Dravidian, says the temple’s website.

One among the Shaktipeeths, the temple is a major attraction for devotees drawn from across the country, but especially from Karnataka and Maharashtra. It is believed that the darshan of Shri Balaji at Tirumala is incomplete without visiting the goddess Mahalaxmi at Kolhapur.

The temple attracts thousands of local and outside visitors daily. The trustees and priests claim the number crosses a lakh during Navratri and other important festival days.

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