No one in the joint family supported Amita Shukla (36), a mother of two, when she decided to take up an unusual profession. But she was adamant. And very confident.
In May, she headed to Kedarnath – the Hindu shrine nestled amidst snow-clad mountains in the Garhwal Himalayas – and joined the league of ‘tirth purohits’, priests at pilgrim places who maintain records of generations of clients and perform religious rituals.
Amita’s decision was prompted by one of the most brutal natural disasters in the Himalayan state.
Exactly three years to the day, a cloud burst triggered a massive deluge in the Kedar valley, killing more than 5,000 people and causing widespread devastation across a vast swathe of land.
Among the dead was Amita’s husband, who was also a priest at Kedarnath.
On Wednesday, Amita recalled those trying times as she attended to clients – known as ‘jajmans’ – at her at her village Devli Bhanigram in Rudraprayag district, around 60 km from Kedarnath.
Amita is among only two women who serve as priests at Kedarnath, one of the holiest Hindu shrines visited by thousands of pilgrims every year. Though there was no bar on woman priests, it has remained a male profession over the centuries.
“We have a joint family but none of the elders asked how I am surviving with two children. Finally, I took up a call and decided to take up my husband’s work,” Amita said.
Devli Bhanigram was dubbed the “village of widows” after the 2013 disaster left more than 30 women without husbands. Many of them lost every single member of their families.
Devli Bhanigram has 90 families, most of them Brahmins engaged as traditional ‘tirth purohits’.
“Jajmans are very supportive but not our own people. I have now decided to hire a male priest as an assistant,” said Amita, who has a Masters Degree in Geography.
Amita’s inspiration was Vishveswari Bagwari (45) – the first woman priest at Kedarnath -- who hails from the same village.
Four members of Vishveswari’s family also died in the deluge forcing her to seek employment as a priest.
An illiterate Vishveswari, a mother of five, said she is now trying to persuade her widowed sister-in-law Sangeeta to join them at Kedarnath.
“We are born priests, though some hurdles come but then nothing stops you.”
Vishveswari and Amita faced no resistance from Kedarnath’s male priests.
“Times have changed, women are active in every sphere. We welcome our sisters joining the profession. It’s a small step towards a big change,” said Durgesh Bagwari, a priest at the shrine.
However, for other widows of the village, survival has remained a challenge.
For instance, Sangeeta, whose husband went ‘missing’ in Kedarnath, has three small girls. Savitri’s story is no different. Her in-laws dumped her and she barely has “emotional support”.
“I have no strength and I want to die,” Savitri sobbed while remembering husband.
Govindi Bagwari’s husband and three sons also died at Kedarnath. She is left with one kid and “no hope in my eyes”.
The government provided Rs 7 lakh to the next of kin of the dead. Keshav Tiwari, a social activist said three NGOs are active in the village, providing vocational training and financial help to the needy families.