Authorities stopped on Tuesday dozens of female activists heading towards a temple in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district, foiling a bid to end a centuries-old ban on women entering its inner sanctum.
Police hemmed in marching members of the Pune-based Bhumata Ranragini Brigade (BRB) and detained its chief, Trupti Desai, a day after she threatened her volunteers would abseil from a helicopter and offer prayers at the sacred platform of the Shani Shingnapur temple.
“Why can’t we worship our deity? Despite the fact that we were going ahead peacefully, police stopped us,” said Desai. “The country is celebrating Republic Day…for us it’s a ‘black day’.”
The unique open temple, visited by thousands of pilgrims from India and abroad every year, has no walls or roof. A self-emerged five-foot high black stone stands on a platform and is worshipped as Lord Shani, a deity associated with the planet Saturn.
The controversy comes months after a woman entered the inner sanctum to offer prayers. The priests and local villagers then reportedly “purified” the area with milk and oil.
Sources say women are prohibited from praying at the holy place owing to a belief about “harmful vibration emanating from Lord Shani”.
Following the row, the temple elected a woman as its head for the first time, but Anita Shete made it clear that she would ensure the custom remains unbroken.
“As head of the temple trust, I will fight till my last breath to defend the centuries-old tradition,” she said. “Over the past five years, the trust has decided not to even allow men on the platform where the deity is placed. We allow men and women to take a darshan (viewing) without climbing the platform.”
Security was tightened around the temple and in nearby places as the district administration and police sealed all approaches to the shrine, while they stopped the demonstrators about 70km from the area.
To prevent the activists from entering the holy place, around 500 women, mainly local residents, had gathered since morning while villagers had formed a human chain to thwart the protesters from stepping onto the platform.
Shingnapur is famous because almost no thefts have been reported here despite the fact that houses in the village do not have doors, just door frames. Most residents never keep their valuables under lock and key, believing that the deity would punish anyone attempting to steal something.
The controversy comes at a time when the Supreme Court is hearing arguments from petitioners against Kerala’s Sabarimala temple’s no-women-allowed stricture, which they say violates the principle of equality guaranteed by the Constitution.
Minister of state for home Ram Shinde said the Maharashtra government would facilitate talks between the activists and Shani Shingnapur temple authorities over entry into the sacred sanctum.
(With inputs from agencies)