Not priests but dalit priestesses worship the deities in this temple in Odisha
At a time when temples are still out of bounds for dalits in many parts of the country and women face entry restrictions at places like Sabrimala in Kerala despite the order of the Supreme Court, the seaside Satabhaya Gram Panchayat in Kendrapara district of Odisha holds the tradition of women as priestesses in the Ma Panchubaraha temple. The practice continues for over five centuries.
“Although gender discrimination existed in our society, around 500 years back, our village had broken the gender and caste bias by giving space to dalit women to act as priestesses in the Ma Panchubaraha temple ”, said Rasmita Sahani, Sarapanch of Satabhaya Gram Panchayat.
Out of 4000 people of this village, 3000 people belong to Bramhin and Khandayat castes, which are upper caste in the state, whereas others belong to dalit caste.
“In our village temple only married dalit women from the fisher folk community are entitled to perform puja of the deities in Ma Panchubaraha temple. At present ,Sujata Dalei, wife of Sudhkar Dalei, Banalata Dalei, wife of Maheswar Dalei, Rani Dalei, wife of Sukadev Dalei and Sabitri Dalei, wife of Pramod Dalei have been worshipping the deities in the temple on rotation basic. Men are disallowed to act as priests. So are the widows”, said Sudrashan Rout of Satabhaya.
“This is the only temple in our village. Dalit priestess are the highly respected in our village. It is our sacred tradition to touch the feet of the priestess before entering the temple as we are not allowed to touch the deities”, said Nigamananda Rout, a former Sarapanch of Satabhaya Gram Panchayat.
“I took over the place of my mother-in-law Sita Dalei as priestess of the temple after she became widow six years back”, said Sabita Dalei, one of the priestesses of the temple.
The Panchubaraha temple was established by the king of Rajkanika about 500 years ago. The original temple was about 15 kilometers from the coast. The sea had been crawling menacingly towards the Satabhaya village for long. The marching sea consumed large tracks of land. To save the village and the temple from the crawling sea, the original temple was relocated from the sea-erosion-hit village on 20th April to Bagapatia within Satabhaya Gram Panchayat, 12 kilometers from its original abode . 571 families of Satabhaya were also rehabilitated at the rehabilitation colony at Bagapatia.
Each day villagers worship the deities. Hundreds of devotees sacrifice animals at the altar of the temple on Dussehra and Chaitya Purnima to propitiate the deities.
“This temple is the only temple in the state where dalit priestesses worship the deities. Satabhaya is packed with history, religion and mythology. As per the age-old legend, male priests had been worshiping the Goddesses in the temple. But once, an inebriated priest molested the stone image of deities in the sanctum-sanctorum of the temple. This made the deities furious and cursed all the male priests for which villagers decided to engage only women as priestess in the temple,” said Dr Basudev Das a researcher of Kendrapada.
“Male chauvinism may have been deeply rooted in our culture, and especially dominant in rural areas, Satabhaya village is an exception. Women were allowed to cast their votes in Britain in 1918. In 1937, the British government provided property right to women in India. In 2005, Kuwait’s Parliament granted full political rights to women, making way for them to vote and run for office in parliamentary and local elections. Two years back, women were allowed to contest in election in civic bodies in Saudi Arabia. But 500 years back, women empowerment was born in this seaside remote village Satabhaya, where women act as the priestesses,” said Krusna Chandra Behera, a retired school teacher of Satabhaya.
By Ashis Senapati