Friday, 3 April 2020

Not priests but dalit priestesses  worship the deities in this temple in Odisha

Updated: November 30, 2018 12:21 pm

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

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