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For centuries, this Odisha temple has allowed only Dalit women to touch the idols

The Panchubarahi temple in the coastal village of Odisha’s Satabhaya has a unique tradition. Only married women of the local sabar community can enter the sanctum sanctorum and touch the five idols. The daily rituals of the temple deities are also exclusively performed by these women. Male members are allowed darshan but not entry into the sanctum sanctorum.

For almost 400 years the temple has followed the traditions. The tradition was broken for the first time today, only to save the temple from nature’s wrath. The Satabhaya village has been under threat of erosion due to rising sea levels and for last several years, the state government has been relocating the families to another village about 12 km inland. According to reports, as many as 571 families of the fishing village has been shifted to the Bagapatia rehabilitation colony.

Shifting the temple idols, however, is no easy task. The idols are made of stone and have heavy pedestals attached too. For the first time in 400 years, the priestesses had to agree to allow men to help relocate the idols to the new rehabilitation colony.

The district administration had earlier proposed the state government to allocate funds to shift the idols. Finally today, the idols were lifted and placed on transport vehicles so they can be shifted to Bagapatia colony.

The priestess performed the rituals and adorned the idols with clothes and garlands. The men who were allowed entry for a day lifted the idols up amidst loud chants of prayers and the traditional sounds of ‘hula-huli’, sound women make while performing any auspicious ritual. The hula-huli is a common feature in eastern India.

According to the Times of India report, once the idols have been shifted to their new address, the priestesses will perform a purification ritual to ‘cleanse’ the idols and resume their daily puja in the new temple.

While a temple with only women as priests is indeed unique, temples with Dalit priests are common in Odisha. There are several ‘shakti peeth’ or goddess temples in the state where the worshipping rights have been exclusively held by Dalits. In western Odisha, it is often the priests from the Dalit ‘Majhi’ community who perform the rituals in many goddess temples. People of all castes bow to these priests while performing rituals.

Even in the legends of the Jagannath Temple in Puri, it is mentioned that the Lord Nilamadhab was being worshipped by a tribal chief Viswavasu and after King Indradyumna built the Jagannath temple, the King had decreed that the descendants of Viswavasu will perform the decorating rituals during Rathyatra and Anavasara. The descendants of Lalita, Viswavasu’s daughter who married the King’s Bramhin priest, are known as Supakars who cook the Mahaprasad in the Jagannath temple.

Recently the priest in a Telangana temple carried a Dalit youth on his shoulders in a reenactment of 2700-year-old ritual. In times when vested interests are trying hard to malign India’s culture and instigate caste-based violence, these stories not only bring out our nation’s rich culture to attention but also signify that ours have always been an inclusive society of harmony and equality.

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