At a time when Maharashtra is at the forefront of mounting protests seeking equal right of access to women in places of worship, the small village of Boregaon located 430 km east of Mumbai stands as a beacon of inspiration with a woman “pujari” leading prayers in the village for the last decade.
Not only does 42-year-old Shardabai Gurao conduct morning “aartis” at the village’s lone Hanuman temple, prayers are often attended by members of the Muslim community in the village during festivals. “You wouldn’t know a Hindu woman from a Muslim woman. They all dress the same way,” says sarpanch Ambika Gadhawe.
It was the gram panchayat’s decision, she adds, to allow Gurao to become a “pujari” for Boregaon. The village, with its 1,570 population, has 115 Muslims. “And she is the best pujari I have seen so far,” Gadhawe smiles.
Gurao, who can only speak Kannada, does not know anything about Shani Shingnapur temple, where following a High Court directive the centuries-old ban was lifted to allow women into its inner shrine. For her, a woman’s entry into a temple is as normal as a man’s. Still unmarried, she became the village’s “pujari” after her father’s death 10 years ago and knows nothing except recitals that he taught her and her two brothers. “She keeps the God’s statue clean, pours water on it every day. She conducts ‘aarti’ better than her father,” says Omkant Gadhawe, a villager.
Gurao was eight when she fell off a tree branch and broke her right wrist, permanently deforming it. When she crossed the average age for marriage and no proposals came, she continued to live with her brothers after her parent’s death. “I would follow my father into the temple, watch him do puja,” she says. Following her father’s death, it was her elder brother Guravta, a farmer, who refused to become the “pujari” of the village instead offering her the position. When the gram panchayat agreed, she excitedly took up the new role.
Every morning now, Gurao, dressed in a georgette sari and matching cotton blouse, crosses the lane from her one-room hutment to the temple, starting the puja by 7 am. The 200 sqft space, with an inner sanctorum where an orange coloured statue of Hanuman sits, has become her abode. She spends the day cleaning the statue, sweeping the temple floor by herself and assisting worshippers. By 4.30 pm, she conducts another puja before lighting the diya for the night. “My brothers do puja only if I am not there,” she says. Her livelihood depends on whatever grains worshippers offer her.
During festivals such as Ganesh Chaturthi and Hanuman Jayanti, members of different communities come together to decorate the temple with her. During Muharram, Muslims are joined by others in their 10-day observance. “Our village is away from caste issues. The panchayat ensures we do every thing together,” says Srishel Chiklande, who visits the temple every afternoon, asking Gurao on each visit if she needs anything for the temple.