It is mid-morning on a December day in 2013 at Daulatabad Fort. I have been climbing for about an hour or so in an attempt to reach the top of the hill Fort, pausing only to take photographs or sips of water to keep myself hydrated. It has been a never-ending climb; every time I think I have negotiated the final set of steps and reached the top, another set appears almost as if by magic ! It doesn’t help that the access way is built in such a way that only part of the route is visible !
When I spot a dome as I negotiate yet another set of steps (see photo on the left), I think I have reached the summit. I am so happy and relieved that I run up the “last” few steps.
But no ! Another set of stairs looms ahead ! I am so breathless and winded by then that I can’t even cuss in frustration.
I decide to take a longer break before resuming with the climb and move to the shade of some trees. I notice a middle-aged woman sweeping the area outside the domed structure.
Before I can ask her about the structure, I get distracted by the antics of a squirrel, and then by the requests of a group of school children who want their photographs taken, when they see my camera.
“Would you like some water? It is from a spring close by and very refreshing, ” a soft voice asks.
It is the woman who had been sweeping earlier and she is holding a bottle of water. Even though I have water, I don’t want to offend her by saying no. The water is as refreshing as the woman promised and surprisingly sweet as well.
“What is this?” I ask, pointing towards the domed structure.
“It’s a Ganesha Temple.”
“I saw you cleaning the temple and its premises. Are you the caretaker?”
“I guess you could call me that. But locally, I am known as this temple’s priest.”You could have heard a pin drop. Actually no. But you know what I mean, right? It’s not everyday that one gets to meet a Hindu woman priest or pujaran and she was my first.
The pujaran must have sensed all the questions running in my mind or maybe she was used to reactions like mine for she said, “Sit down. I’ll tell you everything.”
The Ganesha Temple is a thousand years old. It was built even before the Fort was. And someone from my family, or I should say my husband’s family, has been taking care of this temple since then. This Temple was very sacred to the guards in this Fort and they used to pray here. Then the invaders came and though initially it was okay, later my husband’s ancestors decided to remove the Ganesha idol from the temple and keep it at home. Only after the invaders left completely, was the idol re-installed here.
We never got a salary for taking care of the temple and we still don’t. We make do with whatever devotees offer. Things were difficult even when my father-in-law was alive, and my husband had to go to work to support the family. My father-in-law was upset and would worry every day as to who would take care of the temple when he was no more. One day, I asked him if I could take care of the temple. He was surprised and didn’t speak to me for some time. Then, one day, he said, if that is Ganesha’s wish, who am I to stop Him. If women can do pooja at home, why not at the temple?
That’s how I became a pujaran. He taught me all that I needed to know and I started going to the temple with him. He would do the pooja and I would do the arti. After his death, I started doing both.
I interrupt the narration here and ask, “But didn’t anybody object? The local people, other temple priests? Anyone?”
My father-in-law was very respected in these parts and nobody said anything. I have been the pujaran (woman priest) here for the last 12 years now and I have many good years left in me. My daughters are married and my son is not interested — he wants to do a real job like his father ! So, I am teaching my daughter-in-law all that my father-in-law taught me with the hope that after me, she’ll take over. After that? I don’t know. Only Ganesha knows.
There is silence when the pujaran finishes telling her rather extraordinary tale. As I wonder if it was really all that simple for her to become the pujaran, she says, “Come let me do a special arti for you.”
We enter the temple, a simple square room with the idol installed in the centre leaving enough space for a pradakshina, if the devotee so wishes to do one.
There is a beautiful diya made of stone on the altar. The pujaran notices my admiring looks and says, “This diya was made from the same stone as that of the idol and is just as old.”
She then proceeds to say a prayer for me and conduct a small and simple arti. I feel quite blessed and special. 🙂
As I collect the prasad and prepare to leave, I ask the pujaran how far I have to go to reach the top of the hill and how long it will take me.
“Oh ! You have only climbed half the distance. The temple is at half-point. As for how long it will take, it depends on you. I can climb in 10 minutes.”
I thank her and after saying goodbye begin the descent. Yes, descent. There is no way I am going to spend another hour climbing up. Besides, I had Ellora Caves to visit. 🙂
Tell me, have you met a pujaran?
PS: It is only later I realised that I didn’t ask the pujaran her name. 😦