By Tarannum.Womens Feature Service
In her earlier avatar Arunima Singh, 30, was a qualified paramedic on the threshold of a promising career. In fact, she also did a diploma course to give her career a professional boost. But that was her dream only until she found her true calling. Today, the young woman is known as Devya Giri. On August 24 last year, she became the first woman Mahant in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), heading the famous Mankameshwar temple of the Juna Akhada. Incidentally, she is also the first woman in the Juna Akhada to hold the esteemed post, traditionally considered a male preserve.
The story of Singh’s transformation from paramedic to head priest could form the plot of a Bollywood flick. A native of Barabanki district in UP, Singh was doing her diploma in pathology from the Indian Institute of Paramedics, New Delhi, when she visited the Mankameshwar temple, which is situated in Lucknow’s Daliganj area. “It was the year 2000 and I had come to my house for vacations. I visited the temple thrice during my stay and realised that there was something about the temple and also about God, which kept pulling me back to Mankameshwar,” recalls Devya Giri.
After completing her diploma, Singh came back to Barabanki only to visit the revered pilgrim destination once again. “I could not stop myself from going back to the temple. Somehow, it mesmerised me every time I visited,” recalls the head priest. There, Singh even participated in a ‘yagna’ being performed at the temple and found that it left her more peaceful and satisfied than anything else she had ever done. (‘Yagna’ is a Hindu religious ritual performed by priests, centred around a sacred fire in which offerings are made to the gods amidst the chanting of Vedic verses.)
Finally, Singh decided to follow her heart. “I knew that it was not paramedics which I wanted to pursue but I wanted to serve God. I met the head priest of the temple, Mahant Keshav Giri and asked him to take me as his disciple. Initially, he hesitated because I was a girl. He even told me that the path to God’s service was not an easy one. Yet, I knew I had to do this,” she elaborates.
Incidentally, when Singh told her family members about her decision to become a disciple of Mahant Keshav Giri, no one raised any objections. “I told my parents about my decision and they did not oppose it in any way. In fact, my two brothers and my mother were only happy to know that I had decided to serve God. They felt that I was ready and nothing could stop me. So they supported me in my decision all the way,” she says. On January 10, 2001, Arunima Singh was re-christened as Devya Giri and she formally took the ‘diksha’ (the ritual of initiation) from Mahant Keshav Giri.
One of the favourite disciples of Keshav Giri, Devya Giri says that her guru always wanted her to succeed him as the priest of the temple. “When he was leaving his body, he told everyone in the ‘akhada’ that he had seen my devotion for Lord Shiva and he wanted me to succeed him as the head priest. After his death, the Juna Akhada held a meeting and I was selected as the priest without any opposition,” she says.
Naturally, becoming the head priest of the Mankameshwar temple has initiated a great deal of change in her life. Typically, Devya Giri’s day begins at 3.30 a.m. After having a bath, she performs her daily ‘puja’ (Hindu prayer service), which lasts for at least an hour. She then performs the first ‘maha aarti’ of the day at the temple at seven in the morning. She also monitors the movement of the ‘bhakts’ (devotees) during the day and tries to ensure that no one faces a problem. “How can I serve God if I don’t take care of the people who love him,” she remarks.
There is no ritual or puja that Devya Giri cannot perform because she is woman. However, during menstruation, she does not perform the morning ‘aarti’. (‘Aarti’ refers to the songs sung in praise of the deity. It is usually performed at the end of a puja session.)
And what has been the reaction of the devotees to a woman ‘mahant’? While the men initially hesitated to accept the idea of a woman head priest, the women love her. “We know that the world is incomplete without a woman. And now, Ma Devya Giri has proved that even our religious pujas and prayers are incomplete without the fairer sex,” remarks Shraddha Gupta, 20, a frequent visitor to the temple. Savitri Agarwal, 80, feels that Devya Giri is like a Goddess who is helping them get closer to God. “She is indeed a blessed child. Her face glows. She has proved that God loves both women and men,” says Agarwal.
With a woman head priest at Mankameshwar, the temple – which has a daily footfall of at least 1,000 devotees – has a more disciplined timetable now. Devya Giri has ensured that the ‘aartis’ are performed on time. There is a separate line for women so that they are not pushed around. There is also no unnecessary confusion every Monday, which is the day of Lord Shiva, when the number of people visiting the temple touches 10,000; and on Shivaratri, when the numbers could touch 25,000. She has also made provisions for a separate room for women where they can peacefully listen to bhajans.
Mahant Devya Giri now plans to set up new barricades in the temple precinct to control the crowds and build a new complex for saints. She wants to ensure that there is a ‘dharamsala’ (rest house for pilgrims) in the temple complex and she also wants to start a beautification drive for the temple.
Besides her plans for the temple, the priest is also socially conscious. She has donated all her organs and is actively associated with the Clean River Gomti and Clean Ganga campaigns. She also devotes time educating children from the slums near the temple.