Two Old Widows Determined to Serve The Lord Until Their Last Breath

History lives in their eyes. “Married” to Lord Jagannath, these two old women are considered to be ‘akhand soubhagyabati’ (never-to-be-widowed) and part of a tradition that dates back a thousand years. Yet, today, they cannot manage two daily meals for themselves.

Neglected and ignored, Sashimani Devi, 89, and Parasmani Devi, 78, are the last surviving ‘devadasis’ of the famous 11th century Jagannath temple of Puri, a coastal town in the state of Odisha. Despite their frailty, advanced age and ill-health, they never forget to offer prayers to their ‘divine husband’. Sporting bangles and vermilion on their forehead, like traditional Hindu married women, they proudly proclaim, “Lord Jagannath lives within us.”

Ask Devadasi Sashimani about her parents and she says she cannot remember their faces. “I have heard that when I was three, my parents left me with Devadasi Labanya Devi. I was brought up under her guidance and received training from her. From that tender age I was told that I was born for Lord Jagannath and I married Lord Jagannath at the age of eight, through a ‘sari bandha’ ceremony,” she says.

Sashimani has been participating in temple rituals since then and maintains that she feels the presence of the Lord especially when she is in deep sleep, “Our relationship is like that of any other married couple. We are connected by the thread of eternal love.”

Devadasi Parasmani is about 11 years younger than Sashimani, but she too cannot remember who brought her to this temple. “I opened my eyes on the lap of my foster mother, Devadasi Kundamani Devi. It was she who brought me up. She trained me to be a ‘devadasi’ when I turned seven,” she says. Parasmani does remember, however, repeatedly asking her foster mother why there were no male members, like fathers and brothers, around, and was informed that the “Lord was everything”. She recalls, her eyes all alight, “At that age I could not comprehend this. Later, things became clearer. From the moment I embraced the Lord in my soul at the age of seven, I have never felt the absence of anybody in my life.”

Despite their divine connection, the lives of these two women are unenviable. Sashimani Devi’s life is confined to a small room in the home of her adopted son, Somanath Pujapanda, at Dolamandap Sahi that lies across from the Eastern Lion Gate (Singhadwar) of the 12th century temple. Two years ago, she fractured her legs after a rampaging bull dashed into her. Since then, she has not been able to go to the temple. Bedridden, she is now at the mercy of her adopted son. The monthly old-age pension of Rs 300 (US$1=Rs 55.6) that she once got from the Sri Jagannath temple administration, besides some ‘prasad’ (food offerings to the deity), has been discontinued.

Parasmani Devi’s situation is not much better. She has a small, dingy room at Basili Sahi, a neighbourhood in Puri. She was supposed to get a pension of Rs 1,000 from the state government and an additional pension of Rs 1,500 from the central government, but payments have become very irregular, sometimes taking six months or a year to arrive. This puts the old woman into many difficulties, “I pay Rs 700 as rent for this room and I borrow money to pay it. Once my pension arrives, it gets exhausted immediately because of all the re-payments to be made.”

Earlier, Parasmani Devi would sing songs at the Jagannath temple, for which she would get some ‘prasad’, now, however, because of her advanced age she finds it difficult to go to the temple every day, “It is about two kilometres away and I find it impossible to walk four kilometres every day to get the ‘prasad’. So on some days I manage without a meal.”

According to tradition, the presence of a ‘devadasi’ at the temple is mandatory for special occasions, and she is supposed to sing and dance before the Lord into the night. It is believe that with this melodious harmony of song and dance, the Lord goes to sleep. Only on attaining puberty can a girl become a ‘devadasi’, and she generally remains unmarried throughout her life. While one group of ‘devadasis’ are known as Bhitar Gayani – singers of the sanctum sanctorum Parasmani Devi – another group, known as the Bahar Gayani – Sashimani was one – performed rituals outside the inner temple.

While the Bhitar Gayani dance during the Badasinghara (bedtime ritual), the Bahar Gayani sings devotional songs to appease the Lord during other functions. Apart from these daily rituals, ‘devadasis’ also have a special role during the Jagannath temple’s famous ‘rath yatra’ (car festival), the Navakalebara (when the wooden bodies of the deities are changed every 14 years) and the Nanda Utsav, a function that takes place the day after Janmashtami marking Lord Krishna arrival in the home of his foster parents.

Reveals Soumendra Muduli, an academic in Puri, “The Jagannath temple at Puri is the only Vishnu temple in the country where women were allowed to perform specific rituals, other than dancing and singing.”

Suryanarayan Rath Sharma, a priest at the temple, explains that of the 36 ‘niyogs’ (or associations of servitors, who perform the rituals), the seva done by the ‘devadasi’, or Mahari seva, was the only service where women had a big role to play. “Without a woman, many rituals cannot be performed. ‘Devadasis’ are known as Mahari, or Mahan Nari (distinguished women), because they are the human wife of deities,” says Sharma. He insists that although ‘devadasis’ may have been exploited elsewhere in India, they were respected in Puri. By way of illustration he points out that even today married women seek the blessings of Sashimani and Parasmani to ensure they will never be widowed.

The Record of Rights (RoR) of the Jagannath temple reveals that about a century ago there were around 25 ‘devadasis’ in Puri. In 1956, the Orissa Gazette lists nine ‘devadasis’. By 1980, only four remained – namely Harapriya, Kokilaprava, Parshmani and Sashimani. Now the last two are left.

The decline of this tradition is believed to have begun in 1955, when the state government took over the administration of the temple from the royal family, which continues to play a prominent role in the performance of special rituals here.

Rabinarayan Mohapatra, a servitor, blames the temple administration for the impoverished state that the two women are in, “It is the moral responsibility of the temple administrators to look after both the female servitors of Puri. After all, it’s they who manage temple property.”

Temple administrator, Arabind Padhi, assures that he will definitely try and do something for the two women. He also, interestingly, reveals that an attempt was made in the early Nineties to enroll fresh ‘devadasis’ to keep the tradition alive, but the effort failed due to a nationwide protest against the system and also because there were no volunteers for the job.

Sashimani’s adopted daughter, Rupashree Mohapatra, agrees that the discontinuation of the tradition is a positive step in terms of the rights of women, but she is saddened that a rich creative legacy will also fade away with the passing away of Sashimani Devi and Parasmani Devi. Observes Mohapatra, not a ‘devadasi’ herself but a well-known performer of the Mahari form of temple dance, “I learnt the basics of dance from Sashimani. When maa performed, people used to be mesmerised to see her dedication to Lord Jagannath. Now her health is deteriorating by the day and that should be of concern to everyone.”

Tragically, neither woman has benefitted from being torchbearers of a tradition revered by the faithful followers of Lord Jagannath. But they have no complaints. Their only wish, they say, is to serve the Lord until their last breath.

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