Let’s not conflate Sabarimala and Shani Shingnapur

The Shani Shingnapur temple never really emerges from the eye of controversy.

Its most celebrated activist Trupti Desai was recently stopped from going to the Sabarimala temple post SC-verdict, by a group of irate traditionalists. She’s since asked for security from Maharashtra and Kerala Governments to facilitate this trip. That has left a lot of folk who are fighting a separate cultural battle altogether, very annoyed with the attention grabbing tactic.

In July this year, the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly passed a Bill that enables the State Government to take control of the Shani temple and make the trust administration “more encompassing, transparent and also to provide better amenities to devotees.” The Bill wasn’t passed by the Legislative Council, and is expected to be tabled again in the Winter session.

The Shani Shingnapur Temple Trust was formed by the Bombay Trust Act, 1963, which means their accounts are reported to the Govt. of Maharashtra via the Charity Commissioner (of the district that it comes under, in this case Ahmednagar). In 2010, the inaction of the Charity Commissioner provoked devotees to file a writ petition against the Temple Trust in the Bombay High Court. They alleged that the temple trustees were employing family members as employees, an employee that had stolen from a donation box in the temple was not being fired, and several other financial irregularities in contravention to the objectives of the Trust, being committed by the Trustees.

In 2011, Rs. 73,000 and gold ornaments were found missing from the home of a trustee and his FIR set local media on fire. He was a political follower of Shankarrao Gadakh, a strong NCP leader, and MLA from Sonai. The trustee quickly stepped down and nominated his wife in his place. Local headlines proclaimed that the first woman was appointed to the Management Board, a minor reform by itself.

The court directed the Charity Commissioner to complete his inquiry within 3 months, and submit a report. The prima facie report seemed to confirm these allegations.

The Govt. of Maharashtra has a policy that grades temple towns basis the tourist population that they get, viz. Grades A, B C, & D. According to their grades, each temple gets a certain amount of Govt. grants every year to develop infrastructure and improve facilities for devotees. Shingnapur is a Grade A temple.

The temple trust itself, and a Pune based NGO ‘Conservation Education & Research Institute’ (ceri.org.in) moved the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB), to deal with the solid waste generated by visiting bhaktas, which they claimed was overwhelming the town’s infrastructure. Between 10 – 40,000 people visit the Shani temple every day, which figure rises to 1-1.5 lac on Saturdays and special occasions. The MPCB agreed to take the project up. In 2011, the audit report filed by the CAG of Maharashtra, said that while the study was done, the work wasn’t.

The Shirdi Public Trust was taken over by the Govt. based on similar complaints by devotees. On a counter petition, the Bombay High Court ruled that they would stay the Govt. of Maharashtra’s committee and appoint a committee of their own. The Chief Justice of the Ahmednagar Bench was promptly appointed the Chairman of the Trust, so that there was no power vacuum for nature to abhor.

Amid massive furore on this and the Govt. controlled Siddhi Vinayaka Trust irregularities, the CMO stated that they had decided to reconstitute the existing public trust and bring Shaneshwar Devasthan under the control of state government under the new Act, with ‘better facilities and infrastructure’.

Now, let’s take several steps back and go to when the Shingnapur legend started.

Shingnapur was a sleepy town where, as the legend goes, a five foot basalt rock was found buried underground 4 centuries ago. As the townfolk poked it, the rock seemed to bleed. A local shepherd dreamt that it was indeed Shani Dev Himself. The rock was duly consecrated as Shani Dev incarnate, and a temple grew around it. The townfolk capitalised on the Hindu paranoia about the astrologically debilitating Shani Saadhe Saati, and left their houses and the temple open to the trickle of tourists and pilgrims.

In 1994, Gulshan Kumar made a movie called Suryaputra Shanidev. Kumar was responsible for nearly single handedly raising the profile of the ancient Vaishno Devi shrine in Jammu. The moment the significant T-Series marketing machinery stepped into the fray, the game changed. From being a sleepy temple town, it suddenly became *The Town Where No One Locked Their Doors*TM. Theft was said to be unknown here, owing to Shani Dev Himself protecting the Kshetra, and was a significant part of the legend. The problem of unlocked doors that this legend encouraged, was solved by sliding doors that could be hidden when pilgrims – tourists came by. It helps that Shingnapur is only 70 kms from Shirdi, and easily included in the Shirdi circuit.

In 2015, the revenues of this temple through donations were to the tune of Rs. 22 Cr. and over a lac visitors on Saturdays and special occasions. The Shingnapur Trust controls significant property, and, as mentioned before, Shingnapur is a Grade A temple along with Shirdi and Pandharpur, which speaks of its scale and importance in the pilgrim-tourist circuit.

The minute you enter the Shani Shingnapur temple, touts besiege you with special oil to be poured on Shani Dev; and for men (and women not in a saree), to wear special cloth pieces (available to be bought or even rented), bathe, pour oil and emerge. Sale of these saffron lungis is a central item in the Shingnapur economy, “used by a ‘collective’ of salespeople to extort money from helpless devotees, who had just worshipped at the deity’s platform”. Should you not follow these minor rituals, the penalties extracted by the God are fearsome or so the touts claim, and live on in tales. For the amelioration of Saadhe-Saati and other Shani ailments, there is a bouquet of remedies that a *jaatak* has to undergo, and then curios and mementos add to the brisk business.

From 2009 – 2015, 46 criminal cases were registered from the Shingnapur village. A sizeable number was related to assault, and 11 cases pertained to theft. An alert Asst. Inspector who was exposing cell phone thefts in the temple, was transferred. Soon, the Shingnapur Police Station was constructed in 2015 at the behest of the trust. A heavily guarded bank holds significant cash. Close to 100 security guards and policemen, along with 90 CCTV cameras, scan the premises, ostensibly to keep visitors’ baggage safe but belying their claim to fame.

If you’re a woman though, til 2011 you couldn’t enter the temple for fear of the curse of infertility, a singular penalty and badge of dishonour for a rurban or rural Indian woman. Through PILs and stunts like getting women in the sanctum platform space around Shani Dev, the late Narendra Dabholkar created the first campaign for women entry into the temple and the sanctum platform. After 2011, when women were allowed to enter the temple by the Courts, the edited legend said they would still be infertile on climbing the platform and encountering Shani Dev.

Men were historically allowed onto the platform, a practice that was stopped when a machine to pour oil onto the rock was installed. As of now, thanks to the self-serving machinations of Ms. Desai, a female activist backed by an NGO, approved by Courts and encouraged by media reports, women can now pour oil onto the Shani Dev rock directly.

Most women though choose not to do it, and here is where the all-important distinction between Sabarimala and Shani Shingnapur should be drawn. Both fell prey to the exact same template that allowed the Courts to have a say in the socio-cultural practices of Hindus. Both have women not being allowed entry. But while Sabarimala is to do with the bachelor God’s specific, preferred rituals, Shani Shingnapur is to do with Shani’s penalty on breaking a taboo. In short, women plan to not enter Sabarimalai because of faith but women refuse to enter Shingnapur out of fear.

The Shani Shingnapur phenomenon is not entirely unknown. A divinity’s lesser known aspects are played up to create a bloated, money-spinning entity. Consequently, the vultures start circling to get their share of the spoils. Rules and rituals are made and unmade. The Trust gets embroiled in scams, activists step in, and media and the courts seize the opportunity to meddle with beliefs. The Govt is tasked to take the admin over, and Courts try to put their own people in. In this familiar circus, the devotee is literally an afterthought.

Hindus would be wise in maintaining the distinction between unrelated traditions followed in diverse temples, here Sabarimala and Shani Shingnapur. The contrast in this case, is simple; non-urban women living under the fear of infertility and being *branded* infertile (baanjh, a fearsomely negative word) in their society, contrasted with women joyously ready to wait to worship a bachelor God in accordance with His wishes.


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