My first memory of the Shantadurga Temple is a hazy one from when I was seven years of age. It was an excruciatingly long journey from the Panaji airport. We got lost in the middle of dense forest. We had no street lights to guide us.
Waiting at the end of that taxing journey was a small room painted an icky green colour, and a rickety cot that my parents and I had to share.
The next morning, we were to perform the sacred puja in the inner sanctum of the temple for which there was a strict set of rules to be followed.
My mother had to wear a nine yard sari, my father had to undergo shuddhi-karan (because he had been polluted by stepping onto foreign lands), and they both had dietary restrictions. I had to be just bathed.
A seven-year-old doesn’t quite jump at the prospect of sitting still in a temple for 3 hours, but the experience was decent enough to fade into the background of my various other okay-ish experiences, even though I don’t remember the actual puja.
My second memory is one from I was in the 7th grade, and it’s a tainted one. Because this time around, there was an additional restriction, and that restriction was me.
You see, I had in the recent past, been visited by the very special Auntie Flo, and thus was no longer eligible to enter the inner sanctum of the temple. I would now only be allowed to enter the temple when I got married, and even that came with the stipulation of marrying within the Saraswat Brahmin community.
The implication was that fertility was a sign of impurity until a man entered the girl’s life. Message received, and in that moment, accepted.
I did not like being left out, but I was too young to understand, so I was told to wait outside, admire the temple architecture and keep myself occupied. Which I did; I read a book, even conjured up a story of my own. But, I had unconsciously become a part of something that would later strike me as deeply disturbing.
Each member of our community has a kuldevta (family god). There are two options: The Mangeshi Temple (Lord Shiva) or The Shantadurga Temple (Goddess Durga). Our kuldevta is passed on through the family and a woman adopts her husband’s god once she marries into his family.
For Brahmins, the kuldevta protects and guides, and thus deserves gratitude. And hence my conflict arose when I became old enough to question the archaic laws that stopped me from entering the sanctum.
When I moved to Bangalore for college, my parents decided to pay a visit to the temple in acknowledgement of the role the goddess had played in the smooth functioning of our lives. Naturally, they expected me to join them, but I had other plans.
I had a party to attend with my friends that very weekend, and logically, it made no sense to me to fly down to Goa for 2 days only to visit a place I wasn’t allowed to enter. I chose to stay back, thus starting a long drawn, unresolved dispute with my parents over sexist rules and disrespectful behaviour.
For someone raised in an educated, liberal atmosphere, taught to respect shakti and shiva, both the male and female form, it is impossible to not find ludicrous that a woman can be worshipped inside, but shunned outside.
Obsolete laws are being upheld without any sound reason offered as explanation to why a woman’s rights are so firmly tied to a man. What is it that makes her worthy of entering the sanctum after she gets married, even though she remains the same person?
In addition, the rules stand such that a man may enter the temple even if he marries outside the community, but a woman is forever banished from its gates if she does the same.
Just about a year ago, a notice at the revered Sabrimala Temple in Kerala, stating that women of the ages 10-50 were barred from entering the temple on the grounds of menstruation, had sparked outrage across the country.
It led to the ‘Happy to Bleed’ movement which had women of all ages expressing their indignation at the absurdity of treating a woman with contempt for undergoing something as natural and biological as the process that gives us the ability to bring life into the world.
This very ability is what is worshipped in the divine world but ostracised in the real.
These discrepancies in our culture are stark and yet have been ignored for years now. So perhaps it is time for us to face facts and change these antiquated notions of right and wrong. But to do so, we must develop the ability to separate the word disrespect from a curious and questioning attitude. It has now come to stand in the way of progress.
We must move past our cultural taboos and acknowledge the female form in all its glory. Because I sure would love to step in and pay my respects to the ultimate divine female, regardless of my gender, or who I choose to love in the future.