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High priests at low ebb

Ramgopal Shastri cringes when one of his disciples mispronounces a word while reciting the Durga Saptasati (Chandi Paath) — Sanskrit invocations in praise of Goddess Durga from the Markandeya Purana. After berating the youngster, he asks him to repeat them after him. The verses roll off Shastri’s tongue with ease, and he not only pronounces each word perfectly but also modulates his voice, moving the pitch up and down, and leaves the listener spellbound.

Shastri, who is also the secretary of the Bangiya Purohit Sabha, an organisation of about 4,000 priests, recently held a small camp for association members who will perform pujas in thousands of pandals and houses next week. “I want them to follow each and every tradition associated with the puja. If they fail in that task, they would be invoking the wrath of Durga,” he says.

Starting from invoking the Goddess on Shashthi to the visarjan on Dashami when the idols are taken for immersion, priests are involved at each step of the four-day Durga Puja celebrations. Yet many feel that the quality of the priests and their commitment to traditional practices have been on the decline for some time now.

Says Professor Dhyanesh Narayan Chakraborty, former head of the department of Sanskrit, Rabindra Bharati University, who was also one of judges to choose the ‘Best Priest’ in Calcutta a few years back, “I come across many mediocre priests. When the loudspeakers blare out the morning and evening aarati mantras, the mistakes by purohits are quite jarring to the ear,” he says.

“According to our texts, shlokas should be recited perfectly for their desired effect. When the purohits fail to do that, it doesn’t bode well for anybody,” says Shankar Shastri, son and disciple of Ramgopal Shastri.

Others point out that many present-day purohits are also ignorant about the various rituals that are associated with Durga Puja. “When we went around pandals to choose the ‘Best Priest’, we found that purohits were not aware of even the basics of the puja,” says Pandit Netai Chakraborty, head of the Vaidik Pandit Purohit Mahamilan Kendra, who organised the ‘Best Priest’ competition from 2003 to 2006.

According to Chakraborty, the priests were not wearing fresh clothes every day, the place of the yagna was not according to the rules, and they weren’t even following traditional procedures for the aarati. “The aarati has to be offered 64 times to each deity. We found that hardly any one was doing that. The chandmala should be in the right hand of male deities and in the left hand of women deities, but many weren’t even aware of this,” says Chakraborty.

Many priests who follow puja traditions faithfully blame the proliferation of pandals and rampant commercialisation for the slide in standards. “If you notice, Durga Puja is called Durgotsav these days. Clearly, the emphasis is on the utsav (festival), rather than the puja. Pandals have become social gatherings rather than religious places. When the puja organisers are more concerned about coming up with innovative pandals and fancy lighting and less about the puja itself, this is bound to happen,” says Jayanta Kushari, a prominent priest.

Kushari points out that many priests have contracts with multiple pandals and so are always in a hurry to wind up the proceedings. “Purohits cannot be absolved of blame completely. Greed has become a factor in all this,” he says.The priests are paid anywhere between Rs 500-1000 a day, with the major chunk of their earnings coming from daily donations to the Goddess.

However, major Durga Puja organisers refute allegations that tradition has been sacrificed at the altar of commercialisation. “We have had the same priest for almost two decades and there has been no deviation from tradition whatsoever. Our priests follow every tradition in letter and spirit,” says S.S. Bose, treasurer, Maddox Square puja committee.

“We have been conducting our family’s Durga Puja the same way for the last 220 years. The descendant of the first purohit continues to perform the puja even today,” says Alok Krishna Deb of the Sovabazaar Rajbari family. “The emphasis here is on the tradition, not the pomp and glory,” he adds.

Commercialisation apart, perhaps the lack of a proper Sanskrit education has also contributed to a decline in standards, say experts. “Unlike in South India, we don’t have a single school that teaches Sanskrit in the guru shishya parampara. How can you expect to have talented people taking to priesthood out of interest,” asks Loknath Sastri, a priest and Sanskrit grammarian.

“I learnt Sanskrit in the Devnagri script. But the priests today read Sanskrit verses in the Bengali script, which has its own limitations,” rues Ramgopal Shastri.

His son blames the West Bengal education department for the decline in interest in Sanskrit because the subject was made optional in 1978. “It should be made a compulsory subject so that we have a supply line of students for higher studies,” he says. The Bangiya Purohit Sabha has even threatened to boycott the Durga Puja celebrations next year if the government doesn’t take steps to encourage learning Sanskrit.

Another reason for age old puja traditions fading from practice is that priesthood — once a hereditary profession — is not so popular with the present generation. Take Sumant Ghoshal, son of a priest in Howrah. He decided to break away from the family calling and became a software professional. “I used to accompany my father to various Puja pandals, but this was not something that I wanted to do,” he says. Even Ramgopal Shastri’s own grandson is not very keen to follow his family’s profession. So clearly, authentic puja practices that were handed down from generation to generation are simply getting lost over time.

But if men from traditional priestly families are leaving the fold, some others are showing interest in the profession. Biswajit Bhattacharya, a second-year college student, spends hours at the feet of Ramgopal Shastri, learning Sanskrit and the nuances of priesthood. His aim is to become a priest and chant the Chandi Paath like the legendary Birendra Krishna Bhadra.

Are Bengal’s priests listening?

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