Bhopal, July 27: The bells of the Mahakal temple began tolling as evening set in under the cover of clouds yesterday at Ujjain, one of India’s holiest towns. Priests were conducting the bhasma aarati, a ritual in which Shiva is propitiated with ash from the adjacent cremation ground.
Several people had gathered outside the temple, at the crematorium at Kshipra Ghat. There were no priests there, but a woman with tear-streaked cheeks and in an off-white salwar-kameez performing the last rites of her father.
As she did the parikrama round her father’s body with sobs racking her frame and lit the pyre under the rumbling sky, scores of relatives, friends and curious bystanders watched what no one had seen before in Ujjain.
Sandhya Chouhan yesterday became the first woman to perform the last rites in the temple town of Ujjain without religious sanction.
A Calcutta-based pundit, Nagarmal Dadhich, said: “According to Hindu shastra, a woman can perform the last rites of only her husband. A woman is debarred from doing the same for any other member of her family. Under Hindu shastra, the five individuals allowed to perform the last rites are the son, a male member of a similar gotra (lineage), the grandson, a pundit or the raja.”
Days before, the Sant Mahant Purohit Maha Sammelan at Bhopal, an all-India meet of priests and religious leaders, had taken up the tricky issue of allowing women to perform the last rites. After discussions through two days, they failed to come to a conclusion. A vocal conservative section scuttled an official sanction, saying it would go against the spirit of Hinduism.
A teacher in Ujjain, Ram Prasad, said Hinduism is most tolerant and leaves scope for “extraordinary circumstances”. “If God willed that Mangilal would not have a son, his daughter should be the person to perform last rites,” he said.
Sandhya, 35, defended her move, saying she was merely fulfilling her father Mangilal Chouhan’s last wish. Mangilal, 63, the sole bread-earner in the family, had been ailing for two years and died on Saturday.
“I was his only daughter. My father always treated me like his son. Days before his death, he had instructed me to do so,” a grieving Sandhya said.
She was grateful to the Mahakal temple authorities for letting her fulfil her father’s wish, though some local priests were against it.
There have been stray incidents of women scaling such barriers, but few in the conservative heartland. On a rare occasion recently, a woman performed the last rites of her father-in-law near Allahabad.