| Tourists with sadhus in Ujjain. (PTI)
Ujjain, April 4: The temple town is teeming with the faithful, gathered for the month-long Simhastha — Ujjain’s version of the Kumbh mela — beginning tomorrow. As at other shrines, hundreds of devotees have converged on the Gopal Mandir in the heart of the city to offer evening prayers. But a few metres away, Pinjarwadi is deserted.
Rows of darkened low-brow houses opening on the narrow lanes are locked up. Almost all of them bear a sombre declaration scribbled in white chalk: “Yahan grihini rahti hain (housewives live here).”
Stranger still, not all of them are unoccupied. A knock on a locked door evokes a hushed, hasty response. A middle-aged woman pokes her head out and points at another entrance through a bylane.
Inside, a dingy room is crowded with dozens of young girls and women, who relate their tales of harassment.
They are sex workers, they whisper, on a forced holiday. They claim they are victims of the Uma Bharti regime’s move to drive away all “vices” from the city where lakhs of devotees have joined thousands of seers and saints for one of the world’s largest religious congregations.
Never before has the Kumbh mela — it is called Simhastha here because of a rare configuration of planets when the Sun enters the Aries sign and Jupiter is in Leo (Simha rashi) once every 12 years — made them feel so left out. They laid claim to traditions dating back some 550 years when the Peshwas and the Scindias extended royal patronage to them.
Middle-aged Savitri raged: “I have witnessed three Simhasthas but we were never singled out in such a manner. We have been out of business for two months though Simhastha 2004 starts only tomorrow. Many of my girls have been arrested and driven away from the city by the local police.” Hence, the scribbled signs — to deter the cops.
Savitri said the harassment was unwarranted as the sex workers had unanimously assured the local authorities that they would “close shop” during the days of “shahi snan” (auspicious days for dips in the Kshipra) that fall five times during the month-long festival.
Samina, barely 18, is more vocal. “The government has permitted concessions to meat sellers, liquor vendors and others while restricting ban on meat, egg and booze on a few particular days, but we have been completely driven out of business,” she said. Her colleague Fatima pointed out sex workers are sensitive to religion. “We ourselves keep check during all religious festival, including Ramzan, Somvari Amavas, Mahashivratri, but a blanket ban for three months is grossly unfair. Our children are crying in hunger. What do we do'” she asked.
Savitri is stung by the crackdown. “She (Bharti) has been espousing the cause of women but it seems we do not fit in her definition of gender. The previous Digvijay Singh regime was lot more understanding,” she said.
People of the locality agreed that the Pinjarwadi sex workers have been living there for generations. “We have grown up seeing them operating. It is their family profession. They do not coerce anyone. In fact, when their girls attain adulthood, they are given a choice to join the profession or get married outside,” said Ram Kumar, a milk seller in Naim Beg Street.
Samina and Laxmi alleged that some 300 sex workers outside Pinjarwadi were making a killing by bribing the police. “The police have turned a blind eye to those operating from guest houses and at the railway station. It is just that we have identified as the ones operating as singing and dancing girls and we are being punished. Is it justified'” they asked in anger.
“Our political masters must realise that sex is a natural drive and it is both futile and irreligious to curb it,” said Laxmi, claiming that the heads of various akharas and religious sects backed her line of thinking.
Outside Pinjarwadi, Ujjain — the Eternal City of the temple of Mahakal, as the scriptures describe it — prepares for Simhastha, oblivious to the women herded behind locked doors. The millions throng the ghats, temples, camps, akharas, unfettered in their quest for spiritual solace.
In fact, the Simhastha impact is so profound throughout Madhya Pradesh that Elections 2004 are no longer a taking point.