The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Women rule in male temple bastion

Ayodhya, July 6: A narrow lane from Hanuman ki Garhi, the biggest shrine in the heart of Ayodhya, threads along the bank of the Saryu till, deeper into the temple town, it sharply turns and runs into a dead end at Maibara.

A green painted signboard at the narrow entrance to the shabby double-storeyed brick temple reads: Maibara, the temple of the mothers, Ramghat, Shri Mahant Prayag Dasi and Narmada Dasi.

It dwarfs its more imposing neighbours by the sheer dint of its claim to fame: the 100-year-old Maibara is the largest of the three temples in the town run solely by women.

A frail woman in white, forehead smeared with sandalwood paste, ushers the visitor into the small courtyard of the little shrine dedicated to Lord Ram. There, a portly woman in her sixties supervises the morning puja. “Mahant Narmada Dasi,’’ the devotee says.

A far cry from the saffron-clad, bearded babas who lord over the main Hanuman and Ram temples and hold fort at Ramghat and Vedantighat, this mahant is a cherubic woman with an engaging smile.

“Call me mahant,” says Narmada Dasi, who leads a dedicated crew of 20 sevayins (priestesses) who run the temple-cum-home for destitutes without any outside help. “We are self-sufficient, don’t depend on the babas and have nothing to do with the sadhus and the main temple authorities,” she says.

Maibara, along with its smaller counterparts — the Sri Radha Krishna temple and the Jagatmata shrine (which has closed down) — is the battleground of a silent gender war in Ayodhya, where politics and religion are primarily dominated by men.

The shrines are home to a breed of gutsy sadhvis, trying to break free from the clutches of the babas who call the shots in the town.

The babas, in turn, sneer at them. “Maibara is a small temple. Nothing worth seeing,’’ says a sadhu, when asked for directions to the shrine that can be reached past the karshala, the workshop piled high with intricately carved pink sandstone for the proposed Ram temple.

A couple of others feign ignorance and walk off. But Narmada Dasi is unfazed by the contempt. “It is natural. We do not play into the hands of the babas. We live separately to protect our dignity. We have no connection with the men outside. They cannot be trusted,’’ she says.

The mahant has been in charge of the shrine for 25 years, after her predecessor, Prayag Dasi, died in the late 1980s. “Mahant Prayag Dasi was a pious woman and a devotee of Vedanti baba.”

“One day, while bathing in the Saryu river, she stumbled on a black stone idol of deity Saryu Bihari, popularly known as Ayodhya Nath, and installed it in a hutment at this site, where she stayed,” Narmada Dasi said, recalling the temple’s history.

“She started worshipping the idol and added several more over the years. The most integral part of her worship was chanting Ram-Sita 100,000 times a day.”

Devotees like the mahant flocked to Prayag Dasi and some stayed back. “Gradually, the women built a small temple all by themselves and named it Maibara.”

Narmada Dasi says the babas at first tried to close their temple down and lure them back to the main shrine but “our mothers resisted all such moves”. Some of the richer women donated property and money in return for “permanent shelter”.

Narmada Dasi herself escaped to the temple from her avaricious relatives after being widowed and left childless at 19, following a vision in her sleep.

“I put up at Vedantighat. After a year, I came to Maibara. I went back home the next year, sold my property (15-odd acres left by her husband) and donated the proceeds to the temple. It has been more than 40 years now,’’ said the mahant from Basti district.

The temple sanctorum has a black-stone carving of Saryu Bihari, the presiding deity, silver idols of Ram and Sita, and a stone figurine of Radha-Krishna.

“Our day begins at 3 am,” says Shanti Dasi, a senior sevayin, with a bath in the Saryu. Bhajan follows from 10-11 am. “After that, we prepare bhog (food) for the lord, offer puja and then feed the destitutes who throng the gates.”

Later, the sevayins troop to Janaki temple for religious discourses and spend the evenings in kirtan and Ramnaam. Maibari daily feeds 40 women on an average.

“We also allow a few abandoned women to stay and serve the lord, provided they are pure and pious,” Narmada Dasi says. “No badmashi (mischief) allowed. The temple is out of bounds for babas and immoral women.”

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