As the issue of banning the entry of women to Shani Shignapur, Sabarimala and other temples keeps raging, no spotlight is shed on those temples where only women can enter. Temples like Attakul in Thiruvananthapuram and Chakkulathukavu in Alappuzha in Kerala organise naari puja (women worship) and women-only annual festivals (pongals). Kamakhya temple in Devipuram, Vishakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, bars the entry of women for four or five days a month, to mark privacy during the menstruation period. The Savitri temple in Pushkar, Rajasthan, and Shri Path temple in Chandauli in Uttar Pradesh are women-only temples and bar the entry of men completely.
The Attakul temple in Kerala is also known as the “women’s Sabarimala” and holds the Guinness Book of World Records for having witnessed the largest gathering of women. Around 1.5 million women visited the temple in 1997, during the annual Attakul pongal festival, to celebrate a religious activity, setting the record. A member of the managing committee of the temple said that it was devoted to celebrate the “divine power of women in defeating the demonic forces in society, according to Hindu mythology”. He added that he hoped that the devotional message of the temple would inspire the youth all across the country to respect women and make “women fight back”, including in other faiths where there exist discriminatory practices against women, and where women are protesting such unequal treatment.
The Chakkulathukavu temple, also in Kerala, is dedicated to the Bhagavathi and follows an annual ritual called “naari puja”. On the first Friday of Dhanu (December), the male priests wash the feet of female devotees who have fasted for 10 days. “This system takes root in the belief that female devotees visiting on this particular day are the incarnation of Chakkulathu Amma (Goddess), who is considered to be the epitome of compassion towards the needy. Therefore, a sumptuous free lunch is organised to feed all on various occasions by the temple,” said S. Sathya, the manager of the temple.
According to A. Patnaik, a journalist covering Vishakhapatnam, the Kamakhya temple in the city is believed to be celebrating the creative divinity of women. He said that the temple bars the entry of men for four-five days “to observe the privacy of women during the period of menstruation”. “I have not seen any issues being raised on this during my stay here,’ he said.
The Savitri temple on the Ratnagiri hills in Rajasthan’s Pushkar, according to believers, is a curious place of worship where men are barred entry as the temple marks the rage of its deity, Goddess Savitri. “According to religious beliefs, Savitri, the wife of Lord Brahma, was enraged when Brahma married for the second time. She cursed Brahma and started staying at the Ratnagiri hills. This temple is devoted to her and is maintained by women. Men are strictly not allowed to enter here,” said Nitesh, a local resident. Nitish said that from his family, his grandmother has been visiting the temple.
The Sri Path temple in Seekaldiha tehsil of Uttar Pradesh’s Chandauli district seems to be more radical in its approach towards men. According to some locals and journalists active in the area, the faithful believe that only women can pray inside the temple and if men try to pray there, bad luck visits them. “The accuracy of such claims is difficult to establish, but such a belief is in currency here and that’s why even if men accompany their womenfolk to the temple, they prefer to stay outside,” said a local.
Some religious scholars like Delhi-based Pawan Sinha believe that even though there are “women-specific” temples in India, they do not discriminate against men, but only observe some conditions to provide privacy from men. “I am of the firm belief that the shastras (Hindu religious books) do not discriminate between the sexes when it comes to visiting places of worship and praying there. So whosoever does that also do not follow the shastras in their proper spirit. As far as the said ‘women-specific’ temples are concerned, they do not discriminate against women, they only maintain the privacy of women during certain rituals where the presence of men may not be proper. It’s like men are not allowed to be present during some marriage rituals like the mehndi ceremony of the bride, etc,” said Sinha.