The 900-year-old place of worship is challenging the entrenched tradition of patriarchy and casteism in one stroke.

Majhe maher Pandhari … (Pandharpur is my mother’s home …) Pandit Bhimsen Joshi’s abhang (devotional song) is an ode to the Vitthal-Rukmini temple here. Mothers can now serve as priests in this temple.

The 900-year-old place of worship is challenging the entrenched tradition of patriarchy and casteism in one stroke. The temple administration has already interviewed women and those from outside the Brahmin community for appointing them as priests.

The Vitthal Rukmini Temple Trust (VRTT), which functions under the Maharashtra government, has made the radical move possible. “For the first time, a temple is throwing open its doors to everyone. We thought it was time now for us to set an example. No group should claim monopoly for serving as priests in the temple,” Anna Dange, chairman of the trust, told The Hindu.

"Lakhs of people converge here every year. People love Vitthoba and Rakhumai [as lord Vitthal and his consort Rukmini are called locally]. The gods did not discriminate between people; it’s time we followed suit.”

As a first step towards equality, women have been interviewed for performing aarti for Rukmini alone. Men qualify to do it for Vitthal as well.

The temple, a favourite of the Warkari sect in Maharashtra, attracts over two crore devotees a year. During the Hindu month of Ashaadh, lakhs of Warkaris and other pilgrims from across the State walk to the temple.

Priesthood of the temple was under the monopoly of the Barve-Utpat families of Pandharpur, which claimed ancestral rights over the institution. The two families used to auction the puja every day. Even here, sexism showed: while the auction for performing aarti for Vitthal started at Rs. 20,000, that for Rukmini started at Rs. 7,000. The families paid the auction amount to the trust and kept the donations themselves.

A Supreme Court ruling in January stripped the families of the right to appoint priests and keep the donations. The VRTT received 199 applications, 23 from women, for the position of priests. “Eventually 129 people attended the interviews, including 16 women,” Sanjay Teli of the trust said. Applications were received from Dalits and Marathas. The trust will make its decision public on June 9.

“The only qualification we seek is that they should know how to conduct rituals, perform aarti and puja, and dress the deities,” Mr. Teli said. There lies the catch, according to some people. “For years, nobody has allowed us the privilege of conducting the puja. Now that they have opened the doors, they want us to be qualified. How is that possible?” said a Dalit flower-seller near the temple, who did not wish to be named.

Urmila Bhate (52), one of the women interviewed, stated that the opportunity to be a priest was a dream come true. “I have grown up in Pandharpur, and I thought this day would never come,” she said, speaking of the chance to “serve Rakhu-mai.” Ms Bhate's family has been involved in the temple's activities. “I have watched my brothers perform the puja and I am well versed with the tradition of the temple. It is high time, that women who are equally devoted to Lord Vitthal and Rakhumai, are considered equal to male priests,” she stated.