A village without doors and locks. This peculiar practice is Shani Shingnapur's claim to fame. Located in Ahmednagar district about 160 km. east of Pune, the residents live by the belief that Lord Shani himself will guard and protect them. The faith of the population of 3000 remains unshaken, even as the myth that there will be no thefts has been challenged by a recent robbery.
Last week, a robbery amounting to Rs. 73,000 was reported. As was the practice, Dagdu Kisan Shethe had not locked the cupboard in which he had kept the cash and gold, and the inevitable happened. Though a complaint was registered, the village chose to remain silent on the issue.
Vikram Shethe, Bapusaheb's son continues to be a believer. “This has happened for the first time in my father's life. The police will investigate the matter now. But we do not blame anyone. We haven't thought of taking up this issue in the gram sabha.”
Since the beginning of 2010, there have been five complaints of thefts lodged with the police.
According to inspector Bapusaheb Dattatray Mane, the myth has acquired a brand value that the villagers are looking to ‘preserve and market.'
“The village survives mainly due to trade from tourists, who are awed by the phenomenon of no doors and locks. If this is proven false, then the whole village will suffer. So many times, people are discouraged from registering complaints at all. It is not true that there are no crimes in this village,” Mr. Mane said.
After a proposal to open a police station was floated, Mr. Mane wrote to the Ahmednagar police superintendent stating that the crimes in the village would stop, only if the ‘loot' of the tourists by the locals, exploiting the myth, is brought to an end.
As you enter the dusty village, its dependence on the local deity is apparent. President of the Shani Shingnapur Temple Trust Shivajirao Darandale boasts of an inflow of 25,000 pilgrims every day and as many as 3 lakh visitors on special religious days.
“People come to experience the miracle. Even the stone idol of Shiva is kept in the open. We believe that He is always present to protect us. This is a 600-year-old tradition that we are taking care of,” Mr. Darandale states.
Speaking about the recent thefts, Mr. Darandale says: “Whoever the thief is, he will come out in the open himself. We have experienced this ourselves. Otherwise, Shani will punish him; he will be blinded by the Supreme Power.”
This ‘blind' faith is echoed by many of the villagers. Pointing at the bare threshold of her house, Nirmala Sable says: “We don't need doors to our houses. It is a tradition here that whenever a crime has taken place, Lord Shani has taught a lesson to the thief.” She has been living in the village for 15 years. A walk down the streets of the village shows that even the newly constructed houses have been left without a door. Even the toilets in the temple vicinity are without doors.
Until recently, the villagers did not even own cupboards, a practice which is perhaps difficult to keep up with in modern times.
“Now we have cupboards but we don't lock them,” another resident Surekha Sable says.
Asked about the recent robbery, there is a spate of denials. “There has not been a single theft here so far. We have faith in Him. We even keep our money and jewellery in the open,” says Sable.
The ‘brand' of the village comes into the picture, once again. And perhaps it has the right propagators.
A shopkeeper who has been selling ‘pooja items' in the temple vicinity states: “People come here to seek the blessings of Shani. They know how powerful he is. All this news about the robbery is not good for the image of the village. If a mobile phone is displaced, then whoever finds it will obviously use it. You cannot call it a theft,” Parmeshwar Vigne says, in a feeble attempt of justification.
Aftab Sheikh, a driver who has been getting believers to the pilgrim spot for years now states: “I don't even lock the doors of the car even when people leave their valuables inside. Such is our faith.”
Also, such is the power of an economy that is dependent on the myth.
Adding to the brand value, Shani Shingnapur's first commercial bank, the Uco bank opened in January. Even the bank does not have a lock or a treasury, but instead of relying on the ‘power of the Lord,' the bank employees transfer the cash at the end of every day to another bank in the nearby village of Sonai. “During the day, we have Shani to protect us. We do not need any police protection,” bank manager Umakant Shah says.
This irony is explained by Dr. Narendra Dabholkar, a rationalist of the Maharashtra Andhrashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS): “The whole belief is a farce. But now it has become a brand-building exercise. The image of the village is what everyone is concerned about, and not the security. Faith should not be dependent on baseless miracles. But everyone wants to cash in on the brand. Ironically, the fact that this myth is bringing huge amounts of money to this tiny village is contributing to its propagation.”