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Unholy mess

Unclean surroundings and chaos are not exclusive to the places of worship of any one religion. Illustration: Satwik Gade  

Scenario 1: The doors of the 2000-year-old shrine of Ramanathalingam at Rameshwaram are thrown open at sunrise. Devotees bathe in the 22 thirthas or holy wells skirting the longest and most beautifully carved corridor in the world and, in dripping clothes, slip and skid on the wet, greasy stone floor, as they move chaotically and noisily in for darshan.

Scenario 2: At the Jagannath temple in Puri, Orissa, the huge outer hall is milling with crowds and is as dirty and noisy as a railway station. When the sanctum is thrown open for darshan, the crowds surge forward like a wave of humanity. There is shouting of instructions, angry yelling, crying of children caught in the mass of humanity. It feels like a kind of concentration camp.

Scenario 3: At the Kamakhya Devi temple in Guwahati, the deity sits in a dark, womb-like cave at the end of the narrow passage that winds down into it. You are accosted by Paandas thrusting their brass plates at you and demanding money. There is aggression, anger and raised voices if one does not comply. By the time you reach the steep, slippery stone steps leading down to the sanctum, you are not in a frame of mind to pray peacefully before the idol you have waited hours to see.

Scenario 4: At the Mahakaleshwar temple in Ujjain, one of the 12 important jyotirlings in the country, the black stone linga is bathed and pujas performed by a circle of priests. Unruly crowds push the queue in, touch and grab the stone idol, while security staff shout and brandish canes. Devotees hog the inner circle and even refuse to let go of the linga.

It is yet another day of mayhem in our temples. No doubt, unclean surroundings and chaos are not exclusive to the places of worship of any one religion. They are also present in churches, gurudwaras, mosques and in pilgrimage centres of every faith. After all, it is not the religion but the people who create filth and disorder.

In his book, My Religion, Gandhiji says, “Deprive a Hindu of his temple, and you deprive him of the thing he generally prizes most in life. That superstition and even evil have grown round many Hindu temples is but too true. That, however, is an argument for temple reform, not for lowering their value.”

Our temples, especially the ancient and historically important ones, need to be cleansed of not just physical dirt, but also chaos and corruption. Barring some that are solely owned or managed by private companies or trusts, most major temples in India are cesspools of dirt and infection. The filth is, undoubtedly, the result of apathy on the part of the priests and the administration and, above all, their confidence that the devotees will accept the status quo. Most pilgrim spots in India are besieged by greed, corruption, money power, nexus of priests/ politicians/ civil servants and many other social evils. Everything is on sale here — entry into the chamber, a closer view, the head priest’s blessings, sandal paste from the stone idol, cloth that has touched the idol, performing of a ritual…

Often, the numerous Panditjis and Maharajs prowling around temple premises are self-styled priests who pour in from villages and small towns in search of a job. Once they learn the workings of a particular temple, they become touts hand-in-hand with paandas, flower hawkers, boatmen, soothsayers… It is one big complex net in which we, the pilgrims, get haplessly entwined.

How difficult is it to keep our temples clean? Not much, if there is will and motivation to create processes, and formulate checks and balances to ensure they are carried out. As a matter of procedure, highest standards of hygiene should be maintained: cleaning around the idol after abhishekam, hourly mopping of floors, responsible garbage disposal, paved and washed courtyards; quality control of flowers and sweetmeats sold in licensed outlets; clean toilets; safe drinking water.

Interestingly, Hindu temples in the West, run and managed by priests who have moved abroad, are case studies in good management and orderliness!

Temples, like all large, complex institutions, need to be managed professionally. There should be seamless coordination between the departments, with a multi-window booth at the entrance selling tickets for various needs — from depositing shoes at the entrance, to making cash donations against a receipt, tokens for special darshan and priority queues for the elderly and handicapped, tokens for purchasing prasad and for subsidised lunch thalis. All this will not only make sales transparent and accountable, but also eliminate chaos and anarchy inside the complex.

Safety features are either non-existent, or not implemented. It is a matter of shame that temples that attract huge numbers of pilgrims year after year have also witnessed large-scale deaths in stampedes and accidents.

In order to maintain the peace within the sanctum sanctorum, it is important that devotees enter quietly in single file, make an offering, touch the idol briefly, pray, and move on.

The landmark case of Vaishno Devi temple reforms (see box) in the 1980s suggests that Government intervention could be the solution to the ills that plague temples.

D.K. Hari, who has co-authored several books on Hinduism, says, “Government intervention should be time bound. Traditionally, ancient temples were built and managed by families or communities. They should be handed back to them to run. This is the best way to ensure that there are no vested outside interests in the affairs of the temples.”

A retired defence officer suggests that district-wise Mandir Mukti groups could be set up with retired civil and service officers to act like a Salvation Army. This could work jointly with the MGNREGA programme where applicable.

In temples, as in Sikh gurudwaras, the concept of seva should be introduced and encouraged. Devotees can opt for work like sweeping, cleaning, kitchen work, minor repairs and organising footwear. Carried out with a sense of joy and giving, it will not only instil a sense of duty and responsibility in devotees but also eliminate the mushrooming of touts and vandals on temples premises.

The Vaishno Devi Case Study

As ex-officio chairman of the board, J&K Governor Jagmohan freed the temple management from the hands of the traditional and corrupt Baridars in the 1980s, overhauled the system and brought in clean and transparent administration that still serves the pilgrims well. The temple is now managed by the Vaishno Devi Shrine Development Board.

The reforms transformed the pilgrimage — once described as ‘infernal’ — by bringing in paved roads, lighting, fresh food and beverage stalls, medical centres, water and clean toilets along the way, orderly queues into the Bhavan, night shelters with mattresses and clean blankets, bath facilities with hot water. Able-bodied beggars were offered employment as labour in the development works, while the sick and disabled were given free board and lodging in a Special Home. Ponies were licensed and charges fixed.

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