Bleary eyed, I set out at 5.30 in the morning to my favorite destination yet again. This time though, it wasn’t just for lazing around and getting some me time. It was with a specific intent: to decipher the reasons behind the end of a beautiful culture, the culture of the devadasis, which adorned the courtyards of the Jagannath temple in Puri, for thousands of years. A certain newspaper article about the oldest living devadasi in Puri intrigued me and was the reason behind my visit today.
After a sumptuous breakfast of toast with bacon and eggs, with sausages by the side, at one of my favorite haunts, Honey Bee(done up with bamboo and wicker furniture, mostly catering to the likes of foreigners), I began quizzing the pandas(priests) around the temple, about the whereabouts of the devadasis. After about 20 minutes of whizzing around aimlessly in the bylanes of the temple, I deemed it best to visit the temple office. I discovered that they were two instead of one, of a dying cult, resigned to fate, living in deplorable conditions.
As I ventured into the first lady’s house in Dolamundap Sahi, a young lad of about 15 came running down to me, “Would you like to meet Badama( father’s elder brother’s wife)?”, the tone reeking of an everyday mundaneness. “A lot of people come down to see her. She is very famous. Be careful though, she gets a little cranky these days. You see, she is neither able to see or hear that well”.
We went up a winding fleet of steps, leading to a small ante room, via which we stepped into the room of Sasimoni, a 95 year old tottering lady, who was wedded to the Lord, at the tender age of 7. Arms bare, with an orange saree, streaked in black, draped around her, she was lying prostrate on a pile of tattered cotton sheets put together. The most striking feature though, was the huge blob of red on her forehead and the red sindoor down her parted silvered hair, both the marks of a wedded woman in Hindu culture.
“Have you come to do research on me?” she shouted into my ears. “Yes, I was very keen to know more about you”, I replied.
She inched closer to me and clutched my hand in a tight grip. In a failed attempt to make her shriek sound like a whisper, she told me, “All those who visit me get a token of appreciation. That is God’s wish. What have you brought?
You are a blessed child my dear. Let me tell you a secret. You have been able to visit me after a lot of tapasya, which God rendered successful today. I was saved from the clutches of death not once, but five times in the last 3 years. You know, why! Because, you had to come and meet me.”
After shelling out a monetary compensation for the golden words of wisdom she would share with me, we sat on a reed mattress and spoke at length for about an hour.
“We are all raised by existing devadasis. 16 of my sisters died previously, before I was born. By the Lord’s grace, I was raised by the famous devadasi, Surjyamani, following which, her favorite disciple, Poonamani took over. When I was 7 years old, I was dressed in bridal fineries and married to Jaga. I was extremely happy and thereafter, devoted my entire life to his service. With single minded devotion, comes oneness with the Lord. As his wife and servant, I have experienced togetherness in the most intimate manner. That I cannot express. That, it would not be right to express”.
The golden beads strung around her frail neck shone in comparison to the dreary, dull atmosphere in the house. A string of ochre colored thread was tied around her bare tanned arms. In almost every breath, she looked up earnestly at the idol of Lord Jagannath and sent a word of prayer to him.
“As a devadasi, there were a number of sevas we had to perform. Since I was the most famous amongst all of us, I was given the charge of performing the Nanda Utsav,where I would dress up as Yashoda and carry little Krishna in my arms,” she said with a hint of obvious pride. “I presumed I would be able to do so, till the last breath of life was taken away from me. Alas, 3 years back, I lost my vision and power of hearing. Since then, my wobbly legs have given away and I have not been able to move out of the house. It pains me to an extent, I cannot describe. I can’t help it though. Whatever God deems right, must be right. I am waiting for him to carry me away in his arms, away from the worldly possessions.”
The walls of the room were dotted with the various awards presented to her. Those were the symbol of the magnitude of service she has dedicated, an entire lifetime of service she has offered to her Jaga. She receives a monthly pension of a thousand rupees from the temple authorities, a pittance in today’s world.
Almost always in a peevish mood, she lashes out at the electricity department for having refused her the much needed air and also shouts out to her adopted son, to show me certain literature chronicling her life.
“People from Dilli, Bombay, Allahabad, London and America, come down to visit me. People from the world of dance, also hold me in very high regard. After all, it is we, who taught the commoners how to dance.”
“As a last wish, can you please get two silver ringlets for me from Cuttack? I will give you one of mine, which will help you ward off evil spirits throughout your life and be a harbinger of success for eternity”, she quipped in, convincingly.
I took one last glance at her meager belongings, her proud certificates of recognition and turned away down the stairs, amazed, fascinated and intrigued by the story of her life.
How on earth could one devote oneself, ones whole life to service, to music, to dance, for a husband, who was beyond the human frailties of touch and sight?
She mentioned that looking at another man was crime, was illegal, as she was legally wedded to the Lord. Was the togetherness, she mentioned, a figment of her imagination or did it have some semblance of truth?
With multiple questions in my mind, I left her abode and set out to the second devadasi, Parasumani’s house, 10 years younger to Sasimoni, residing in a rented house, on the banks of the sea. She was a regular at the temple every evening, where she sung the tunes of Geet Govind, calling out lovingly to her husband.
I went into a cemented portico, to find a lady in faded white and red, leaning against the wall. The red was common to her as well, the only difference being, a set of strikingly visible black and red betel stained teeth.
“Today morning, while I was placing the flowers on Jaga’s head, he constantly kept dropping it down. I chided him saying that did he not know how much it hurt my broken hand to place flowers on his head again and again. Was somebody due to arrive or visit me today”, she mentioned in a jocular fashion.
“I have seen my husband, the creator of this universe, in varied forms. Once when I was unwell and wasn’t able to visit the temple, I felt a hand on my brow. Looking up, I could see a salt and pepper colored long haired Jaga standing, consoling me and reassuring me that things would be right eventually. This is just one of the instances. To people who have not felt him, this may seem to be a lie but I swear on my Lord, he talks to me and listens to me, as normally as a regular husband would.”
My visits to both these houses were equally profound and made me see a world beyond the usual. The vastness of the spiritual world can never be questioned. Here are two women, who have braved maliciousness in all forms, to carry a tradition forward, into which they were thrown at an age, where they could not fathom, how the decision would change their lives. They stride forward with sustained veneration and dedication and mark the last of a long lived cult, in the history of the famous Jagannath temple.
My last halt was at the Shri Jagannath Central Library, which houses information on this lost cult in the Puri dham, making it delectable food for thought in the months to come.