INDIFFERENT to the incredulous reporters and television crews thronging the Rani Sati mandir to record the Maha Chandi yagna being held here, students of the Rani Sati Balika Vidyalaya chant Jai Rani Sati Mata as part of their morning assembly. Vigilant media can do little to disrupt their daily schedule. As always, they invoke the spirit of the great Narayani Devi to bless them. They pray to the great Sati who had been so grieved by the sudden and untimely death of her husband Tandhandas at the hands of the nawabs men that she was engulfed by divine fire.
The controversial, nine-day-long maha yagna performed by 51 Brahmins to commemorate the Satis 400th birth anniversary will be over on December 4. Thousands of devotees who came in from all over the country to the temple will return. The media will focus its attention on yet another concern. And these little girls will continue with their ritual. Continue to glorify sati despite the fact that it is a tradition prohibited by the Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987. Continue to hear Rajasthani lore that deifies women who "live and die for their husbands".
But there is no need for concern, assures Mahavir Prasad Sharma, manager of the temple. "I am really amazed by this media over-reaction. None of these girls or any others who might have come here for the yagna are expected to burn themselves on their husbands pyres," the elderly man says. "The idea is to give them a pativrata (devout wife) for a role model. To inculcate values that will make them good mothers and wives. And you hysterical feminists wont even allow us to do that."
Quite inevitably, the discussion turns to the writ petition filed by the National Commission for Women seeking to ban the yagna on the grounds that it amounted to glorification of sati and was injurious to the dignity of women. Sharma points out that the Jaipur High Court has dismissed the petition on the basis that the yagna is to appease Goddess Durga and had nothing to do with sati. He remains silent, however, on the fact that the court had ordered the yagna to be held outside the templethough it is being held outside the sanctum sancto-rum, it is still within the temple complex. With the practised ease that comes from his exhaustive interaction with the media over the past few days, Sharma dismisses queries on why the yagna begins only after an invocation to the Sati Mata within the temple. "The two things are not connected," he claims.
"Why is the media quibbling? We are telling you our belief in the Sati is different from this yagna. But no one listens. I wish the media would show equal interest in finding out what the politicians are doing with the scam money. Leave us alone with our faith," says Shankar Chaudhary, a middle-aged industrialist who comes all the way from Ranchi with his family to attend the yagna. Fired by such views, retired professor Bajrang Lal Jalan observes that kaliyug (bad times) has indeed arrived. "What else? The defenders of democracy, our leaders and the press, are proudly partaking in the celebrations of nudity through beauty contests and discouraging our daughters from learning of values that make honourable Hindustani women," he says.
But do the daughters have a say in the matter? Fasting to propitiate Sati Mata, 21-year-old Pratibha Devi doesnt. Her husbands family does. She has travelled all the way from her home in Samastipur, Bihar, under the charge of her father-in-law to pray to Rani Sati for a son. "My mother-in-law says that Sati Ma has never disappointed anyone in the family. Everyone has had sons after coming here," mumbles Pratibha, tugging at the long end of her sari that covers her face. The irony is inescapable. Even in a temple devoted to the ideal woman, it is the male child which is sought as a blessing.
There are many more who are veiled and tongue-tied in the crowds that jostle to take a peek at the trident that symbolises sati in the temple. Accompanied by the elders of their family or their husbands, most of them find little to say in front of the men of the household. More so the newly-wed lasses who, draped in their bridal fin-ery, seek the Sati Matas blessings to lead a chaste existence, devoted to their husbands. "I prayed that I can always keep my husband and in-laws happy," says bride Reshmi Saini shyly. A matriculate, she says she has no views on the sati tradition but coyly labels Roop Kanwar of Deorala as a false sati. "If she had been real, then a temple would have been built there too," she offers. This has her father-in-law Dinesh Chands beaming approval: "Where are the girls to become satis today? Born and bred in a city, Roop Kanwar just didnt have the right attitude to become a sati," he says disdainfully. "Todays women are only interested in television, fridges and washing machines. Its all about consumerism."
IRONICALLY, a stroll around the Rani Sati temple proves just that. The aroma of food cooked in desi ghee by personal cooks brought from their homes is all-pervading in the section of the temple complex that houses the more affluent devotees. The less privileged fend for themselves in an area that looks rather unkempt. The crass commercialisation is even more evident outside the complex. Cassettes with sati bhajans, sati chalisas (prayer books), laminated photos of the deity, pens and batches with the sati trident insignia, mirrors with the Matas blessingstheyre all available for a price. "Thanks to her 400th birthday, business has really been good this year. People are buying the biggest size Sati photos much more than ever before. How can you not buy some souvenirs to take back home if you believe in her?" asks shopkeeper Jagdish Saini. Then, careful not to be irreverent, he observes that for the poor, of course, there are Ranijis blessings to take back.
But, thanks to the yagna, Ranijis blessings, it seems, have been bestowed most favourably upon the hotel owners in Jhunjhunu. Inns are crowded and resorts in this beautiful Shekhawati region are fully occupied. Many inn keepers have even hiked up their room tariffs considerably. Laxmikant Jadeja, owner of Jamuna Hotel, can barely restrain a chuckle as he tells people that he has only one room available and that too for Rs 1,000. "Normally, its no more than Rs 400. But Raniji is kind this year. Thousands have visited Jhunjhunu," he says.
District Collector S.S. Tripathi disagrees. The bureaucrat insists that the temple has always attracted huge numbers. He maintains that nothing out of the ordinary is happening now and squarely blames the press for exaggerating the significance of the occasion. "Even then, we have taken due and deliberate care to maintain high security levels," Tripathi says in a clipped tone. "Though there really isnt the remotest possibility of any untoward incident. Theres been too much hue and cry over a plain and simple religious ceremony."
MOUTHING the same sentiments almost, the secretary of the temples managing committee and Calcutta based businessman Devendra Jhunjhunwallah observes that the medias whim is to blame for any sati glorification that might have taken place. "We have quietly gathered here to pray. We are law-abiding citizens and are strictly following every word of the court order in letter and in spirit. And we do not believe that women need to burn themselves with their dead husbands to prove their greatness." In fact, in this place teeming with people who are caught up in frenzied fasting and praying to appease Rani Sati, almost none admits to belief in the sati tradition. They dont want their daughters or wives to be Roop Kanwars, they insist. But they do want their womenfolk to be good mothers and wives. Most want their daughters to be good daughters-in-law. Many more want their daughters and daughters-in-law to have sons.
So, they express immense shock when a confused French tourist Aristo Bellenger asks whether all Indian women who want to burn themselves on their husbands pyre come to this temple to do so. Kanti Rajgharia, an aged devotee, answers in impeccable English: "India is a progressive country. Women are not burnt here. They are respected. To us they are mothers, devis, goddesses. We worship them." But do women want to be worshipped? Or, would they rather have equal rights? n