he family purohit, the medium of communication with the Almighty for most Hindus, conforms to a stereotyped image—dhoti-clad, sacred thread across the chest, a smear of turmeric/sandalwood paste/ash on the forehead, and a tongue that unleashes an avalanche of shlokas and mantras. He is also usually defined by two crucial words: Brahmin; Male.
But those stereotypes are now crumbling in Andhra Pradesh. A group of women has not only stormed this traditional male bastion by turning professional purohits but have managed to prise open the once impenetrable caste barrier as well. Today, there are 20 practising women purohits in the state, most of them based in Hyderabad. Astound-ingly, about 90 per cent of them are OBCs. Most of these women have studied the Vedas, know Sanskrit and are degree holders from colleges certified by the Maharishi Dayanand University, Rohtak.
Vasudha Shastri, who performed the marriage of Telugu film actress Aarti Agarwal recently, exudes confidence at her job. "People used to the traditional purohits do look shocked when they see me conducting a marriage or a naming ceremony, but once they witness the actual rituals, they leave impressed," she says. A resident of the Aliabad area in Hyderabad's old city, Vasudha has performed over 1,000 marriages. She studied Sanskrit, the Vedas and the Upanishads in Varanasi, and when not conducting ceremonies and yagnas, teaches Sanskrit at the Nava Jeevan Mahila College. "When I conduct a shanti yagna, a marriage or a griha pravesh (house-warming), I make sure everyone understands the meaning of the Vedic mantras. The Vedas are meant for all; that should not be forgotten," she says.
Vaishnavi Devi at a family...