08 August 2014

India's female Hindu priests challenge age-old tradition

The devout are seated cross-legged with folded hands, eyes closed, repeating the mantras and verses recited by the priest, who sits behind the haze and smoke of a fire ritual. As the prolonged incantation comes to a close, devotees seek the priest's blessings. But this priest is not the traditional dhoti swathed, head shaven, forehead ash-smeared man, but a charming, graceful and elegant woman, one of the few but ever growing clan of Hindu women priests. V.L. Manjul, research scholar and chief librarian at Pune's Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, estimates that India now has around 1,600 of them. In Maharashtra alone, "some 600 women have been trained as purohits [priests]," he says. Scholars, sociologists and theologians emphasize that no Hindu scripture prevents women from assuming the role of a priest.