Kudroli Shree Gokarnanatheshwara Temple in Mangalore
Kudroli Shree Gokarnanatheshwara Temple in Mangalore Wikipedia

An historic event of sorts took place over the weekend in southern India when two widows performed religious rituals at a Hindu temple. At the beginning of Mangalore Dasara, an annual Hindu festival, two widows – identified only as “Lakshmi” and “Indira” -- conducted religious ceremonies at the Kudroli Shree Gokarnanatheshwara Temple in Mangalore in the state of Karnataka, after four months training as priests.

In a society where widows are typically shunned and regarded as inauspicious (and often kept away from temple events), the scenario at the Mangalore temple was quite unusual, perhaps unprecedented. The Bangalore Mirror newspaper reported that the women were taken inside the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, where the Hindu idols of Shiva and Annapoorneshwari were placed, and offered puja (reverence/worship) to the deities. BBC reported that hundreds of people watched the ceremony, which was also attended by Christians and Muslims, and featured a performance by accompanying musicians.

"Women who have lost their husbands should not be called 'widows',” said B. Janardhan Poojary, a prominent local politician and former federal minister, at a press conference last week, according to the Daijiworld news website. “They must not be discriminated against and kept out of religious rituals. They must be treated as equal to men.”

Poojary also said that the two women will subsequently continue to serve the temple as ordained priestesses, earning a monthly salary. "There is a saying… which means 'mother is God,'” he added. “All are equal in the eyes of God. All possess the same rights in society… Nowhere has it been written that women should not perform religious rituals after they become widows, nor should they be discriminated against. Hence, with a view to give a woman her rights in society and to respect her like a mother, this step has been taken.”

Poojary noted that allowing these widows to perform such sacred duties should send a message to the rest of India. "Women have been treated with a lot of disrespect in society. Rape and atrocities are on the rise. If a woman is treated with motherly care, this [abuse] can be stopped," he said. Poojary said that he plans on having more widows trained to become priests across Karnataka. "There should not be any constraints on widows from offering prayers. No widow should be discriminated against because of her marital status," he told reporters.

Poojary has long advocated for women’s equality. "Atrocities against women will continue until the nation begins to respect women and men realize that they owe their very existence to their mothers,” he declared, according to the Bangalore Mirror. “Women [were] held in high esteem in the ancient scriptures. This novel experiment will uphold the principle of equality among the genders.”

The temple in question was founded and consecrated by Brahmashree Narayana Guru, a reformist who led a religious revolution in the neighboring state of Kerala by allowing everyone and anyone to enter temples he built without regard to gender or caste or income.

But widows have long suffered immense hardship in India – a society where women, at least up until now, were defined completely by the men in her life, most notably her husband. According to Women Under Siege, a blog that highlights women’s rights issues around the world, widowhood in India is tantamount to a kind of non-existence. “Widowhood is a state of social death, even among the higher castes,” said activist Mohini Giri. “Widows are still accused of being responsible for their husband’s death, and they are expected to have a spiritual life with many restrictions which affects them both physically and psychologically.”

In medieval times, widows were often forced to commit the “sati” – a suicide by burning – in order to join her husband in the after-life, since her life on earth no longer held any value. Sati was eventually outlawed, however, the remnants of the attitude that encouraged such forced suicides still exists in pockets of India. Indeed, the widow is sometimes required to remain celibate until her own death as a testament to her devotion to her departed husband. She is also compelled to dress plainly, eschew any vanity and shun any contact with other men. They are also often rejected by their extended families who view them as a curse and a financial drain.

“A virtuous wife is one who after the death of her husband constantly remains chaste and reaches heaven though she has no son,” reads a piece of ancient Indian scripture. Meera Khanna, a trustee of the New Delhi-based Women’s Initiative for Peace in South Asia, and a co-author of a book entitled “Living Death: Trauma of Widowhood in India” told Women Under Siege: “The widow is ‘uglified’ to deprive her of the core of her femininity. It is an act symbolic of castration. She is deprived of the red dot between her eyebrows that proclaims her sexual energy.”

CNN reported that there are an estimated 40 million widows in India. "Widows don't have many social rights within the family," said Ranjana Kumari with the Center for Social Research. "[In rural areas] it is much more tradition-bound; in urban areas, there are more chances and possibilities to live a normal life. The government recognizes the problem. It can do a lot, but it's not doing enough."

Dr. Mohini Giri, a widow herself, has tried to improve the lot of poor widows and their children through an organization she founded called the Guild of Service. "Generally all widows are ostracized," she told CNN. "An educated woman may have money and independence, but even that is snatched away when she becomes a widow. We live in a patriarchal society. Men say that culturally as a widow you cannot do anything: You cannot grow your hair, you should not look beautiful… It's the mind-set of society we need to change -- not the women."

Over the centuries, widows have also been barred from the interior of some Hindu temples. Even in modern times, some temples in India have sparked outrage by restricting entry. Last year, the Lion's Gate of Sri Jagannath Temple in the city of Puri had a sign hanging outside which read "Only Orthodox Hindus are allowed," effectively barring any foreigners from entering. Even former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was once refused entry inside the same temple because she had married a Parsi. Similarly, in 2005, the Queen of Thailand, Mahachakri Siridharan, was also banned because she was a practicing Buddhist.