Men can’t touch the five idols in this sea beach temple in Odisha’s Kendrapara; only married Dalit women from the local fishing community have the exclusive privilege of performing rituals. Maa Panchubarahi temple in Satabhaya village is unlike any other temple in the country.
There has been no exception for 400 years. With rising sea waters – brought on by climate change – threatening the very existence of the temple, the curb has been reluctantly lifted. Albeit for a day.
Compelled to relocate to a new temple 12km inland, the priestesses are left with no option but to allow men into the sanctum sanctorum to transport the heavy black stone idols. “It is not possible for women to pull it off. We need many men and sculptors to move the idols,” Sabita Dalei, one of the five priestesses who work in shifts, says.
The rare exercise will take place on Friday (today). Once the 1.5-tonne deities riding piggyback on the male labourers reach their destination in Bagapatia, the priestess will ‘purify’ them with a ritual.
“At a time when many temples in the country are out of bounds for Dalits, and women face restrictions in places such as Kerala’s Sabarimala, Ma Panchubarahi is a beacon of hope for women,” Dharanidhar Rout, a former college principal, says. “The sea has been advancing towards Satabhaya for a while. It has swallowed many houses and agricultural plots. Fifty years ago, the temple was 5km from the beach. Now, only a few metres remain between it and the sea,” says Dalei.