I undertook my first pilgrimage to the Mata Vaishno Devi shrine in the mid 1980s. I was appalled by the conditions that existed then – narrow, dilapidated roads, inadequate parapet wall (that too in a state of disrepair), lack of railings at steep drops, poor lighting, no proper resting rooms nor toilets, shanty stalls bordering the walkway, ubiquitous beggars, exorbitant pony and palanquin charges. There was filth and stench everywhere; no hygienic food nor water.
According to legend, at Banganga – the first major stop on the uphill climb, when the goddess, accompanied by Langoor Veer was moving to her abode, Langoor Veer felt thirsty. The goddess shot an arrow into the ground and a spring gushed out. But at the Vaishno Devi shrine instead, I saw a dry bed looking back at me with resigned helplessness.
Trikuta Hills looked like a plundered victim. My spirits didn’t get uplifted, my feelings lacked exhilaration. The only impulse propelling me forward was my desire to pay obeisance.
Sometime later, Jagmohan, the then governor of Jammu and Kashmir, promulgated the Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Act, 1986. In 1988, the Supreme Court ratified the establishment of the Shrine Board.
When I went back again after many years, the transformation had been dramatic. The roads were wider and carpeted. Street lamps provided comforting illumination throughout the journey. There were well placed resting rooms. Toilets had been constructed, and were being maintained regularly. Restaurants served clean, wholesome food. Garbage bins and an army of safai karamcharis ensured a salubrious environment. The usurious pithoo and palki tariffs gave way to a reasonable pre-paid service. Helicopter and electric car services had also been started.
Trikuta Hills once again wore a verdant look. The sanctity and glory of the pilgrimage had been restored.
Even in the administration of the temple, Jagmohan brought about far-reaching changes. The enormous wealth of the temple was being shared by the 1,000 families of priests, with nothing left for the temple’s upkeep. He rid the shrine of the control of the baridars and reposed the control with the autonomous board. All the offerings and donations were deposited into the funds of the board from which they were spent on humanitarian and development schemes. Today it is one of the few best maintained and managed temples in India.
The Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HRCE) Act was passed in 1951 by Tamil Nadu. As the historian Franklin Preseler described it, temples desperately needed the state’s protection… Without an active and vigilant state, temples were corrupted, preyed on by unscrupulous trustees, priests, land tenants and politicians – all exploiting the temples for political gain. Only a centralised administration under the government could check this tendency.
States all over the country have followed the model of Tamil Nadu and established their own regulatory bodies to oversee the affairs of temples.
Under the watchful eye of state-level religious endowment departments, temples are required to use the wealth they acquire from the donations of devotees to improve the quality of religious services they provide and infrastructure for the worshippers.
The Madras High Court went a step further by holding that temples covered by HR & CE Department are public institutions and come under the purview of the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
In another case, the Madras High Court ruled that a temple idol, which owned huge tracts of immovable properties, was in fact a “minor” in the eyes of the law. The minor’s affairs, such as maintenance of his estates and other assets, were thus entrusted to executive authorities who were expected to discharge their mandate most diligently. In case of any slackness on the part of executive authorities or trustees of temples, it was the duty of the court to see that the “minor” did not suffer.
These are the winds of change blowing across the temples of the Devi all over the country. Boards are being constituted to run them professionally, freeing the temples from the stranglehold of hereditary pujaris. Donations are not only being accounted for but are being put to good use. Infrastructure has improved considerably and a proper environment created for the exercise of faith.
Of course, there are voices on the other side of the divide which hold that government control of temples is a blatant violation of secularism and religious freedom.
So, whether it is marvelling at the eternal flame at the Jwala Ji temple that has been burning since time immemorial despite attempts to extinguish it, or whether it is enjoying the glorious view of the Dhauladhar from the beautiful temple complex of Chamunda Devi, or whether it is taking a ropeway to the Naina Devi temple, worshippers and the worshipped have regained centrality in the management of temples.
The other change that is sweeping across Devi temples is the ban on animal sacrifice. A young daughter of a colleague had a harrowing and life-changing experience when she witnessed, without any warning, an animal sacrifice in the open courtyard in Vindhyavasini temple, near Mirzapur.
The Himachal Pradesh High Court has banned animal sacrifice for religious reasons, deeming the practice cruel and barbaric. The court also questioned the reasons saying such rituals must change in the modern era. However, the matter is in appeal before the Supreme Court.
Of course, there are many who feel that this judgment is against the age-old beliefs and customs of many people.
On the other hand, the Guwahati High Court has declined to ban sacrifice of animals at religious places, saying any such order could have serious repercussions. The court felt that judicial interference in religious practices could lead to “cultural clash”. At the Kamakhya temple in Guwahati where animal sacrifice is practised, many foreign dignitaries come to offer animal sacrifice, as did Nepal’s King Gyanendra in 2002. However, if you wish to offer a creature, but not have it killed, you pay for its upkeep. One sees a large numbers of goats foraging in the temple complex.
The Supreme Court recently refused to interfere with religious practices and said the judiciary could not stop century-old traditions of sacrificing animals by various communities. A public interest litigation (PIL) cited provisions of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 to point out that the law provides for minimal pain and trauma to animals killed for food. The petitioner pointed out that the law could not be given a go-by when it came to animal sacrifices during religious occasions. Most of these animal sacrifices took place in open areas near religious places and were watched even by children. The animals were killed by untrained persons causing much pain to them. Moreover, other animals also watched it, causing trauma to them. The petitioner demanded employing trained butchers for animal sacrifice during religious occasions.
The Supreme Court held that the Act itself carved out an exception for animal sacrifices carried out for religious purposes. There were many communities in villages which felt animal sacrifice rituals brought them rain. If they did not do it, there might be no rain. That is why the legislature, while framing the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act had provided for the exception. The court had to balance between the law and religious practices. This was a sensitive matter better dealt with by the representatives of the people in appropriate fora. The court could not shut its eyes to century-old traditions.
The court allowed the petitioner to move an application seeking to be a party in the pending appeal against the Himachal Pradesh High Court order. So the last word on the subject is yet to be heard.
Since the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act does not prohibit animal sacrifice at religious places, many states have brought another Act into effect – Animals and Birds Sacrifice Prohibition Act – to ban the practice. However, animal sacrifice is still legal in some states.
As the faithful embark on their holy journey to the Devi temples during the Navratras, the spiritual ecstasy they would experience would, in no small measure, be on account of a more mundane attribute of any pilgrim’s progress – the physical environment that can be conducive to the holy communion!
~ Ajay Mankotia. The writer is a former revenue officer.