AHMEDNAGAR, April 8 (IANS): In a historic decision with far-reaching ramifications, the famous Shani Shingnapur Temple Trust said women would be permitted to enter and pray at the open-to-sky platform here from Friday.
The significant decision was taken at a meeting of the trust and later announced by trustee Shalini Lande, a week after the Bombay High Court ruled that there is no law to prevent women from entering any place of worship.
"Yes, we have taken this decision ...; We shall now finalise other details like how and when women can go and worship there...," Trust Chairperson Anita Shetye told IANS on Friday.
For over four centuries, women have been barred from stepping onto the high platform on which stands a black stone - symbolising Lord Shanidev, the personification of planet Saturn.
Incidentally, in January this year, the trust overturned tradition and unanimously selected Anita Shetye as its first-ever woman chairperson, and appointed another woman Shalini Lande as a trustee.
Friday's decision was immediately welcomed by Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and Bhumata Ranragini Brigade (BRB) President Trupti Desai who had led an agitation for women's entry for the past few months.
Lauding the Trust move, Desai announced in Pune she would depart for Shani Shingnapur Temple later in the day and offer prayers on the auspicious Gudi Padwa being celebrated on Friday.
On April 1, a division bench of the Bombay High Court comprising Chief Justice D. H. Waghela and Justice M.S. Sonak had ruled that under the Maharashtra Hindu Place of Worship (Entry Authorisation) Act, 1956, women could not be barred from any place of worship.
Disposing off a PIL filed by women activists Vidya Bal and lawyer Nilima Vartak, the court directed the state government to take proactive steps to ensure compliance with the law, saying "it is the fundamental right of a woman and must be protected".
On its part, the state government assured that it was totally opposed to gender discrimination and would scrupulously implement the Act which stipulates a six-month jail term for violators.
A day after the court verdict, a group of BRB women were stopped from entering the temple complex and their leader Trupti Desai was assaulted by some rival activists, even as Maharashtra Women's Commission Chairperson Chitra Wagh cancelled her trip to the temple that day.
On Friday (April 8), several villagers made a beeline for the temple, broke the barricades erected there and climbed onto the platform to worship Shanidev.
The unique open temple, in existence since kaliyuga, has no walls or roof. A self-emerged (svayambhu) five-feet-high black stone stands on a platform and is worshipped as Lord Shanidev, in the centre of the small village, also known as Sonai.
Though it attracts devotees and tourists from around the world, barring the temple priests, nobody was permitted to climb the nine steps to the stone idol that represents Lord Shanidev and had to offer prayers from below, trustee Prafull N. Surpuriya explained.
Shani Shingnapur is globally known as the only village where houses do not have doors and locks, and yet the village remains theft-free.
Even the nationalised UCO Bank's branch in the village does not have locks on its doors.
Belief has it that thieves cannot steal or burgle in the village which is protected by Lord Shanidev, and misfortune and divine punishment would befall anyone who attempts to steal.