Last week I went to my husband’s village for a special Puja to be offered to the village temple God. Before we go any further, let’s talk about village temples. Almost every village in Bharat has at least one main temple in it, and the God worshipped here is known as the KulaDevata (KulaDevi) of every villager there. Kula means family and Devata means God. So all the villagers who originate from that village consider this temple God as their family Deity. Even if one moves out of the village, the family Deity doesn’t change. Another noteworthy fact is that it doesn’t matter which caste one belongs to, the family Deity is the same. In a way, all villagers were the larger family of the same God. It is believed that as far as the Dwaja Sthamb can view, the Deity ruled over that much land. Another way to know how much area was covered by the Deity’s blessings was to follow the annual Rath Yatra of that Deity. The Rath Yatra was the time when the Kula Devata stepped out of His/Her temple and took a round around the village/gram to visit His/Her devotees. Sometimes, more than one village had the same Kula Devata.
Traditional Worship in these Temples were not like the worship that you see these days, with someone just coming in, praying for a minute, putting some money in the Hundi, asking for some Puja to be done in one’s name, waiting for the Aarti and then going away in haste. (FYI most temples did not have Hundis at all in the past.) As readers must know, the God(s) in our temples are not just stone idols – they are living entities with a Praana (soul). They are fed, bathed, made to sleep, clothed, spoken to, they speak through actions, they bless devotees, and more, because they are alive and thriving. They possess energies (sukshma) not visible to the human eye. Their energies are invoked for blessings through our prayers and through various Shlokas, Mantras and Pujas. Villagers actually let the village God know of every happening in their village, family with full faith. If there is a wedding, or any other ceremony, the village God is invited first. In fact, people print ‘Shree Kuladevatabhyo Namah’ on their invitation cards, right on top. Even in the event of a serious illness, the village Deity is informed and His/Her blessings invoked. In fact, villagers/farmers invoke the blessings of the God before the sowing of the seeds and before the harvesting. And after the harvesting, they collectively do a Puja to thank God on a special day as decided by their ancestors.
But we have all along learnt that only Brahmins were allowed inside the temples and that the other ‘lower’ castes were kept away from the temples, no? So then, how could they have propitiated the village God and offered Pujas? Well actually, in the past, every village was a self-sufficient unit by itself. And yes, only the Brahmins were allowed to ‘enter’ the inner sanctorum of the temples, up to a point. But then there was a rider – they had to visit the temple only after a bath and had to wear clean clothes. Only the Priest was allowed to enter the place where the Idol was. The rest had to wait outside, irrespective of his/her caste. In many temples, it did not matter which caste one belonged to, one could enter the inner sanctorum & offer Puja – for example in many Shiva Temples, this is the practise followed. This is true even in Temples which are thousands of years old, for example, in Gokarna in Karnataka which houses the only Atma Linga in the world.
So if there were no hundis, how did the temple function? Where did they get their money from & how were salaries paid? This is the beauty of our village management in the past. Every temple had some land which the Deity owned. Some of this land was then divided among the villagers depending on their service to the Lord. The temple priest, the helper to the priest, the administrators, the temple clothes washerman, the instrument players, the flower vendors, all got a share of the land for tilling. From this land, they could earn their living and also get their crops, vegetables, fruits, for a staple diet. The temple had its own Goushala where cows were reared, for the requirement of milk and ghee for the God and the family requirements of the Chief Priest – he had to look after the feeding of the cows from his own pocket. Additionally, the Priests of the temple could get a Dakshina as given by the devotees. They could not state a specific amount to be paid by the devotees. This practise is still followed in most temples all over Bharat (please do not equate the poor village priests to the priests (pandas) of the big temples these days). Now another way of attracting income for the employees of the temples were the additional Pujas performed in the temples – these were by way of devotees thanking the God for some accomplishments, weddings or other happy occasions in the family, etc. After these Pujas the villagers would be fed (Bhandara), and special gifts and money would be given to all those employed by the Temple. The gifts could be in the form of clothes, grains, coconuts, vegetables, etc.
Coming to the special Puja offered in my village temple – it was a Puja called the Mahapuja. Our Kula Devata and Gram Devata is Shiva. This Puja is also variously known as Rangapuja in South Karnataka & Kerala – the offering made to the God may differ based on the village/temple customs. In our family temple, the main offering for this Puja was parboiled rice, puris, coconut, betel nut & leaf and a sweet item called Hayagriva (made of Bengal gram, jaggery, ghee, coconut and spices). The readers would be happy to know that this offering is made not just to Lord Shiva, but to all His Ganas as well. Planks of wood are laid down connecting the Mukhya Dwaar to the Dwaja Sthambha and a whole ton (100kgs) of rice is cooked and placed on the cloth covering these planks, as an offering. Then the rice is covered with all the other offerings as mentioned before. The main Diety is also offered fruits. After this offering is made, Bali is offered in the form of cut leaves, on the specific stone slabs surrounding the temple. The Utsav Murthy is carried in a Palanquin and taken around the Temple to the beating of cymbals, conches, drums and shehnai. Readers would be interested in learning that the communities involved in the Puja are the Priests, the Gowdas (they get the leaves and cut it), the Patalis (they beat the huge drums), the Bhandaris (they beat the smaller drums and play other wind instruments), the Arasas (they wash the cloth and put it on the planks). After the Puja is done, the offerings are shared by all these communities equally. The food is supposed to be shared by all those in the extended family too of these community people, if they ask for it, since it is Prasad. After all the Puja was done, all the concerned people were also given gifts of shawls and cash.
Now imagine how the temples helped the people in the villages. Those who were rich or who had a reason to celebrate would offer big and small special Sevas or Pujas. There would be annual Pujas and special Pujas for every festival & in Hinduism we have festivals every month. On certain special months, there would be special Pujas – for example, during Shravan month or during Adhik Maas. The whole village would be fed on these occasions. That apart, offerings would be divided or shared as Prasad by the villagers. Almost every community would be included in these festivities. The students in the Paathshalas got their meals without any problems. The temples which were the backbone of the ecosystem of every village, were the first to be targeted by the Invaders and the Missionaries for this very reason. Once the wealth and the land belonging to the temples was robbed, the temple found it difficult to help the various communities which depended on it. Then started the phase of people being misinformed and misguided about untouchability and ‘lower & higher’ castes. Why was it that even though the non-Brahmins were not allowed into the inner sanctorum of the village temples, no one ever complained or revolted? This is because every community got their respect from their caste and profession because all professions were given importance in the village eco-system. The Brahmin would not / could not grab land/job from the village drummer and vice-versa. The well-digger, the water diviner, the fruit gatherer, the potter, all had their own position in society and they did not have the greed to venture into another’s profession/wealth. But when money became scarce and ‘modern education’ brought about newer jobs (which actually were slavery to the invaders/British), the income of the temples and its community decreased. Because of this, the temples and villages were unable to sustain the various communities and friction started among communities. Added to this was the newfound knowledge of ‘Manusmriti’ which only drove a wedge into the communities further. The caste systems became more rigid and the rest is history. If I were to say that the Pandavas stayed at the house of a village Potter (kumbhar) when they were in hiding, how many would believe it? If Princes (Kshatriya), even though disguised as Brahmins (no less) could stay at the house of a Potter (now known as lower-caste), what was the respect the village potter commanded?
In conclusion, our temples need to be given the status and access to funds and land that they had earlier. Then they would be able to utilize such wealth for the betterment of society. All the Government needs to do is free the big temples from the clutches of the State Governments and allow them to help the smaller temples in their respective States. If they are able to run Goushalas (cattle care centres), Paathshalas (educational institutions) and Rugnalayas (hospitals) freely, the society and the Government too would benefit. Free our temples from Government Control. Jai Hind!