Women in Bengal seem to have got the better of another social barrier. For the first time, they will be serving as priests during Durga Puja, the state’s most popular religious festival.
The four women — Shampa Roy, Aparna Chatterjee, Sujata Mukherjee and Mita Mukherjee — have qualified for priesthood by successfully completing the “priest training programme” by Uttar Pratik Sangashkirita Shuiksha Prachar Shangashtha (North Pratik Agency for Expansion of Sanskrit Education).
After earning their certificates, all four became members of the Bangiya Purahit Parishad (West Bengal Priests’ Association), the largest association of Hindu priests in the state and their gateway to assignments.
According to Somnath Shashtri, the chief instructor of Uttar Pratik Sangashkirita Shuiksha Prachar Shangashtha, the women have graduated from the programme with distinction. “This is the time that four aspiring women came to us for training in priesthood and all four did very well,” Shashtri said.
Apart from providing basic training in religious rituals, Shashtri’s organisation lays emphasis on correct pronunciation of Sanskrit chants. “Wrong pronunciation not only deprives the priest of the desired effect of worship, sometimes it becomes counter-productive,” he said.
Well, their performance this year will tell whether they have become true blue priests. Shashtri, in fact, is so confident that he feels they will soon become good enough to officiate in marriages. The training programme was open to Brahmin women this year. From next year, doors will be opened to non-Brahmins as well.
According to Pinaki Chakrabarty, an official of the West Bengal Priests’ Association, by becoming priests, women have simply made the religious experience more complete. “In all the pujas, whether at home or in pandals, women are in charge of all the pre-puja arrangements. Now, they will conduct the puja as well,” he said.