With an indifferent attitude to questions such as ‘Can a male priest accompany you?’ and ‘Are you an assistant?’, the female priests or priestesses across the country are challenging the age-old patriarchal norms. It’s been a while since couples, especially brides, have been preferring female priests to officiate their weddings. And recently when actor Dia Mirza shared a photo of female priest, Sheeta Atta, solemnising her wedding, it brought back the back on gender equality, and reignited the debate on the need to discourage customs such as kanyadan and dowry, which have been synonymous with Indian weddings since forever! But, things are changing, and couples, across India, are taking the brave, bold and unconventional step to get their marriage officiated by a woman priest.
‘Celebs are helping to break the age-old tradition’
For Dubai-based Astuti Singh, a property marketing and communication manager, getting her marriage officiated via female priest at the age of 25, in 2012, was the like the “first taste of feminism”. “Mom decided that her friend who is a female priest will conduct my wedding and for her it was nothing more than a blessing of Ma Durga. Today I feel that society is changing for better when I see celebs like Diya Mirza breaking the age old tradition and bringing change in the society by going for female priest. Celebrities have immense power to support a cause and bring a constructive change around themselves. Today we are discussing the female priests in a big way and celebrating it because a celebrity has endorsed it. We want more such powerful people to contribute to such practices and make this place more favourable for the constructive growth of men and women,” she says.
“It’s the society that has defined that priest means male and only they have the right to this profession. During Rig Vedic period India used to have many women rishis but over a period of time patriarchy overpowered all the rights of women and left them with not many choices when it came to profession,” adds Singh.
‘Kehte the ladies nahin chahiye’
Pune-based priest, Suniti Balwant Gadgil, 67, feels mindset has changed for overtime. She adds, “Main 30 years se yeh kaam kar rahi hoon. Pehle mahila priest ke paas zyada jaate nahin the. Jo ladies ki puja hoti hain sirf usi mein bulate the. Kehte the ‘Ladies nahin chahiye’. Baad mein samajh badal gaya. Abhi Pune mein koi problem nahin hai. Main Dubai, Germany, Delhi, Indore, Maharashtra, Jaipur, Gujarat mein jaake shaadi karake aayi hun. Chhote chhote gaanv mein bhi jaate hain, and I don’t take dakshina from them. Pune mein sansthao ne ‘78 aur ‘92 mein ladies ko sikhane ki koshish ki thi.”
‘People thought of me as an assistant’
“If a male priest is accompanying me, people think he would be the senior, and I am accompanying him as an assistant,” laughs 51-year-old Manisha Shete, another Pune-based priest who has been part of ceremonial occasions since 2008, and has solemnised over 100 weddings! She has travelled internationally too, at weddings in Germany and Dubai to name a few, and opines that although the profession is ‘male-dominated’, her experience has been good so far apart from some glitches. “Yeh jo profession hain woh male dominated hai, par mujhe challenges nahin aaye hai. Hamara kaam mouth publicity se zyada bad raha hai. If we go in one family, and there other relatives who see our work, phir wohi phir se bulate hai. Mere ek do challenging experiences the, par zyada nahi. Agar hum dono mahilayein jaati hain, toh kaafi baar log kehte hain ‘nahin koi ek male priest aa sakte hain kya’. I also teach, toh jo bhi mere students hain, when they (male priest) accompany me, log unse baatein karenge, aur unse hi sawal karenge. Lekin jab ritual ho jaata hain toh tab unhe samajh aata hain, ki they are following me,” she says.
Shete, adds the trend needs to reach smaller towns vis-à-vis metros where conservation’s surrounding a female priest are more. “Hum sirf yeh chahte hain, ki sab log karna chahte hain (rituals) toh aap hume rokiyein mat. We are working for equality. Jisko jo cheez pasand hai, woh kaam karna chahiye. Usme koi rok nahin honi chhaiye. The trend is increasing in metropolitan cities. Jo bhi change hoga, woh chhote shehro mein wahan tak pahuchne mein time lagega.”
‘Both of us were given equal status’
A Delhi-based teacher, Anshu Mukherjee, who got married in December last year, chose Shubhamastu, a Kolkata- based collective of priestesses to solemnise her wedding. Mukherjee says she wanted her wedding with a “difference, something memorable , not run off the mill”. “As soon as I heard from my guru (singing teacher) about panditayans conducting Hindu weddings, I had a strong feeling that this is what I was looking for. Shubhamastu believes in the religion of humanity. Traditions like Kanyadaan were omitted, and the ceremony was ethereal. Both of us (my husband and I) were given equal status, we held hands and took the saat pheras around the pious fire. The vows that we exchanged became more meaningful as they were translated and explained . But, the sindoor ceremony was performed after I applied a vermilion tikka on the groom’s forehead!”
‘Saw my bestie getting married by a female priest’
A Pune-based radio jockey, Meenal V Patil, whose marriage was officiated by a female priest, adds, “I’ve been raised by very strong woman, my sister-in-law, who is my guiding force. When I met my to be mom-in-law, I just knew that I had to get a woman to handhold me at the start of such a beautiful phase in my life. I’ve always observed that the women around me just make everything better and I knew, call it being superstitious, that if a woman conducted my wedding ceremony, it would be a great omen to start with. I had also seen my bestie get married by a female priest, so I had also seen how lovely their ceremony was, so I had to have it for me too, on my big day.”
‘Cut out all the social rituals like Kanyadan, dowry, any exchange of gifts’
“We were very sceptical to have a normal wedding priest because they are quite commercial and we hardly ever understand what rituals they perform. So, for my wedding we chose a priestess from an organisation named Jnyan Prabodhini Trust in Pune,” says Gayatri Madkaikar, from Mumbai, adding, “Our ceremony was short and they cut out all the social rituals like kanyadan, dowry, any kind of give and take of gifts and offerings to relatives. They focused only on the Vedic rituals. They explained each and every step to us in English so that it is easier to understand. I liked one specific ritual that they have added in their ceremony where in they make the bride and the groom both assert that they have chosen each other to be life partners, as against the regular custom of the man accepting a woman. They don’t believe in muhurat. Any time we wish to marry is shubh muhurat for them. Also, they charged us very minimal fee. A normal wedding priest charges around 20k and takes about two-three hours. Our ceremony was concluded in 1.5 hours and they charged us only ₹3,600.”
Author tweets @Nainaarora8