I am an occassional, rather than a regular, temple-goer. And when I do go to one, it is to the Sharadamba Temple in Chembur, Mumbai. I like this particular temple because it is quiet, peaceful, and most importantly, very clean—it is a pleasure to walk on the cool granite floors. Another reason I go to this temple is because it is never crowded, except on festival days like Navratri and Mahashivratri, and even then it is never unbearably so.
The Sharadamba Temple is one large hall with the entrance at one end and the Sharadamba deity at the other end. A simple wooden barrier separates the devotees from the sanctum sanctorum. Like in most temples, the men flock on one side of the hall and the women on the other side, though there is no physical barrier to separate the two sexes. The children, of course, keep running between the two sides.
Over the years that I have been going to this temple, I have noticed something very curious at this temple. After the aarti is over, the priest always offers it to the assembled men first, in particular the office bearers/trustees of the temple. Only then does the aarti thali come around to the women’s side. This is the case with the teertham (holy water), the prasad, as well as the flowers.
I once stood in the men’s side to see if I would be offered the aarti or not along with the men. I had to endure and ignore the severely disapproving looks from both the assembled men and women while the aarti was going on. When the priest brought the aarti thali around to the men’s side, he ignored me and indicated with a subtle tilting of his head that I should join the women’s side.
The practice of offering aarti, or prasad to the men first is prevalent in most temples, and is not unique to the Sharadamba Temple. When I have been to other temples with my parents, it is always my father who is given the aarti or prasad or flowers first. It is, however, ironical that this practice is followed in a temple, whose reigning deity is Sharadamba, the God(dess) of knowledge and wisdom—both qualities which are not sex-specific.
It is a practice that is strange, inexplicable and disturbing—all at the same time.