By Sreya Chatterjee (text) & Siddhartha Hajra (images)28 August 2018
The people of Shani Shingnapur still uphold the tradition of not installing doors and keeping their houses open to their neighbours and visiting pilgrims.
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A legendary pilgrim town (Credit: Siddhartha Hajra)
A legendary pilgrim town
Spread across a mere 1km radius, Shani Shingnapur is small town of about 200 houses in the Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra, India, where throngs of pilgrims come to offer their prayers to the Hindu god, Lord Shani.
Here you’ll find one the most venerated temples of Lord Shani in the country, and Shani Shingnapur residents unanimously put their faith in the deity as their protector. Due to a 300-year-old legend, no house in the village has doors. And this belief extends beyond the residential houses to nearly all the town’s civic establishments, from hotels to the police station and even the bank. And there’s not a single shop in Shani Shingnapur where you can buy locks and keys.
A rarity in today's world of surveillance (Credit: Siddhartha Hajra)
A rarity in today's world
Shani Shingnapur’s shrine of Lord Shani is a 1.5m black monolith installed on a platform without a cover from any side. Mustard oil ceaselessly pours out of a container suspended above the shrine, bathing the idol with the metaphorical dedication of his devotees. The temple remains open 24 hours a day, year round.
Although originally a humble ode to the deity, the much-visited temple is now administered by a trust that receives a substantial amount of donations from pilgrims and devotees. With time, the popularity of Shani Shingnapur has surged and the faith of the residents has strengthened.
Locals continue to live in simple and functional accommodations that are left open throughout the seasons, with mere door frames for entrances. Curtains can provide some sense of privacy, and plywood sometimes guards the bottom half of the doorway to keep stray animals at bay.
Their protector for generations (Credit: Siddhartha Hajra)
Their protector for generations
Locals go about their daily chores without worrying about the security of their houses and belongings; such is their staunch faith in Lord Shani that they even travel out of town for days without asking their neighbours to keep vigil.
"If someone has been dishonest or tries to steal in the village, that person would be unable to escape the punishments of Lord Shani and will bear the consequences of his actions,” said Dyaneshwar Kudalkar, who runs a guest house catering to pilgrims.
“When we are protected to this extent, we need not worry about making external arrangements for safety. There have been instances where people have installed doors or latches in their houses and have suffered accidents, losses in business or bad luck.”
The myth of Lord Shani (Credit: Siddhartha Hajra)
The myth of Lord Shani
Lord Shani, who is believed to be the personification of the planet Saturn, is venerated by numerous devotees who come from all over India to offer their prayers. According to popular belief, 17th-Century shepherds discovered a black monolith floating across a stream through the town of Shingnapur. They retrieved the stone and poked it with a stick. Immediately, blood started oozing out of it. Villagers assembled to witness the sight.
That night, a shepherd had a dream in which Lord Shani revealed that the monolith is his representation. When the shepherd sought permission to build a temple in his honour, Lord Shani responded that he didn’t need a roof over his head as the entire sky is his roof. He asked the shepherd to perform puja (worship) daily, and assured that the village would never suffer any perils of thievery. They renamed the town Shani Shingnapur.
An influx of pilgrims (Credit: Siddhartha Hajra)
An influx of pilgrims
Over the years, Shani Shingnapur has become an increasingly popular pilgrimage site, and there are now more than 40,000 visitors each day. This number gets even bigger during a new moon, which is regarded as extremely auspicious, especially if it falls on a Saturday. Special ceremonies and a fair are held on such occasions in the town.
Traditionally, women had been restricted from entering the inner sanctum of the temple. But on 30 March 2016, the Bombay High Court asked the Maharashtra government to allow women entry into any temple in India, and a little over a week later, the Shani Shingnapur trust allowed the women devotees to enter the sanctum (though the local women still refrain from going inside to honour the tradition).
"To share our food with the visitor, we need not be rich financially" (Credit: Siddhartha Hajra)
For generations, our village has followed the tradition of equating the visitors with God. To share our food with the visitor, we need not be rich financially but rather have human warmth,” said Geetabai Suresh Mahale.
A traditional meal at home (Credit: Siddhartha Hajra)
A traditional meal at home
Geetabai Suresh Mahale’s two-room house might not be luxurious, but it is immensely rich with generosity and warmth. Her husband passed away years ago in an accident, and since then, she has been living with her two sons and their respective families and continues the hospitality her husband was known for. A visitor will never leave Mahale's house without a sumptuous meal, no matter the time of day.
“My husband always cooked for every visitor who stopped by, even at the oddest hour,” she said with a tender smile. “He believed that a mere glass of water is never enough for pilgrims who are travelling such great distances.”
She loves treating visitors to the traditional Maharashtrian delicacy pithla-bhakri, which is a popular comfort food across the state. She prepares the recipe diligently with the help of her daughters-in-law, Yogita and Neeta. Made with gram flour, turmeric and a pinch of salt, the porridge-like pithla is slow-cooked in hot oil with cumin and mustard seeds. Later, a thick paste of green chilli, peanuts and other condiments are added to the preparation. The bright yellow-coloured dish is best enjoyed hot with bhakri, a thick, wheat-flour flatbread, and thecha, a chutney made from green chillies.
The bank with no (conventional) locks (Credit: Siddhartha Hajra)
The bank with no (conventional) locks
In January 2011, a ‘lockless’ branch of the United Commercial Bank was inaugurated in Shani Shingnapur – the first of its kind in the country – keeping the tradition of the village in mind. However, branch manager Mangesh Rakshe confirmed that money and documents are secure: although the branch doesn’t have a conventional lock, it has doors and uses a remote-controlled electromagnetic lock.
The branch currently safeguards the financial assets of more than 10,000 account-holders from across the town and nearby villages. The employees say they do not feel any lack of security but were concerned about occasional visitors who come from other parts of the country and are “too curious” about the bank.
Theft and faith of divine justice (Credit: Siddhartha Hajra)
Theft and faith of divine justice
For years, Shani Shingnapur had no police station, as there was no need for one. It was only in 2015 that the police station of nearby village Sonai was shifted to Shani Shingnapur to control the surge in the number of pilgrims on Saturdays and during peak season.
Until 2010, there were no known instances of theft or burglary, but recently, a few complaints – such as small amounts of stolen cash, jewellery and other items – have been registered. A police official (who requested to remain anonymous) stated that small incidents sometimes go unreported as the economy of the village is centred on the temple, and such reports can tarnish its reputation and traditions. He added that some pilgrims who come to pray in the temple commit petty crimes like pickpocketing or vehicle thefts in the surrounding areas.
Still, villagers refuse to keep their valuables under lock and key as their faith in Lord Shani remains absolute.
A close-knit community (Credit: Siddhartha Hajra)
A close-knit community
Shani Shingnapur’s population of 4,000 residents consists mostly of farmers who have land in and around the town. The main crops of this region are wheat, onion and sugarcane. Some residents also have shops near the temple area that sell puja items, household goods and food, while others work in the temple.
It’s a simple life, and residents share a close-knit, almost familial, bond. Women often cook together and help each other with household chores. After lunch and in the evenings, they discuss their day-to-day lives or take part in religious reading sessions at the temple.
“This is a small village where everyone knows one another,” said homemaker Ujjwala Bhaushaheb Dange. “There is immense trust within the community, and people stick by each other through the toughest of times. Of late, some outsiders, who have opened stalls near the temple, have relocated to this town. But they have also embraced the existing culture and traditions most cordially.”
A town built on sugar (Credit: Siddhartha Hajra)
A town built on sugar
Along with the revered temple of Lord Shani, the vast sugarcane fields surrounding the town are a vital part of the local community. Sugarcane cultivation and sugar production form an important pillar of the town’s economy: the sugar factory produces about 700 tonnes of sugar every day, which requires 6,500 tonnes of sugarcane. Every morning in Shani Shingnapur starts with hundreds of bullock carts stacked with sugarcane making their way to the factory, and the trail continues relentlessly until darkness descends.
Shops selling sugarcane juice can be found in every nook and cranny of the town, using either a hand-cranked sugarcane-juice machine or a traditional wooden ‘girni’ driven by a bull to extract the juice. The liquid, served fresh with ingredients like ginger and lemon, is perfect for the scorching summers.
A changing world? (Credit: Siddhartha Hajra)
A changing world?
Although no-one wants to openly address the issue, it is evident that a few residents have started using wooden sliding doors, plywood planks or even latches to safeguard their homes. Adjacent villages have had several instances of robbery, and it seems that some residents prefer to be safe than sorry.
The nature of home construction is also visibly changing. There are only three traditional houses remaining in the entire town, with modern, monochromatic constructions – which lack Maharashtra’s vernacular style of exposed granite stonework – popping up sporadically. While most of the buildings are single storey, a few have two to three floors.
But although the town is changing, the change is not rampant. The strong faith of the majority of the population has made builders devise creative solutions, like installing sliding doors which, from the outside, still give the illusion of there being no door.
The continuing of the legacy (Credit: Siddhartha Hajra)
The continuing of the legacy
Despite the changes, the people of Shani Shingnapur still preserve their legacy as a town with no doors. The moment a visitor arrives, he or she can feel the peace and affinity that makes Shani Shingnapur strikingly different from other pilgrim towns in India.
Not only the doors but also the hearts of these residents are always open to welcome visitors warmly into their homes. They would rather preserve their beliefs than their possessions. And that is a rarity in today’s world.
(Video and text by Sreya Chatterjee, filmed and photographed by Siddhartha Hajra)