Mother-daughter duo who set a silent revolution in male-dominated priesthood of Kerala

PTI, May 11, 2023, 10:24 AM IST

Thrissur: A woman who has yearned to conduct pujas at her ancestral temple since her childhood and a homemaker-mother who has knowingly or unknowingly learnt the basics of tantric lessons through her daughter.

This is the story of 24-year-old Jyotsna Padmanabhan and her mother Archana Kumari, who are silently creating history by shattering the glass shields of centuries-old male dominance in priesthood and tantric rituals in Kerala.

Both the women have been donning the role of priests at a temple in this central Kerala district and performing tantric rituals in neighbouring shrines and other venues for some time, which is normally considered a male bastion.

But this 47-year-old mother and her daughter did not want to term their priesthood as a gender equality initiative or any attempt to break gender stereotypes existing in the society.

Belonging to an ancient Brahmin family, Tharanellur Thekkiniyedathu Mana at Kattur in Irinjalakuda, Jyotsna and Archana said in unison that they entered the world of priesthood out of their pure devotion and not to prove any point in the society. A double post-graduate in Vedanta and Sahitya (Sanskrit), Jyotsna said she had started learning tantra since she was seven years-old and the dream to don the role of a priest began even before that. ”I have grown up seeing my father Padmanabhan Namboothiripad conduct pujas and tantric rituals. So, a dream to learn this has budded in my mind since I was very young,” she told PTI.

She said even before she came to know that it was not something women usually do, the desire budded in her mind. ”When I expressed my wish to my father, he did not oppose. As he felt it was genuine, he extended all the support,” the woman priest said. And, that no ancient texts or traditions have barred women from performing the tantric rituals or chanting mantras, she explained.

A senior Brahmin priest, who comes in the position of her paternal grandfather, initiated her into the world of tantra at the age of seven years. Jyotsna held the tantric installation of Goddess Bhadrakali at the Painkannykavu Sree Krishna Temple, the ancestral shrine of their family where her father is the chief priest. She has been donning the role of priest at the shrine and performing daily rituals there whenever possible.

The young woman has been performing tantric rituals and installations and reinstallations ( of idols) in other temples too for the last several years. ”Pujas in other temples are not done just for the sake of it. I am doing it whenever my father asks me to do so.

Sometimes, he cannot go there and then he directs me to go and perform the rituals,” she said. Asked whether there was any objection from the patriarchal Brahmin community against the entry of women in priesthood, Jyotsna said in the traditional community families, women used to do ‘thevaram’, ‘nedyam’ and other such rituals. ”Performing puja in a temple may be a new thing. But as women used to conduct other rituals in traditional families, no one has felt any difference in what we are doing,” she said. When the daughter started learning the pujas and the tantric lessons, mother Archana Kumari, who had been a homemaker so far, also wanted to follow suit. ”Jyotsna used to discuss at home in detail the lesson she learnt. Listening to the mantras she used to chant and seeing the mudras (symbolic hand gestures) of tantric rituals, knowingly or unknowingly I have imbibed the basics. An intense desire to learn more has budded in my mind,” the mother told PTI.

The woman said her husband has been very supportive of her decision to learn the rituals and mantras and had no objection to her performing the daily pujas at their family temple. For the past few years, Archana has also been performing tantric rituals and conducting installation and reinstallation rituals at nearby temples as per the requests of the respective shrine managements.

Though it is tough to manage time to balance the duties of homemaker as well as a priest, the woman said she is happy and content to fulfil her responsibilities. During the time of menstruation, both these woman would stay away from the priestly duties.

If anyone asked this mother-daughter duo what they have to say to the women who would like to enter priesthood, they would advise that it should not be done to break gender stereotype. ”I have not entered the world of pujas and mantras with the intension to prove anything as I am a woman. I have come because of my intense devotion and passion. This is not an area to prove gender equality,” Jyotsna added. Jyotsna has completed her two post graduate degrees from Kanchi and Madras Universities respectively.

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