Behind the haze and smoke of a havan kund (ceremonial fire) at a puja (prayer) ceremony, squats the priest reciting mantras and shlokas in a rhythmic cadence. As the ritual draws to a close with a prolonged 'swaa-haaa', many from the sizeable gathering make a beeline for the priest. Only, in this case, the priest is not your archetypal tilak-anointed, dhoti-swathed male priest but an elegant woman!
Meet Megha Gokhale, 44, one of the few Hindu women priests, who has been following this vocation for a decade-and-a-half. Such is Gokhale's demand that, apart from performing rituals in the Navi Mumbai area (where she lives), her appointment diary is crammed with dates for tours across India where she performs rituals for occasions - ranging from naming ceremonies to weddings to bhoomi pujans (prayers offered when new land or house is acquired) to shanti pujas (prayers for the soul of the dead) to thread ceremonies.
As a teenager in Mhow (near Indore, Madhya Pradesh), Gokhale was introduced to scriptures by her grandfather. He would encourage the young Megha to read them (particularly the Bhagavad Gita) and try and learn tough shlokas from the Vedas. "Like a sponge, I would absorb everything my grandfather taught me. His education ignited an interest in religion in me," explains Gokhale.
This early scriptural tutoring formed the bedrock of Gokhale's interest in matters religious. Later, after an M.Com. degree from Indore University, she took up a job as an accountant with Exide Battery, but quit because she had in the meantime tied the knot with Suhas Gokhale, a Navi Mumbai-based town planner. The birth of a son followed next and between juggling the roles of a housekeeper and parent, Gokhale gave up the idea of returning to a full time job.
However, when her son Yatin (now 18) grew up to be a little older, Gokhale had plenty of free time. And she wanted to channelise it productively. "Just when I was contemplating taking up a job, I heard that classes for women priests were being held in Thane and I decided to enrol." By a strange quirk of fate, the classes were being conducted by spiritual leader and social reformer Mama Thatte, himself a priest. Thatte actively encouraged women - irrespective of their caste - to take up the vocation of priesthood, stiff resistance from the lobby of local male purohits notwithstanding, as there was a paucity of priests in the area.
Hence, in a sizeable batch of 60 women, Gokhale learnt the nuances of conducting rituals and ceremonies and performing 'paths' (religious incantations) under her mentor.
Today, she is only one from that original batch to practice what she learnt and even conducts her own classes at Vashi, Nerul and Belapur on the outskirts of Mumbai without any charge. "Of my 70 students - both girls and boys - five will soon graduate and be ready to perform pujas. We're also approaching schools in Navi Mumbai to allow us to conduct spiritual workshops for students," she says.
Lately, however, she has also introduced a charge for officiating as a priest, ranging between Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,000 for a full-scale, three-hour puja - which is still only half of what male priests charge.
Gokhale's life, though, is hardly a cakewalk. Up at the crack of dawn ("4 am is normal for me," she discloses), she cooks for the family and then leaves for a havan, puja ceremony or bhoomi pujan, depending upon her day's schedule. A quick lunch is usually followed by workshops or classes, for which she has to travel to other parts of town. Then there are outstation assignments to contend with too.
She says life is most hectic for her during the month of Shravan (March-April) and during Maharashtra's famed Ganesh utsav (September-October).
But, of course, there are no regrets. Says she, "I've been able to accomplish all this only because of active support from my family." And husband Suhas Gokhale is justifiably proud. "We're very happy with Megha's choice of profession. In fact, I even encourage her to take up further studies in this field," he declares.
While operating as a priest in a traditional society can be daunting for a woman, Gokhale is delighted that there are quite a few families who proactively seek out women priests. "Many families are more at ease with women purohits. Perhaps it has something to do with our approachability and compassionate demeanor." Not to mention, tact and patience. The lady says she painstakingly explains the meanings of all rituals and their context, if a client so desires.
"Ultimately," she asserts, "it's all about communication. And if I can help people communicate better with God, I cannot ask for more!"