In November 2015, an antediluvian judge directed the Tamil Nadu government to enforce appropriate attire inside temples starting January 2016. Women, the directive said would not be allowed to enter in jeans, leggings or skirts.
Thankfully, on 11 January, the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court stayed the judge's order based on three petitions filed against the clampdown. This not only gives respite to the women devotees but also art lovers who flock from all over the world to study and sketch the extraordinary architecture and bas relief surrounding the temples of Tamil Nadu.
I visit temples a lot. Sometimes for religion, sometimes to explain the gods to my child, at other times to soak in the all-enveloping peace or to catch a dance performance during Margazhi season, or simply to feed the cows the agatai keerai (August tree leaves) that they love.
When I used to live in Chennai, I would find myself making unplanned trips to temples several times a week - in the evening while visiting the market around the temple or mid-morning while returning from the gym. The grand entrances and soft tinkle of bells from the goshalas were reasons enough! I never gave a thought about what I was wearing then. I went in a sari or in track pants, with mangalsutra or without a bindi. It didn't seem to matter because over the years I had learnt that it was okay to build an equation with faith on one's own terms.
I didn't always have such an easy equation with faith. As a girl, I feared it, was in awe of it and tread about it gingerly till I met the fudge girl a decade back. It was during a visit to Mumbai, inside one of its tiny shrines, that I once spotted a girl dressed in a fudge-coloured spaghetti top and jeans. She was pouring milk over a shivling. I marvelled at the sight of the temple priest quietly help her finish her rituals while muttering his chants all along.
Inspired and intrigued, I returned to Chennai and entered one of the temples in a tee n tracks- not the usual, salwar kurta with a dupatta. And guess what? Nobody even gave me a second glance. Everybody was wrapped in their own thoughts and prayers.
One hopes the courts and the government see sense in the days to come otherwise they are certain to set back a very progressive state by a hundred years and cause a whole of lot of inconvenience especially to women devotees.
If a woman is required to plan how and when she prays, it is bound to keep her away from it. What if you want to head to a temple on your way to the gym or before your first day in an office that requires you to dress in western formals? Are we supposed to carry a change of clothes?
Besides, temples in Tamil Nadu due to their large, sprawling grounds have primarily served as social spaces. It's not just a place of worship but a watering hole for children, the elderly, gossip mongering, and soul searching who come together amidst the splendour of gods and erotic sculptures.
Clampdowns serve no purpose. If we're not supposed to bat an eyelid for a sadhu who covers his modesty with an orange loin cloth, I am sure we can breathe easy for a woman in leggings and jeans. Please let's not rewind to the time when women played lawn tennis in ankle length gowns. It's simply ludicrous.
This post was updated on 14 January to reflect the decision of the high court order on 11 January.
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