MAHARASTRA, INDIA, May 23, 2014 (The Hindu, by Amruta Byatnal): TThe temple administration of this 900 year old temple has interviewed women and those from outside the Brahmin community for appointing them as priests. The Vitthal Rukmini Temple Trust (VRTT), which functions under the Maharashtra government, has made the radical move possible. "For the first time, a temple is throwing open its doors to everyone. We thought it was time now for us to set an example. No group should claim monopoly for serving as priests in the temple," Anna Dange, chairman of the trust, told The Hindu. "Thousands of people converge here every year. People love Vitthoba and Rakhumai [as lord Vitthal and his consort Rukmini are called locally]. The Gods did not discriminate between people; it's time we followed suit."
Priesthood of the temple was under the monopoly of the Barve-Utpat families of Pandharpur, which claimed ancestral rights over the institution. The two families used to auction the puja every day. The families paid the auction amount to the trust and kept the donations themselves. A Supreme Court ruling in January stripped the families of the right to appoint priests and keep the donations. The VRTT received 199 applications, 23 from women, for the position of priests. "Eventually 129 people attended the interviews, including 16 women," Sanjay Teli of the trust said. Applications were received from Dalits and Marathas. The trust will make its decision public on June 9.
Urmila Bhate (52), one of the women interviewed, stated that the opportunity to be a priest was a dream come true. "I have grown up in Pandharpur, and I thought this day would never come," she said, speaking of the chance to "serve Rakhu, mother God." Ms Bhate's family has been involved in the temple's activities. "I have watched my brothers perform the puja and I am well versed with the tradition of the temple. It is high time, that women who are equally devoted to Lord Vitthal and Rakhumai, are considered equal to male priests," she stated.