“How much time does it take to loot this village?”
I am stumped, unsure if the question is posed as rhetoric. Sayaram Bankar, a resident of Shani Shingnapur and a trustee with the temple that his birthplace is famous for, isn’t too inclined to wait for me as I gather my wits.
“It takes all of 10 minutes,” he declares grandly.
Shani Shingnapur is a remote village located 50 km off Ahmednagar district in Maharashtra. It is home to nearly 3,500 people, young and old, and hosts a few hundred thousand tourists every week. For all these visitors, the appeal lies in the temple of Lord Shani, described in Hindu mythology as ‘the son of the sun’, and in the peculiarity of the village known for having no doors or locks to houses because there can be no robbery here. For the residents, this practice is the result of the faith they invest in their deity. Shani, they say, acts as the nucleus of the village, an absorbent of all evil.
Talk to locals and you will be told that robbery is impossible here. They are a hospitable lot, ever ready to allow for photographs and share anecdotes to back up their claims. Riveting as they are, these stories often borrow from second-hand experiences and folklore. But all of them end with the same bottom-line: ‘Dare you stray, Shani will make you pay.’
On the first evening of my visit, I find myself in the company of the sarpanch of the village, Balasaheb Bankar. The soft spoken 35-year-old owns a small grocery store in the vicinity of the Shani temple. The village industry has mushroomed along the length of a 500-metre street that leads to the temple; marked by hotels, restaurants, shops selling puja paraphernalia, and parking spots. Balasaheb’s shop is located on one of the neglected lanes towards the rear end of the temple. It has only been a week since he was elected as the village head, a post that his wife held for the previous term.
The story Balasaheb wants to tell me dates back to over a decade. “It was a Sunday and I had to go to Ahmednagar to one of my business financers,” he recounts. “In those days, I had a flour mill next to this shop. I used to store the flour right here.”
There is no door to his shop, nor are there any locks to his treasury. As was his habit, Balasaheb left the store unattended and propped up a wooden plank at the door as protection against stray animals. When he came back, he found that someone had stolen Rs 1,500 from the money he kept in the drawer under his counter. One of the sacks of flour that he had stored, too, was missing.
“The man who had taken the flour was a customer. He was to pick up wheat flour, but he had accidentally picked up bajra. When he came back to exchange the sack, I took him to a side and slapped him across his face. He immediately confessed to the theft,” Balasaheb’s face lights up at the memory. “If this wasn’t God’s hand at play, I don’t know what is.”
I nod in appreciation. At the same time, I add, there have been a handful of news reports about incidents of crime being reported in the village. Isn’t that why the otherwise serene ambience of the evening is being punctured by the noise of hammers, chisels and drills? Less than a hundred steps away from the shop, a workforce of 15 is busy painting the walls of a two-storeyed house, raising a canopy and levelling the courtyard with loose rubble. They are struggling to meet the deadline that looms, barely 36 hours ahead when, on 3 September at 9 am, Shani Shingnapur Police Station will be inaugurated.
Earlier in the day, I had approached Sonai Police Station, the jurisdiction of which the village fell under all these years. When I introduced myself and the scope of my article, the officers in charge, including the Divisional Superintendent of Police Dattatray Kambale, told me at the outset that the village was crime-free. A couple of days later, I obtained the records for the last six years which listed 46 criminal cases registered from the village. A sizeable number related to assault, and topping the list with as many as 11 cases were thefts.
In the collective consciousness, however, the memory of miracles eclipse such departures from the norm.
Once you make your way out of the catacombs of railings, you are led to a clearing with the shrine in the centre. At first glance, it is a rock slab around five feet in length with a circular depression on a side. As goes the legend, roughly 300 years ago, the slab was found on the shores of the river Panasnala that once flowed through the village. Curious, the villagers poked it with a stick and found it creating a depression. Out oozed blood. The same night, Shani appeared in the dream of one of the locals, identified the slab as his embodiment and asked to be installed in their village.
There are two oil receptors that flank the front ends of the shrine. It is generally understood that Shani is a short-tempered god who, when angered, invites sade-saati, believed to be the most difficult phase in a man’s life, lasting over a period of seven and a half years. One of the ways of soothing the Lord, and thus delaying this period, is to offer him cooking oil. Once poured in these receptors, the oil is taken through a network of pipes, which, at its end, drips through a copper vessel on top of the shrine. For a few years now, the district of Ahmednagar, along with several parts of the state, has been reeling under a severe drought. But in this water-starved region, the oil flows to such an extent that trucks with 12,000-litre tankers mounted on them make their way out of the village every fortnight.
After they installed the shrine, by the legend, the villagers decided to discard the doors and locks. They didn’t need them anymore, not with the Lord to watch over them. The practice went on unhindered till the 90s, when few knew of the village. It was during this time that the late film producer Gulshan Kumar decided to make a movie on the village and the deity. Suddenly, there was a fresh influx of visitors and pilgrims which until then only came 70 km away at Shirdi, another popular pilgrim spot.
At the turn of the century, private hotels started coming up in the village. Bhausaheb Vitthal Bankar, the proprietor of Gopi Lodging, recalled the time his establishment adhered to no-doors policy. “Instead, we used curtains that acted as the partition. But our patrons weren’t too comfortable with this arrangement and preferred to stay at Shirdi,” he says. It was the same situation with the rooms managed by the temple trust. Finally, identifying the significant loss of revenue, the two establishments replaced curtains with sliding doors between 2005 and 2007. As opposed to ones with hinges, sliding doors slipped back behind the wall, creating an illusion of their absence. But installing locks would be taking it too far. So they set up a latch on the inside. On the outside, a bracket was put up where a nut-bolt would hold the closed door in place.
It didn’t take long for the rest of the village to emulate this escape route. During my stay, most of the houses I saw featured sliding doors instead of the empty door-frames that a visitor is given to expect. This goes against everything associated with the badge that locals love to wear, of being part of the hamlet without doors. In some places like the trust office, there are sliding grills made of cast iron that are held together with Allen keys.
In 2011, UcoBank set up a branch in Shani Shingnapur. At the time, it earned a lot of press for respecting the sentiments of the devotees and being the only bank in the country that didn’t use a padlock at the end of the day. But on closer inspection, one notes that it is only a matter of projection. The door is held shut by a remote-controlled electromagnetic lock. To further preempt any incident of theft, the bank reportedly sends its cash to the neighbouring Sonai before it shuts shop.
Sayaram Bankar, one of the trustees of the temple, explains it as a way of keeping up with the times. “You can even use secret codes [like the electronic security systems which require passcodes to be punched in]. Just don’t use a lock and key.” With the Trust taking in sums of up to Rs 22 crore annually through donations, his concerns do speak of a pragmatic outlook, if not the centuries-old belief.
But that’s not the only deviation that mars the image of Shani Shingnapur as a crime-free utopia. For all its self-assurance, the number of security precautions taken are remarkable. Consider this: the Trust deploys over 70 security guards in the temple premises that man the area along with four police personnel through the day. Both of these numbers peak on weekends and during festive season. Along with a baggage scanner, around 90 CCTV cameras keep a close watch on all activities in the area. In fact, it was the Trust that had asked the state government for a police station in the vicinity.
One of the first few incidents to rock the village’s reputation occurred in 2011. On the morning of 5 February, Dagdu Kisan Shete, a former trustee who lived in a door-less house, woke up to find that cash and valuables worth Rs 73,000 had been stolen while he and his family members wereasleep within. Shete reported the theft to the police and found himself on the receiving end of the villagers’ ire.
“They came up to us and told us that the FIR had affected the image of the village,” Shete’s son Vikram tells me. By now, the media had turned its attention to the temple priests and the trust for their take on the crime. They had their answer ready. Shete lives some distance away from where the village ends, they said. This, in spite of the fact that even the villagers who don’t fall within the tiny hamlet share the tradition of not having doors along with their counterparts at Shani Shingnapur.
But the official line from all quarters, be it the police, the village headman or the Trust, is consistent in its essence: the increased security is for crowd management, not crime control. Sayaram goes one step further and talks about the perceived threat of a terror activity. Concerns, he says, are at an all- time high, considering the multiple instances of priests and managers of Shirdi having received threats. Why be afraid of the possibility of such instances considering the reputation of Lord Shani, I wonder aloud. Is the faith one had reposed in the deity for all these years beginning to fade?
“Terrorists don’t have this faith,” says Sayaram.
“But you do.”
“What’s the point of our faith?” he asks. “Times are changing. Man is changing with it.”
Nearly four years after the theft took place at Shete’s place, the police have been unsuccessful in nabbing the culprit. Since then, the family decided to be more realistic in its approach. “We created a bank account to keep our earnings and valuables. We now keep only as much cash in the house as is needed,” says Vikram. A new sliding door has been installed at his house as well as the restaurant he owns. But in the same breath, he maintains that the theft hasn’t shaken his faith in Lord Shani.
“After all, the world runs on faith,” he says.
Unless you have chosen public transport, in all likelihood, your journey will be intercepted by persuasive young men offering to direct you to the ‘Free Parking’ spots in the village. These dot the length of the street leading up the shrine. They will then convince you to buy a puja thaali. These will consist of a basket decked with flowers, a flask of oil, a horseshoe and a Shani doll to ward off the evil eye. Depending on the make of your car and complexion of your skin, they will quote rates that might range anywhere between Rs 51 to a few thousand.
As you walk past rows of shops, both licensed and pop-ups, and escape the persistence of beggars, you will join the queue that begins a hundred metres before the entrance. It is here that a clutch of photographers are swarming, ready with their photo albums. They will assess your worth as you assess their work and then cite an arbitrary price. If you are lucky, you will also be accosted by tour guides and donation-seekers for philanthropic causes. In the days leading up to the opening of the police station, it is this community that started feeling the heat.
“Tell me, dada (brother),” asks Bhima Palvi, a 20-year-old photographer, “will they put a ban on us?”
Ordinarily, the photographers are a jovial lot who, through their network of intelligence, get wind of the cops a few minutes before they are about to crack down on them. The most lucrative days are the most dangerous. If nabbed, they are stuffed into police vans and made to cough up a fine or a bribe, as the case may be. At times, they are also charged for pickpocketing, which, according to the locals, is rampant in the area even though seldom reported.
Rahul Tikkal, owner of a paan shop who also manages an unlicensed puja kiosk, shows me a receipt that the police gave him last month. It was a non-cognisable complaint against his friend who was managing the kiosk at the time, charged for violating peace and brawling. “All we were trying to do was sell our wares,” rues Tikkal. He was let off only after he visited the local courthouse and paid a fine of Rs 600.
For all their fretting, Assistant Police Inspector Prashant Mandale, the newly appointed chief of Shani Shingnapur Police Station, doesn’t seem to be as ambitious about reining in the touts. Except for assigning his juniors on bandobast duties, “I have never planned anything in my life,” he tells me candidly. Mandale, a well-built man with an impressive voice, is a veteran in the force who will be one of the 22 personnel stationed in the village, along with a junior ranked officer and 20 constables. He, too, echoes the line about the crime-free village. A day before the inauguration, he is at the Trust office, personally overseeing preparations for the arrival of the guardian minister of state Ramji Shinde, local MLA Balasaheb Markute and the district Superintendent of Police Saurabh Tripathi. There is a speech and a felicitation ceremony to be held within the temple premises the next day.
“The biggest bouquet will be given to the minister. The rest of them will receive [bouquets] proportional to their stature,” says one of the organisers, as Mandale nods in approval. Meanwhile, another is holding up his phone. “It’s the MLA,” he whispers. The API takes the phone. “I’m sure you have heard of the police station being inaugurated. We were hoping that you could join us for this. It would be good to work here then, under your guidance,” he says.
Towards the evening, I find a couple of officers ironing out cracks while admiring the mandap and taking in the fresh coat of paint. With permissions for a new structure not forthcoming, the building is leased out to them by the Trust officials for a few years. The cops had initially decided on having a lock-up with an Allen key. However, they are now ambivalent on it and the room assigned for it lies bare. Nevertheless, a sliding door and a hinged door has come up on the otherwise open-for-all structure.
As I walk out, I greet Dwarkabai Sable, an old woman with an oil kiosk at the gates of this station. It is her last day managing the kiosk. “Saheb has told me not to sit here from tomorrow,” she tells me. The next day, I find a duck-shaped dustbin in her place, its mouth wide open.
Around 11.55 AM, SP Tripathi and his deputies walk out of the shade and position themselves at the entrance gates. They are facing a group of men who had been standing on the other side of the lane for the past three hours, waiting to catch a glimpse of the minister and the ceremony. At 12 pm, Shinde arrives in an SUV with a red beacon, preceded by a string of vehicles. The cops struggle to contain the photographers and onlookers. Once at the venue, the guests break a coconut, cut the ribbon and throw the doors open. Shinde enters the Mandale’s chambers and sits on his high-backed chair. The MLA sits next to him as senior cops gather around. After posing for a few more photographs, they make their way to the temple for darshan and the subsequent speech. By now, the hall is packed. The dignitaries assume their seats and multiple rounds of felicitation follow. In their speeches, the locals—Trustees and prominent citizens—express gratitude for the ministers and local leaders. They cite the increasing number of devotees as what has made the village ask for a police station. “I know there will be no crime in this village,” most of them say, even when they are merely echoing the speakers before them. Every time they hark back to the village’s special history and its continuation to the present, the crowd cheers and applauds.
Finally, the much-decorated minister takes the stage. A native of Ahmednagar, he too underlines the importance of the village and the deity. He expresses sympathy with the villagers for the drought season persisting and promises them that he has requested Lord Shani to alleviate their suffering.
“In accordance with the local culture, this is set to be the only police station in the entire country without doors,” he declares. The crowd roars in appreciation.
I return to the police station afterwards and find the doors intact. A few days later, in a phone conversation with the sarpanch, we talk about that speech and the day’s factual inconsistencies. “Don’t worry about it,” Balasaheb Bankar tells me, “It’s only doublespeak.”