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  • Vishanka Gandhi

A historical catalyst

The sky is a mess of pale blue with warm colours from the setting sun and grays from the scattered rain clouds. Crows are cawing cacophonously, likely fighting over fish drying along the Khar danda sea coast. Two dogs have made the yard of the historical Dandeshwar mandir their playground, running around an ancient peepal tree with holy thread tied around its bark and an abandoned well at least half as old as the tree.

"Tumhi hey kara, tumhala kahi adchan nahin yenar," offers Pandurang Digambar Joshi, a priest at the Dandeshwar Shankar temple to a slightly distraught lady sitting across him with kundali patrikas spread out on an old rickety desk. Before advising, Pandurangji Joshi had carefully perused the horoscopes, made some quick calculations on his fingers and written short notes in his green register. His words are perhaps bromide, but it surely does the trick of kindling hope in the seeker.

Six feet tall, a saffron tika marking the third eye, short cropped hair with a choti commonly sported by Brahmins, a brown coloured kurta fitting snugly around his protruding belly on white pyjamas and monsoon sandals; Pandurangji bears all the tell-tale signs of being a man in the service of God, a temple pujari. As he speaks, his calm manner and unshakeable faith in the almighty make him a go-to figure for all those seeking a direction.

Presently, he is the head priest at the Dandeshwar mandir, near the Khar gaonthan. "More than a decade ago, I had come to Mumbai from Vidarbha to visit a relative and witness the famed Ganpati festivities. It was the pious month of Shravan. Surrendipitously, the Dandeshwar temple needed an assistant priest who would perform the daily rituals and be the caretaker of the temple. This worked very well for me as I was anyways thinking of shifting base to Puna in search of better opportunities and growth. This was in the year 2000 and since then I've worked my way up the priest hierarchy," Pandurangji says with satisfaction.

As the folklore goes, the temple itself is more than three decades old and it was last refurbished in 1927. Though renovated with bright colours on the façade, "the motifs have been unchanged," ensures a patron at the temple. Cosmetics aside, it is truly a spiritual experience when one walks up the plinth steps into the temple main hall. With a pitched wooden roof and pillars, a large open plan and a havan yajna in the centre of the hall; the sheer purity and subdued magnanimity of the space encourages one to turn inwards.

Pursuing a career as a pujari was indeed a natural path for him. "I come from a family of priests," he says explaining his choice of profession. "After completing my tenth standard in the field of arts, because of our aarthik paristhiti and my reverence for parampara, I gave up on my dreams of becoming a graduate. Instead, I went to the Sarasvati Ved Pathshala in Dhulia and there I obtained Ved gyaan over a period of three years."

While landing a job in the 'land of opportunities' gave Pandurangji the much desired ladder for professional growth, it came with its own challenges. "Even back in 2000, Mumbai's pace of life was drastically different from that of Vidarbha, a small sleepy town with farming as the main occupation. Mumbai welcomes all but it has room only for the hard workers. Here every second counts," he says with urgency. But he deeply missed the calm state of siesta that perpetually engulfed his hometown. As a solution to that, he used his savings to buy a house in Dombivali, a relatively smaller city, he traverses this long a distance in the Mumbai local every day, something that resonates with millions of Mumbaikars.

By the time Pandurangji finishes reiterating his story, the sky has turned an ominous grey, cast by the heavy rain clouds. It is almost eight but the devotees keep coming with the air of it being a ritualistic visit for them. Amongst them is a twenty-five years old architect. "I've been coming to this temple since childhood," she says. "It is a community space where as far as I remember, every single Hindu festival is celebrated. They light a bonfire during Holi and people from all strata are given packets of puranpoli as prasad. The festival of Janmasthami is also huge where they create a pandal for the revelers. During Ganpati, it is especially interesting as the lower floor of the trustee's building becomes a workshop for idol makers. We always get our idol made from these guys here," says the architect delightfully/ fondly.

In essence, the temple is a catalyst for change. Pandurangji would probably have been serving at a temple in Puna, but the Dandeshwar temple got him to create a dual abode in Mumbai: a home away from home in Dombivali and a catapult for his professional aspirations in this temple in Khar danda. Today, the temple continues to serve the people by accommodating underprivileged students who need a place to study, and artists who need a workshop space to make Ganpati idols. It is also the spring board for people to mark new beginnings in life by serving as a mandap for weddings. The temple indeed serves as a medium for individuals to fulfill their calling, both professional and spiritual ones.

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