The Saibaba Temple Trust at Shirdi, a temple town in the western state of Maharashtra in India, has put up boards appealing visitors to be dressed in a civilised manner, according to “Indian culture”.
The Saibaba temple is the resting place of Sai Baba, a 19th century saint who’s revered by both Hindu and Muslim devotees. It is considered an important pilgrimage site in India. In 2018, as many as 35 million devotees visited the temple town where the saint is said to have spent his last days.
Regressive as the recent move may seem, this is not the first time an Indian temple has enforced such a dress code. Earlier this year, the famous Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi, in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, banned devotees wearing anything except a dhoti-kurta or saree from entering the sanctum of the temple. Devotees dressed differently could only offer prayers from a distance. In the past, many temples in south India have also prohibited specific items of clothing like jeans or shorts. In 2016, the Madras High Court directed temples to refuse entry to people wearing jeans, bermuda shorts, skirts, short sleeves or tight leggings to “enhance spiritual ambiance”.
These directives evoke mixed reactions from people, with some agreeing that a dress code helps set the devotional mood. Others like activist Trupti Desai have raised objections, even asking why devotees and priests are held to different standards, since “the priests in temples are half-naked”, dressed only in a dhoti. This also harks back to the hypocrisy and moral policing women in the Indian subcontinent have often faced, where midriff-showing sarees are considered decent but a tank top showing off exactly the same amount of skin is deemed vulgar. “In India, the Constitution has given the freedom of speech to its citizens and as per that right, it is one’s personal choice what to speak and what to wear,” Desai said. “One cannot judge a devotee with what attire he or she is wearing. One’s faith is important.”
According to a report from Mirror Now, the Saibaba temple premises have been covered in posters with these instructions, that were made after some devotees complained of people wearing “objectionable” clothing to the shrine. While the temple trust says this is just an appeal and no formal dress code has been imposed, such requests still place devotees and visitors in two clear categories based on their attire: “objectionable” and “civilised”.
The questions that arise here are what exactly qualifies as civilised attire and why the act of worship requires a dress code. These dress codes make clothing the yardstick for decency, and give out the message that you can only be a faithful devotee if you’re dressed in a certain way. The clothes a person wears are also determined by their socioeconomic status and what’s accessible to them, and these directives ignore that. They also place the onus on the person wearing the so-called “objectionable” clothes and not those who find it offensive.
Besides, temples in India are not just places of worship but also places of interest that people of different cultures and faiths visit, and enforcing a dress code will only deter those who don’t have the clothes the temple authorities deem appropriate.
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