| Rachel O’Brien |
SHANI SHINGNAPUR (AFP) – Members of the Gade family proudly show off a stash of Indian rupees kept in an unlocked tin barrel in their bedroom, despite their home not having a front door.
In Shani Shingnapur village in western India, residents see little need for such security, thanks to their belief in special protection from the Hindu deity Shani.
As farmers trundle the roads in bullock carts piled high with sugarcane, they pass rows of homes bearing empty door frames — a village tradition that goes back for generations.
“Years ago, Shani came in the dreams of devotees and told them you don’t need to put any doors on your homes,” housewife Jayashree Gade told AFP.
“He said: ‘I will protect you’. That’s why we don’t have any doors.”
According to legend, an iron and stone slab washed up in a nearby river during a flood more than 300 years ago, and began oozing blood when cattle herders poked it with a stick.
In a vision to a villager later that night, the slab was revealed to be an idol of Shani, and today it stands in an open square adorned with garlands of flowers, drawing crowds of pilgrims.
Shani, who is believed to be manifested in the planet Saturn, is considered so mighty that his shrine cannot be kept under a shelter — and he will not let thieves in the village of open homes go unpunished.
“The power of Shani is such that if someone steals, he will keep walking all night and think he has left the village, but when the sun comes up he will still be there,” said mill worker Balasaheb Borude.
Some villagers said they put loose panels against their door frames at night, but only to keep out wild animals.
Similarly, the local branch of state-owned UCO Bank prides itself on its “lockless” status. Although money is kept in a strongroom, the front of the building has just a glass door with no lock, to avert stray dogs.
“We have no trouble,” said bank official Nagender Sehrawat, gesturing to the queue of customers when asked if they were happy with the arrangement.
Today the centre of the village, which lies in Maharashtra state, has the feel of bustling small town, with stalls lining the dusty main road selling souvenirs and flowers to religious tourists.
Home to about 5,000 people, Shani Shingnapur rose to fame across the country after appearing in a devotional Hindi film about its deity in the ‘90s.
“The whole world got to know that there is a place called Shani Shingnapur, where houses have no doors, there are trees but no shadows, there are gods but no temples,” said Sayaram Bankar, a trustee at the shrine.
“Devotees from across the state and across India started pouring in to see this unusual village.”
Shani Shingnapur’s reputation has been somewhat dented in recent years by reports of a few thefts. In 2010, a visitor from northern India complained that cash and valuables worth 35,000 rupees ($553) were taken from a vehicle. Bankar dismissed reports of stealing, saying it only happened outside the village.
Sceptics of the Shani legend remain unconvinced by the area’s appeal.
“When you have a place in the middle of nowhere where no one goes and you have a legend like that — then people will go there,” said Narendra Nayak, a leading Indian rationalist who works to expose fraudulent gurus and challenge superstitions.
According to a pamphlet handed out at the shrine, Shani Shingnapur is not just free from theft but from all sinful behaviour, a “model village” in contrast to the corrupt outside world.
“Professional robbers, thieves, dacoits, non-vegetarians, drunkards, never come here,” the pamphlet confidently stated.
“If they come, they behave like gentlemen.”
As for doors, a few have popped up over the years, but villagers were sure their tradition would continue — much to the envy of visiting devotees.
“This is something special about this god. He is a guardian of this place,” said Amit Sharma, a hotel manager, after paying his respects at the shrine.