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The head priest of the Siddhivinayak temple loves his job of doing pujas and offering counsel to troubled devotees
“The biggest distress for people these days is their children’s studies,” says Gajanand Narayan Modak, 47, the head priest of the Siddhivinayak Temple. “Nowadays, if you get 60 per cent, that is not enough. You need at least 90 per cent to get into the best colleges.”
The other problems that devotees confide in him: Rising unemployment; steep rents; illnesses and the stress and strains of marriage. “Lots of women are working nowadays and men are yet to adapt to this situation,” he says. “A husband should realise that at the end of a long working day, a wife is as tired as him.”
Modak offers consolation and advice to all these stressed-out devotees. He is a broad-shouldered man, who wears a dhoti, with a part of it wrapped around his left shoulder. On his right shoulder is a yellow and red towel. And, of course, there is the rudraksha necklace. However, there is one touch of modernity: a mobile phone in his hand. We are sitting in an air-conditioned conference room on the third floor of the temple. As he talks, Modak frequently closes his eyes, used as he is, to people listening attentively to him.
So what exactly are the duties of a head priest? “He has to oversee the devotional activities of the temple,” says H.B. Jagtap, 54, the CEO of the Shree Siddivinayak Temple Trust. “He has to conduct the pujas and arrange the schedule of the 32 priests under him.”
There are two shifts for the priests. One begins at 6 am and ends at 2 pm. The other begins at 2 pm and ends at 10 pm. On auspicious days and on Tuesdays, the puja begins at 4 am and, usually, Modak goes to the temple the previous night at 11 pm and sleeps there before getting up at 3 am. Incidentally, all the priests are Brahmins.
On normal days, after his morning shift is over, he has a nap in his one-bedroom apartment at Dadar, which he shares with his wife Aarati and daughters, Manasi, 16, and Vinaya, 12. In the evenings, he reads from the holy books. Sometimes, he gets calls from devotees asking him for advice. At 8 pm, he does a puja, accompanied by his family. And by 11 pm, it is lights off.
So does he get tired of this daily grind? “Not at all,” he says. “You only feel tired when you don’t enjoy the work. Here I am, so close to Ganeshji I feel exalted all the time.” He says that because of this, he hardly feels the pressure of being the head priest. “All the other priests are like brothers to me. We have a very good teamwork.”
He pauses and then launches into one of his favourite shlokas:
Uddharet atmanatmanam natmanamavasadayet
Atmaiva hyatmano bandhuh atmaiva ripuratmanah
("One should improve oneself and not destroy oneself ; one's self is one's well-wisher
and one's self is one's enemy")
The one way he has been able to recharge his batteries is by travelling. A government employee, when he gets his annual one month leave, (he also has 15 days casual leave), he goes to jyotirlingas (Shiva temples). So far, he has travelled to 12 temples, from Kedar and Badrinath in the north to Rameswaram in the south. “I have been interested in spiritual matters from the time I was a child,” he says.
Indeed, there is a spiritual streak in the family. Modak’s grandfather, Purushottam, used to sing kirtans in temples and houses in the village of Nerur, in Sindhudurg district. His father, a farmer, was also a priest. “When he came to Mumbai many years ago, he used to do pujas in homes,” says Modak.
The priest has four brothers and a sister. All the brothers are professionals while his sister is a housewife. “I am the youngest and, one day, my father asked me whether I would like to become a priest,” he says. “I pondered over it and decided to fulfil his wishes.”
So, at the age of 14, Modak was sent to the Shankar Veda Pathshala in Goa and studied the Vedas for eight years. One of his classmates was Shripad Joshi, who is now a pujari in a temple in Goa. “Modak was well behaved all the time, and a helpful person,” he says, by phone from Goa. “He was also very active in all the activities in the school.” When Modak finished his studies, his first job was with the Siddhivinayak temple and he has been there ever since.
Asked about his most memorable experience in his 26 years of service, he breaks into a smile and says, “When I became head priest after 21 years of service. 21 is a very auspicious number. I did service to Ganeshji and he rewarded me with a promotion.”
Today, the Siddhivinayak temple is one of the most popular in Maharashtra and every year, several lakhs of people come to offer prayers, including many celebrities (see box). “If a celebrity comes during my shift, I do the puja, otherwise not,” he says. “I tend to keep my distance from them.”
Asked why people are so troubled these days, he says, “They are too full of themselves, there is too much of ego. People are unhappy no matter what they have. If they have a two-bedroom flat, they yearn for a four-bedroom flat and it goes on and on.” He says most people do not have an inner strength and, hence, when they encounter difficulties, they collapse easily. “You should try to get in touch with your inner self,” says the priest. “As food is necessary for the body, similarly, prayer is important for the mind. Just set aside 15 minutes a day for prayer. After all, if you want to experience the strength of Ganeshji, you have to come close.”