Ever since her birth, the sounds that have been reverberating in her ears were of Tantra scriptures and temple bells. Destiny brought Jyothsna Padmanabhan to the Sreekovil. She followed her heart’s call to become Kerala’s first known youngest and female Hindu priest. For generations, her family members have provided priests to a number of major and minor temples in the state. Thus, she grew up in a spiritual ambience. Though there aren’t any known female priests in temples now, in the Namboothiri community, women do carry out pujas for their home deities, usually called thevaram. Her father, Padmanabhan Namboothiripad, says there are no known women who perform rituals the way Jyothsna does, after getting the right knowledge from a guru.
But as a little girl, she paid close attention and was already reciting some chants at a young age. For Jyothsna, it wasn’t just a decision. "It was an awakening," says the 19-year-old with a bright smile. "Although I started learning tantra from the age of seven, I used to recite what I heard from my father," she says. It was her grandfather who discovered her interest and her father helped nurture this interest by allowing her to sit beside him. She was initiated into tantra in 2008, at the age of 10. She adds, “I started learning puja and reciting the Sanskrit mantras from my father and grandfather.”
When she turned 12, she raised many eyebrows by breaking convention and leading the rituals for installing a consecrated murti of Devi Bhadrakali in 2010, in the sanctum sanctorum of Painkunnikavu Temple in Irinjalakuda. There are a few other tantri priestesses in Kerala, but this was the first time in history that a consecration had been performed by one so young. Although she has done something that is typically considered to be a man’s job, neither she nor her father are interested in terming this as revolutionary. “We don't want it to be construed as part of any women's liberation movement or any such idea. It is not a revolutionary act. We Brahmin women have always performed pujas in our own homes,” she says.
“According to Sastras, it is written that sometimes women are more eligible and suitable to do these rituals than men. The womanhood of God and the glorification of women are the core of Tantra. Anybody who is inclined from birth can study with devotion and become a Tantri, irrespective of caste or gender. Those who criticise this cannot prove otherwise as it is not true and arguments without any proof or motives are mere opinions. Women often have more commitment to the required sadhanas, and understand that Tantra is not only for doing puja, but for obtaining self-realisation,” her father adds.
Jyothsna too believes there are no actual rules or proofs that prevent women from doing these rituals. And there were many women priests in ancient India.
Some of the questions she had to face while learning shastras under the guidance of Veluthedathu Tarananalloor Padmanabhan Namboodiripad were ‘Who is the Tantri of Thriprayar Temple?’ and ‘Is she eligible to learn and practice it?’ As a female, according to Brahmanical tradition, she is not supposed to wear poonool by upanayana, which is one of the traditional systems that mark the acceptance of a student by a guru and an individual's entrance to a school in Hinduism. But her sanctity to carry on the rituals was convincing to her guru and he was ready to teach her.
When asked whether she wants to carry this as a profession, she says, “I never learnt this from a professional angle. I wanted to worship. I wanted to study it systematically. I am currently pursuing my degree in Sanskrit Vedanta to do research on tantra.” In a changing world, Jyothsna is a positive change welcomed by the locals who are devotees at the Krishna Temple where she carries out the rituals.