The vil­lage with­out doors

Shani Shing­na­pur, a small vil­lage in western In­dia, is one of the safest places in the world to live, where no build­ings have doors – not even the bank. Nil­ima Pathak re­ports

Friday - - Society -

The po­lice of­fi­cers in Shani Shing­na­pur should be a happy lot. Af­ter all, it’s the only vil­lage in In­dia that has been able to boast a near-zero crime rate not just for the past 10 or 20 years but for sev­eral cen­turies. Barely five thefts have been re­ported at the lo­cal po­lice sta­tion since it was set up some 15 years ago.

But when a branch of the UCO Bank opened in the vil­lage in theWestern In­dian state of Ma­ha­rash­tra in 2011, the four po­lice of­fi­cials were up­set. In keep­ing with the lo­cal cus­tom, the bank had no doors or locks and the of­fi­cers were sure it was an open in­vi­ta­tion for thieves and would blem­ish their near-per­fect record.

“It’s fine to say they’re fol­low­ing the vil­lage cus­toms,’’ said Ba­pusa­heb Mane, the po­lice in­spec­tor. “But keep­ing large quan­ti­ties of cash with­out se­cu­rity could at­tract the at­ten­tion of un­de­sir­able el­e­ments.’’

Al­though the bank of­fi­cials were re­luc­tant to break the tra­di­tion in the vil­lage – which boasts a pop­u­la­tion of around 1,700 – where not a sin­gle build­ing, home or of­fice has doors or locks, they fi­nally bowed to pres­sure from the po­lice and had doors fit­ted at the bank’s en­trance. But not one of them has a lock.

It started six cen­turies ago…

Shani Shing­na­pur is sit­u­ated about 80km from the city of Au­rangabad, on the PuneAu­rangabad high­way. At first glance it ap­pears like any vil­lage in In­dia – dusty lanes, vil­lagers on bi­cy­cles, cows graz­ing in mead­ows. But pause be­fore a house at any time of the day – or night – and you will be greeted by open door­ways. Amaz­ingly, not one of the 300-odd build­ings in the vil­lage has doors, mak­ing it per­haps the safest vil­lage in the world. Even the few pub­lic toi­lets in the vil­lage square have no doors – and the vil­lagers have no is­sue with that. “For rea­sons of pri­vacy and fol­low­ing re­quests by women, we re­cently agreed to put a thin cur­tain near the en­trance, but not doors be­cause that would go against our be­lief,’’ says Parmesh­war Mane, a prom­i­nent shop­keeper in the vil­lage.

The only prob­lem the lack of doors on the houses seems to pose is that there is noth­ing to knock on to an­nounce your ar­rival at a home. “Just shout out and some­body will come to the door,’’ one of the vil­lagers, Rani, ex­plains.

“The cus­tom of not hav­ing doors to houses here goes back al­most six cen­turies,’’ says the 34-year-old house­wife. “Ac­cord­ing to leg­end, a huge black slab was found among the de­bris brought by vi­o­lent floods and rains in the area. It was lodged in the ex­posed roots of a tree. When the rains abated, the vil­lagers tried to dis­lodge it but found they couldn’t move it.

“The next day, the vil­lage head man had a dream in which a voice told him to build a shrine for the slab. But it should have no roof or doors. Also, none of the houses in the vil­lage should hence­forth have doors, the voice said.

“The head man told the vil­lagers about his dream and the peo­ple, firm believ­ers in su­per­sti­tion, promptly got rid of the doors in their homes. To this day, even new houses built in the vil­lage have no doors.”

So why haven’t there been any crimes? “It’s be­cause a ge­nial spirit pro­tects the vil­lagers and

pun­ishes wrong­do­ers,” Rani says proudly. “My hus­band runs a gro­cery in the vil­lage and even his shop does not have doors of any kind. He has never lost any­thing and he has been run­ning the store for the past 10 years.”

But not ev­ery­one is happy to be­lieve that the­ory. The late Dr Naren­dra Dab­holkar, a well-known ra­tion­al­ist who at­tempted to de­bunk base­less be­liefs and illogical cus­toms, was con­vinced the whole door­less cus­tom was a farce. “It is just a brand-build­ing ex­er­cise of the vil­lagers be­cause it is bring­ing in huge amounts of money by way of tourism,’’ he in­sisted.

It’s true that tourism has be­come a huge busi­ness in Shani Shing­na­pur. Un­til about 15 years ago, vil­lagers re­lied on su­gar cane farm­ing to sus­tain them­selves, but thanks to the hype that has spread about the vil­lage, hordes of tourists have been de­scend­ing there to see the door­less build­ings for them­selves.

“Thou­sands of peo­ple from around the coun­try visit the vil­lage ev­ery day to have a glimpse of the houses with­out doors as well as the slab, which takes pride of place in the vil­lage,’’ says Ganesh Mane, a cab driver who takes the tourists around.

Bol­ly­wood pays its re­spects

Sev­eral top Bol­ly­wood stars and se­nior politi­cians have also been spot­ted at the shrine at Shani Shing­na­pur. “Shilpa Shetty and her hus­band, busi­ness­man Raj Kun­dra, have been here as well as for­mer Bi­har chief min­is­ter Lalu Prasad,’’ Ganesh smiles.

“On an av­er­age around 40,000 tourists visit the vil­lage ev­ery day. I’m able to make a liv­ing only be­cause of the tourists. And yes, I too be­lieve in this cus­tom be­cause I do not even lock my car door when I re­tire for the night.’’

Shiva­ji­rao Daran­dale, pres­i­dent of the Shani Shing­na­pur tem­ple trust, says that on fes­tive oc­ca­sions as many as 300,000 peo­ple de­scend on the vil­lage. “All are amazed about the fact that none of the houses have doors,’’ he says. “We are not wor­ried about thieves or rob­bers be­cause we be­lieve the shrine pro­tects our vil­lage. Also, the fact that there have been no ma­jor in­ci­dents of crime for decades has strength­ened our be­lief.’’

Sev­eral sto­ries are nar­rated by vil­lagers about how no one dares to steal their valu­ables or even usurp land or prop­erty. Shiva­ji­rao vouches for their tales. “There have been oc­ca­sions when a few things were stolen from houses but ev­ery time, thieves have con­fessed within min­utes and re­turned what­ever they had stolen.’’

Lata Bai, a house­wife, agrees. “Any­body who at­tempts to do such bad things ends up suf­fer­ing a bad fate. I’ve heard of peo­ple who stole things los­ing their eye­sight and even their men­tal bal­ance.’’

Kacharu Bankar, who works as a tech­ni­cian at the lo­cal su­gar fac­tory, agrees. “No one in our house keeps cash or valu­ables in lock­ers. Five gen­er­a­tions of our fam­ily have resided in this vil­lage and we have never con­sid­ered set­tling else­where be­cause this is a safe place.”

His mod­ern house, how­ever, has slid­ing doors – al­though with­out latches. The doors, he says, are to keep out stray dogs and cats. “We don’t even latch the doors at night,” he says. His 25-year-old son Yo­gesh Bankar, who plans to go to Aus­tralia to study, says he re­spects the cul­ture and prac­tices in the vil­lage.

“I am not sure if it’s just su­per­sti­tion that is pro­tect­ing the peo­ple in my vil­lage or whether the peo­ple are all hon­est. But what­ever it is I have not ques­tioned the be­lief. I guess, one should re­spect tra­di­tions.’’

It is, nat­u­rally, a shock to move to the vil­lage and takes out­siders time to be­come so trust­ing.

‘On av­er­age around 4,000 tourists visit the vil­lage ev­ery day. I make a liv­ing only be­cause of them’

Ru­pali Shah, a house­wife, was amazed when her hus­band told her about his door­less home.

“A cou­ple of years back when I was told I would have to live in Shani Shing­na­pur af­ter mar­riage, I was very ner­vous. I mean, I’d never ever lived in a house with­out doors. When I fi­nally came here and my in-laws and hus­band told me not to keep any valu­ables un­der lock and key, I was alarmed.”

It took Ru­pali some months to ad­just to her new way of life. “Now, of course, I do not have any is­sues and leave the house open when vis­it­ing neigh­bour­hood friends,” she says. But while Ru­pali has been able to slip eas­ily into the

life­style of the vil­lage, visi­tors and tourists find it hard to cope even for a night in rooms with­out doors.

A case in point is guests who plan to check into the ho­tels that have mush­roomed in the past few years, at­tempt­ing to cash in on the tourism. Since all of them are with­out doors they have not been en­tirely suc­cess­ful in en­tic­ing visi­tors to stay.

“Re­cently, a cou­ple from Kan­pur, in the neigh­bour­ing state of Uttar Pradesh, ar­rived and af­ter vis­it­ing the usual places of in­ter­est, de­cided to stay at a ho­tel here,” says Ajay Ku­mar, another cab driver. “How­ever, they changed their mind when they found the ho­tel rooms had no doors and the slid­ing shut­ters of­fered barely any pri­vacy. Un­com­fort­able to spend a night in a door­less room, they asked me to take them to the near­est city, Au­rangabad.”

Ac­cord­ing to Ajay al­most ev­ery vis­i­tor is amazed to see the vil­lage houses. “Most of­ten peo­ple re­mark they would not have be­lieved such a place ex­isted if they had not seen it for them­selves.”

But the in­flux of tourists and the fact that there is so lit­tle se­cu­rity for houses is giv­ing the po­lice sleep­less nights. Po­lice in­spec­tor Ba­pusa­heb be­lieves that the leg­end sur­round­ing the door­less vil­lage has ac­quired a cer­tain brand value, which the vil­lagers are look­ing to “pre­serve and mar­ket”.

“The vil­lage sur­vives mainly due to tourism. Peo­ple who throng here are amazed at the fact there are no doors and locks. If this is proven false, the econ­omy of the vil­lage will suf­fer. So, very of­ten, lo­cal peo­ple are dis­cour­aged from reg­is­ter­ing com­plaints al­though there have been some in­ci­dents.”

How­ever shop­keeper Ganesh Ku­mar de­nies the ac­cu­sa­tions. “Some peo­ple are spread­ing lies about our vil­lage. They dis­miss the door­less con­cept and our be­liefs as su­per­sti­tions stat­ing that we are so poor there re­ally is noth­ing to steal from our homes. Some al­lege that Shani Shing­na­pur sur­vives mainly on tourism and if our be­lief is proven a sham, the vil­lage would suf­fer. But this is not true.”

Ac­cord­ing to Ku­mar the vil­lagers were al­ways do­ing well but he ad­mits that with a huge in­crease in the num­ber of tourists, new busi­nesses are be­ing launched. “Un­til re­cently, the vil­lagers re­lied on su­gar cane farm­ing,’’ he says. “But over the years and af­ter news about the vil­lage’s cus­tom spread, tourism boomed lead­ing to sev­eral al­lied busi­nesses. The num­ber of taxis, au­torick­shaws and even ho­tels has gone up. The eco­nomic con­di­tion of peo­ple has changed dras­ti­cally.”

Have the de­vel­op­ments changed the way of life? “Not re­ally,’’ says Ku­mar. “Un­til re­cently, many homes didn’t even have cup­boards, but now we have them we don’t lock them. I’ve never locked the cash box in my shop.”

And the vil­lagers wel­come the bank, even with its doors. “We de­posit a bit of our sav­ings there so it can earn some in­ter­est,’’ says Ku­mar.

Bank man­ager Umakant says the bank is do­ing good busi­ness, par­tic­u­larly be­cause of tourists who visit to with­draw or ex­change cash. “We have no se­cu­rity guards or locks on the doors but not want­ing to take risks, at the end of ev­ery day we trans­fer what­ever cash we have to a bank in a nearby vil­lage and bring it back here the next morn­ing,” he says.

‘Some peo­ple are spread­ing lies about our vil­lage. They dis­miss the door­less con­cept as su­per­sti­tious’

It’s clear the shrine and the quaint cus­tom of the vil­lage are act­ing as mag­nets, at­tract­ing thou­sands of visi­tors. And the vil­lagers, in no mood to rock the boat, are con­tin­u­ing to stead­fastly hold on to their be­lief.

Ra­tion­al­ist Dr Naren­dra, mean­while, said he hoped peo­ple would be more care­ful about their valu­ables and not be­lieve blindly in su­per­sti­tions. “Faith should not be de­pen­dent on base­less mir­a­cles,’’ he said.

But the res­i­dents of Shani Shing­na­pur are not lis­ten­ing. “We are sure we will not lose any­thing from our homes,’’ they say, clos­ing the door firmly on ra­tio­nal­ists and scep­tics.

Even mod­ern houses have no doors in Shani Shing­na­pur

Rani, with her mother Uma at their house, says a ge­nial spirit pro­tects them

Vil­lagers go about their daily busi­ness

free of worry

Bol­ly­wood star Shilpa Shetty and her hus­band vis­ited the shrine

The bank that has a door but no locks, above. Lata, left, be­lieves mis­for­tune will fall on peo­ple who steal from the vil­lage

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