By Amitabha Bhattasali
BBC News, Calcutta
A court in the eastern Indian city of Calcutta has banned religious touts from the famous Kalighat temple.
The touts, or pandaas, work as assistants to priests in Hindu temples across India and escort the devotees into the temple.
They help worshippers perform the puja (worship), but are often accused of use extorting money from devotees.
The pandaas deny the allegations of harassment, saying they are a “bridge between the devotees and the priests”.
The order to ban the touts entry from the temples was given by the chief justice of Calcutta High Court, Vikash Sridhar Sirpurkar.
Passing the order, the judge said: “No more than six designated priests – called the sevayats – shall be allowed into the sanctum sanctorum of the temple and they will organise worship.” Justice Sirpurkar said during a visit to the Kalighat temple, he himself was witness to the misdeeds of the pandaas.
Most other visitors to the temple had similar stories to tell.
Sumantra Banerjee, who often comes to the temple to pray: “The touts play on religious sentiments and charge the devotees exorbitantly.”
Sanchita Dey, a housewife and frequent visitor to the temple, says it is a harrowing experience to come to the temple.
“Once a pandaa gets hold of you from the road leading to the temple, you are completely under his control. He dictates how much sweets and flowers you have to buy. Once inside the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, the priests force you to give the money they want and if you don’t oblige, they use foul language. And after you leave the temple, you have to pay a hefty fee to the tout,” she says.
For these reasons most visitors to the temple have welcomed the ban on pandaas.
Pradipta Biswas, who frequently visits the Kalighat temple, says: “From now on, we won’t have to face the harassment from the pandaas and we will be able to concentrate on the puja.”
Some said similar controls should be enforced at other famous Hindu temples across the country, where devotees are similarly harassed.
The goddess of destruction, Kali, is regarded as one of the principal deities in the state of West Bengal and the temple is believed to be one of 52 main temples devoted to the goddess in India.