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 the Western 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 Pune-Aurangabad 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. 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.
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.