Shani Shingnapur: The Village Without Doors

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About 300 km east of Mumbai, in the remote Indian village of Shani Shingnapur, crime is a concept so alien that villagers here have stopped guarding their houses, their properties and their valuables. Nobody locks their cars and motorbikes anymore. Shopkeepers leave cash in unlocked drawers overnight, and housewives keep jewelry in unlocked boxes, inside houses that have no doors —just a wooden door frame with a curtain drawn across to protect the privacy of the residents. Such is the faith the villagers have on their heavenly guardian, Lord Shani, who they believe protects them from thieves. The belief, that whoever steals anything from this place will incur the wrath of Lord Shani —a Hindu god known for his mad temper and penchant for revenge— and will have to pay dearly for their sins, has kept wrong doers away from Shingnapur for the last 300 years.

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A home in Shani Shinganapur, India, where nearly all residences have no doors. Photo credit: Shashank Bengali / Los Angeles Times

Legend has it that hundreds of years ago, after a period of intense rain and flooding, a heavy slab of black stone was found washed up on the shores of a river that runs through the village. When locals touched the stone, the story goes, that blood started oozing out of it. Then one night, the village head had a dream in which Lord Shani spoke to him and revealed that the slab was, in fact, god himself. Shani instructed the villagers to keep the stone in the village because he wished to stay there, and protect its people. But they should keep the slab in the open so that he could oversee the village.

The next day, the villagers dragged the stone to dry land and installed it on a roofless platform at the center of the village. They also decided to do away with all doors and locks on their houses. With the Lord watching over them, they didn’t need doors anymore. The tradition has continued since then.

Over the years, the lore has grown. Villagers are full of tales about failed robbery attempts where thieves walk all night thinking they have left the village only to find themselves still in the village in the morning. Apparently, they were walking in circles. Another local lore says that one villager installed doors on his house and had a car accident the very next day.

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The slab of stone, now a shrine. Photo credit: www.mouthshut.com

Shingnapur remained in obscurity until the 1990s, when it appeared on a Bollywood flick, after which it began drawing thousands of tourists and pilgrims from across the country. But according to some residents, the village’s crime-free image is just a ploy to bring more tourist. They claim that petty crime and thefts occur all the time but temple officials keep everything hushed up to protect Shinganapur's reputation.

When a journalist visited Sonai Police Station last year, under which the jurisdiction of the village fell before Shingnapur got its own police station, he found 46 criminal cases registered from the village in the last six year, out of which 11 were cases of thefts. As one probes deeper, more instances of crime begin to emerge. One Shingnapur resident recalls how his mother's gold necklace got stolen one night from their house when he was still a teenager. Pickpocketing is also rampant around the temple area but they are seldom reported. The fact that Shingnapur has a police station is a sign in itself that its image of a crime-free utopia is a myth.

The first public incident to rock the village’s reputation occurred in 2010 when cash and items worth Rs. 35,000 were stolen from a vehicle. Then in 2011, cash and valuables were stolen from the home of a former temple trustee, and then again in January 2012 gold ornaments were stolen from within the temple.

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Another doorless house in Shani Shingnapur. Photo credit: Punit Paranjpe/ AFP / Getty Images

Shani Shingnapur is now changing. When a local bank opened a branch in the village in 2011, they installed a Plexiglas front door with no padlocks to respect the village’s tradition, but the door is held shut by a remote-controlled electromagnetic lock. Many houses and local business, especially hotels, began installing sliding doors that slipped back behind the wall, creating an illusion of a doorless entry. Even the temple keeps security guards in the premise along with baggage checks and security cameras. Their donation box is kept locked.

Temple trustees and villagers, whose economy depends on tourism, try hard to keep the village's reputation up. The police station and the increased security is for crowd management, not crime patrol, they say. Some still maintain that there are no crimes in the village, and that the police station in Shingnapur “is the only one in the entire country without doors”, blatantly ignoring the solid wooden panels guarding its entrance.

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Photo credit: www.surfolks.com

Sources: BBC / LA Times / Open

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