Kerala temples reluctant to appoint Dalit priests despite facing shortage of Brahmin scholars

Eighty years have passed since the Maharajah of Travancore threw open the doors of the temples to lower castes through his historic Temple Entry Proclamation but the Dalits had to wait until 2002 to enter the sanctum sanctorum of temples in Kerala.

Even after the Supreme Court ended the age-long injustice of denying priestly duties to the Dalits 15 years ago, several temples in the state — including many under the control of the state-run devaswom boards — are unwilling to appoint non-Brahmins as priests.

The latest case is that of S Sudhikumar, a member of Ezhava community who was not allowed to join duty as keezh shanthi (assistant priest) in the famous Chettikulangara Devi Temple at Mavelikkara in Alappuzha district under the administrative control of the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB).

File image of Sabarimala shrine in Kerala. Image courtesy

File image of Sabarimala shrine in Kerala. Image courtesy

Sudhikumar, who was serving as keezh shanthi at Puthiyidam Sree Krishna Swamy Temple, Kayamkulam, was transferred by the assistant commissioner of Mavelikara Devaswam on 14 June. The temple administrative committee, which is dominated by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), did not even allow him to enter the temple when he went there to assume duty.

The devaswom commissioner quashed the order after the temple tantri took the stand that the rituals in the temple should be carried out by Malayali Brahmins well-versed in shodasha samkara, and if not it would invite the wrath of the deity.

TDB president Prayer Gopalakrishnan, who had kicked off a controversy by asking women to wait till a machine is invented to check their purity for entering the famous Sabarimala temple, has backed the commissioner saying that priests can be appointed only based on the customs followed by the temples.

He told Firstpost that the priestly duties were bound to be performed by chosen people. Though there was a movement of non-Brahmin priests in 2002, it had lost its relevance now. Nobody is talking about the Supreme Court verdict that paved the way for appointment of non-Brahmins in temples these days, he claimed.

“I cannot take a unilateral decision on the affairs of the temples. Different temples have different customs and traditions. Our board will meet in a couple of days and take a decision on the appointment of Sudhikumar based on the opinion given by the Thantri”, he added.

Devaswom minister Kadakampally Surendran has termed the stand a violation of the Supreme Court order. The court had ruled that caste should not be considered while recruiting employees, including ‘pujaris’, to various posts in devaswom boards and its temples.

The landmark apex court order in October 2012 came on a petition filed by Rakesh KS, who was not allowed to take up the post of the priest at the Neerikodu Siva Temple in Ernakulam on the ground of his Ezhava origin. The court disposed the petition with the observation that eligibility for priesthood should be the knowledge of rites and traditions, not caste.

On the basis of this, the state government had issued directions to all devaswom boards to carry out their recruitment process without discrimination on the basis of caste and had subsequently left the appointment of priests to the State Public Service Commission.

Sudhikumar, who had also faced similar resistance when he was appointed as priest at a temple in Aluva earlier, said none of the devaswom boards were implementing the apex court in its true spirit. He said they were denying the Dalits their right upheld by the court citing temple customs.

He told Firstpost that TDB had only about 300 non-Brahmin priests in its more than 1000 temples across southern district even though Dalits constituted majority of the Hindus in Kerala. He claimed that more than 75 percent of the devotees under the Chettikulangara temple were Dalits.

“Chettikulangara Devi Temple is the second largest temple in terms of income under the control of TDB, next only to Sabarimala shrine, which is thronged by millions of devotees from across the country. The bulk of crores of rupees earned by the temple every year comes from the Dalits. Yet, temple authorities who belong to upper castes, are not willing to appoint a Dalit as the priest,” Sudhikumar said.

Local MLA U Prathibha Hari alleged that the trouble had started after RSS started taking control of temple committees. She told Firstpost that the Sreedevi Vilasam Hindumatha Convention that controls the Chettikulangara temple was implementing the RSS agenda after the Hindutva organisation captured the organisation.

“The RSS is trying to bring back the untouchability what was eradicated from the state long ago under the guise of temple customs. This cannot be allowed in a state with high literacy and political consciousness,” she added.

The Devaswom minister had promised stringent action against those violating the court directive when the MLA raised the issue in the state Assembly last week. However, the TDB authorities have been sticking to their position.

The Chettikulangara case is not an isolated one. A non-Brahmin priest was thrown out from a temple in Kottayam district last week when he went there with his appointment order citing local temple customs. There have been several such cases since the apex court order.

Interestingly, even temples that are finding difficulty in getting qualified Brahmins to serve as priests are not willing to appoint non-Brahmins. Kerala has been facing acute shortage of Brahmin priests with the new generation of the upper caste community preferring modern professions, according to a report in Hinduism Today.

The report said the priest shortage existed because the present generation of Brahmins has not been finding the traditional profession attractive. The youth complain about lower remuneration, demanding routines, such as waking up early to bathe and spending long hours each day in the temple.

According to the report, another reason was the lack of respectability Hindu priests enjoy in the Kerala society. The report quoted Brahmasri Rajiveru, a former chief priest at the famous Sabarimala hill temple, as saying that the pay of the priests was the lowest for any temple employee.

The devaswom authorities have been justifying the pay on the ground that they are eligible to receive dakshina (gifts of money) from devotees for performing various rites. However, Rajiveru said majority of the 2,500 temples under various devaswom boards were not getting enough funds to conduct the mandatory rituals.

“Few devotees attend small temples, and not everyone gives dakshina. A priest cannot maintain a family on such meagre salary.” Rajiveru said.

However, leaders of the non-Brahmin communities hope that the situation will change when temples face closures for want of qualified Brahmin priests. Curiously, many non-Brahmin communities have been establishing priests training centres eying the emerging opportunity.

Updated Date: Aug 28, 2017 20:57 PM

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