Non-Brahmin priests hope for appointment in Kerala's Sabarimala shrine after Supreme Court lifts ban on entry of women

The Supreme Court verdict on the entry of women of all ages in the Sabarimala hill shrine in Kerala has rekindled the hopes of non-Brahmin priests to enter the sanctum sanctorum of one of the most sought-after temples in the state.

Vishnu Narayanan, a Dalit priest with over 25 years of experience in various temples across the state, is hoping to get a call from the temple authorities to serve as a head priest (melsanthi) in one of the two temples in Sabarimala in the light of the apex court order.

 Non-Brahmin priests hope for appointment in Keralas Sabarimala shrine after Supreme Court lifts ban on entry of women

Pilgrims queue outside the Sabarimala Temple. Reuters

An application he submitted last year for the post of chief priest in either Ayyappa temple or the adjacent Malikappuram Devi temple at Sabarimala was rejected by the state-controlled Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) that administers the temple as he was a not a Brahmin. The TDB considers only Malayali Brahmins for the post in select temples including Sabarimala.

The notification issued by the TDB on 25 July, 2018 inviting application for the posts of chief priests for next year beginning from the coming pilgrimage season also insists on the Brahmin origin of the candidate as the main eligibility for applying for the coveted post.

Narayanan, 38, had applied for the post last year on the basis of a 2014 directive of state Devaswom secretary directing the TDB to appoint priests in temples under it without considering the caste and clan of the candidate.

The directive was issued in pursuance to the 2012 Supreme Court verdict paving the way for the appointment of Dalits as priests in temples in the state. Earlier in 2002, the court had lifted the ban on appointing non-Brahmins as temple priests.

The court had ruled on both the occasions that eligibility for the priesthood should be knowledge of rites and traditions and not caste and clan. Narayanan fulfilled all the criteria prescribed by the TDB for the post except that of caste.

While TDB insisted only pass in class 10, ten years’ experience as the head priest, and knowledge of puja and tantra, Narayanan, who received training in temple rituals from a famous priest, holds two Master’s degrees and experience as the head priest for 16 years in major temples in the state.

Narayanan has been serving Pallam Sree Subrahmanya Swami Temple at Kottayam district, also known as Dakshina Kashi, for the last seven years. He had approached the Kerala High Court last year against the rejection of his application in violation of the Supreme Court order and the Devaswom secretary’s directive.

Though the Devaswom Bench of the court had admitted his petition and appointed an amicus curiae to study the case, the latter is still sitting on the issue. Narayanan said he will approach the high court again if his application for this year also is rejected by the TDB.

The Dalit priest is not likely to get justice from the TDB this year too. TDB president A Padma Kumar, a nominee of the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), hinted at rejecting his application.

He pleaded helplessness, saying that the guidelines issued by the high court in the case were against Narayanan. However, he refused to spell out the guidelines. Kumar, who was appointed as TDB chief in November last year, told Firstpost that he could not say anything further on the issue without referring to the files.

Narayanan has termed the TDB chief’s statement a lie. He said that the court had not even made any observations on his petition let alone issuing guideline. “It is waiting for the report of the amicus curiae, who has not even heard him once,” he said.

“This is a clear case of blatant violation of the court verdicts and government orders. The TDB has discriminated against me because I am a Dalit. I may not be a Brahmin by birth but I have better qualifications than many Brahmin priests,” Narayanan added.

He said that he was determined to fight this injustice since he had a debt to pay to his guru Mathanam Vijayan Thantri, who was denied the post in 1980 even after he was cleared by the interview board. He died in 2008 without fulfilling his dream.

“I would carry forward his fight to ensure justice to his soul,” Narayanan said adding that the spirit of the latest apex court verdict on the entry of women in Sabarimala was against all sorts of discrimination.

EK Lalan, president of the Sree Narayana Vaidika Samithi, a body of non-Brahmin priests, said they will support Narayanan to achieve his objective. He said that he was sure that backward caste priests would get justice if they go to Supreme Court.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have the money to fight a case at the highest level of the judiciary. We have over 2,000 non-Brahmin priests working in various private temples in the state. If the upper castes continue to oppress us we will take our struggle to the streets,” Lalan told Firstpost.

Curiously, the non-Brahmin priests are fighting for their right despite Kerala facing acute shortage of Brahmins to take up the priestly jobs. A report in Hinduism Today said that the new generation of Brahmins was not coming forward to enter the profession as they consider priesthood primitive.

“The youth complain about the demanding routines, such as waking up early to bathe, spending long hours each day in the temple and living on temple premises. They want to live like their counterparts in other castes and religions,” the report said. “This kind of priest family life is not liked by the girls in our community. These days girls are generally well educated and well employed. Therefore, finding a bride for a priest becomes very difficult,” Sankaranarayanan Namboothiri, a brahmin who works at a major bank was quoted as saying by Hindusim Today.

In contrast, the Ezhava and Nair boys who come from the lower strata of the society consider priest job as a good opportunity to rise in the social ladder. The non-Brahmin communities have been trying to grab the opportunity by setting up their own priest training programmes.

However, the report said that devotees were finding it difficult to come to terms with the non-Brahmin priests. Quoting a former Devaswom Board official, the report said that devotees in many places had refused to even receive the temple sacraments from non-Brahmin priests forcing the board to withdraw and post them in their offices as clerks.

Dalit priest, S Sudhikumar, who was not allowed to join duty as an assistant priest by the devotees at the famous Chettikulangara Devi Temple at Mavelikkara in Alappuzha district, said that the attitude towards non-Brahmin priests was changing fast.

He said that the people who had opposed him a year ago were now happy with his performance and fully cooperating with him. Most of the six Dalit priests who were appointed in the TDB temples last year also shared the same view.

Social activists have viewed this as a strong sign of the changing mindset of devotees and expressed the hope that the state can march ahead in its journey towards social inclusion if the authorities too changed their approach similarly.

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Updated Date: Oct 01, 2018 19:40:22 IST