Tamil Nadu’s tryst with priesthood and casteism began in 1939, after the Madras Presidency passed the temple entry proclamation. In 1950, the Tamil Nadu Government came up with the HR and CE Board to man all the big temples in the state, even if there were trustees. In 1971, the DMK amended the Act to abolish hereditary appointment of priests and allow everyone, irrespective of caste, to become temple priests
In September 2015, when 30-year-old V. Ranganathan and his friend entered the sanctum sanctorum of the popular Meenakshi temple in Madurai, the non-Brahmin duo was ridiculed and harassed, not just by temple security guards, but even by priests who claimed that they had spoiled the sanctity of the place of worship.
After two hours of sit-in protests, Ranganthan and his friend were taken into custody. Later, the temple’s joint commissioner and assistant commissioner spoke to the duo, promising that their demands would be considered. However, they had only one—candidates from all castes should be appointed as priests in temples across the state.
The same demand and protests have been alive since 2006, from the day Ranganathan first stepped into the training academy for archakas (priests) run by the Tamil Nadu government. In the past decade, all his demands had fallen on deaf ears. Now, there is a renewed vigour in his fight thanks to the recent priest appointments by Kerala’s Travancore Devaswom Board. Kerala had recently appointed 62 priests to perform poojas and rituals in temples administered by the board. Out of the 62, non-Brahmins constituted 36. Out of the 36, six were dalits; the measure was one that instilled fresh hope in the minds of trained priests across the nation.
Even in history, there are parallels in the fight against casteism between the neighbouring states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Demands for temple entry and appointment of non-Brahmin priests in Tamil Nadu temples began after the famous 1925 Vaikom Satyagraha (movement against untouchability in Kerala). In fact, the Vaikom protests, led by Sri Narayana Guru, influenced anti-caste activist Periyar Ramaswamy Naicker in Tamil Nadu; it became one of the milestones for Periyar and his intervention in the Dravidian heartland.
Periyar fought against casteism at the National Training School at Cheranmadevi near Tirunelveli, where Brahmin and non-Brahmin children were segregated. He protested against V.V.S. Iyer, a Congress leader, who helmed the institution. It was in 1939 that Madras Presidency passed the temple entry proclamation, allowing dalits entry into the Madurai Meenakshi temple. As Periyar tasted success in Cheranmadevi, and also saw the passing of temple entry proclamation, he came out of the Congress and began an all out war against Brahmanism.
Then, as it is now, Ranganathan’s fight to get appointed as a priest in one of the big temples under the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious, Charitable and Endowment (HR and CE) Board, has a strong real-life precedent. “I have been fighting since 2006. There are around 206 people systematically trained in accordance with the Agama Sasthra. We are trained to perform poojas both in Tamil and Sanskrit. For centuries now, only sons of Brahmin priests are appointed as archakas in the big temples of Tamil Nadu. Even after the 2006 ordinance which allowed non-Brahmin priests, and our victory in the Supreme Court on December 16, 2015, we still haven’t received justice. The Travancore Devaswom Board’s action gives us hope and relief,” Ranganathan told THE WEEK.
Tamil Nadu’s tryst with priesthood and casteism began in 1939, after the Madras Presidency passed the temple entry proclamation. In 1950, the Tamil Nadu Government came up with the HR and CE Board to man all the big temples in the state, even if there were trustees. In 1971, the DMK amended the Act to abolish hereditary appointment of priests and allow everyone, irrespective of caste, to become temple priests. This was challenged in 1971 in the Supreme Court, in the famous Seshammal vs State of Tamil Nadu. Around 14 writ petitions filed in the court, against the amendment of the HR and CE Act, were heard together and the court also held that the amendment was not wrong. But, then came the confusion when the petitioners argued that the sanctity of the idol and temple would be affected if the poojas were performed by non-Brahmin priests.
The court raised questions on this religious belief too. In 1972, when the Supreme Court came out with this judgment, Periyar quipped, “operation successful, but patient dead.”
Again, in 2002, the Supreme Court delivered a landmark judgment in the Adithyan vs Travancore Devaswom Board case, saying there was no justification in insisting on caste. Later, in 2006, the DMK government in Tamil Nadu passed a GO making all persons with “requisite qualifications" eligible for appointment as priests. The order was again challenged in the Supreme Court.
The GO and the ordinance were challenged by the Adi Saiva Sivacharyargal Nala Sangam. The nine-year case witnessed extensive arguments by legal luminaries like former attorney general K. Parasaran. Later, on December 16, 2015, the judgment was delivered and the Supreme Court allowed the status quo to prevail. As a result, the 2006 ordinance passed by the DMK government was not taken down, but the implementation of the GO would depend on each and every individual case as per the merits. "This has created wide litigations and arguments. This is where the non-Brahmin priests, even though they are trained under the Agama principles, cannot be appointed as priests as every individual case differs," tells Manuraj Shanmugasundaram, DMK spokesperson, who has conducted extensive studies on the topic of non-Brahmin priesthood and their appointments in temples.
He says, “the case now pivots around the question of whether the government has the authority to legislate on the appointment of priests in temples, or whether such decisions can be protected under the conditions of religious freedom. The legal debate has already come to an end. Now, with Kerala doing it, it is only a question of when the changes will be reflected in Tamil Nadu. When DMK was in power in 2006, the GO allowing non-Brahmins was passed. The DMK had done everything systematically, setting up archaka training schools in six places after taking suggestions from a high-level advisory committee. But, 206 well-trained non-Brahmin archakas are still waiting for appointments in big temples. The appointments in Kerala have shown the way,” he says.
Who knows? Ranganathan, who now works as a graphic designer in a private IT company, might find his wish granted sooner rather than later.