In the Temples of Tamil Nadu, a Thorn Still Troubles Periyar’s Heart

Non-Brahmin students, including Dalits, trained as priests are stranded but still hopeful.

Chennai: G. Balaguru, 32, was performing a puja at a small private temple in the village of Pallipattu, in southern Tamil Nadu, when the news reached him. The Kerala government was appointing 54 non-Brahmins, including Dalits, as temple priests.

For the second time in a year, Balaguru felt his hopes rise that he might someday be appointed as a temple priest by the government of Tamil Nadu. The first time, T. Marichami – a non-Brahmin – was appointed to a temple at Madurai by the state government’s Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Department.

Balaguru’s dream towards the ‘someday’ started over a decade ago. In 2007, he had joined a training school in Tiruchendur to be trained as a priest. Six such schools were set up across the state after the DMK government in 2006 issued an order allowing members of all communities to become temple priests. Balaguru, a Dalit, had always been pious and keenly interested in ‘temple affairs.’

“I used to do accounting in local temples as a volunteer,” he said. “My father had passed away some years ago and my mother used to work for a hundred days a year under MGNREGA. She was actually thrilled at the possibility of her son working in a government temple sometime.”

Students of the temple-priest training institute.

The journey towards the dream was not easy, however, for the 206 students trained in the schools.

“It is mandatory that those who have been trained have to be provided with government jobs,” said V. Ranganathan, state coordinator of Tamil Nadu government-qualified Archakas’s Association. “That has not happened till now.”

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The process of training was in itself discriminatory, Ranganathan said. “We need to be trained in two procedures – to perform rituals in the Tamil way and in the Agama way [using Sanskrit slokas and mantras]. It was easy for us to learn the Tamil way of doing things. When it came to Agama way, the Brahmins opposed it tooth and nail, and would threaten anyone who came forward to teach us the Agamas. A 90-year-old man who came forward heeding to our requests was beaten up. In fact, the association of priests had passed a resolution against teaching us.”

Discrimination was evident again when the students were required to do practical sessions with the idols of deities. “With the priests refusing to give us idols, we had to make our own idols for our practical sessions. We have also been assaulted by them.”

Students with a 90-year-old guru who was allegedly assaulted for offering to teach them Agama slokas.

Many of these 200-odd students continue to work in private temples for meagre salaries. Thirty-year-old A. Arun works in a temple at Aathur near Salem. “I did the course in Madurai. I do hope that someday we will land in government jobs; that is why I still continue to work as a priest.” He agrees that the government salaries could still be meagre, but landing a government job is more about dignity. “We do not want to be left out, especially in temples governed by the government which should treat everyone equally. It is our fundamental right.”

But S. Balakumar who works at a temple in Vellore has possibly given up all hopes. “Some of us work as priests, but there are others who have not been able to secure such jobs. They do menial works and have invited ridicule of those around them. It is very frustrating.”

Ironically, the schools stopped functioning after the first batch of students ran into trouble.

When E.V. Ramaswami, widely known as Periyar, announced a struggle in 1970 demanding that all communities should be allowed to work as temple priests, he called the discrimination a thorn in his heart. At the time, the DMK government asked Periyar to not go ahead with the protests and passed a law to the effect. In 1972, however, the law was challenged in the Supreme Court, which ruled against it. When passing the order in 2006, then chief minister M. Karunanidhi famously said that the thorn in the heart of Periyar was finally removed.

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In 2015, the apex court refused to strike down the order, but said that appointments should be in accordance with the Agama that governs the worship at respective temples. Since then, except for Marichami’s appointment, there has been no progress.

More recently, these students including Marichami met DMK president M.K. Stalin and thanked him for the party’s efforts towards making members of all communities as temple priests.

“The present AIADMK government should take a cue from the Kerala government and appoint all of us as temple priests. It needs to show some strong political will,” says Balaguru. “You claim that Tamil Nadu is a land of Periyar, and that you follow his footsteps. Would it suffice to merely garland his statue on his birth and death anniversaries?”

G. Balaguru, a trainee Dalit priest.

Ranganathan says a social revolution is necessary to bring about the change. “A non-Brahmin can even become an IAS officer in this country, but cannot step into a temple,” he said. “I think this discrimination and untouchability is not just rampant but encouraged in the Hindu religion. It was a movement like Makkal Urimai Paathukaapu Maiyam (Centre for Protection of Public Rights) that stood up for us when we were stranded. No Hindu religious movement did. I personally believe that caste has to be annihilated for a non-Brahmin to cross all hurdles and become a priest. I have hence decided to follow the path of Periyar.”

Others hope that their ‘someday’ will arrive soon.

Kavitha Muralidharan is an independent journalist.