Between Man and God

Harsha Vadlamani
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Dalit priests have found acceptance in neighbouring Kerala, but in Tamil Nadu, will the wait ever end for non-Brahmins to enter the sanctum sanctorum?

MALOLAN BHATTACHARIAR, a well-built, 29-year-old priest with a topknot and ear studs, cannot stop talking. It has been nearly a week since he last had visitors. Other than local children who run wild through the ancient temple courtyard after school, Malolan is usually alone with his thoughts. “God likes watching his children play,” says the lone priest at a 1,000-year-old temple built by king Rajaraja Chola I in the village of Ennayiram, about 30 km from Villupuram. “In any case, they are the only company I have. Them and the old homeless woman who sleeps here at night and draws a kolam out front in the morning.” He speaks like any other Tamil Brahmin, syncopating his verbs and citing well-wrought phrases from scripture. He is vegetarian and defers to the authority of the Vedas. But he is not Brahmin by birth. Born into a Vanniyar—an MBC from the northern districts of Tamil Nadu—family in Tirukoilur, he is schooled in custom and scripture of the Vaishnavite tradition, yet he fears it will spark a brush fire if it were to be known that for the past nine years, a non-Brahmin has been running a temple once visited by Ramanuja. Ennayiram translates to ‘eight thousand’ in Tamil, supposedly a reference to the 8,000 resident Jains converted to Vaishnavism by Ramanuja, or put to death for refusing to convert, depending on which version of history you believe. The reformer-philosopher may have established a Vedic pathshala here. “Brahmins have forsaken this temple. They now want to work only at rich city temples patronised by millions of people. They can make even Rs 10,000-20,000 a day in dakshina at the more famous ones even as important temples in remote villages remain shut. Even so, if they find out that an outsider is running a temple like this, there will be an outcry,” Malolan says. “Although there are days when I can afford to eat only plain rice, and I fear I will never get married, I have been at peace working here because there are no Brahmin families in the village. But I realise I have been hiding from the outside world. It is time to come out.”

Priest, cook and cleaner rolled into one, Malolan is paid Rs 5,000 a year by the Tamil Nadu government’s Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department, which controls 38,630 Hindu and Jain religious institutions. “The salary for the past two years is yet to come,” he says. The temple, accessed by a potholed road snaking through paddy fields, is one of over 34,000 under the purview of the Department to have an income of less than Rs 10,000 a year. It sports an ASI board, but there are no guards on duty. Moss stains the floor of the prakaram and weeds abound on the raised beds abutting the boundary wall. Saplings spill out of cracks in the rock above the sanctum. The deity wears no flowers but neem blossoms from the trees in the courtyard scent the breeze. “If it weren’t for the village youth who conduct clean-ups every now and then, the temple could be in worse shape,” Malolan says. Like the temple, he too, is a casualty of government fecklessness. But there is something else. His fear of eviction is not without basis. He continues to be a temporary employee, although the Tamil Nadu government has a scheme for regularising the services of priests who have worked continuously for over five years. He filed an application for permanent appointment, but was met with silence. The reason, he suspects, is that he is not “one of them”. Along with his application, Malolan happened to attach the sole qualification he had to serve as a priest: not his lineage from the rishis but a certificate granted by the Tamil Nadu government for completing a course that lasted a year-and-a-half, a radical if one-off programme conducted under DMK rule in 2007-08 for non-Brahmin priesthood aspirants in an effort to abolish untouchability at Tamil temples. Of the 206 students who graduated from the six learning centres—four Shaivite and two Vaishnavite—established across Tamil Nadu, Malolan is the only one to find employment at a public temple, if only for his persistence to reopen a temple that had been locked up for years in the absence of a priest.

“Brahmins have forsaken this temple. They now want to work only at rich city temples. Even so, if they find out that an outsider is running a temple, there will be an outcry” - Malolan Bhattachariar, 29, priest, Azhagiya Narasimha Temple, Ennayiram

WHILE NON-BRAHMINS may officiate as priests at privately run temples and small shrines to deities like Mariyamman who have traditionally been worshipped by non- Brahmin communities, Periyar’s Tamil Nadu is not yet ready to accept a ‘lower’ caste walking lockstep with the Brahmin, the designated intermediary between man and God and therefore the inheritor of all spiritual wealth. Nearly a century after Periyar’s Self-Respect Movement sought to throw open Tamil temples to people of all castes, the right to enter the sanctum and to touch and worship the idol remains that of the Brahmin alone, at least in major state-owned temples. Even as the LDF government in Kerala has heralded a ‘silent revolution’ with the recent appointment of 36 non-Brahmins—including six Dalits—as priests in temples in the state under the Travancore Devaswom Board, Tamil Brahmins continue to oppose the appointment and training of ‘outsiders’ for trite reasons such as the upholding of tradition and, as one Vedic scholar from Tiruchirappalli who talked to me put it, “their lack of fastidiousness and good pronunciation”. They are further emboldened by a Supreme Court judgment, on December 16th, 2015, reinforcing the agamas—scriptures that lay down customary directives for running temples—as the ultimate authority on the appointment of priests, even while it recognised the right to priesthood of non-Brahmins. Confusing, is it not?

Responding to a writ petition by the archakas, or temple priest, of the Madurai Meenakshi Temple, the Supreme Court, in the Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal Nala Sangam vs The Government of Tamil Nadu case, ruled that ‘appointments of archakas will have to be made in accordance with the agamas, subject to their due identification as well as their conformity with the Constitutional mandates and principles’. It further said, ‘The exclusion of some and inclusion of a particular segment or denomination for appointment as archakas would not violate Article 14 so long as such inclusion/exclusion is not based on the criteria of caste, birth or any other constitutionally unacceptable parameter.’ The judgment refers to the Brahmin priests’ argument that the custom of heredity, not caste, was behind their opposition to the appointment of non-Brahmin priests, for anyone not belonging to the clans mentioned in the agamas would automatically disqualify. However, not all of Tamil Nadu’s 38,630 public temples are strictly run as per agamas. Many lay in ruin; not a lamp glows in their holy sanctums and the genealogy of the original priests is long lost. Also, Brahmin priests officiating at some of the most visited Tamil temples have been known to breach rules laid down in the agamas, such as never crossing the seas, cutting off their topknot, or drinking alcohol. The agamas, then, are not unchanging or inevitable, and have been modified on occasion to suit the material interests of the Brahmins in this day and age. Yet, the Supreme Court has reiterated its own judgment of 1971 in the Seshammal case, which held that the archaka ‘besides being proficient in the rituals appropriate to the worship of the particular deity, must also belong, according to the agamas, to a particular denomination’. The case was a reaction to an amendment in 1970 to Section 55 of the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act, 1959, to abolish hereditary priesthood and to grant government-appointed trustees the power to fill vacancies for all offices at temples including those of priests.

“SCs and STs come to Brahmin temples and stand at the threshold even now. In such a society, what value is a government certificate that pronounces you capable of performing puja?” - K Prakash, 28, farmer and freelance priest, Pallikkondappattu

Decades later, the Tamil Nadu government issued an order declaring that any Hindu possessing the requisite qualification and training can be appointed archaka in Hindu temples. A 2002 judgment by the Supreme Court upholding the appointment of a non-Brahmin as a priest in Kerala was cited as grounds for the move. In one fell swoop, GO No. 118 dated May 23rd, 2006, made it possible for Dalits, OBCs and MBCs to train as priests. The AIADMK government had announced a proposal for setting up a Vedic agama school with reservation for non-Brahmin candidates, but the DMK, as soon as it came to power in May, wasted no time setting up not one but six agama schools to train underprivileged aspirants. Neither political party, however, managed to follow through on the promise of jobs for the priests thus trained. The judgment of 2015, meanwhile, by ruling that the 2006 GO’s ‘blanket fiat’ of any ‘qualified’ person to become a priest went against the findings of the Court in the Seshammal case, has harked back to medieval ideas of lineage and agamic sanctity, leaving Tamil Nadu’s 206 freshly minted priests in limbo.

“We have to pose as Brahmins when he got wind of the government programme,” says Gokula Krishnan, a graduate from the archaka training course who studied at the Tiruvallikkeni temple in Chennai, one of two government-designated Vaishnava agamic learning centres, the other one being Srirangam. He works as an assistant in an unofficial capacity at the Prasanna Venkatesa Perumal Temple in Nungambakkam, Chennai. “We wear the sacred thread, but this is not because of any compulsion. It is our right as scholars of the scriptures. We became Vaishnavas with the rite of the Panchasamskaram (the five purifications),” he says. But, should Brahmins figure out his identity, they would cast insinuating glances, he says. Despite its oppressive underpinnings, Krishnan and his classmates have embraced Brahminism and its traditions, some of them even changing their names, like Malolan who was M Santosh in a previous birth.

Krishnan, 30, meets us at the busiest platform of Nungambakkam railway station. “I do not want to put anna—his mentor, the Brahmin priest in charge of the temple—in a spot,” he says. He hails from a village near Thiruvallur where, as a teenager, he was part of a group of boys who cleaned up a long-neglected Narasimha temple and began worshipping there. “One day the Brahmins came and cast us out. They got police to beat us. As I lay there with my shirt torn, I became even more determined to perform aradhana at a perumal temple,” he says, tucking his veshti behind his knees as we share a platform bench with a curious onlooker. He had graduated in the sciences and had even completed a B Ed when he got wind of the government programme to train archakas. “Unless you are Brahmin, you won’t be admitted into the Tirupati pathshala or even the Selaiyur pathshala in Chennai. Being a Mudaliar, this was my chance. I wouldn’t miss it for anything,” he says. At the interview for admission to the course, he recited a verse from the Purushasuktam, a hymn from the Rigveda. “It was a dream come true,” he says. Even as he battled caste divisions back home—“we built a temple of our own and filed a case regarding the attack on us, which is on hold now”—he found a way to buck the Brahmin zeitgeist in Chennai. A friend who had helped him learn ritualistic ways of worship worked at a public temple in Chennai at a monthly salary of Rs 6,000. He desperately needed a helper to hold fort when he was not around and to handle the flood of devotees on Saturdays and special puja days. “I must openly say that I cannot run this temple without Gokula. He is well-trained and sincere. Caste must not matter; Brahminism is a set of virtuous attributes and he has it all,” says Madhavan Bhattachariar, taking a break from the main shrine as Krishnan takes over. “Ramanuja was a social reformer; many of his disciples were non-Brahmins. Not even all the Azhwars who wrote the Tamil scriptures were Brahmin. The outrage by Brahmin archakas is silly,” he says. Krishnan gets Rs 1,200 a month besides some dakshina and earnings from performing homams and pujas upon the invitation of devotees. “My family is looking for a bride. If I had a government job, they would have found one long ago,” he says, with resigned affirmation.

“I am here from dawn till dark. I have no time to breathe. A priest’s profession is more relaxed, it’s high society work in comparison” - S Murugan, 32, Former priest who now owns a flower shop in Tiruvannamalai

The sanctum must turn battleground before it can become a mosaic. Few Brahmins associated with temples are as progressive as Madhavan Bhattachariar. Even as private universities like the Bharathidasan University in Tiruchirappalli and SRM University in Chennai have introduced certificate courses in priesthood that are open to aspirants from all communities, for the Brahmin neighbourhood of Tiruvallikkeni with the Parthasarathy temple as its core, the class of 2007-08 is still stuck in its craw. Not far from the Narasimha shrine at the temple, a pair of rusting white gates open into a potholed and littered road to an enclosure with a decaying mandapam at its centre. The building, constructed in the Indo-Saracenic style by a wealthy local for the temple’s annual Davana Utsavam, played host to nearly 40 students a decade ago. In the mornings, as early as 5 am, lilting verses in Sangam Tamil would rent the air. Afternoons were for rigorous Vedic recitals. To the Brahmins who live in the huts surrounding the building, however, they didn’t feel like the holy chants they had grown up on. “Everyone cannot become an archaka. They tried their best for a year and the government had to eventually give up,” says a woman with pendulous nose studs, standing on her threshold. K Varadhan, a priest at the temple, who lives in the neighbourhood, says, “It was all for political drama. Nothing has changed. All they have done is cheat youngsters who could have studied another subject and got decent jobs.” The crumbling old walls of the mandapam engendered within the students a consciousness of their position in society. For many, it was the first time they were facing direct caste discrimination. “The cook would add too much or too little salt. Food was often a big problem, but we had accommodation and a small stipend. What was annoying was that no Brahmin teacher was willing to coach us, and when someone did come, they tried to ostracise him and send him back. One of the two Brahmin boys in our class was in fact sent back home by locals, who told him not to associate with us,” says Krishnan.

In Tiruvannamalai, one of the four Shaivite centres, things came to a head when a 90-year-old Brahmin teacher appointed to coach the class was threatened and sent home. He returned on the condition that the students would keep watch. “We conducted hunger strikes when the food was bad. We fought for our right to participate in temple pujas. And when we were not given an idol to practise on, we made our own, and installed Goddess Saraswati in our compound,” says V Ranganathan, 29, coordinator of the Government Trained Archakas Association, Tiruvannamalai, who, along with advocate S Raju, state coordinator of the Manitha Urimai Padhukappu Maiyam (Human Rights Protection Centre), an activist outfit, has been mobilising the students. When the 2015 judgment came, Ranganathan went to the Periyar statue on Marina Beach and turned non-believer. “I chopped off my topknot, and started questioning why God was not helping sincere devotees like us who only wanted to serve him,” he says, holding an umbrella in the pouring rain that had turned Chennai into a waterland over the past few days. He had been working in graphic and layout design in the interim, and this now became his calling. In the Annamalai temple, as we walk around the shrine, gulping sweet pongal prasadam , he sneaks furtive glances at a leafy compound behind a gate with bare bannerposts. A long corridor flanked by trees, and beyond that, the doomed venue where Ranganathan and his fellow students gave up a year and a half of their lives trying to conform to a paradigm, hoping to find salvation for themselves and for their communities. He quickly strides past lest a local should identify him. “I’ve been attacked and assaulted for protesting,” he says, showing me an old picture of him in a hospital bed. “Local police officers would keep a watch on my activities day in and day out. Life was hell.” His uncle is a Hindu Munnani leader, and his family had warned him not to raise his voice against tradition, but he went on to become the face of the movement at the Tiruvannamalai centre and stayed away from home for five years. “I cannot bring myself to subscribe to the thought that non-Brahmins can be appointed where Brahmins aren’t available. We are not second-class citizens,” Ranganathan says.

“We have to pose as Brahmins. We wear the sacred thread, but this is not because of any compulsion. It is our right as scholars of the scriptures” - Gokula Krishnan, 30, priest, Prasanna Venkatesa Perumal Temple in Chennai

“It is not just about jobs and equal opportunity. It is about rights and about dignity. When a Brahmin says the idol will get desecrated if a non-Brahmin touches it, what is more important—that he believes it, or that a whole section of society is made to feel inferior and unfit for worship? The students bore all manner of insult hoping they would be able to change society, but this possibility seems more and more remote after the 2015 verdict,” says advocate Raju.

IN A SLIMY little lane near the Annamalai temple, aromas collide under a sagging tarpaulin roof. Jasmine, rose, tuberose, chrysanthemum. And garbage rotting in the shallow ditch bisecting two rows of flower shops. A barber does brisk business in a niche on one end of the street that is called Jyothy Market. The flower sellers, an alphabet soup of PVS, RPS, VRS, KPS, PVN and more, are counting their earnings and preparing for lunch. The morning rush has passed. At a shop with the initials TSM, S Murugan sits down on a wooden stool to talk about why he quit the priestly profession. “There were no jobs. We applied, we asked around. I got one offer from a private temple in Chennai but the pay was too little and I would have had to move my family. I had been working in the flower business before I joined the archaka training class, and I went back to it and started a business,” says Murugan, 32, who comes from a village 12 km from Tiruvannamalai and has two children. He had wanted to study agricultural science and get a government job but his family could not afford to send him to college. “Since I had worked close to the temple, I coveted a priest’s job. It came with respect and a certain social standing,” says Murugan, a Vanniyar. “Even if I am not a priest today, people in my village view me with respect.” He makes Rs 10,000 a month and grows chrysanthemum in his one-acre parcel of land. His children go to an English medium state-run school. “I am here from dawn till dark. I have no time to breathe. A priest’s profession is more relaxed, it’s high society work in comparison,” he says. “But no one wants to let us have the cushy jobs, do they? Over the years, our people struggled and got employment at the best offices in the country. The karuvarai (sanctum sanctorum) is the last frontier.”

As Brahmin households face a shortage of Brahmin priests, they are increasingly more accepting of other communities reciting mantras

A little outside town, we meet K Prakash, a 28-year-old father of two and a paddy farmer, in the shade of the Nallayiamman Temple in Pallikkondappattu village. He has one foot in both worlds, farming when there is enough rain, and performing pujas as and when invited. The income from the one-and-a-half-acre farm is supplemented by freelance assignments at housewarming ceremonies, weddings and even temple consecrations. Big pujas could net him Rs 1,500-2,000 in a day. “I do not like going to Brahmin temples. I feel as though I am not getting the respect I deserve,” he says. He also takes up odd jobs like sourcing decorative items for the deity ahead of special pujas. “God is kind, but sometimes men are not. So you see SCs and STs coming to Brahmin temples and standing at the threshold even now. In such a society, of what value is a government certificate that pronounces you capable of performing puja?” In his thatched-roofed hut, his daughter, two-and-a-half, is asleep on a mat. His son, who is four, goes to a private school where the fees total Rs 60,000 a year, a sizeable sum for a family mostly dependent on agriculture. Besides a good education for his children, Prakash wants to build a new home with a vast puja room; for now the thatched hut would have to do.

Being a small-time priest is not a feasible career option anymore, says K Sadagopan, 33, who runs Sri Dhanvanthari Medicals, a pharmacy with a small clinic attached, in Tiruvottiyur, a north Chennai suburb. A BSc graduate, he trained to be an archaka upon his family’s request. “Half the students who studied with me at Tiruvallikkeni have turned to other professions. One is a doctor, another is in the Army, yet others are policemen. They want to put the past behind them,” he says. “The other half continue to perform rituals on freelance basis. If they perform their jobs sincerely, they are welcomed even into the homes of Brahmins.” As Brahmin households face a shortage of Brahmin priests, they are increasingly more accepting of other communities reciting mantras. But the symbolism of appointing a non-Brahmin in a big temple is too much for them, says Sadagopan. He was given a chance to work at a privately run temple in Vyasarpadi but gave up the job in six months because the pay was too low. “A mason makes more in a day,” he says. “I applied at a perumal temple but they told me to my face that only Brahmins were welcome.” He then tried his hand at construction, without much success. “I had worked at a medical shop before. I returned to what I knew best. All that the archaka course did was pluck us from the gutter to drop us back into it,” he says. Sadagopan hasn’t given up his Brahminical habits. He performs Sandhyavandanam, a compulsory daily ritual for Brahmins, and wears the sacred thread. “I make enough from the pharmacy, but I don’t consider the archaka training a waste,” he says. “It brought me closer to God, and it also taught me not to harbour any illusions...”