FOR HALF A century, singer KJ Yesudas has been one of the biggest icons of Kerala. His popularity cuts across all religions and he has sung some of the greatest Hindu devotional tracks in Malayalam. Ironically, owing to being a Christian by birth, he has not been able to enter temples where non-Hindus are barred. The question on whether he should be permitted pops up in Kerala at regular intervals. Often, the controversy is stillborn because Yesudas himself refuses to participate in it. This time though, there is a twist in the tale. Yesudas has now been allowed to enter Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, located in Thiruvananthapuram.
To get around the religious injunction, Yesudas had to give a written affidavit to the Devaswom Board, which manages Kerala’s temples, declaring he has been a follower of Hinduism. The committee convened on September 18th to clear his application and approved the request unanimously. This was based on an order issued by the Travancore Devaswom Board in 1952, which stipulates that every non-Hindu who wants to enter the temple has to give such an affidavit. Now onwards, Yesudas can enter Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple whenever he wishes. The singer is planning to go there on the day of Vijayadasami and may recite Padmanabha Sathakam penned by Swathi Thirunal.
Yesudas has always had a close association with temples. He often visits Mookambika temple in Kollur, Karnataka, on his birthday. He has also visited Sabarimala several times. His desire to enter Guruvayur temple, however, remains unaccomplished. He has also not been permitted entry into Kadampuzha in Malappuram.
Devotees have welcomed the present decision. Hindu groups have often debated how unethical such a ban is. In 2014, the demand for Yesudas’ temple entry surfaced as an online petition to the then Devaswom minister and chairman of Guruvayur Devaswam Board. It was signed by around 700 people and stated: ‘He has sung thousands of devotional songs on Lord Krishna himself. Yesudas visits Sabarimala every year and nothing happened to the temple or the devotees. He visits Mookambika and nothing happened there too. But why is this discrimination at Guruvayur? Sri Krishna has never ever mentioned anywhere in the scriptures that he will not accept prayers of non-Hindus.’
In 2016, the BJP leader Subramanian Swamy tweeted, ‘Let us all Virat Hindus welcome the twitter news, if true, that famous singer Yesudas has returned to the religion of his Hindu ancestors’. In response, Prabha, the singer’s wife, denied that he had converted to Hinduism. Yesudas’ position has always been that he does not want to gain entry into temples through quarrel.
In 1974, Kerala High Court gave a judgment supporting temple entry for anyone who claimed to follow the Hindu faith. This was brought up again in a case against Yesudas entering Mullakkal temple at Alappuzha for a concert. One of the members of the administration moved against the Devaswom Board’s decision to let him enter. The court dismissed the idea of restricting anyone from entering a temple based on the religion he was born into. In 2010, a writ petition was filed by a woman seeking that Yesudas be allowed to enter Guruvayur temple. It was dismissed by the court, saying Yesudas doesn’t need a public interest litigation for such a purpose. Congress leader and Travancore Devaswom Board member Ajay Tharayil recently spoke against the practice of banning non-Hindus from entering temples. “Demanding written affidavit that one follows Hinduism amounts to conversion,” says Tharayil. Kadakampally Surendran, the minister handling Devaswom administration does not agree. “Such arguments will only create unnecessary controversies,” he said.
Everyone is not excited. “I am very curious to know why they have done this,” says Dr TT Sreekumar, columnist, writer and professor at English and Foreign Languages University. He is for desanctifying all religious places, keeping them open to everyone rather than selective permissions to newsworthy individuals. He recollects an incident in which a Hindu friend of his was denied permission to enter Sree Padmanabhaswamy for being a foreigner. “He was South Korean, originally a Buddhist, later converted to Hinduism and had even changed his name to Gopal. He used to wear mundu [dhoti] and don a Gandhi cap. Despite his repeated requests the temple volunteers refused to let him in. It was probably his South East Asian ethnic features. They categorically told me that a foreigner cannot be a Hindu. In a place where a practicing Hindu was disallowed due to his ethnicity, they are now permitting a Christian who claims to be a Hindu devotee. When this news came in I just remembered how regimented they were in these things in the past,” says Sreekumar.
Sunny Kapikad, a Dalit intellectual and political commentator, thinks Yesudas is mistaken about the idea of Hinduism because one cannot be a Hindu without belonging to a particular caste. “A non-Hindu cannot enter into this system that is built on caste. There is no space for an outsider,” says Sunny, adding that Yesudas would have stopped bothering about being denied entry in temples if he realised this fact.