Does one caste group have the sole right to sit before the deity and sing a set of hymns? This question is at the centre of a long-running feud in a temple in Kancheepuram. By ILANGOVAN RAJASEKARAN

THE ancient Sri Devaraja Swamy (Varadaraja Perumal) temple in Kancheepuram, some 75 kilometres south-west of Chennai, is not new to controversy. The latest is an allegation of caste-based discrimination in the temple’s Sri Manavala Mamunigal shrine. A group of non-Brahmin Hindus and Dalits allege discrimination over the mode of entry into it and the recitation of “Nalayara Divya Prabandham”. (“Divya Prabandham” is the collection of 4,000 Tamil hymns, written and sung by the Azhwars in praise of Vishnu. Saint Nathamuni, in the 10th century, compiled them. Manavala Mamunigal, in the 15th century, spread Vaishnavism by popularising these hymns with the help of his disciples.)

A section of non-Brahmin Vaishnavite devotees in Kancheepuram claim that it is being denied dignified worship since entry into the shrine is segregated on the basis of caste. “We are barred from entering the shrine through its main entrance and have to enter only through a separate doorway on one side,” an aggrieved devotee said.

Many non-Brahmin Hindus who have mastered the hymns of Divya Prabandham say that they are denied permission to recite them at the shrine even during the 10-day birth anniversary celebrations of Mamunigal in the months of October and November every year. The aggrieved devotees say that a section of Brahmins insists on reciting Divya Prabandham at the shrine as a matter of traditional right. This section belongs to the “Thenkalai” denomination, one of the two main sects in Vaishnavism, the other being “Vadakalai”. It also claims to have the right to occupy the front row in the sanctum sanctorum for the recitation.

The non-Brahmin singers, also called Bhagavathars, are relegated to the fourth and the last rows on the basis of caste hierarchy. “Non-Brahmin Hindus face the worst discrimination at the shrine, especially during festivals,” said D. Madavan Ramanujadasan, a Bhagavathar and the secretary of the Thirukatchi Nambi Thirumaladiar Sevai Sangam. He said the organisation had been fighting for equality and dignity in the matter of worship in the temple since 2003.

The members of the Sevai Sangam claim that acts of discrimination take place despite repeated instructions from the State government’s Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR and CE) Department that there should not be any form discrimination on caste lines in worshipping and in the distribution of prasadam.

Many social groups, besides Tamil scholars, in Kancheepuram have joined the debate. Along with the Sevai Sangam, the Kancheepuram unit of the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front, the atheism-professing Dravidar Kazhagam (D.K.) and the Dalit political outfit Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) organised a demonstration in front of the temple on October 28 to condemn what they called “some unpleasant happenings” in the temple complex.

B. Bharathi Anna, the Untouchability Eradication Front’s Kancheepuram district secretary, told Frontline that the organisation, which is backed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), could not remain indifferent when there were reports of caste-based discrimination happening in the temple. “This practice, which we treat as yet another form of untouchability, has to be eradicated. You cannot claim to have rights, traditional or otherwise, in a ‘Hindu Public Temple’, where everyone is equal,” he said.

Even private temples, he pointed out, had been asked to eschew discriminatory practices. “This is a temple maintained by the HR and CE Department and we cannot tolerate any act of discrimination,” said S. Kannan, the Centre of Indian Trade Union’s (CITU) State deputy secretary, who also took part in the agitation. The original plan of the protesters was to enter the shrine and recite the hymns, but G. Sivarudhraiah, the Kancheepuram Revenue Divisional Officer (RDO), on instructions from the District Collector, convened a peace committee of the parties to the dispute and prevented such action.

After the peace meeting, the RDO announced the formation of a three-member committee, which subsequently conducted an inquiry at the temple. The Devaraja Swamy temple has been witness to unpleasant happenings in the past, too. The brutal murder of Sankararaman, a member of the temple staff, took place on its premises. There have been controversies over rules and rituals, sometimes ending in litigation. The latest controversy involves the “traditional” rights of Brahmins coming into conflict with the rights of others. Since 2003, Madavan has been drawing attention to alleged caste-based discrimination in many Vaishnavite temples in Kancheepuram. In a circular dated October 14, 2003, the then Assistant Commissioner of the HR and CE Department, Kancheepuram, asked the executive officers of all Vaishnavite temples in Kancheepuram not to encourage any discriminatory practices in worship and distribution of prasadam.

Circulars circumventedOn December 23 that year, the Devaraja Swamy temple administration issued an instruction to its archakas “not to indulge in any acts of discrimination in any shrine inside the temple”. However, Madavan alleged that the sections who insisted on their “traditional rights” to conduct puja and other rituals at the Sri Manavala Mamunigal shrine “continue their practice of discrimination against the non-Brahmin Hindus”.

Another outfit, the Sri Devaraja Swamy Bhakthargal Nala Sangam (Devaraja Swamy Devotees Welfare Association), pointed out in a letter to the government in 2006 that the two circulars were followed more in the breach at the Mamunigal shrine. Shortly thereafter, the Sevai Sangam took the case to the Madras High Court through a writ petition.

The court, on October 30, 2008, ruled that the instructions issued by the HR and CE Department on October 14, 2003, and again on December 23, 2003, “should and must be complied with by the temple authorities” and that strict action would be taken otherwise. The directions, the court further observed, “have been given in the true tradition of the constitutional provision of removal of discrimination in matters of religious practice… ensuring equality of status and individual dignity”. The HR and CE Department issued a circular on October 17, 2014, quoting the Madras High Court order prohibiting any form of discrimination inside the temple. But aggrieved devotees claim it has been of no avail.

The Thenkalai Vaishnavites dismiss the accusation as “wild and baseless”. WhenFrontline met them at the shrine, they claimed that they never practised any form of untouchability. The sect members residing in Kancheepuram, known also as “Divya Prabandha Koshti”, had held the “right” to recite the hymns at the shrine for centuries, they said.

“Prabandham recitation is our traditional right, which we have held for generations as Dhikshitars to the Chidambaram Natarajar temple as its priests. Vadakala Vaishnavites perform puja in the main temple for which we can never stake our claim. Similarly, they, and for that matter no one, can interfere in our tradition,” said Srinidhi, one of theadyabagars (traditional right holders).

The adyabagars deny the charge of a separate entry point for non-Brahmins. “The separate gate is meant for the temple kitchen. Whenever the crowd becomes unmanageable, we, too, use the gate to enter the shrine,” he said. “We have been facing many legal problems for decades in connection with this issue. In many cases we have won. A few feeble attempts are being made to forcefully usurp our rights, which we have kept for years,” he said.

Temple worship has been a contentious issue in Tamil Nadu, debated and discussed since the days of E.V. Ramasamy ‘Periyar’, who wanted qualified non-Brahmin Hindus to become archakas in Saiva and Vaishnava temples. The State government has also made strong attempts to install non-Brahmins as archakas by amending legal provisions. But these initiatives have been caught in a web of legal issues. Even the Supreme Court, inSeshammal and Others vs State of Tamil Nadu, 1972, pointed out that “if any rule is framed by the government, which purports to interfere with the rituals and ceremonies of the temples, the same will be liable to be challenged by those who are interested in the temple worship”. But activists claim that the same court, hearing a similar case from Kerala in 2002, ruled that caste cannot prevent anyone from becoming a priest and anyone trained and qualified to perform the rituals can also do so.

Customs that prevailed during the colonial era, Bharathi Anna said, could not be viewed as unwritten laws if they violated human dignity. “The non-Brahmin Hindu devotees need to be treated on a par with those who claim to be the traditional right holders at the shrine,” he said. “After all, God practises no prejudice,”

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