The unanswered prayers of Tamil Nadu's Dalit priests

Nikita Doval
Despite government push for training schools, Dalit priests have not been able to find jobs in state-owned historic temples

G Balaguru stops talking mid-way and cranes his neck. "Okay now", he says, swiftly jumping into action. He removes his shirt, wraps a saffron stole with Hindu symbols around him and poses for the camera. He is standing in the corridor leading to the inner sanctum of the Vaithamanidhi Perumal Temple near Tiruchendur in Tamil Nadu, imposing stone pillars flanking him.

Balaguru wants the photographs clicked before the priests of the temple return. The 33-year-old native of Pallipathu, a village in Tiruchendur taluk, is not a thrill-seeker trying to flout photography restrictions. What he is, however, is a threat to the dominance of the Brahmin community in some of the biggest temples in the state. He is a Dalit priest.

Twelve years ago, 206 men joined six training schools located across Tamil Nadu to receive instruction to become priests. These archakas were set up by the Tamil Nadu government to train non-Brahmin priests. It was a year-long course at the end of which the men, all from the SC/ST/MBC community, hoped they would get the job of priest in a government temple. Only one of them, T Marichamy, succeeded and that too in 2018. For the rest it has been a long wait, with no end in sight. "The priests here cannot know who I am. If they did, they won't let us even sit here", Balaguru says wryly.

This is a saga that began in 1970 when the then chief minister of the state M Karunanidhi issued an order to amend the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religion and Charity Endowments (HR&CE) Act, clearing the way for all Hindus, irrespective of caste, to become priests in public temples. Karunanidhi's order was challenged in court and in 1972 the Supreme Court struck it down. In 2006, the DMK government issued fresh orders, perhaps buoyed by a 2002 Supreme Court judgment which had allowed for non-Brahmins to become priests in Kerala. This too was challenged in court but the government managed to push its way, to a certain extent at least, as the schools were indeed set up and one batch trained.

"The setting up of the schools was meant to be a turning point in our history. It was meant to break the stranglehold of one caste on at least one section in employment€"priesthood. Otherwise be it the IAS or the IPS or priesthood, Brahmins dominate professions and hence the money and power. This culture has to change", says  V Ranganathan, the state coordinator for the Tamil Nadu Government Trained Archakar  Students' Association. Ranganathan, one of the 206 students, is the driving force behind keeping the campaign alive. It is he who decided to start the association in 2009 and is the brain behind every outreach, every protest of the group. "Every year on Periyar's birthday we take out a procession. The state and the temples don't want to recognise us. They'd rather we be forgotten. But we won't accept it".

That it was never going to be smooth sailing for the non-Brahmin priest aspirants was always obvious. Legislations aside (even the 2006 order was challenged in court) even the teaching process in the schools was fraught with politics.

The students were to be trained in two ways €" to perform the rituals in Tamil and the Agama tradition. There are many definitions of what exactly 'Agama'€" a term that came up repeatedly during the course of reporting€"means. The Agama is a collection of scriptures that apart from philosophical doctrines also contains instructions for temple construction, ways of worshipping, mantras, and so on. The closest literal translation of the word is believed to be "handed down by tradition". Nearly all major temples in Tamil Nadu are governed by Agama.

"No one was willing to teach us the Agama way of doing things. In our school in Tiruvannamalai we got a teacher from outside the state to teach us. He was threatened, roughed up. Then when it came to our practical examination, we were not given idols by local temples. We fashioned the deities on our own", says Ranganathan.

Of the 206 students, nearly half have sought jobs in other fields. Some joined the police force, others took up teaching. The WhatsApp group they use to stay in touch has about 100 members. "The programme carried with it the implicit promise of a government job. I have worked in several since, but if I were to get a job as a temple priest, I would go back to it in a heart-beat", says A Narayan.

"The ones who have stuck on, who still don priestly garb, are the ones who truly want to serve god. For us answering the call in 2007 was not about getting a job but being allowed to do what we had always wanted, to lead prayers", says Balaguru. He functions as a local priest, presiding at weddings and private functions. The thought of giving it all up for another means of earning hasn't crossed his mind. "Can you imagine the significance of one of us leading prayers?" asks Rajkumar, a local temple priest in the same village as Balaguru who studied with him in the Madurai branch of the school. Unlike Balaguru, who questions the decision to not teach them the Sanskrit rituals, Rajkumar is content with what he does.

"There are advantages to a government job, yes, but you don't need one to serve god", he says. Interestingly, the head priest at Sri Rajagopalaswamy Kulasekara Temple in Kovil filed a writ petition at the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court against the meagre salaries given to the priests and staff in the state's old temples. According to a report in The Hindu, at the time of filing the petition, PNN Gopalan, the head priest, was getting a monthly salary of Rs 750.

"It is not about not wanting non-Brahmin priests, but about the power enjoyed by the temples. There is a small percentage of people, mostly confined to the upper caste and class, who rant about redeeming temples from the tyranny of the state. But redeem it and give it to whom? The non-Brahmin priest debate touches a miniscule percentage because there are several thousand temples in Tamil Nadu that don't have Brahmin priests", says Dr Palanivel Thiagarajan, a member of the DMK and the sitting MLA from Madurai. His grandfather PT Rajan was one of the founders of the Justice Party and the first head of the HR&CE Board. It was under the Justice Party government in 1925 that the Madras Hindu Religious Endowment Act was passed, bringing temples under the direct control of the state government.

As of now, nearly 36,000 temples in Tamil Nadu are under state control, managed by the HR&CE Board. Non-Brahmin priests have been an integral part of the ritual fabric of Hinduism in the state, especially in temples dedicated to local gods and folk deities. But it is the older and bigger temples from the Shaivite and Vaishnavite sects that these men seek representation in. The priests in these temples are all Brahmins and have for decades practiced familial succession.

"Most of the ads put out for government temple priest positions categorically state 'only Brahmins apply'. The few that don't, we make a beeline for but a miracle is yet to happen", says Balaguru. He and Rajakumar along with a few others of their batch went for an interview for a Vinayaka temple in 2012. No one was hired and the post remains vacant. In some government temples, a few of the state-trained non-Brahmin archakas have been taken on as assistants by the priests, although this is not officially acknowledged. One such priest agreed to talk to Firstpost at the insistence of Balaguru and Rajkumar but requested anonymity. The priests share a small percentage of their salary with him, he said, while he is free to conduct pujas and ceremonies outside.

When the DMK government had introduced the reforms again in 2006, the Adi Saiva Sivacharyargal Nala Sangam had moved the Supreme Court challenging this move. In a 2015 judgment the court did not strike down the government order but did uphold the Agama tradition of appointing priests, which favours hereditary succession, saying it was not a violation of the right to equality.

It was a big blow to the non-Brahmin priests, with Ranganathan labelling the judgment "confusing and controversial".

The only silver lining for the non-Brahmin priests in the past twelve years has been the appointment of their peer T Marichamy. He is presently a priest at an Ayappan temple in Madurai but refused to speak with Firstpost saying he is in a government job and not authorised to talk. "The truth is, he is scared and so are we. If too much attention is called to this, who is to know what the consequences will be?" says P Thiyagarajan, another non-Brahmin priest of the same batch, based out of Madurai. Thiagarajan gave up a job at Airtel to pursue the course but has no regrets. Karunanidhi had referred to the Brahmin hegemony in temples as a "thorn in the heart of Periyar". This was also an issue which was important to BR Ambedkar, who in his iconic Annihilation of

Caste speech had spoken about how priesthood itself needs to be abolished, or at the very least be accessible to "every person who professes to be a Hindu".

It is not the students alone who have suffered since the school shut down after producing only one batch. Those who were appointed as teachers and headmasters are also struggling to stay afloat. M Balamurugan is one example. He was the headmaster of the Madurai branch and is now working as a warden for an orphanage run by a state temple in Tiruchendur. "I had dreams too, of giving the temples priests who were not chosen by birth but rather by the extent of devotion, but all of it was laid to rest".

He says he filed a Right to Information plea last year to enquire about the status of the schools and the government's response was that they had not officially been shut down. "But where are the subsequent batches? Sometimes inaction is the biggest action".

It can be argued that the appointment of non-Brahmin priests in state-owned historic temples will serve as little more than window dressing, while the real evils of casteism thrive all around us.

But the non-Brahmin priests reject this argument. "It is a struggle for our rights. This is not symbolic but a question of our lives", says Balaguru. He has removed the saffron stole and is wearing his everyday shirt when the temple priest returns. Does he regret that he wasted time on the course? After all he once had an apprenticeship in Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited. He smoothens the edges of his archaka certificate, which features an image of the Meenakshi Madurai Temple. "At least with this I can go for interviews when they don't specific 'only Brahmins'. The course opened that door for me and just for that, I will never regret it".

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