Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin distributes orders to candidates from different castes for appointment as archakas and ‘othuvars’ in HR & CE-run temples

Published : August 14, 2021 21:43 IST

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin giving away the appointment order to an archaka at a function in Chennai on August 14. Photo: SRINIVASAN K.V.

The Dravida Munnetra Kazghagam (DMK) government in Tamil Nadu today appointed 24 archakas and `othuvars’ (those who recite Tamil hymns) who belong to different caste groups, including the Scheduled Castes and the Most Backward Classes, in Hindu temples controlled by the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR & CE) Department across the State. The move ensured that members of a particular sect did not have the exclusive right to such appointment on the basis of ‘next-in-line succession’ in temples. Removing discrimination on birth-based descent in the appointment of archakas in temples was one of the promises of the DMK in its Assembly election manifesto.

Chief Minister M.K Stalin distributed the appointment orders at a hall belonging to the Kapaleeswarar temple at Mylapore in Chennai, in the presence of the heads of renowned Tamil maths such as the Kunnakudi math. Siva Suganjana who received the appointment order, became the first woman othuvar in Tamil Nadu. The selected candidates had successfully completed courses in the agamas, the sastras, slokas and so on in the `padasalas’ (schools) run by the HR & CE Department where Vedic scholars taught them the agamas and rituals of Saiva and Vaishnavite temples.

This was the second batch to be appointed after the previous All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government appointed two candidates of the backward castes in two Madurai temples in 2018. The State government could not sustain and streamline the appointments since the issue got entangled in a web of legal issues. Individuals and associations belonging to upper caste groups and Brahmins strongly opposed such `secular’ appointments and claimed that they amounted to sacrilege. These groups claimed that only Brahmin priests who qualified on the basis of hereditary rights should be appointed in agama-based temples to perform pujas.

As a result of the impasse, a total of 207 qualified archakas and othuvars of various caste groups waited for more than 15 years to get appointed in temples. Five of them died in this period, and only 175 met the ‘below 35 years’ age criterion and qualified for appointment. V. Ranganathan, president of the Association of Trained Archaka Students, told Frontline that the government should remove the age criterion as many trained archakas had waited a long time to be appointed in temples.

The issue has been a contentious one since the time that the then DMK chief and Chief Minister, M. Karunanidhi, amended the appropriate HR & CE rule to abolish the practise of hereditary appointment of archakas in agama-based temples. But various groups moved the Supreme Court against the amendment. The apex court in the Seshammal case, while upholding the rule, ruled that priests should be appointed as per the agamas of the respective temples.

This ambiguous verdict led to the issue being put in cold storage until 2006 when in another case on the same issue the Supreme Court said that caste should not be the principle for the appointment of archakas. Following this, Karunanidhi, who was the Chief Minister then, passed a special government order No. 118 on May 23, 2006, thus facilitating the appointment of archakas of all castes with necessary professional qualifications in temples.

Nearly 1,000 students, including Brahmins had applied for the 18-month certificate course. Of them, 120 were selected. `Padasalas’ were opened and the agamas and Saiva and Vaishnavite rituals were taught. But the euphoria was short-lived. A group of Adi Sivachariyars from Madurai approached the Supreme Court against this decision.

Ranganathan said the AIADMK government of Jayalalithaa that followed did not show any interest in sustaining this social movement. She, he added, permitted only Brahmin students to study in these `padasalas’. He further said that the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious Institutions Employees (Conditions of Service) Rules, 2020, clearly stated that archakas properly qualified in `padasalas’ could be appointed as archakas.

The State HR & CE Minister P. Sekar Babu said that the wish of the leader Karunanidhi, who sought to fulfil Periyar’s dream of making people of all castes as archakas in agama temples, had been realised. “It has been achieved after long-drawn-out legal battles,” he added.

The Minister also said that archanas in Tamil in temples had received an overwhelming response from devotees. The government recently made Tamil also the language in which pujas will be performed in the sanctum sanctorums of select temples where Sanskrit alone was used earlier. The Minister said the government introduced the scheme in 47 temples in the first phase, for those preferring pujas in Tamil. “It will be expanded,” he added.