A demolition and a divide

Print edition : March 11, 2005

The Kuruba community in Karnataka is up in arms over the demolition of the Kanaka gopura in the Krishna temple in Udupi, and this has thrown a spanner in the works of the Sangh Parivar.

in Bangalore

A protest rally by the Karnataka Pradesha Kurubara Sangha in Bangalore on January 7.-KPN

WHEN the present Paryaya Swamiji of the Krishna temple in Udupi, Vishwapriya Tirtha Swamiji of the Admar Mutt, in what can only be construed as an act of remarkable insensitivity and foolhardiness, had an old structure of disputed antiquity pulled down on August 13, 2004, he could never have fathomed the fallout of his action. The Kanaka Gopura had strong associations with Kanakadasa, the 16th century Bhakti poet-saint. Six months after it was demolished, the controversy refuses to go away.

In this time the Kuruba (shepherd) community (to which Kanakadasa is believed to have belonged), the largest amongst the backward classes, has consolidated itself around this issue with a clear re-assertion of caste identity. This has been a major setback to the Sangh Parivar's attempt to make political inroads into the community with the claim that it represents the interests of all Hindus. The act of demolishing the structure has also strengthened the hands of the state in intervening in the affairs of the Krishna temple. State involvement in the management of the wealthy temple, which has hitherto been managed by the eight Madhwa mutts based in Udupi on a two-year rotation basis, would seriously impinge on the stature and financial status of the mutts.

The immediate response, however, to the demolition of the Kanaka Gopura, as the structure was popularly called, was an uproar of protest from spokespersons and devotees of the Kuruba community, who viewed it as a display of upper-caste arrogance and disdain for Kanakadasa, a figure of veneration for them.

The Kanakadasa symbolism is powerfully present in the Krishna temple. The gopura stands close to the site of the Kanakana kindi (Kanaka's window), a small window in the wall that surrounds the sanctum sanctorum. Legend has it that being a `Sudra', Kanakadasa had to stand outside the temple and pray to Krishna. It is believed that one day a breach miraculously appeared in the wall, and Krishna bent down to appear in his devotee's view. The breach was later made into a window and devotees to this day have to view the Krishna idol through the Kanakana kindi.

The Kanaka gopura at the Sri Krihsna temple in Udupi.-KPN

The Paryaya Swamiji promised that the gopura would pave the way for a bigger and grander "rajagopuram". He argued that the demolished structure was never called the Kanaka Gopura, and was a creation of the media. In other words, he said, if the structure had nothing to do with Kanakadasa, where was the need for all the fuss? This argument found few takers, least of all the angry members of the Karnataka Pradesha Kurubara Sangha, the forum representing the interests of the Kuruba community. The day after the demolition, a group of Kuruba leaders cutting across party lines held a demonstration in Bangalore against the demolition. They included former State Ministers H. Vishwanath and H.M. Revanna; K.S. Eshwarappa from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); and B.K. Ravi, a former executive president of the Kurubara Sangha. A call was given for an "Udupi chalo" (march to Udupi) on August 17.

"The structure was always called Kanaka Gopura," said Ravi, "as it was constructed to protect the Kanakana kindi." The Ashtamuttadipathis (heads of the eight Udupi mutts), during their respective Paryaya periods (the two years when a mutt head performs the rituals in the Krishna temple), generally take up new construction or development activities, and the present Swamiji appears to have done so without consulting anyone. But for Kuruba leaders this was not only a slight to the memory of Kanakadasa, but an example of what they believe is the customary upper-caste arrogance towards the poet-saint.

According to Ravi, in the early 1990s, the then Paryaya Swamiji built a window at the sanctum sanctorum that was named "navagraha kindi". This window not only blocked the view from the Kanakana kindi, but obviated the need for devotees to go to the window. "They obviously wanted to obliterate Kanakadasa from religious practice," he said. In 1999, during the Paryaya period of the present Pejawar Mutt Swamiji, the old practice was, however, reverted to owing to pressure from Kuruba community representatives.

Sangh Parivar workers attacked a demonstration by leaders and activists of the Kuruba community on August 17, 2004, in Udupi. At a meeting on that day the Kurubara Sangha leaders gave a call to Kuruba youth not to join organisations of the Sangh Parivar, such as the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). This was a blow to the Sangh Parivar, which has in recent years made significant inroads into backward communities, particularly the youth. Kurubas constitute the third largest caste group in Karnataka, after Lingayats and Vokkaligas, and make up roughly 10 per cent of the population. In the present Deputy Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, they have a forceful spokesperson to protect their interests.

The Kanakana kindi, the window through which devotees view the idol.-

kindi

The Kurubara Sangha was established in 1910. A major milestone in the religious and cultural consolidation of the community was the establishment of the Kaginele Mahasamsthana Kanaka Gurupeetha at Kaginele near Haveri where the samadhi (grave) of Kanakadasa is located. This has now become the religious and cultural rallying point for the community.

The BJP has remained silent over the demolition. Eswarappa, the former State president of the party, was pressured to retract his position on the issue. Former Minister H. Vishwanath said: "The mutt heads and temple priests have not changed their old behaviour of dividing Hindus. Aren't backward classes and Dalits also Hindu? The Pejawar Mutt's Vishvesha Tirtha Swamiji, who is the vice-president of the VHP, must answer this."

Kuruba leaders feel particularly let down as the Paryaya Swamiji had offered to form a "coordination committee" comprising representatives from the mutts, from the Kurubara Sangha, and from the Kaginele Peetha, which would oversee the construction of a new Kanaka gopura to be built in place of the demolished one. "The issue would have been resolved if this had indeed happened," said Ravi. When they learnt that the Swamiji had organised a foundation stone-laying ceremony for a "rajagopuram" without consulting them, they decided to go ahead with their struggle.

"The Paryaya Swamiji should be arrested for illegally demolishing a structure on land that belonged to the government," Vishwanath said. "We demand that a new gopuram be built in consultation with us and that the State government take over its management." In one of the largest caste mobilisations in recent times, nearly five lakh Kuruba's assembled in Bangalore on January 7 backing these demands.

INDEPENDENT of yet fanned by the Kanaka gopura demolition issue is a more serious matter that has fundamental implications for the status of the Udupi temple and the ashtamuttas. Currently under dispute is the legal status of the Krishna temple, with the State government claiming that it is a temple, and should therefore be under the government and the mutt heads being of the view that it is a mutt and therefore is out of the purview of the Karnataka Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowments Act, 1997. Under the Act, the Commissioner for Endowments should become the controlling authority of the temple and regulate its day-to-day functioning, including financial matters.

The government issued a notification on April 30, 2003 bringing the temple under the Act. The notification was challenged by six of the eight muttadipathis in the Karnataka High Court. The Court issued a stay on the notification. In their petition the mutt heads challenged the notification on the grounds that the Krishna temple is not a temple but a "temple attached to a mutt", which takes it out of the purview of the Act.

Former Minister H. Viswanath with Sri Viswesha Thirtha Swamiji of the Pejawar Mutt at a discussion on the Kanaka gopura issue organised by the Bangalore Reporters' Guild.-KPN

gopura

Pejawar Mutt Swamiji has become the spokesperson of the eight mutts, both on the Kanaka gopura issue and on the issue of the legal status of the temple. Not unlike the VHP position on the Ayodhya issue, the Pejawar mutt has made it clear that if the courts do not rule in favour of the mutts, the fight will be taken outside the courts. "If the government works against natural justice, then we will fight it non-violently," he said. "But I believe the government will not do it."

"A Supreme Court judgment of 1961 has made it clear that the Krishna temple is a temple and not a mutt," M.P. Prakash, Minister for Revenue, told Frontline. "We are awaiting the decision of the High Court and I feel confident that justice will be done. I, therefore, appeal to the Pejawar Swamiji not to take the extreme step of athmarpana (suicide), which he has threatened to commit." The government has taken a serious view of the demolition of the Kanaka gopura "without consulting or obtaining the permission of the District Commissioner", said Prakash. Surprisingly, however, the government has not challenged the stay issued by the High Court on its notification, a serious and inexplicable lapse on its part.

The matter of the exact legal status of the temple has now taken centrestage. "I am not really concerned so much with the gopura," the Swamiji of the Kaginele Gurupeetha, Birendra Keshava Tarakananda Pur Swamiji said. "What is important is to see that the Krishna temple belongs to the public".

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