Print edition : July 31, 2009

An image of Madurai Veeran, a Dalit folk deity, near Sundara Chozapuram, Thiruverkadu, on the outskirts of Chennai.-M. KARUNAKARAN

DALITS have their own temples, why should they trouble us? a caste Hindu asked in an attempt to justify the bar on temple entry to people belonging to the Scheduled Castes.

Exposing the hollowness of this argument, veteran folklorist A. Sivasubramanian said most of these temples in rural areas had folk deities, who were generally slain Dalits. Among these, Madurai Veeran and Chinnathambi belonged to the Arunthathiar community and Kathavarayan was a Pulayar. Although Muthupattan, another folk deity, was a Brahmin, he married two Arunthathiar women.

The cult of worshipping the dead was 2,000 years old in this part of the country, he said, referring to the hero stones installed as a mark of respect to men of valour in different parts of ancient Tamil land. In most cases, these heroes would have fallen in battle against feudal lords or persons who wielded administrative power. Some of them might have lost their lives while attempting to save women from robbers or anti-social elements, he said.

Caste Hindus perhaps started worshipping the slain Dalits for two reasons, popularity of the deities and the fear of being haunted by the spirit of the dead, he opined.

A senior State archaeologist said denial of temple entry to Dalits had a long history. Although Bhakti literature hailed Nandanar as one of the 63 Nayanmars (Tamil Saivite seers), he was prevented from entering the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram. The Dalit farmhand was also known as Thirunalaipovaar as he had to frequently postpone his plan to visit Chidambaram to fulfil his long-time wish to have a glimpse of Nataraja, he said. The Uthiramerur inscriptions of A.D. 919 and A.D. 921 also make it clear that only landholders and Vedic scholars had the right to contest or vote for posts of public administration. There was no evidence to show that Dalits had any specific role in the administration of temples or any right to offer worship at the shrines, particularly after the emergence of temples as institutions, he said.

However, the Vedic scholar K. Malola Kannan of Thiruvaheendrapuram said Agama rules did not come in the way of Dalits taking part in temple festivals. In fact, the Tamil proverb Oor koodi ther izhuththal only underscored the need for coming together of all communities in pulling the temple car, he pointed out.

S. Dorairaj
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