Print edition : August 27, 2021

Dalit worshippers enter the Sri Pekkaman Karuppasamy temple at Anaiyur Kokkulam village in Madurai district of Tamil Nadu on July 30. Photo: By Special Arrangement

In yet another victory for Dalit rights, a group of believers assert their right to worship inside a temple in rural Tamil Nadu.

The entry of a group of Paraiyars, a Scheduled Caste (S.C.) group, after more than a century, into the Sri Pekkaman Karuppasamy temple at Anaiyur Kokkulam village in Tirumangalam taluk of Madurai district on July 30, laid bare the deep-rooted caste prejudices prevalent in rural Tamil Nadu

The Piramalai Kallars of the village, who belong to the category of Most Backward Classes (MBCs), had been in possession of the temple (which is also know as Karuppanaswamy temple) and its assets for a long time and had prevented the Paraiyars of the village from entering it. Strangely, the temple’s priest is a Dalit, and a handful of Dalit families living near the temple are not barred from entry. The village has about 900 families of Kallars, a landed class with strong political clout, whereas there are only about 200 Paraiyar families, a majority of them farm labourers.

P. Kamala, a Dalit from the village who filed a writ petition before the Madurai Bench of Madras High Court, seeking a direction on temple entry, told the court that despite many representations, Dalits had been denied the right to worship in the temple.

She pointed out that the discrimination was tantamount to violation of “Articles 17 and 25” of the Constitution and went against Section 3 of the Temple Entry Authorisation Act, 1947, which ensures the “rights of all classes of Hindus to offer worship in temples”, and Section 7 of the same Act, which punishes those “who prevent a Hindu from exercising any rights”.

Justices T.S. Sivagnanam and S. Ananthi of the High Court directed the tahsildar of Tirumangalam taluk, the ‘Officer of Proceedings’ in the issue, to look into the matter and “resolve the controversies”.

On the basis of depositions and statements of the groups in dispute and a communique from the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR & CE) Department of the Tamil Nadu government, the tahsildar, A. Anandakrishnan, came to the conclusion that since the temple was located on government ‘poromboke’ land, it belonged to the department and that no one should be prevented entry on caste basis.
Also read: Dalits enter Madurai temple with police protection

When a group of about 50 Dalits entered the temple with police protection on July 30 evening, the Piramalai Kallars stayed away. Muthaiah, the temple’s traditional Dalit priest, refused to perform the puja saying it would “anger the God”.

Although it was more of a symbolic exercise, the initiative nevertheless sent a strong message to casteist elements that their intent to degrade Dalits would not be tolerated any longer. In fact, the Dalits had planned the temple entry on July 31 but the Madurai district administration, fearing law and order problems, advanced it by a day.

Dividing the Dalits

In her deposition before the Tirumangalam tahsildar, Kamala claimed that the temple deity was originally worshipped by the Dalits of the village. She said: “It is our ‘kula samy’ [god of our clan].” Her statements revealed the fact that the caste Hindus had divided and split the Paraiyars of the village into two groups and even succeeded in introducing the insidious practice of untouchability among them using the pretext of religion and purity.

Kamala said that as per the temple custom, members of the Paraiyar caste had performed the priestly duties for several generations. In a bid to retain perpetual sovereignty over the temple and its assets, the Kallars, the dominant caste in the village, had permitted 15 families of the Dalit priests to live in houses built around the temple.

She further said: “The menfolk of these 15 Dalit families attached to the temple are allowed to enter the temple, although their women are not permitted. However, there is no ban on minor girls from their families to enter the temple, until they attain puberty.”

Kamala added that these families were not allowed to mingle with the rest of the Dalits in the village or marry ‘outsiders’. She said: “If they have to attend our family functions, they will neither accept food nor drink water at our houses. And they will not touch us either.”

Muthaiah, the current priest, said that the temple belonged to the families of six cousins belonging to the Kallar caste. He said that the members of the ‘Kattaiyan’ generation, to which he belonged, had been ‘selected’ to perform pujas at the temple for about three generations or so now, as per an ‘understanding’ between his clan and the six Kallar families that currently maintain the temple. He said: “It was their land on which the temple stands today. And they have allowed us to live in houses near the temple.” He denied the allegations that the temple discriminated against Dalits, adding: “It has been the custom and tradition of our temple. Our menfolk, though they are Paraiyars, are allowed to worship. Where does the issue of prejudice arise here?”

He also said that as per the temple custom, the other Dalits of the village were “allowed to worship from outside”. As per the traditional understanding with the Kallars, Muthaiah, like his predecessors, was retained as a ‘temporary’ priest.

Kodi Chandrasekaran, the village head and a temple administrator, reiterated that the temple belonged to the six Kallar families and that they had been maintaining the temple for generations. He added: “A person from the Paraiyar caste was appointed as a ‘temporary’ priest many decades ago, and since then the custom is strictly followed. No one has the right to either change or alter the rituals and traditions.”

The practice of having a Dalit priest in small temples is widespread in several villages with Piramalai Kallar and Paraiyar populations in the State’s southern districts, especially Madurai. But it is rare in villages where Hindu Pallars, also a Scheduled Caste, live. A Pallar activist in Srivaikundam in Thoothukudi district said: “Many of us are small and medium landholders. Hence, we do not depend on caste Hindus. We have our own temples to worship.”
Also read: State government department says temples open to all

Of late, the Paraiyars have started to assert their rights on public assets such as temples and common assets such as lands and ponds, and in issues such as fishing rights in villages, which irks the dominant castes such as the Kallars.

A journalist who did not wish to be named said: “In a few places, the Paraiyars who had been serving as priests have also taken control of these small temples.”

The Kallars would fall at the feet of the Dalit priests to seek ‘divine blessings’ during temple rituals, which they used as a ruse to claim that they never practised discrimination.

They would allow the village Paraiyars to play a central role in the temple’s traditional festivals and rituals. All rituals and festivals could be conducted only after a Paraiyar obtained ‘divine permission’ for them.

Elaborating on this, Chinnasamy, the soothsayer of Kokkulam village who conveyed ‘God’s will’ under a trance, told Frontline: “Without my permission no festival, such as the temple’s ‘eruthuvidu vizha’ (bull taming festival), celebrated once in two decades, and the annual festival in the Tamil month of Adi, will be performed. God has ordained me to do that.” He belongs to one of the 15 Dalit families endorsed by the Kallars.

Kodi Chandrasekaran claimed that the present row was not about the temple entry. He told Frontline: “It is our temple. We built it. But a few mischievous elements from outside the village are instigating the innocent Dalits to grab the assets, which the God owns. The God will take care of them.”

State-owned temple

However, land records clearly mention that it is not a private temple. A HR & CE Department communique dated July 27, 2021, noted that the temple and its two wells were located on government ‘poromboke’ land comprising 1.05 hectares wet and 1.02 hectares dry lands. The temple is also in possession of another 1.15 hectares of wet and 1.05 hectares of dry lands. The ‘pattas’ (land ownership documents) are in the name of the temple and were issued under the provisions of The Tamil Nadu Minor Inams (Abolition and Conversion into Ryotwari) Act, 1963.

The lands on which the temple is built are in the name of ‘Arulmigu Karuppanaswamy Temple’, while the lands owned by the temple are in the name of ‘Karuppanaswamy temple’s temporary priest’.

The HR & CE Department clarified that although the temple fell under its ‘small temples’ category, it did not directly administer the temple since there was “no specific order” in this regard.
Also read: A State of intolerance

P. Anbalagan, a Dalit from the village, said: “This reluctance on the part of the HR & CE Department to take over the administration in a way encouraged the Kallars to retain their control over the temple and its assets.”

Anbalagan flagged the issue first by alerting a group of activists and then the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), which remained in the forefront of the struggle for temple entry.

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