In Thenmudiyanur village, Tiruvannamalai district, Tamil Nadu, caste Hindus have chosen to abandon the Sri Muthu Mariamman temple its presiding deity they worshipped for over a century, citing that the entry of Dalits “defiled the deity and polluted the temple”.
The village Dalits, the majority of whom belong to the Parayars community, had never been allowed to enter the HR and CE (Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department)-managed temple to offer prayers. Following their persistent demands and sustained political pressure from CPI (M) and Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), the Tiruvannamalai district administration allowed them into the temple on January 30, 2023, amid huge protests.
Thereafter, the temple was shut and remained closed. The priest, who belonged to a backward caste, also deserted it, refusing to perform poojas to the deity. After a series of peace committee meetings among different caste groups, the temple was reopened in August 2023. However, the caste Hindus in the village abstained from offering prayers, and only Dalits visited it to offer prayers.
The standoff between caste Hindus and Dalits resurfaced during this year’s Pongal festivity. Both groups claimed the temple premises for celebrations, prompting the district administration to call for another peace committee meeting. This move irked the caste Hindus, who boycotted the meeting and collectively decided to abandon the temple.
They collected bronze vessels from each household of caste Hindus, sculptured a deity and ‘pooja’ items, and placed the idol allegedly on a piece of ‘kulam porombok’ (unassessed land abetting the village tank) under a temporary roof, starting worship. They performed rituals to the deity, and according to villagers, a prana pratishta would be held after constructing a new temple.
Talking to Frontline, former village president and one of the Caste Hindus’ representatives, Nallathambi, stated, “The ‘oor makkal’ (caste Hindus) had decided to have their own exclusive temple. I am not for it, but I cannot convince them also. They have taken a collective decision. Being a former village president, I know that any form of caste-based discrimination is anti-Constitutional. If we oppose the new temple, it might lead to a serious law and order situation in the village where peace has prevailed for a long.”
He further claimed that the village panchayat president, a Dalit woman, was also supporting their cause. “The colony people (referring to Dalits) have their own temple. The villagers of all castes gave contributions to its construction. Why should they stake claims to the ‘oor’ temple now? A few among them are disturbing peace in the village,” he said, hastily adding that what he told Frontline was not his personal views but the view of the village, and he had to abide by them.
The caste Hindus in the reserve village panchayat (Scheduled Caste women) of Thenmudiyanur, numbering about 2,000 families, belong to Backward and Most Backward Caste groups of Vanniyars, Udayars, and Naidus, while around 400 and odd families are Dalit households. All castes, including Dalits, are landholders in the village.
Interactions with a cross-section of villagers revealed that despite being economically and educationally equal, and some even superior to caste Hindus, Dalits were made to feel inferior. They owned lands, were educated and independent, and were aware of their rights, fervently wishing to restore their cultural identity.
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G Sathyaseelan, a Dalit resident in the village and a postgraduate in Commerce, expressed frustration: “When they refused permission inside the temple to cook and offer sweet rice to the deity, we reacted. Though the tenth-day festival of Pongal at the temple has been earmarked for Dalits, we will not be allowed inside the temple. We have to stand outside and pray.”
He highlighted the achievements of the Dalit community. “We are all educated and well-employed. Many of us own houses, do agriculture in our lands, own cattle heads, cars, and two-wheelers, and are involved in business. They know very well that we are in no way inferior to anyone.”
Temple entry struggles
Temple entry in Tamil Nadu has a history. On the directions of Mahatma Gandhi, Dalits were taken inside Sri Meenakshi Sundareshwarar Temple in Madurai on July 8, 1939. A group strongly objected to their entry, declaring that the Goddess had left her abode as the temple had been stained. They installed a new statue of the goddess in a temporary shed and called it Meenakshi Temple. However, people ignored it and continued to patronize the main historical temple.
Despite proactive social initiatives, discrimination against Dalits in places of worship is still practiced in various forms to this day, especially in villages. In fact, the act of sculpting a new idol and constructing a new temple by caste Hindus in Thenmudiyanur village, an act of discrimination against Dalits, was similar to the one attempted in Madurai in the Meenakshi temple issue some 80 years ago.
The denial of temple entry to Dalits, activists say, is a form of social oppression. Wherever Dalits attempt to assert their rights, caste Hindus employ different methods to suppress them. It’s more of a psychological subjugation rather than social discrimination, activists Frontline spoke to pointed out.
“It hurts us. We have been living with them amicably,” said Sathyaseelan, whose wife was from the most backward Vanniyar caste. Any inter-caste marriage involving a girl from a backward or most backward caste and a Dalit youth would usually be frowned upon by casteist forces. “Our in-laws have accepted us,” he said, now a father of a son and daughter.
“We are not allowed for hair cutting in village saloons, not served tea in the same cups others are using, and not allowed to sit and eat in eateries. Still, we do not take them seriously. We go to nearby towns such as Tiruvannamalai and Tandarampet. But when they decide to alienate us totally through a collective boycott, it makes us feel inferior and lowly,” he said.
VCK functionary Vetri Sangamithra said that the government must intervene and stop this new but subtle form of discrimination against Dalits. “We have been taking several measures to convince the people to come together and celebrate. Those who are behind such acts of discrimination should be brought before the law,” he insisted.
A senior official in the district administration said that the issue would be sorted out soon. “We have been closely monitoring the developments in the village. Additional police reinforcements have been deployed to avoid any untoward incidents. Everything is under control as of now,” he said.