Murky goings-on bring Chidambaram temple back into public focus

The power struggle to control the Chola-era temple enters another chapter.

Published : Jun 15, 2023 11:00 IST - 11 MINS READ

Inside the Thillai Natarajar Temple at Chidambaram in Cuddalore district.

Inside the Thillai Natarajar Temple at Chidambaram in Cuddalore district. | Photo Credit: M. SAMRAJ

Last month, Tamil Nadu Governor R.N. Ravi made a controversial allegation when he claimed that two minor girls in Chidambaram had been forced to undergo the infamous “two-finger” virginity test. The girls, alleged child brides, belong to the Dikshitar community, an exclusive Saivite clan of priests who have custody of the famous Chola-era Sri Sabanayagar Temple, more popularly known as Thillai Natarajar Temple, at Chidambaram in the State’s Cuddalore district.

Ravi’s comments created an uproar in Tamil Nadu. But the controversy had begun much earlier. In October 2022, the DMK government had registered cases under the Prevention of Child Marriage Act against a few Dikshitars for having organised the marriage of four girls aged between 11 and 14. A team from two police stations, Chidambaram All-Women and Chidambaram Town, went to the temple and took members of the priest families into custody. This was met with angry resistance, and the priests were released shortly.

Governor Ravi spoke about the incident, and it soon blew up into a political maelstrom. In a media interview, the Governor accused the government of “slandering and victimising” the Dikshitars. Ravi went on to make an additional claim: he said the police had forcefully conducted the two-finger virginity test, banned by the Supreme Court, on the two older girls, studying in classes VI and VII. The girls, he said, had even attempted suicide. He accused the government of targeting the Dikshitars in order to wrest control of the Chidambaram temple from them.

An inside view of the temple, which is situated in a sprawling complex of over 50 acres and is one of the holiest Saivite shrines.

An inside view of the temple, which is situated in a sprawling complex of over 50 acres and is one of the holiest Saivite shrines. | Photo Credit: M. SAMRAJ

Age-old battle

The tussle between the Dikshitars and the State over control of the temple dates back to 1885, when the then Madras High Court judges Muthuswamy Iyer and J.J. Shepherd arbitrated the traditional religious rights of the temple and ruled that it was public property, and that the State was to manage it.

It is one of the earliest recorded incidents in the long-drawn-out battle for the temple. When the State government’s Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Department appointed an executive officer in 1951, the Dikshitars again approached the court to stall the takeover.

Over the years, the HR&CE Department made various attempts to take over the temple administration, but multiple appeals and petitions were filed in the Madras High Court against these. Verdicts were pronounced both for and against each party, which kept the matter boiling. Finally, it reached the Supreme Court in 2013, when the Dikshitars once again argued that their traditional religious rights had been violated.

The State, in turn, cited irregularities in the administration and also claimed public resentment against the Dikshitars’ control over the temple. The HR&CE Department told the court that since the temple was public property, the powers of administering it should be vested with the State. The State argued that the temple was not a private mutt and therefore had to be entrusted to the HR&CE Department.

Finally, in 2014, a two-member bench of Justice B.S. Chauhan and Justice S.A. Bobde held that since the Dikshitars were a specific religious denomination, their traditional religious rights had to be safeguarded under the provisions of Article 26 of the Constitution (which lays down that religious denominations have the right to form and maintain institutions for religious and charitable intents). Since then, the Dikshitars have been in control of the Chidambaram temple.

It was in the period between the 10th and 13th centuries that the then Chola kings vastly expanded this temple. They patronised the Dikshitar priests and reportedly handed over the management of the temple to this clan.

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Community’s exclusivity

The Dikshitars are a micro Saivite Brahmin denomination, with strong caste exclusivity, who adhere to a set of religious customs and mores that are very different from those of other Brahmin sects. As per their custom, married male members of the clan alone can become priests and trustees in the temple.

This exclusive socio-ritualistic custom has led to the practice of consanguineous marriages within the clan. “Child marriages became a norm among them since boys have to qualify as a priest in the temple and become ready for religious duty by the age of 18-19,” said a social activist based in Cuddalore.

That child marriage is endemic in this community is vouchsafed by various sources. In a way, it has also been a contributing factor to the falling numbers of their population. Today, the Dikshitars live in and around Chidambaram town only.

They consist of roughly 450 families, depending mainly on revenue from the pujas and other rituals they perform at the temple. Of late, many men from these families have started marrying outside the clan and migrating to other professions. Those who marry outside this exclusive group, even if into a Brahmin community, cannot become priests in the Chidambaram temple.

R.G. Anand, member of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, during his investigation visit to the Sri Sabanayagar temple in Chidambaram on May 24.

R.G. Anand, member of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, during his investigation visit to the Sri Sabanayagar temple in Chidambaram on May 24. | Photo Credit: S.S. KUMAR

Lakshmi Veeraraghavan, chairperson of the Cuddalore District Child Welfare Committee, told Frontline that it was the district social welfare officer who first identified the four child marriages in May this year.

“When we offered counselling for the child brides, the families refused to accept it. They told us that they would take care of the girls themselves,” he said.

He also said that since 2021, eight cases had been registered against the Dikshitars under the Child Marriage Act, of which only these four have been pursued so far. He cited the strong resistance from the families against any interference for this.

The committee has submitted a report to the social welfare office about the continuance of the practice of child marriage but to little avail. The present arrests have stirred the hornet’s nest again, with indignant reactions across social media both for and against the Governor’s accusations, and with the government calling the claims questionable. A senior DMK leader told Frontline that Governor Ravi was trying to set a narrative that the government was hostile towards the Dikshitars. “His claims about the test have to be seen from this perspective,” he said.

That the Governor has been campaigning against the State’s Dravidian model of governance is an open secret. This continuing conflict between the two constitutional entities has been unseemly at the least and stalled governance at its worst. It became so bad at one stage that the DMK and its political allies asked the President to recall Ravi. The contentious claim about the minor girls has made the situation more inflammatory.

  • In October 2022 some Dikshitars were accused of having organised child marriages of four girls.
  • TN Governor R.N. Ravi alleged that the banned two-finger virginity test was conducted on two minor girls.
  • NCPCR member conducted probe into matter in May, but issued conflicting statements.
  • Tussle between the Dikshitars and the State over control of the temple dates back to 1885.

NCPCR probe

On May 23, Dr R.G. Anand, a member of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), which had suo motu taken up the two-finger test issue following Ravi’s accusation, arrived in Chidambaram for an inquiry. On May 25, Anand declared that his investigations had found the Governor’s allegations to be true.

The declaration, however, came after a rather strange series of incidents. On reaching Chidambaram, Anand had met the personnel of the Chidambaram All-Women Police Station and inquired about the child marriage cases. He had spoken to district officials and visited the families and reportedly spoken to the girls as well. Leaving Chidambaram on May 24, Anand told the media that no two-finger test was done although “certain tests had been performed touching the girls’ private parts”. Anand’s interview was televised live.

“NCPCR member R.G. Anand first said that no tests had been performed on the minor girls but backtracked on his statement the very next day.”

Within 24 hours, however, the NCPCR member made a somersault and backtracked on his statement. On May 25, in Namakkal town, Anand declared that the two-finger test was carried out and that the police report had a line that said the girls’ “hymens” were intact. “What the Governor claimed is true,” he said. Both Anand and the Chidambaram Police refused to share the police report with Frontline.

The government called Anand’s allegations “tales of a fertile imagination”. Officials said that the Cuddalore district social welfare officer had inquired about the child marriage issue and, after finding prima facie evidence, had lodged police complaints. Accordingly, the police had registered cases against a few of the Dikshitars. In fact, when the police went to arrest them, the Dikshitars had blocked the road and refused to cooperate. The government reiterated that no two-finger test was done.

The government went on to claim that Anand had, in fact, forced the doctors of the Chidambaram Government Hospital to accept that they had performed the banned two-finger test. A detailed two-page note dated May 26, from the Director of Medical and Rural Health Services (DMRHS) to the government, a copy of which is available with Frontline, says that the NCPCR member forced the two doctors at the Chidambaram hospital to say that they had “used forceps to ascertain the virginity” of the minor girls.

The DMRHS note goes on to say that the NCPCR member arrived at the government Hospital on May 24 and questioned two doctors, Dr Suganya and Dr Raghul Anand, who categorically told him that they did not perform the two-finger tests on the two minor girls. They showed him all the relevant records and medical reports.

Banned test
The two-finger test was a crude physical examination once popular among medical professionals to examine rape survivors. It was done to “test the laxity of the vagina and determine whether the hymen is ruptured”. It was often also used to claim that the survivor was “habituated” to sexual intercourse and thus rule out rape.
In 2013, the Supreme Court called the test unconstitutional and banned it, ruling that “it has no scientific basis and instead revictimises women”.
In March 2014, the Union Health Ministry, in its medical test guidelines for survivors of sexual violence, stated that the per vaginal test must not be conducted to establish sexual violence.

Not satisfied with their answers, Anand repeatedly insisted that the two doctors say that they had used “forceps”, which they refused to do. The doctors then submitted the report. A senior health official requesting anonymity told Frontline that simple medical procedures, mandated by the Child Marriage Act and other relevant penal provisions, were followed in the cases of both child brides.

“It is not a rape case. It is a case registered under the Child Marriage Act. We carried out certain simple tests including urine and blood to ascertain whether the girls were pregnant or not. These tests were necessary since they were minor schoolgoing children and any probable pregnancy might jeopardise their general health. We pursued the case with all sensitivity,” he said.

Tamil Nadu Health Minister Ma. Subramanian told mediapersons that if the NCPCR member continued to peddle lies, he would release the audio of the exact conversation that had transpired between Anand and Dr Suganya. The Tamil Nadu Police also refuted the allegations. DGP Sylendra Babu in a statement on May 5 said that the cases had been filed only after evidence of child marriage was found.

“Eight men and three women were arrested under Section 366A of the Indian Penal Code [IPC] and Sec. 9, 10 of the Prevention of Child Marriage Act. Of the four victims, only two were given medical tests as per legal advice. Female doctors conducted the tests. The girls were not given the two-finger test, nor did they attempt suicide,” he said.

Tamil Nadu Governor R.N. Ravi.

Tamil Nadu Governor R.N. Ravi. | Photo Credit: S. Siva Saravanan

Doctors too have joined issue, condemning the Governor’s statements. They have stated that the Governor’s act further traumatises victims of child marriage. Dr G.R. Ravindranath, president of the Doctors’ Association for Social Equality (DASE), told mediapersons that the accusations were baseless. “Doctors are aware of the ban on this test. We know the guidelines,” he said. Dr Shanthi Raveendranath, also of the DASE, said it was not necessary for doctors to conduct the banned test to ascertain the age of child marriage victims. “We know the procedures, including dental profiling, to ascertain the age of minors in such cases,” she said. She said the protocols were in place in all government health facilities.

The issue has reached an impasse in Tamil Nadu. The State wants the Dikshitars to submit day-to-day accounts of the temple. The Dikshitars have refused, calling it “state-sponsored oppression against a minority denomination”.

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Power struggle

Behind this volatile drama lurks a bitter power struggle to take control of the sprawling 50-acre Nataraja temple. The ancient temple, dedicated to the god of dance, is an important Hindu site that symbolises the link between divinity and dance, its walls carved with the 108 poses from the Natya Shastra. It is home to priceless antiques and jewels and also owns vast swathes of land. With hundreds of devotees visiting each day, the temple is a major revenue churner.

The players in this drama—the Tamil Nadu State, the Governor, and the Dikshitar clan—have their roles cut out. For the State, child marriages are an excuse to bring the temple under the HR&CE. For the Governor, it is an excuse to represent Hindutva concerns in a DMK-ruled State. For the Dikshitars, patriarchy and power will always reign supreme. In this tussle, the biggest victims are the clan’s minor girls whose future and well-being are pawned away long before they learn self-determination.

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