Tamil Nadu

Ruling over a temple

Print edition : February 07, 2014

Celebrations at the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram following the Supreme Court verdict. Photo: A.V. Ragunathan

THE Supreme Court in its judgment of January 6 restored to the Podhu Dikshitars the “right” to manage the administration of the ancient Sri Sabanayagar (Nataraja) temple in Chidambaram. In doing so, it set aside the September 15, 2009, order of the Madras High Court rejecting “the claim of the Podhu Dikshitars to administer the temple”. The Bench, of Justices B.S. Chauhan and S.A. Bobde, also quashed the State government’s February 2009 order appointing an Executive Officer to the temple.

The Supreme Court was hearing a batch of appeals filed by Bharatiya Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy and the Podhu Dikshitars. Welcoming the verdict, the Dikshitars and their supporters burst crackers on the outer “prahara” of the temple. The temple musicians were asked to play the majestic “Mallari” raga, and special pujas were performed.

Concomitantly, activists who had been fighting for the “retrieval” of the temple from the “control” of the Dikshitars staged demonstrations in different parts of the State calling for immediate steps to ensure that the administration of the shrine was retained by the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR & CE) Department.

Leaders and activists belonging to different political parties, including the Left parties, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, and civil rights groups came out in support of the demand. They also flayed the government for not appointing a senior counsel to argue the case in the apex court.

Although the January 6 verdict enabled the Dikshitars to secure a crucial victory in their century-old legal battle, the demand for democratising the administration of the temple, which owns over 3,400 acres of land, has not died down.

Accepting the contention of the Dikshitars that they were a “religious denomination” under Article 26 of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to establish and maintain institutions for religious purposes, the Bench said the High Court in its judgment in 1951 had recognised their right to administer the temple and the then State of Madras’ appeal before the Supreme Court was dismissed in 1954.

The State government maintained that the Dikshitars, who, as trustees of the temple, had not been divested of their properties and their religious activities, had not been touched at all. It also clarified that the Executive Officer was only collaborating with them in administering the temple properties.

However, the court said even if the government had to take over the temple administration to “remedy the evil” it ought to be for a limited period.

The secretary of the Sri Sabanayagar Temple Podhu Dikshitars’ Association, Kasiraja Dikshitar, described the verdict as “Lord Nataraja’s gift to the priests who have been performing pujas with utmost devotion”. The Dikshitars had been fulfilling the dual responsibility of managing temple affairs and taking care of religious ceremonies for the past several centuries, he claimed. But the State government’s decision to take over the temple administration had resulted in a dichotomy between the two.

K. Balakrishnan, Member of the Legislative Assembly from Chidambaram and president of the State unit of the All India Kisan Sabha, said the huge revenue earned by the temple in the last four years showed that the government takeover had helped tone up the administration. The temple was a treasure house of Tamil Nadu’s rich culture and its administration should not be left in the hands of a group of persons irrespective of whether they were a religious denomination or not, he said.

The Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front, which had been in the forefront of the struggle to run the temple administration in a secular manner, urged the government to move a review petition in the Supreme Court.

S. Dorairaj