With cases mired in courts, justice remains out of sight

It was once a place where Sanskrit ‘slokas’ and verses from Panniru Thirumurai (a 12-volume compendium of hymns in praise of Lord Shiva) were recited. Today, the walls of the two-storey building at Dhanappa Mudali Street here reverberate with the noise of kitchen vessels and the loud snores of contract labourers engaged for civil works at the Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple.

The building, which previously housed one of the six institutes established across the State by the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR and CE) Department in 2007 to train Hindu youth, irrespective of their caste, to become priests, is currently used as accommodation for construction labourers. The six institutes have become defunct after the first batch passed out in 2008.

Madurai-based Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal Sangam, an association of Saivite priests, had filed a case in the Supreme Court challenging the move to open the priesthood to all castes. The result was that the 206 youngsters, part of the first batch of students trained at the government-run institutes, have been left in the lurch without employment opportunities in view of the case pending in the apex court.

T. Marichamy, 29, gave up his job as a studio photographer and joined the training course in 2007, in the hope of becoming a priest in a popular temple. The son of a mason, he studied up to Standard XII before taking up photography as a profession. His interest in performing religious rituals had made him join the priest training institute.

Catch-22 situation

“However, belying all expectations, I am working as a priest at Veera Kaliamman Kovil, a small private temple at Gandhipuram near K. Pudur and eking out a living by attending private religious functions. After having learnt religious scriptures and getting used to the way of life of a priest, I cannot go back to my old profession as a photographer. I am now in a catch-22 situation,” he complained.

The predicament of P. Thiyagarajan (25) of Arapalayam is no different. The son of a retired government servant, he enrolled at the institute and now works for a private temple on Bypass Road. He also performs house warming ceremonies.

These two and many of their counterparts came together in 2009 to form the Tamil Nadu Government Trained Archakars Association (TNGTAA) and impleaded themselves as a defending party in the ongoing court case. “But the case is only getting prolonged owing to frequent adjournments. The issue can be resolved only if the government intervenes and takes proactive steps,” said V. Ranganathan, president of TNGTAA.

A cruel tag

S. Vanchinathan of Human Rights Protection Centre- Tamil Nadu, a non-governmental organisation that has assisted the prospective priests to fight the case, said: “Caste is not something a person chooses by himself. It is a cruel tag that is thrust upon him for having been born to a particular family. It is a shame to discriminate people on the basis of caste. In a country where the Constitution is higher than any individual or institution, it is unacceptable to state that a person belonging to any caste, who can hold high offices such as that of the President and Prime Minister, cannot become a priest. Priesthood cannot be the fiefdom of a particular denomination. It must be thrown open to all trained individuals irrespective of their caste.”

Gender bias

Madras High Court advocate K.R. Laxman pointed out that apart from caste, there was also gender discrimination in some of the temples. A case in point is that of A. Pinniyakkal, a 50-year-old woman of Nalluthevanpatti in Usilampatti taluk. She was unable to enjoy her right to priesthood in the local Durgai Amman temple owing to deep-rooted gender bias against the woman in her village.

It all began in 2004 when her father P. Pinnathevar, a priest-cum-oracle of the village temple, fell sick at the age of 74. Bedridden, he handed the ‘kurungol’ (a holy yellow cloth) to his daughter in a symbolic act of anointing her as the next priest-cum-oracle. The villagers had no objection when she donned the role of the temple priest. The trouble began after her father’s death on November 12, 2006. A vicious campaign was started in the village to oppose a woman being made a temple priest. It was projected as a bad omen. The campaign gained momentum and soon people from about 18 villages, all devotees of the temple, joined the protest against Ms. Pinniyakkal.

She filed a civil suit before a munsif court in Usilampatti. But the villagers prevented her entry into the temple. Apprehending a law and order problem, the then tahsildar invited the conflicting parties to a peace committee meeting on September 14, 2007.

At the meeting, about 90 per cent of the participants expressed their reservations over a woman becoming a temple priest. Therefore, the tahsildar passed an order authorising a male villager to be the priest pending the outcome of the civil suit. Disagreeing with the decision, Ms. Pinniyakkal walked out of the meeting and filed a writ petition in the High Court Bench challenging the tahsildar’s order. Allowing the writ petition on September 1, 2008, the High Court came down heavily on the tahsildar for having buckled to the majority of villagers at the cost of petitioner’s rights. “The altars of God must be freed from gender bias,” the court said and passed orders directing the petitioner to be made the priest of the temple until the disposal of the civil suit before the lower court.

It also directed the Collector to provide police protection to the woman. The judgement was challenged on appeal but was confirmed by a Division Bench. Despite the court orders, the woman could perform the rituals at the temple only on two occasions, with police protection.

Now locked

In view of the unrest brewing among the villagers, the officials locked the temple and asked Pinniyakkal to wait for the civil court to deliver its verdict. On December 21, 2010, the munsif court ruled in her favour. But that made no difference to her status as the case is pending before a sub-court.

“No matter how long it takes, I have full faith in my ‘Aaththa’ (goddess Durgai Amman). She will never let me down. Some day, I will enter the portals of the temple as its priest,” Ms. Pinniyakkal said.

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