Tamil Nadu has abandoned a project for appointing temple priests without caste discrimination, leaving 207 youths in the lurch
P. Thiyagrajan, a diploma-holder in electronics, would have continued as a sales executive job in a telecom company in Madurai. Led by a government promise, he, however, quit to train as a temple priest. He hoped to get a job in one of the State-run temples after completing the government-sponsored training. That did not happen.
The Tamil Nadu government has not only abandoned its project of appointing temple priests without caste discrimination, a progressive measure announced with great fanfare in 2006, but has also dumped the 207 young men it trained, shattering their lives. All six centres set up in 2007 to train any Hindu who wished to become a priest has been shut down.
Three years after finishing his training, Thiyagrajan, 26, of the Thevar community, struggles to make a living as a purohit or domestic ritual performer. He cannot answer a simple question. How much does he earn a month? “Life,” he says, “has become miserably uncertain.”
“Had he continued in his old job, he could have earned more. He has now lost his job, earnings and future,” laments his mother, who is under medication for high blood pressure.
Of the 207 who trained as priests, including 34 Dalits and 55 Most Backward Community persons, some work as loadmen, some in restaurants, some are car drivers and many others do assorted jobs. One recently died in an accident. Only a small number has managed to become priests, not in government temples but in privately owned ones for a pittance.
Kandan (name changed), a Dalit, is one of the trained priests in Tiruchi. His business card, which carries the photo of his Brahmin guru, introduces him as a liturgy specialist. After completing Plus-Two, he worked as a part-time waiter in a restaurant to pay for his college fees but could not complete his B.A. “I had no one to guide me, nor had the time to study well.”
“It was at this time I saw the advertisement issued by the government encouraging enrolment in a one-year priest training course. It was an opportunity for me to get a temple job. My parents are agricultural labourers and I have a younger sister and a brother. I have to do my bit to support them. Look at me now, I can neither help my family nor support myself,” Kandan agonises.
After a lot of struggle, he became a priest in an old, mid-sized temple, tucked away in a narrow lane of Tiruchi which pays him Rs. 1,500 a month. To augment his income, he takes care of two other roadside shrines, earning an additional Rs. 1,250.
“Caste is an issue and hierarchies are entrenched,” Kandan says. To the inquisitive visitors at the temple, he never reveals his caste. Quoting from the Mahabharata, he wants to know “if caste is about what work one does, why a priest like me can never be one among the equals? And why worshippers want to know what caste the priest belongs?”
“My friend also trained like me as a priest. Look at his condition now. He is a porter in the fishing harbour in Chennai and lugs fish to earn a living.” Kandan has a few more stories to tell, but chooses not to. “What purpose would it serve?” he asks, concluding the conversation.
To Muthu Irulan, a priest trained from Madurai and of a family of potters, caste has not been an issue. However, there is not much to rejoice in his statement. Caste discriminations have not disappeared in his region. It is just that Muthu Irulan works in Ayyanar shrines, where potters traditionally serve as priests.
But 2006 was not the first time the State government has tried to reform temple practices. In 1971, it abolished hereditary appointment of temple priests, opening the door for appointing people with due training. Though this move was legally challenged, the government showed better resolve, pursued the scheme and succeeded in pushing it through. Recently, the State prevailed over the Chidambaram temple priests to ensure that the recital of Tamil hymns at the temple got its due place. However, the government's efforts at appointing priests without caste discrimination has been least convincing.
Its defence has so far been that though it is serious about reforms, organisations like Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal Nala Sangam have mounted a legal challenge in the Supreme Court. “The case is still pending, and there is not much we can do,” government officials explained.
Government not serious
V. Ranganathan, who trained at Tiruvannamalai as a priest and who is now the coordinator for the Tamil Nadu Government Trained Archakar Students Association, feels that the government is not serious. “The case is pending for more than three years. In 2009, after organising ourselves as an association, we impleaded ourselves in the case. Since then, we have gone to court four times, and every time the case was adjourned for some reason or the other. Even if we have to wait for years, we would not give up our struggle and fight this form of untouchability.”
Ranganathan works as a purohit and runs a computer centre. He has trained in desktop publishing to explore more avenues to earn. But he has not given up his priestly ambitions. Now he is training in a Chennai-based private university, which offers a one-year course in conducting temple rituals in Tamil. “I have just completed my final examinations and am waiting for my results.”