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Updated: June 6, 2013 14:08 IST

Broken promises shatter lives

A. Srivathsan
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P. Thiyagrajan and Muthu Irulan, who were trained as temple priests by the Tamil Nadu government, are now working in front of a roadside temple in Madurai. Photo: A. Srivathsan
P. Thiyagrajan and Muthu Irulan, who were trained as temple priests by the Tamil Nadu government, are now working in front of a roadside temple in Madurai. Photo: A. Srivathsan

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.

Hierarchies entrenched

“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.”

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These poor chaps should only blame MK for bringing an law without a thought. These people know that already in 1970 supreame court
dismissed a case on appointing archagas like this. MK did this for his
publicity, and he got it then he shelved the scheme. poor people who
did the course should atleast now go to a better work.

If we ask archagas in villages, most of their monthly salary will be
less than what these people earn now. so ......... this is not going
to end soon.....

from:  senthilkumar.k
Posted on: Apr 7, 2012 at 13:54 IST

Holy caste ! India's divine caste is deadlier than the dead Apartheid! Ramayanam written by sage Valmiki the untouchable, the Dalit! Lord Krishna was raised by Yadvas,they become out caste! Poor Dalit young man love to brake the barriers of caste and wants to be a priest! Hope the caste Hindus take time to read Gita,it will help them to come out of primitive mentality and save Hinduism in India. Broken promise! God created Adam and Eve,male and female,there is no high and low.God is calling! "He was there all the time"- on 3ABN-Tanica Campbell. Her song touched me and made me cry!

from:  Raju Charles
Posted on: Mar 6, 2012 at 11:04 IST

This news item does not provide details on why the project has been abandoned? If the current State Government has taken it as a policy decision (based on its conviction the idea of casteless priests in temples - at least the government-run ones) then it should have been stated boldly, which, if so, would have rather large socio-cultural ramifications within the State. It is a pity, this news item has chosen to show this issue as a mere issue of employment by the persons trained for this purpose.

from:  Vadivel
Posted on: Mar 5, 2012 at 07:05 IST

It's unfortunate to hear what happened. Caste should not be a barrier for any
profession. However, i just want to correct the understanding of Kandan about
Mahabharatha. As per the Gita, Caste is not by birth but by the deeds a person does.
A brahmin is one who goes after knowledge without any monetary aims.
Unfortunately that was manipulated and caste was associated with Birth and also
thanks to leftist intellectuals who misinterpret Gita, Mahabharatha and Ramayana to
create hatredness of these scriptures among Hindus and break the unity. Pls dnt
succumb to it

from:  Pramod Dikshith
Posted on: Mar 4, 2012 at 22:43 IST

This is the most ridiculous attempt by government to try and retrofit people. The government should spend money on better schemes. People should try and do what they are good at and not try to ape; that is when they fail. There is nothing wrong being a potter or a carpenter, why try to become a temple priest. Or Vice versa, a temple priest trying to become an iron smith. It does not work. If the government is truly interested in helping backward caste , try and build good schools, colleges and help in education. Retrofitting is like putting a square peg in a round hole. You do not know what is wrong the peg or the hole. These schemes are ideal for government officials to swindle money. Tax payers' money can be put to great use, do not waste it.

from:  Sekar
Posted on: Mar 4, 2012 at 20:39 IST

Since it is a progressive measure instated by the DMK-led government, it should the next government who have control in providing employment opportunities. AIDMK-led government should not ignore handle this like they have handled samacheer kalvi, Anna Library, etc.

from:  rajan
Posted on: Mar 4, 2012 at 19:48 IST

Clearly this is institutionalised Caste discrimination. The courts must help these young people. If they want to be priests, irrespective of Caste, they should be allowed to practice.

from:  E. Selvaraj
Posted on: Mar 4, 2012 at 19:40 IST

The change in our society has to occur at all levels. While it is interesting that a brahmin lady leads a DMK party and has become the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, it is surprising that the Government led by her is not doing enough to help the 207 persons from various castes, who decided to qualify themselves as priests. It was the erstwhile Justice party (mother of all DMK parties) which gave voting rights to women in Madras state in 1921, reversing the Government act of 1919 prohibiting women from becoming legislators.

from:  E. Arunan
Posted on: Mar 4, 2012 at 18:25 IST

There is no absolute clarity in the reforms which the society or government wants to happen. Today this government trained 'archakas' do not have the jobs for which they are trained and hence economically very weak. In olden days(some decades ago) the traditional 'archakas' who, inspite of their having the job at temples, lived in abject poverty since they were not trained to do other physically demanding jobs.

from:  mvrangaraajan
Posted on: Mar 4, 2012 at 16:51 IST

Why should the govt. interfere with customs in hindu temples when it
is not interfering with customs in places of worship in other faiths.
DMK government tried in the 1970s and amended the rules to abolish the
hereditary appointment of Archakas. The Supreme Court judgment
nullified it in effect and the status quo continued. They tried it
again in 2006. DMK government promulgated an ordinance in 2006 but when
the bill was placed before the assembly a clause that empowered
government to interfere with/change customs and traditional practices
in temples was dropped. The stay against the government's move to
appoint anyone trained as Archaka in temples under HRCE department was
granted in 2006 by Supreme Court. The training schools were started in
2007 even as the stay continued. Those who joined the course should
have been aware of the fact that unless the stay was revoked and the
decision was given in the favor of the government they did not have a
chance to get appointed.

from:  ravi
Posted on: Mar 4, 2012 at 16:47 IST

How can serving as a priest be considered a livelihood in the first place? Priests are people whose lives are dedicated to the worship of god and care of a temple. True they are offered money by devotees for their daily living but that is secondary.Instead of popularising training courses for priests the government should instead provide low cost quality education in various streams for the disadvantaged which would not only help them get well paid jobs but promote entrepreneurship as well.

from:  clg
Posted on: Mar 4, 2012 at 16:23 IST

If God wants only the priest from so called 'higher caste' Brahmins, How can we worship that God who favors some and suppress some others? It's high time, government should appoint, those who are trained, in all the temples as priest indiscriminate of castes. will it happen ?

from:  martinsanthakumar
Posted on: Mar 4, 2012 at 16:21 IST

There is no need to train priests...one cannot train people in these things, one has to have some inner devotional interest to pursue this type of job. these jobs were not salaried. Weak/poor sections of the society are drawn to such jobs, nothing much to do with castes. What a sheer waste of time. Why could government not train these people in medical laboratory, biochemistry, rural health care jobs Those must be better in every way for everyone.

from:  venkat
Posted on: Mar 4, 2012 at 15:24 IST
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