Century-old temple conflict ends

In 1885, Dikshitars approached High Court on the issue

January 06, 2014 04:45 pm | Updated December 04, 2021 11:03 pm IST - Chennai

Devotees bursing crackers on the premises of Natarajar temple in Chidambaram to express their joy over Supreme Court verdict on Monday. Photo: A. V. Raghunathan

Devotees bursing crackers on the premises of Natarajar temple in Chidambaram to express their joy over Supreme Court verdict on Monday. Photo: A. V. Raghunathan

The Supreme Court judgment on Chidambaram Natarajar temple brings to end more than a century-old tussle between the State and priests over temple administration.

One of the earliest documented incidents relating to the status of Chidambaram Natarajar temple or Sabanayagar temple as it is officially known dates back to 1885. The Dikshitars or the priest community who administered the temple approached the Madras High Court to designate the temple as a private one. The judges, Muthuswami Iyer and J.J. Sheppard, after hearing the arguments, made it clear that the Chidambaram temple was a place of public worship and not a private property of the Dikshitars.

When the Hindu Religious Endowments Board was created and the relevant Act was passed in 1925, the Dikishitars appealed to the government to exempt the temple from the Board schemes. Though the government accepted the appeal, it informed the dikshitars that sections of the Act relating to submission of accounts and formulation of administrative schemes would apply. In 1933, the government tried to streamline the management of the temple by proposing a committee comprising nine Dikshitars.

This committee, in turn, was to appoint a manager subject to the approval of the HR and CE board, maintain accounts, properties, and account for cash offerings.

The Dikshitars challenged this scheme, but the High Court Bench upheld it in 1939 with minor modification. However, the Madras government did not pursue the proposal. In 1951, the government wanted to abolish private temples in the State. It appointed an executive officer to oversee the Natarajar temple administration. The Diksihitars challenged this. The Madras High Court, in its judgment in 1959, held that the Natarajar temple belongs to a religious denomination, and, hence the appointment of an executive officer was “opposed to the fundamental rights guaranteed under Article 26 and 27 of the constitution.” The Court also found the government order “bad on the merits.” Following this, the government appealed to the Supreme Court, but withdrew it later.

In 1982, the government, citing reasons of mismanagement, issued notice to the temple and proposed to appoint an executive officer to manage its affairs. When the Dikishitars appealed, the government defended its decision stating that the appointment of an officer was only to administer the properties. It would not to interfere in religious rights of the priests, it argued. The Dikshiatrs moved the court in 1984. When the court dismissed their petition in 1997, they filed an appeal.

The court then directed them to file a revision petition with the government. When the petition was rejected in 2006, the Dikishitars approached the court again.

After hearing both sides, the single judge of the High Court, in 2009, passed orders upholding the appointment of executive officer. Citing the Supreme Court cases since the 1950s, the court ruled that the Dikshidars “are not entitled to the protection” as a denomination temple in the matter of administration. It also held that the State can intervene and regulate administration.

The Dikshitars appealed against this judgment. At this time, three more people including Subramania Swamy impleaded themselves in the case. The Madras High Court Bench heard the appeal and upheld the orders of the Single Judge. The Dikshitars then appealed to the Supreme Court.

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