Making a case for temple priests

Salary is abysmally low denying them the right to a decent living, says a writ petition

Published - April 05, 2018 04:06 pm IST

Rajagopalaswami Kulasekara Azhwar temple at Mannarkoil in Tirunelveli District.

Rajagopalaswami Kulasekara Azhwar temple at Mannarkoil in Tirunelveli District.

After making repeated pleas over the last many years to the HR & CE Department about the financial plight of the archakas and other temple staff in the ancient temples in Tamil Nadu and the meagre salaries given to them, Periya Nambi Narasimha Gopalan, the head priest at Sri Rajagopalaswamy Kulasekara Azhwar Temple, Mannar Kovil, Ambasamudram taluk and the 29th descendant of Acharya Periya Nambi, has filed a writ petition at the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court.

At the time of filing the petition, Narasimha Gopalan was getting a monthly salary of Rs. 750, which is a three-fold increase from the Rs. 250 that he was getting for almost a decade. His father performed service at the temple in the 1980s at a salary of just Rs. 55 a month. There are six other full-time service personnel at the temple, each of whom gets a three-figure salary.

Meagre compensation

Shocking is the fact that a priest at the nearby Vilvanathar temple in Pathamadai is paid a salary of Rs. 19 per month while at the historical and ancient Kailasanathar temple in Brahmadesam, the priest is paid a salary of Rs. 215.

Narasimha Gopalan has put together data on the salary paid to priests and other temple service personnel in close to 50 ancient temples in the Ambasamudram region. He cites a couplet from Tirukural: Aa payan kunrum aruthozhilor nool marappar kaavalan kavaan Enin — If the ruler does not take care of his subjects and does not give them their fair dues, the cow count will decrease and the Brahmins whose job it is to chant and teach the Vedas will take up other jobs.

With such low salaries, most of the temples located in remote areas are manned by one person, the priest, who takes care of the temple’s upkeep besides performing puja.

The HR and CE Department is restricted by the rule that payment of salaries should not go beyond 40 per cent of the total income of the temple. In his petition, Narasimha Gopalan says that irrespective of the income of the temple, the nature and working time of rendering services by the archakas are by and large one and the same. And priests in such remote temples have to take care of all the shrines, single-handed.

T.R. Ramesh, president, Temple Worshippers Society, says that the fundamental problem lies in the classification of temples based on their incomes and not on their religious significance like Thevaram Sthalam or Divya Desam. “They are not classified by how big the temples are and how many shrines they have nor based on the extent of immovable properties. Every Divya Desam and Thevara Sthalam should have adequate number of priests and that is possible only by giving the priests a reasonable monthly income and benefits. It is not right to have a salary cap of 40 per cent of the temple’s income and pay such shockingly low salaries to the priests.”

In his petition, Narasimha Gopalan has said that low salary amounts to denying the priests the right to lead a decent life, which is a violation of Article 21 of the Constitution. “It falls to the Government to initiate steps in order to ensure them a decent living and minimum wages,” says Narasimha Gopalan.

In his petition, he has pleaded with the Court to invoke its extraordinary jurisdiction under Article 226 of the Constitution of India and direct the HR & CE to fix a pay scale for Archakas and other servants who are directly involved in the temple service.

He is of the view that at least Rs. 400 a day (Rs. 12,000 a month) would be reasonable for full-time long serving temple priests and service personnel in remote temples.

“Currently, the priests are placed at par with sweepers and are below drivers in designation. This is totally unfair. Priests have to learn the Vedas for at least seven years and train in sastras for three years. The position of priests must be much higher and salary fixed accordingly,” says Ramesh.

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