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Caste division keeps temple festival in Tamil Nadu village on hold

For nearly a decade now, the Muthu Mariyamman temple in Mullur in Pudukkottai district of Tamil Nadu has remain locked. Ever since Dalits demanded that they be allowed to enter the temple, the majority caste Hindus who are opposing the move have from 2009 locked it out of residents’ reach.

india Updated: Jun 14, 2018 07:20 IST
M Manikandan
M Manikandan
Hindustan Times, Chennai
Caste division,temple festival,Dalit
The village has around 400 Dalits while the majority of its 2,000 population comprise the land-owning Mukkulathor or Thevar caste.(HT/Photo for representation)

Mullur in Pudukkottai district of Tamil Nadu would be one among the countless villages which dot the length and breadth of India, if not for one key fact. For nearly a decade now, the locally famed Muthu Mariyamman temple in the village has remain locked, and this time too in May when the annual festival was supposed to be held, there were no celebrations but only an air of distrust and quiet hostility pervading among the villagers.

The reason: ever since Dalits demanded that they be allowed to enter the temple, the majority caste Hindus who are opposing the move have not only given up celebrating the temple festival from 2009 but also locked it out of the residents’ reach.

The village has around 400 Dalits while the majority of its 2,000 population comprise the land-owning Mukkulathor or Thevar caste (which includes the sub-castes of Kallar, Agamudayar and Maravar communities). The Dalits used to work as farm labourers in the land owned by the Mukkulathor. Both communities collectively pray the ancestral deity, Muthu Mariyamman, at the ancient temple that was rebuilt about three decades ago.

R Peraman, a Dalit, says until two decades ago, the caste Hindus did not have any problem with them visiting the temple since “our parents and grandparents worked as labourers on their farms”. But with the younger generation becoming politically aware and economically a bit more independent, the Dalits dependence on the upper castes reduced with many young Dalits going to colleges, finding work in neighbouring Thanjavur, Trichy and Coimbatore.

“All of a sudden, our dependence on them came down. Which is why I believe we were suddenly barred from entering the temple or participating in the annual festival. As long as we knew our place, it was okay, but the moment we became a little independent, that is when trouble started,” Peraman argued. To counter the locking up of the temple, Dalits, after failing at negotiations with the upper castes to reach a settlement for nearly seven years, approached the Madras high court in 2016. The court directed the administration to resolve the issue, noting that the temple was “privately owned”.

The district officials told the Thevars that the Dalits had to be allowed into the temple. The upper caste Hindus still refused, and continued to keep the temple locked while also halting the annual festival celebration to prevent the Dalits from participating, Peraman said.

A senior officer posted at the Ganesh Nagar police station in Pudukkottai said, “When they (the upper caste Hindus) chose not to allow the Dalits and shut it, we sealed the temple to prevent any further trouble.”

M Veera Pandiyan, general secretary of a people’s welfare forum for the marginalised section, said, “Temple festivals are supposed to bring peace and harmony between people of various clans. Such festivals are supposed to unite the local community. But now, such festivals are becoming a platform to express caste pride. Last month, two Dalits were killed during a temple festival at Kachanatham of Sivagangai. To avoid such violence, the government should frame temple festival committees which has locals representatives belonging to different castes, revenue officials, and local police inspector as members to conduct the festival without violence.”

Peraman said the reaction of the upper caste Hindus is mainly due to the improving socio-economic conditions of the Dalits. “They cannot tolerate us growing economically or see us educated. They would prefer that we remain servile and work as labourers.” S Selvaraj, Pudukkottai superintendent of police, said the police tried its best to resolve the issue so that the festival could be organised again. “But the two communities are not ready to cooperate. Therefore, we locked the temple to avoid violence. If they mutually agree to, we are ready to resolve the issue.”

First Published: Jun 14, 2018 07:19 IST