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Kerala: Dalit priests break barriers, win hearts to make history

Six Dalits are among 36 non-Brahmins who were recently recommended for appointment in various temples under the Travancore Devaswom Board.

india Updated: Oct 14, 2017 16:44 IST
Ramesh Babu
Ramesh Babu
Hindustan Times, Thiruvananthapuram
Kerala,Travancore Dewasom Board,Dalit priests
Dalit priest P C Manoj at the Mahadeva Temple in Arakkapady in Ernakulam district of Kerala.(HT Photo)

When 31-year-old priest P C Manoj (31) entered the sanctum sanctorum of Mahadeva Temple in Arakkapady in Ernakulam district, he was scripting a new chapter.

The reason: He was among the six Dalit priests appointed by the Travancore Dewasom Board (TDB) --- one of the richest temple boards in the country --- that runs close to 1,250 shrines including the hilltop Sabarimala temple.

‘It is a dream come true for me. I was really overwhelmed by the response of devotees,” he said as devotees queued up to garland and greet the new priest at the temple about 100 km from Thiruvananthapuram.

When he was started as a helper at the temple village at the age of nine he never imagined one day he would become a full-fledged priest and create history.

It was for the first time in the history of the board that Dalits were appointed as priests. Among 62 priests appointed last week, 36 were non-Brahmins and six Dalits, something unheard of in the coastal Indian state known for its tourist sites.

“It is a dream come true for me,” said Manoj, who joined the village temple as a helper at age of nine. “I was really overwhelmed by the response of devotees and never imagined that I will be priest of the temple and will create history.”

Manoj said he was never discriminated at his learning days and had an opportunity to train under some of the great head priests like Ambalapuzha Madusoothanan Thantri.

Yadu Krishna, 22, a post-graduate in Sanskrit, could not control his tears when TDB officials and devotees turned up in large numbers to greet him at Shiv temple in Keecherival in Pathanamthitta district earlier this week.

“No script says that only Brahmins are allowed to do priestly work. We have to change with the times. It is just the beginning. Like me more such people will join it. It is not a profession but a service to the God and devotees,” he said, that adding he never faced any discrimination.

Son of daily wage labourer he began his classes in Sanskrit and tantric studies after completing his class 10. The temple priest was his teacher who encouraged him to language considered that of Brahmins.

“My mother is an ardent devotee and she loves to make garlands for deities. She also inspired me. Usually it takes at least 20 years to get expertise in thanthri thantram (science of temple customs and rituals) but I finished it in less than ten years and many gurus helped me in this,” he said.

Sreelatha, a regular at the temple, said, “He performs all poojas and rituals with the expertise of a seasoned priest. He will go a long way.”

Read more: Chanting mantras, breaking barriers: Kerala’s first Dalit priest takes charge

But the road to priesthood was not a smooth one for these Dalits in a country where appointment of non-Brahmins as temple priests is rare. There is no data on how many priests in temples are Dalits but experts it would not be more than a per cent at most.

There were many attempts to prevent their appointments but the TDB and government stood firm winning applause from many quarters.

“I salute the Kerala CM and TDB for appointing 36 non-Brahimn priests. Periyar’s dream realized,” legendary actor Kamal Hassan said in his Facebook post lauding the decision.

Many political parties and organisations like CPI(M) and Viswa Hindu Parishad (VHP) also welcomed the move.

“This is a major step taken to ensure that Brahminical considerations are replaced with the anti-caste democratic approaches to ensure that all Hindu believers get their due share in priestly functions,” the CPI (M) said in a statement.

“We all are human beings and caste can’t build a barrier among fellow beings,” Manoj said.

First Published: Oct 14, 2017 15:27 IST