Renewed tussle for control over temple treasures in TN reaches Supreme Court

Updated on Aug 30, 2022 10:16 AM IST

Whether it is Tirupati or Madurai Meenakshi Amman Kovil or the famous shrines in Karnataka, there have been demands over the years from religious bodies and groups for temples to be freed from government control

Successive governments in Tamil Nadu have tightened control over temples in the state. (File/NYT Photo) PREMIUM
Successive governments in Tamil Nadu have tightened control over temples in the state. (File/NYT Photo)
ByLakshmana Venkat Kuchi

Temple treasures, spiritual and material, in Tamil Nadu are under sharp focus as a renewed tussle for their control reaches the Supreme Court.

The big fight over religious properties reached the apex court again with senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Subramanian Swamy petitioning against a state law that authorises government control over temples and seeking an interim stay on the appointment of 208 non-Brahmins as archakas (temple priest).

The Supreme Court on Monday sought the TN government’s response on both the issues while staying appointment of non-Brahmins as archakas.

On August 6, the Madras high court upheld the state government’s 2020 decision to appoint non-Brahmins as priests, but added the caveat that the religious policies of each temple (the so-called agama) should decide whether this can be allowed. The court decision pertained to a petition filed by the All India Adi Saiva Sivacharyargal Seva Sangam who sought quashing of rules brought in by the Tamil Nadu government in 2020 regarding the qualifications and appointment of archakas.

Government’s temple control

Successive governments have tightened control over temples. Whether it is Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh or Madurai Meenakshi Amman Kovil in Tamil Nadu or the famous shrines in Karnataka, there have been demands over the years from religious bodies and groups for temples to be freed from government control.

In Tamil Nadu, both the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) governments have retained control of temples.

It was the J Jayalalithaa-led government that brought Ayodhya Mandapam located in Chennai under government control. The MK Stalin-led DMK government has been playing a proactive role in temple administration, including appointment of archakas – women and non-brahmins – a move that has triggered a volley of protests from the largely Brahmin priestly community.

The state’s Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment Department (HR&CE) has conducted a stock review of all temple properties, evicted encroachers and retrieved temple lands, triggering another wave of protests with a few temples strongly opposing government interference in their matters. The priestly community of Podhu Dikshitars that runs the majestic Shaivite temple for Lord Natarajar, Lord Shiva as the Lord of Dance, at Chidambaram refused to cooperate with HR &CE and did not allow the department to inspect its accounts and documents. The BJP and the AIADMK have supported the temple management in the issue. This inspection was seen as a ploy to take over temple administration.

On June 14, a scathing piece was published in DMK’s mouthpiece, Murasoli to the Madurai Adheenam, reminding him of the arrest of late Jayendra Saraswathi (head of the famous Kanchi Sankara Mutt) by the then J Jayalalithaa administration.

Harihara Desika Gnanasambanda Paramacharya took charge as the Madurai Adheenam (one of the oldest Tamil Shaivite monasteries in India) in 2021 and has been criticising the DMK government on various issues including auditing of temple accounts. He has also called for disbanding of the HR & CE department.

Over the past week, the Madurai Adheenam has also criticised the minister in charge of the department PK Sekar Babu.

In response, the DMK’s Murasoli publication ran a scathing piece on Sunday against the pontiff with the title, “A warning to the Madurai Adheenam who is going overboard.” Tamil Nadu BJP chief K Annamalai has also taken the side of the Madurai Adheenam.

Temple politics

The DMK government’s position is that far from controlling the revenue and operations of the temples, the state has actually been funding them. In the latest budget, for instance, Rs130 crore has been allocated to the HR&CE department for renovation of temples and doing special pujas in 12,959 poor maintained temples. “We are spending much more for temples than the previous AIADMK government,” he said in March this year, while presenting the budget.

But activists such as TR Ramesh who took up the Chidambaram case up to the Supreme Court see it otherwise. “Being an anti-Hindu and anti-Brahmin party, the DMK and the government led by it have been trying to take control of the temple,” he said. Annamalai has said his party will stand with the priestly community and foil attempts of the TN government to take control of all temples.

Dismissing demands for government’s ouster from temple administration and control, Tamil Nadu finance minister P Thiaga Rajan on May 14, 2022, posed a series of questions in an interview to The Hindu with regard to Jaggi Vasudeva of Isha Foundation saying that all temples should be handed over to devotees.

“If the temples were taken out of government control, how would be registered as an entity, and would it be registered as a trust or society as there need to be some legal framework,” he said. Asking series of questions, he said, “Who will decide who is qualified to be part of the board to run them. You say give it to the bhaktas. Forget whether it is right or wrong. Which bhakta will I give it to? “Who will create a committee? Who will decide the eligibility criteria for electing a member to the committee that is going to manage [the temples] outside the government? Only from the village where the temple stands or from outside?”

The minister said it is much better for an elected government to govern such places in the public interest. In his budget speech in March 2022, the minister said the religious institutions under the HR&CE Department own 2.04 lakh acres of wetland and 2.53 lakh acres of dry land. Out of 3,66,019 temple properties, only 99,077 were fetching income. Therefore, the officials of the Department had been instructed to bring the rest of 2,66,942 properties, too, under the income-fetching category.

On Monday, chief minister MK Stalin launched 25 projects, worth Rs105 crore, to improve facilities for pilgrims at major temples in the state. On the anvil are construction of marriage halls, halls for devotees to stay and quarters for temple staff. For instance, the popular and historic Madurai Meenakshi temple will get a devotees hall at a cost of Rs35 crore.

Attempt to whip up emotions

“By and large the issue of Archakas appointment has been settled with the Madras high court imposing conditionalities on the appointments of priests, which the government has not challenged. Only the issue of control over temples continues, and for reasons we all know,” political analyst Sumanth C Raman said.

Analysts see the state BJP’s support of the temple managements and trusts as part of the party’s efforts to grow its presence in a state where it remains an insignificant player but has aspirations of becoming the primary opposition.

Prof Ramu Manivannan of the Madras University said that the more the BJP rakes up the issue, the more it helps the DMK. “The move of Subramanian Swamy is purely political, but I wonder whether it will work in Tamil Nadu. The ideological position of the Dravidian parties is that they are not against religion, but have an issue with priesthood being the preserve of Brahmins.” In fact, large number of temples in Tamil Nadu in rural areas have priests who are non-Brahmin already.

“I am expecting the Tamil Nadu government to give a resounding reply to the petition. I don’t see any reason why Tamil Nadu government cannot win this case,” Prof Manivannan said adding that the practice of non-Brahmin priests has been there for more than 20 years in Tamil Nadu.

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