Mantri vs Tantri: Guruvayoor’s reality check

Hindustan Times | By, Thiruvananthapuram
May 30, 2007 02:54 AM IST

Admission to non-Hindus in Kerala’s Guruvayoor temple has forced the temple management to consider updating their norms for the new millennium, reports Ramesh Babu.

This week’s controversy over rights of admission to non-Hindus in Kerala’s important Guruvayoor temple has forced the temple management to consider updating their norms for the new millennium. The decision on Monday in the culturally important town of Thrissur, 29 km away, by the Yogashema Sabha (an apex body of priests and Brahmin organisations in Kerala) to initiate a reform process in temples has the Viswa Hindu Parishad and the dominant Nair Service Society supporting the move.

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This ancient temple to Lord Krishna attracts millions of devotees from all over south

India and is a popular venue for weddings and annapraashan (the ceremony of the first solid food fed to babies). Guruvayoor’s mytho-history links its idol to Puranic times, when Brihaspati (Guru) and the deity of the winds (Vayu) bore it away to Kerala at Lord Vishnu’s behest and installed it there.

Witness to history

In recorded history, Guruvayoor was twice attacked and partly burnt by the Dutch in the 18th century and raided by both Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan. It was the British, after routing Tipu, who reportedly helped the local Zamorins (kings) re-possess the temple and have it rededicated to worship by the local Brahmins (Namboodris). In modern times, the temple made history in 1936 when Travancore Maharaja, Sree Chithira Tirunal Balarama Varma, li fted the traditional ban on ‘untouchables’ entering the temple by his famous edict, the Temple Entry Proclamation. With this, all temple doors were open to all Hindus. Mahatma Gandhi lauded it as a major milestone in the fight against social injustice.

In very recent times, incidents with even Hindu devotees appear to have gradually nudged the Guruvayoor orthodoxy to reform point, notably the ‘baby fine’ case two years ago. Back then, Anil Kumar an auto mechanic from Alapuzha and his wife Smitha, were detained for hours and had to pay Rs 2,000 as penalty at a temple at Thrissur. Their offence? Their six-month-old baby’s incontinence inside the shrine. When the issue became a major controversy, the Temple Affairs Minister had to intervene to refund the penalty.

Millennium move

“Such outdated rituals and customs will have to go,” says Anil Kumar. “The case of Christian singer K.J. Yesudas, who was not allowed entry, though a devotee and now the purification of the temple because minister Valayar Ravi’s wife is Christian, have really opened our eyes. I am sure the Yogashema Sabha’s initiatives will bear fruit,” says RSS ideologue P. Parameswaram, director of socio-cultural society Bharatiya Vichara Kendram.

Now Rahul Eswar, the 20-plus grandson of the Sabarimala head priest, who barely a year ago vehemently defended that temple’s ban on ‘fertile’ women devotees, says, “About 80 per cent of the delegates of the Yogashema Sabha favoured reforms. But how to start and what with, have to be discussed in detail. Age-old customs cannot be changed overnight.”

Whether this talk of reform will eventually qualify as a second Temple Entry Proclamation depends, say watching devotees, less on mantri (ministers) and more on tantri (priests).

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    Ramesh Babu is HT’s bureau chief in Kerala, with about three decades of experience in journalism.

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