The Supreme Court’s Sabarimala temple verdict has outraged the vast majority of Hindus while the Left is celebrating a major victory. Leftists and liberals want to plow through centuries-old tradition and allow all women to be able to enter the temple dedicated to a bachelor deity. On the other side, the devout Hindus feel this is a clear instance of the courts declaring open season on their religion, even as the judiciary adopts an ostrich-like attitude towards Muslim and Christian religious institutions.

However, the Sabarimala petitioners – who have no skin in the game – receiving a favorable judgment is not an isolated instance of state encroachment of temple rights. The verdict has to be viewed in the backdrop of decades of neglect and systematic loot of Kerala’s temple wealth by those who were in a position to do so.

What’s surprising is that it’s not just the usual suspects such as communist governments, so-called secular parties, and minorities who have been caught with their hands in the hundi. Temple affairs have been systematically mismanaged by people who are supposed to be the custodians of these temples. It is precisely because Hindu temples have been treated as personal fiefdoms by these custodians that today there are some Hindus who welcome judicial adventurism in temple affairs.

Take the June 2011 discovery of a multi-billion-dollar treasure trove in the inner sanctum of the ninth century Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple. The late TP Sundara Rajan, whose litigation led to the opening of the temple vaults, told the Supreme Court that 2700 kilos of gold dust had gone missing.

However, the pilferage didn’t stop. According to a legal expert, at least 17 kg of gold was pilfered from the vaults of the Kerala shrine in the three years since the discovery.

India's Comptroller and Auditor General told the apex court that one of the temple vaults was opened seven times between 1990 and 2002, and wealth has been taken out. The audit was prompted by a report filed by senior lawyer Gopal Subramanium, indicating gold and silver jewellery offered by devotees to the temple was not accounted for by the temple administration. 

These statements by experts seem to vindicate opposition leader and former Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan’s charges that “royal family members used to smuggle gold in payasam (kheer) pots”. 

Loot and scoot temple wealth

The run on the temple vaults dates back decades. Back in the 1980s, Congress Chief Minister K. Karunakaran issued an order that the Guruvayur Sri Krishna Temple Board withdraw Rs 10 crore from the temple’s bank account and deposit the amount with the state treasury to help the Government out of its financial crisis.

It wasn’t the first time that the state was caught with its hand in the hundi. According to Leela Tampi, Secretary, Hindu Matru Samiti, Trivandrum, in 1962 when India was at war with China, the Kerala government asked the Guruvayur Temple Board to transfer a huge quantity of gold to the Central Government. (In contrast, not a single mosque or Christian church came forward to donate money to the war effort.)

Meanwhile, when nobody questioned if the Guruvayur temple gold was paid back or not, the politicians realised they could milk this holy cow for all it was worth. Promptly, the temple was “persuaded” to invest Rs 1 crore in government bonds. Huge amounts of temple funds were also plundered for political shows like the Congress Party souvenir, says Tampi.

Caste cauldron

Hindu temples are vulnerable because Kerala’s various caste factions work at cross purposes. For instance, there is distrust between the main groups, especially the majority Ezhavas and the Nairs who are locked in a struggle for ownership and control of temples across the State.

One of the most illustrious temples in Kerala is the Vadakkunathan Temple in Thrissur, which holds the spectacular Pooram festival every year. Behind the pomp and pageantry of Pooram is a struggle for control between the – relatively wealthy – Ezhavas who are the major funders on one side and Nairs plus traditional temple castes on the other. While the Ezhavas want an equal say in the running of such temples, the others are loath to give up their hereditary rights.

These fratricidal conflicts are not apparent from the outside but they have been slowing eroding the possibility of a Hindu ‘Mahagathbandan’. This suits communists, seculars and the minorities who can sit back and watch the Hindus fight over control of temples.

Sabarimala – How it all started

The latest Sabarimala verdict has its genesis in a previous incident when the local Hindus sought judicial intervention when they could have easily settled the matter out of court. The matter relates to the case of the Cheerappanchira family which was granted the right to conduct a prestigious ritual at the Ayyappa Temple in Sabarimala hundreds of year ago through a written order of the king. The family belongs to the Ezhava community. In 1947, as the country became a democracy and the reality of democratic rule dawned on the temple elites, the Namboodiri priests allegedly burnt the order.

The temple board then abolished the family’s rights and started auctioning the ritual – ostensibly to raise revenue. The Cherthala-based family challenged the decision in court, where it produced a copper plate on which was inscribed a royal decree granting it the right. According to the family’s tradition, its chief had imparted training in martial arts to Ayyappa, the king’s adopted son. The court, however, ruled that the board had the power to make alternative arrangements.

Whose temples were these originally? Let’s look at the various factions represented in the Supreme Court: the Travancore Devaswom Board (which manages the temple), Nair Service Society (which is a caste-based organization of the Nair community), Padalam Royal family, the Tanthri (chief priest) of the Sabarimala temple and People For Dharma (which led the temple entry campaign on behalf of women devotees).

That leaves out the Ezhava community which constitutes around 23% of the total population of Kerala. Why leave them out when they have played a key role in Lord Ayyappa’s life. But it seems that today they have no locus standi in this matter and are reduced to mere bystanders as are other Hindu communities. It is this disconnect in Kerala between the various castes that prevent Hindus from taking to the streets in large numbers to protest the Supreme Court’s meddlesome tactics.

Women and Lord Ayyappa

Now that the battle for Sabarimala is lost, how can the damage be controlled?

The Supreme Court’s decision is that menstruating women can no longer be barred from visiting the temple. But while Lord Ayyappa was definitely a bachelor, there is no evidence that he was against menstruating women visiting his shrine.

One of the temples within the Sabarimala complex is dedicated to Malikappurathamma. She was the daughter of Cheerappanchira Panicker who trained the young Ayyappa in martial arts. It is believed that she fell in love with Ayyappa and requested the prince to accept her as his wife. However, the young prince turned down her request, saying he was a Brahmachari.

Malikappurathamma had attained the age of puberty and despite that, she has a shrine near Ayyappa’s shrine. In this backdrop, it would be churlish to claim that the Lord is against the presence of menstruating women.
According to Kerala author Sreedevi S. Kartha, the belief that women who menstruate are impure is irrational. “Ancient southern India in fact worshipped the mother goddess and we had so many Bhagavathy temples,” she writes. “These Kali/Devi temples were based on the fertility cult; the root of the word Bhagavathi comes from ‘one who fertilises’. In that culture, the goddess was an oracle, a shaman whose blessings were sought for every aspect of life; right from childbearing to beginning of the farming season.”

Can we leave it to the temples?

External impetus isn’t always a terrible thing. If Sree Narayana Guru, Chattambi Swami, Ayyankali and Mohandas Gandhi hadn’t worked together – and separately – during the Vaikom Satyagraha in the 1920s, it would have taken decades for avarana communities to be able to enter temples. As it is, the Maharajah of Travancore (south Kerala) declared all temples open to everyone only in 1936 and that was after C.P. Ramaswami Iyer, the Diwan of the British government, told him that acting contrary would result in the mass conversion of the avarna castes to Christianity.

After the Maharajah issued the Temple Entry Proclamation, Iyer said, “This action broke the calamity of Hindu religion and helped to strengthen the Hindus.” Indeed, the move prevented further mass conversions to other religions, especially Christianity which was receiving active support from the British.

However, the Travancore Temple Entry Proclamation did not ruffle the independent Maharajah of Cochin (a Kshatriya) or the Samudri of Malabar who was among the few Shudra rulers of India. Both were staunch opponents of temple entry for the avarnas. Incredibly, the Cochin Maharajah declared the entire population of Travancore as untouchables and banned any Travancore citizen from entering temples under the control of the Cochin government. Universal temple entry happened only in 1947.

You get the picture – had we allowed the old order to decide universal declaration of human rights, we’d still be waiting. It is only the arrival of democracy – and the rule by majority vote – that unlocked the temples to the common people.

Reclaiming the Legacy

Hinduism is a constantly evolving religion and will never stop growing. Unlike Islam and Christianity, which are permanently stuck in the age of goatherds and shepherds, Hinduism is a scientific religion developed by scientific people.

For those who fear that menstruating women will defile the holy space of Lord Ayyappa, here’s a thought – the Lord will find a way to convey the message whether he’s happy or not with the decision. Until then let’s not think on his behalf. Meanwhile, only the most left-liberal women below the age of 10 and above 50 years will undertake the pilgrimage. Why not let them become the guinea pigs. If they remain hale and hearty and live up to a ripe old age, if the ‘energy fields’ in the temple area and pilgrimage route don’t paralyze their bodies, then maybe Lord Ayyppa is quite okay with women devotees.

What’s urgently needed

During the peak season, the Sabarimala temple attracts well over 30 million – that’s almost the total population of Kerala. Despite that, the facilities for the pilgrims who come from all over India and the world are minimal and atrocious. For instance, from the Pamba river staging area where vehicles park to the plateau thousands of feet above where the shrine is located, there are only a dozen or so toilets on this path.

Author and journalist Rajeev Srinivasan paint a sorry picture of the pilgrimage: “Once you get up to the plateau, things don’t get any better. Often, in the peak season, you have to wait for up to 10-12 hours in line in concrete sheds with corrugated-iron sheeting as roofs, which get stiflingly hot on sunny days. Accommodation availability is utterly minimal: many sleep in these very sheds. Toilets, bathrooms, a clean place to sleep, decent food to eat, medical care – all are scarce.

“The amount of plastic trash around the place is startling: bottles, bags. There are feral pigs – yes, wild pigs with mean-looking fangs – rooting in the food waste and human waste, and they add their droppings to the mess of mud and paper and flowers and plastic.”

It is shocking that such dirty surroundings are tolerated by the temple management and the government. Equally surprising is that no leftie NGO has filed a PIL against this. Instead of squabbling over menstruating women, both sides should have been outraged by the filth and made efforts to prevent the stampedes that have occurred here.

Before they got sucked into the vortex of corruption and caste politics, temples were traditional community hubs where citizens could congregate for both spiritual and temporal reasons. For instance, ordinary people could watch – and even take part in – debates between pundits, rulers and philosophers. Every village had multiple temples. The recovery of temples from the clutches of the secular nexus must be expedited so they can once again be centres of education and regeneration.