WHEN K S Rakesh was appointed as the chief priest of the Siva Temple at Neerikode near Paravur in Ernakulam district on October 12, 1993, the Kerala High Court stayed the Travancore Devaswom Board’s decision, Brahmin outfits protested, upper caste devotees attempted to prevent him from entering the sanctum sanctorum, while the temple administrator was reluctant to hand over the keys.
All this because Rakesh is an Ezhava, a dominant caste in the state but one tagged in the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category. It was only after another division bench of the high court allowed his appointment, a decision upheld by the Supreme Court in 1992, that Rakesh was finally able to take charge as a melsanthi (head priest). The apex court ruled that there was “no justification to insist that a Brahmin alone can perform the rites and rituals in the temple,” and that as part of the rights and freedom guaranteed under Article 25 of the Constitution, “any deviation would tantamount to violation of any such guarantee under the Constitution.’’
Some 25 years on, Rakesh is now a tantri (senior priest) with control over 200 temples across the state — the only non-Brahmin to hold the post in the TDB. “My stand is that a person should be a Brahmin only by his deeds, not by birth. Any Hindu can become a Brahmin by learning rituals and offering poojas as per the stipulations,’’ he says.
Rakesh says there is little opposition from Brahmins to the appointment of Dalits and OBCs as priests in temples, mainly because not many Brahmin youth are willing to take up the profession. “Upper caste women nowadays are highly educated and are employed in the sunrise sectors. They are reluctant to marry temple priests. This has forced Brahmin youth to gravitate towards other professions,’’ says Rakesh.
Sources in the TDB say that of the 466 candidates interviewed for the post of priests, only a small portion belonged to the Brahmin segment.
Hindu Aikya Vedi Ernakulam district secretary M C Sabu, a prominent priest who has trained several Dalit and backward youth, too says Brahmin youth have lost interest in the profession. “Hindu society has accepted changes in this area because if it insists that only Brahmins should be appointed as priests, many temples will close down. Besides, court verdicts in this regard have also played a vital role in reducing the opposition,’’ he says.
Premjith Sharma, a senior priest from the Ezhava community, says the newly-appointed priests face no opposition as they have been posted at shrines on the periphery. “When they are appointed as melshanthis (head priests) in major temples, the Dalit priests will face resistance. As others cannot interfere in issues happening inside major temples, Dalits who cannot weather the resistance would have no option but to move out,’’ says Sharma, who had been boycotted by the upper caste faithful when he joined the TDB 17 years ago.