Since January 1, notices have been put up outside temples in Tamil Nadu warning devotees against what might be considered indecent attire. Women are told they would not be allowed entry if they are wearing jeans, leggings, skirts and mini-skirts. Men haven’t been spared either. Shorts, bermudas and the ubiquitous lungi have been banned within the temple complex.
The restrictions were announced after a single-judge bench of the Madras High Court in December ruled that the government must introduce a dress code for temple visits “to enhance the spiritual ambience among the devotees, thronging to worship
God/ Goddess”. The court even suggested that dhoti or pyjamas with upper cloth would be apt for men, and sari or half sari with blouse or churidar with upper cloth for women. Although the government initially complied, it has now appealed against the ruling on grounds that the order violates provisions of the Tamil Nadu Temple Entry Authorisation Act, 1947, which allows individual temples to frame rules relating to attire as per their custom and tradition.
For one, the court presumes that a “spiritual ambience” depends on the clothing of the devotee. But why would jeans, skirts, or for that matter, the lungi, disturb or disrupt the ambience? There is yet another presumption on the part of the court — that its, or the present moment’s, notions of morality and decency are universal and, hence, fit to be made into law. Such an understanding is at variance with the diverse character of the Hindu spiritual universe. The Hindu religion is no single order, but an alliance of multiple faith systems and practices. Every temple follows its own set of rituals, rules and regulations, which claims legitimacy from some unique tradition. These codes of conduct and worship are rooted in the local milieu and invariably influenced by numerous factors, ranging from local ecology to economics to aesthetics. For instance, in southern Tamil Nadu, male devotees are traditionally required to remove the upper garment — prescribed as necessary by the Madras High Court — while entering many temples.
The legislature and judiciary must restrict their interventions to temporal matters, except in the case of rituals and spiritual practices blatantly discriminatory towards an individual or a section of society. With regard to the right dress for worship, let
devotees and the temple bureaucracy decide what fits best.