Reports on the controversy over the entry of women of menstruating age into the Sabarimala temple have referred repeatedly to the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), the erstwhile royal family of Pandalam, and temple thantri’s (supreme priest’s) Thazhamon family, all of whom have stakes in the administration, traditions and rituals at the jungle shrine. What are their functions?
Travancore Devaswom Board
Kerala has five Devaswom Boards, autonomous bodies under the state government, which manage the temples in the state and their assets, and ensure their smooth operation. The Travancore, Cochin and Malabar Devaswom Boards manage around 3,000 temples among them; two temples, the Sree Koodalmanikyam Temple at Irinjalakuda in Thrissur, and the Sri Krishna Temple at Guruvayur, have their own Devaswom Boards. Following the creation of the United States of Travancore and Cochin on July 1, 1949, all temples owned by the Travancore royal family passed under state control. Travancore Maharaja Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma asked the government to create a separate, autonomous body to run the temples in the erstwhile princely state, and in 1950, the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) was set up. With the formation of Kerala state in 1957, the TDB came under the state government. Until 1967, a member of the royal family used to be on the TDB. The Board now has a president and two members, who are nominated by the government. The TDB runs 1,249 temples, including Sabarimala. It made Rs 683 crore from these temples in the last fiscal; however, only 61 temples, including Sabarimala, earn more than they spend. The revenues from these temples subsidise the other 1,188, with financial support from the government. Sabarimala contibuted Rs 342 crore to the TDB in the last fiscal, Rs 73 crore of which was ploughed back into the shrine. This year, the TDB has to pay Rs 354 crore in salaries to its 5,000-odd employees, and Rs 133 crore in pensions. The TDB appoints priests, assistants and other staff in its temples; it made history last year by appointing Dalit priests. It also runs a few educational institutions.
(Erstwhile) Pandalam royal family
The myth of Ayyappa, the deity of Sabarimala, has its origins in the royal family of Pandalam, who emerged from a branch of the Pandyas of Madurai and settled at Pandalam in southern Kerala. It is believed that King Rajasekhara of Pandalam found a child on the banks of the river Pamba and adopted him as Manikandan. When Manikandan was 12, the queen hatched a conspiracy to kill him by sending him to the jungle to fetch her the milk of a tigress. But Manikandan returned riding a tiger. Manikandan subsequently retreated into the forest and become Lord Ayyappa of Sabarimala. In the 18th century, the shrine passed under the control of the Travancore kingdom. However, the Pandalam family continued to enjoy rights over rituals and traditions at the temple, and even now has custody over the ornaments worn by Lord Ayyappa. During the festival season every year, these ornaments are taken in a procession to Sabarimala from the Pandalam palace. After the festival ends, the chief priest closes the shrine and hands over the key to a member of the royal family, who then instructs him to safeguard the shrine until the next pilgrimage season. The Devaswom department under the Travancore State honoured the Pandalam family’s rights over the temple. The family claims the TDB has only administrative rights over the temple. Since Ayyappa is believed to be a minor, the TDB has to guard his assets and ensure that rituals are followed.
Members of the Brahmin Thazhamon family, based in Chengannur in Alappuzha district, have traditionally been the thantri (supreme priest) of the temple. Legend has it that the sage Parasurama gave the Shiva temples of Kerala to the Thazhamon to run. Shaiva practices were followed at Sabarimala, even though Ayyappa is believed to have brought Vaishnavas and Shaivas together — the reason he is known as Hariharasuthan, the son of Shiva and (the feminine avatar of) Vishnu. The post of thantri passes from generation to generation in the Thazhamon family. The current thantri is Kandararu Maheswararu. His son Kandararu Mohanaru, and Kandararu Maheswararu’s sister’s son Kandararu Rajeevaru, are the other thantris in the family. While the thantri is the supreme priest, the mel shanti is the chief priest who supervises the daily puja. The chief priest is appointed by the TDB every year.