Kerala has for the first time allowed Dalit priests to take charge of government-owned temples, taking a giant stride in its sometimes stutter-filled path to social inclusion. Shaju Philip meets the five who made the cut and finds a new generation of Dalit priests, armed with degrees from prominent Vedic colleges, and at ease with rituals, having learnt the ropes in private temples across the state
Over nine decades ago, Dalits and backward castes weren’t even allowed in the vicinity of temples. It took the Vaikom Satyagraha of 1924 to ensure that temple roads in the then Travancore state were opened for all castes. It would take another 12 years and the royal decree of 1936 for Dalits and OBCs to be allowed entry into temples.
On October 9, this year, the Travancore Devaswom (Temple) Board (TDB) broke another major barrier towards social inclusion in the state, appointing five Dalits as priests to temples under its control. The entry into the sanctum sanctorum was facilitated by the TDB’s decision to select priests in line with the recruitment process followed in government posts, including adhering to reservation norms.
The TDB conducted an examination in 2016, held interviews early this year, and appointed 62 priests, of whom five are Dalits. While the current process faced little resistance, similar reform efforts in 1970, when around 10 members of the OBC community were appointed as priests, and in 1993, when OBC priests were finally allowed into temples, were vehemently opposed.
In 1970, following strong opposition from the Brahmin community, the TDB changed the 10 priests’ designations to clerks and shifted them out of the temples. And in 1993, it took Supreme Court intervention to finally pave the way for an OBC priest.
Unlike their predecessors, the new-age Dalit priests have worked at private temples. But being part of the TDB is an altogether different matter. The most prominent of the four autonomous temple boards in Kerala controlled by the state government, the TDB manages 1,252 temples in South and Central Kerala, has nearly 2,500 priests on its payroll, and handles an annual revenue of Rs 390 crore. Its portfolio includes 70 major temples, including the famous Ayyappa Temple at Sabarimala.
P R Yadukrishna, 21
Priest, Shiva Temple at Valanjavattom, Pathanamthitta Dist
With a sacred thread across his shoulder, ash and sandalwood paste smeared on his forehead and arms, P R Yadukrishna, clad in a crisp cream dhoti, looks every bit the archetypal temple priest. Only the 21-year-old has earned his thread, with his appointment as a priest, at the Shiva Temple at Valanjavattam in Central Kerala’s Pathanamthitta District, the first instance of a melsanthi (priest) being recruited on the basis of a rank list.
Yadukrishna, a member of the Scheduled Caste Pulaya community, traditionally toddy tappers, had finished fourth among 946 candidates, who had appeared in the maiden examination and interview conducted by the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB). His entry into the sanctum sanctorum, however, is of much bigger significance — it marks another watershed milestone on the road to temple equality in Kerala, through reform processes that have lasted the last 100 years.
It is also, says the son of a farm worker from Chalakkudy in Thrissur district, the culmination of a long journey, which began with him hanging around the temple near his home. “I used to help the temple in my village by fetching flowers and washing utensils. My parents wanted me to become a temple priest. I even abandoned non-vegetarian food at the age of eight to become a priest,’’ says Yadukrishna, who is now pursuing a post-graduate course in Sanskrit.
Yadukrishna says he left formal schooling to focus on his dream of becoming a shanthikkaran (temple priest). “I have been helping to perform pujas from the age of 15. No one had asked me about my caste. Many of my friends who wanted to become priests abandoned the profession midway. But I stuck to it, hopeful of getting an opportunity. Now it has become a reality,’’ he says.
If protests and resistance had marked the appointment of the first priest from the backward classes in 1993, sentiments among the upper caste communities, it seems, have mellowed. On October 9 when Yadukrishna landed up with his appointment order, the faithful and local advisors of the Pathanamthitta temple, majority of them upper castes, ensured that the Dalit priest was taken to the temple in a procession. He also shares a home with Prakash Bhat, a senior Brahmin priest with another temple in Pathanamthitta.
Yadukrishna’s mentor, Anirudhan Tantri (senior priest), who established the Sree Gurudeva Vaidika Tantra Vidya Peedham at Paravur in Ernakulam district in 1987, remembers him as a “studious” boy keen on learning. “He came to me at the age of six as a helper who brings flowers for the puja at the Naalukettu Sree Dharma Sastha Temple at Chalakkudy,” says Tantri. Yadukrishna had enrolled for a tantric course at the Paravur institute, whose alumni work as priests across several temples in Kerala. The institute recruits teenaged, school-going youths, who are taught about various rituals and festivals in temples.
Pradeep Kumar K M, 31
Priest, Dharma Sastha temple, Narayanamangalam in Ernakulam dist
Pradeep Kumar’s father, M K Karunakaran, too wanted to be a priest. “My father could not complete his studies. I have shouldered his dream,” says the 31-year-old, now appointed at the Dharma Sastha temple at Narayanamangalam in Ernakulam district.
Kumar, who has completed a vocational higher secondary course, says he began his journey into priesthood by offering daily rituals at the temple in his village of Perumbalam in Alappuzha district. He had initially stayed with a senior priest near Cherthala to learn the basics of rituals, but later joined a tantric vidya course at an institute run by the SNDP Yogam.
Now he is studying astrology. “Learning astrology is an added advantage for a temple priest,” says Kumar, whose wife Dhanya is an accountant with a private firm. Kumar says he was unaware of the exam being conducted by the Travancore Devaswom Board. “I applied for the post at the behest of a friend, who intimated to me about the board’s recruitment notification. In fact, I didn’t think about a job under the TDB as, before this, it has never appointed any Dalit priest,” Kumar says.
He adds that he didn’t need to prepare much for the examination, which was modelled on tests conducted by the State Public Service Commission. “We had to mark answers on OMR sheets. The questions pertained to puja practices and other temple matters,’’ Kumar says.
“I see this selection as a blessing from my parents and teachers,” says the priest, who has worked in private temples for 14 years. “So far, I haven’t faced any protests from devotees. Also in private temples, nobody normally looks into the background of priests,’’ he says.
Manoj P C, 31Priest, Siva Temple at Arakkappady near Perumbavur
About 115 km away from Valanjavattam, at Arakkappady near Perumbavur, Manoj P C has taken charge as the priest of the Siva Temple. The 31-year-old Dalit is the first member of his Vettuva community, traditionally coconut climbers, to be ordained as a priest of a TDB temple.
Manoj says that for close to 22 years, he cut his teeth as a priest in smaller and privately-owned shrines, in the shadow of upper caste priests, while moving from one temple to another, and subsisting on a meagre income.
In the private temples, mostly run by trusts, Dalit priests like Manoj work as assistants to the senior priests, who recommend them, and have little job security. They are also stop-gap arrangements, filling in when sitting priests go on leave. And their income would depend on the temple’s revenue and contributions while performing pujas.
“We would go for private pujas and people would hand in contributions. In the initial days of my career, my monthly income was less than Rs 1,000. In recent years, I had been getting between Rs 10,000 and Rs 12,000 a month from assisting the chief priests and working in small temples,’’ says the son of daily wagers. All that is set to change with his appointment. Under the Travancore board, salary is fixed in the Rs 10,620-16,460 scale for the newly-appointed priests, who have to undergo a one-year probation period.
The TDB priests are also entitled to pension after retirement, which would be one third of the last salary drawn. Manoj says he abandoned formal education at Class VII, to focus on studying temple rituals. “During my early school days, I used to assist the priest at the Subramania temple in my village of Nediyara in Ernakulam district,” he says.
He got a break, he says, when the main priest at the prominent Devi Temple in Mannanthala, which was consecrated by social reformer Narayana Guru, took him under his wing. “I was lucky to work as an assistant to the main priest Sabu Santhi. When I joined to learn rituals under Santhi, there were 10 of us. Later, most of them left the field. Even if we become masters in performing rituals, if we don’t get opportunities, we will never become priests,” he says.
After five years of studies, Manoj conducted his maiden puja at the Durga Devi Temple, Oruvathilkotta, near Thiruvananthapuram. Along the way, insists Manoj, he faced no discrimination. “I used to dine with Brahmin priests and we stayed together at the Durga Devi Temple in Thiruvananthapuram. Priests like Deva Narayanam Potti and Ambapapuzha Madusudhanan Namboothiri helped me a lot,” says Manoj.
Kerala Vettuva Maha Sabha president C V Subramanian says Manoj’s elevation would inspire youngsters from the community. “When society is heavily polarised over religion, a Vettuva priest in a temple catering to mainly upper caste Hindus has much significance. This would encourage more children from the Vettuva community to pursue a career in priesthood,” he says.
Jeevan G, 26
Priest, Maha Vishnu Temple, Kaduthuruthy, Kottayam
In the four years he spent working in private temples, Jeevan G, 26, says he never once got an invitation from a Brahmin family to conduct a puja in their home. “Upper caste Nairs and members of the Ezhava community would invite us home for private pujas but never the Brahmin families,” says the youngest son of Gopalan, a farm worker and Thankamani, a homemaker.
Terming TDB’s decision as a revolutionary step, Jeevan says that the fact Dalit men like him have been able to benefit from it, is solely due to the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP), the social organisation that represents the numerically strong backward Ezhava community. The SNDP, he says, allowed Dalit men to learn about rituals in temples controlled by the Yogam. “Several Pulaya youth, including me, have got training in Ezhava temples. Without the gesture of that community, we would not have become priests,” he says.
Although Jeevan’s older brother Sandeep is also a temple priest, it was he who first moved into the profession. “My brother was a medical representative but later embraced this profession. In the last year-and-a-half, he has been working as a temporary priest in a private temple,” Jeevan says.
A bachelor, Jeevan’s spiritual grounding started early. “I began by assisting in temple matters during my school days. After Class 10, I joined as an assistant to senior priests at prominent temples,” says Jeevan, adding that his early years were marked by economic hardship, and to supplement his income, he worked as a daily labourer.
“The job at TDB is of great relief. After a one-year probation, a junior priest is entitled to a monthly salary of Rs 18,000,” says Jeevan, who unlike the other four Dalit priests, had earlier worked with the Travancore board. “I worked at a TDB temple on contractual basis for nine months,” he says.
Jeevan daily routine nowadays involves opening the Maha Vishnu Temple at 6 am and remaining there till 9.30 am. Since his home in Vaikkom is just 15 km from the temple, he returns home for lunch hours. Jeevan says he is then expected back at the temple at 5 pm. “This is a small temple, where a priest need not stay throughout the day. People are very cordial and many have personally come to meet me after hearing about a Dalit man being appointed to the temple,” says Jeevan.
P S Sumesh, 35
Priest, Devi Temple, Nelluvila in Kollam district
P S Sumesh is well aware that the road ahead for the Dalit priests is a tough one. “We are the first Scheduled Caste priests in the Travancore Devaswom Board. We don’t have predecessors from the community to guide us on how to handle difficult situations. And we are yet to see what our presence will mean to the community of TDB priests,” says Sumesh, a member of the Pulaya community.
The Dalit priest is an anomaly in his family of government employees. His father K M Surendran had retired from the state municipal service as a clerk, his mother Ponnamma is an employee of the Animal Husbandry department, while his brother P S Sujesh is a police constable.
That, the priest at the Devi Temple, Nelluvila, in Kollam district says, is because his foray into the world of shrines was accidental. “When I was in school, a swami visited our village, Karuvelil in Kollam, and sought children who could regularly kindle the lamp at the small temple there. From the small crowd, the swami picked me. That was my way to priesthood,’’ recalls Sumesh.
A graduate in English, Sumesh has been working as a priest at various private temples for the past 10 years. “These days, most of the faithful do not bother about the caste of the priests. If we can deliver the result expected from a puja, we will be in demand. In such a situation, a priest has little to worry about caste,” insists Sumesh.
The priests says his job will finally provide him much needed stability. “The job at TDB is a permanent one and my parents had asked me to apply for it. Besides, one can rise up in the TDB and retire as a senior priest with all benefits,’’ he explains.
Sumesh also says his first salary would go to his guru, who he credits for having groomed him as a priest. “Becoming a temple priest is a long process. An aspirant cannot just become the disciple of a priest one fine day. The senior priest or tantri would closely observe an aspirant for months. I, for instance, was under the observation of my guru Sankaranarayan Potti for six months. Only if the guru is convinced about one’s intentions and impressed by one’s behaviour, would he accommodate one as a disciple,” says Sumesh.