Five years after the Travancore Devaswom Board, an autonomous body under the Kerala government, appointed Dalit priests to its temples, priests from backward Hindu communities are still fighting for their right to perform rituals at the Sabarimala hill shrine, where only a Kerala (Malayala) Brahmins is made chief priest.
The Kerala High Court’s devaswom (temple affairs) bench on December 3 heard a bunch of petitions challenging the board’s criterion that only Kerala Brahmins should apply for the post of chief priest at Sabarimala. Petitioners have challenged the notifications issued by the board every year, saying the criterion is violative of the fundamental rights guaranteed under Articles 14, 15 (1) and 16(2) of the Constitution of India.
One of the petitioners, Vishnu Narayanan, who has been a priest for the past three decades, is confident that he has the eligibility to become a priest at Sabarimala. “Times have changed. A person should be a Brahmin by his karma, not by birth. In several temples, backward Hindus and Dalits are performing rituals. But at Sabarimala, we are being denied the opportunity for the sole reason that we are not Brahmins. This discrimination on the basis of caste should end,’’ he said.
With postgraduate degrees in English and astrology, Narayayan, who belongs to the backward Ezhava community, is also running Thantra Vidyalayam, a school to train priests, in Kottayam. He approached the court after the board rejected his petition.
“My fight is for the next generation. Merit should be the only factor that should be considered for the posts of priests at Sabarimala. Nowadays, a few youngsters from the Brahmin communities are joining this profession. Many young priests have quit as there is no social life for the priests. So the situation demands changes in tune with the times,’’ he said.
Rajeesh Kumar, another applicant, sees the post of chief priest at Sabarimala as a dream job. “Irrespective of caste, the post of thanthri at Sabarimala is the most cherished dream. It is our right. Many priests are educated in tantra vidya, apart from the general stream, and have the required experience of 10 years at a temple. But the condition of Malayala Brahmin is the only stumbling block,’’ said the priest with 23 years’ experience.
In 2017, the board took a major step towards social inclusion by appointing Dalits priests to the temples under its control. The entry of Dalits into the sanctum sanctorum was facilitated by the board’s decision to select priests in line with the recruitment process followed for government jobs and by adhering to reservation norms.
The board initiated a similar reform in 1970, when around 10 members of an OBC community were appointed priests, but the decision was opposed by the Brahmin community. Subsequently, the board redesignated the 10 OBC priests as clerks and shifted them out of the temples. And it took a Supreme Court intervention in 1993 for an OBC priest to be appointed to a Kerala temple. But the mantle of the chief priest at Sabarimala has remained elusive for OBC communities thanks to the condition that only Kerala Brahmins are eligible to apply.