Their appointment was to mark social change, but only those without Brahmin colleagues are not reporting harassment.
When on August 14, 2021, chief minister of Tamil Nadu MK Stalin appointed 23 non-Brahmin archaka, or priests, to various temples across the state, it was seen as a radical move. It seemed Stalin was realising a dream that had been birthed in the 1970s, when politician and social activist EV Ramaswami, popularly known as Periyar, demanded priesthood in Hindu temples be opened up to all castes.
For the 23 chosen priests, the CM’s order was a landmark moment in their lives. Speaking to the New Indian Express, one appointee said he felt as though he had got his personal independence on August 14, 2021.
However, within months, much of that triumph had faded.
In January this year, 30-year-old K Kannabiran, who had been appointed a priest at Sethunarayana Perumal temple in Srivilliputhur, tendered his resignation. He said the Brahmin priests insulted him every day that he worked at the temple. “It was stressful not just for me, but for my family too. That's when I decided to quit," Kannabiran told Newslaundry.
Non-Brahmin priests were inducted in various temples in August last year. Source: Srinivasan
An inclusive priesthood
Periyar called the caste-based discrimination in Hindu temples a thorn in his heart and in addition to demanding entry for all into these religious sites, he raised the issue of only certain Brahmins being allowed to join priesthood. He said people of all castes should be allowed to become archaka and his campaign would motivate the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which was in power in 1971, to amend the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act and abolish hereditary appointments.
Aggrieved parties moved court and in 1972, the Supreme Court said priests should be appointed according to the respective norms of a temple. At the same time, the apex court also upheld the Tamil Nadu government’s amendments as valid and “essentially secular”.
Periyar referred to the verdict as “operation success; patient died” in an editorial he wrote for Viduthalai, a mouthpiece publication for DMK.
In 2006, chief minister M. Karunanidhi – who had also been the chief minister in 1971 – made another attempt to fulfil Periyar’s mission. Karunanidhi passed a special government order that declared any person with the “requisite qualification and training” was eligible for the post of archaka in one of the 44,713 temples that are under the state’s department of Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowment (HR & CE).
An 18-month course was introduced in 2007, which would train interested candidates, irrespective of caste, to become priests. Of the 240 people who enrolled, 207 graduated from the course in the following year – only to find themselves unemployable because the Hindu group All India Adi Saiva Sivacharyargal Seva Sangam had filed a petition in the Supreme Court, challenging the archaka training schools.
Even though the Supreme Court’s 2015 verdict allowed the course, the archaka training schools stayed inoperational and their former students remained in limbo.
Stalin’s order, with appointments for 24 priests – 23 of whom are non-Brahmin – came 13 years after these graduates had become qualified archaka.
Non-Brahmin priests perform pooja before an idol they made, at a training school in Thiruvannamalai. Source: Srinivasan
The training school is inside the Arunachaleshwarar temple. Source: Srinivasan
Non-Brahmin priests receive training at the school. Source: Srinivasan
Harassment by Brahmin priests
The years between 2008 – when they graduated from their training course – and 2021 were difficult for the aspiring priests.
“I live in a village where my caste is known to everyone. No one hired me for private events. I was ridiculed because the government that stood up for the cause couldn’t hire us,” said a Dalit student from the 2008 batch, who has since changed his profession.
Vannamuthu, who is a non-Brahmin priest from the same batch, said some of his batchmates found work in private temples where the pay is less than the government salary.
However, becoming a government-appointed priest has come with its own set of challenges.
“Prior to my appointment, I received threatening calls. Even today, the Brahmins [in the area] give me deadly stares and criticise my ways of pooja although I adhere to the Agama,” said M Velumurugan, 33, who was posted in the Naganathaswamy temple in Tiruchirapalli. He is the sole priest at the temple.
(Agama are a set of canonical texts that cover a variety of topics including the construction of temples, the installation of idols and rituals of worship.)
Newslaundry spoke to 10 of the 23 non-Brahmin priests who received appointments in 2021. Only two said they were doing the job they were hired to do. Both are working at temples where they have no Brahmin colleagues.
“As I am the only priest in this temple, I face no discrimination. There is no opposition from the devotees,” said T Yoganathan, who is the priest at the Vazhai Thottathu Ayyan temple near Coimbatore.
Wherever non-Brahmin priests have to work with Brahmin colleagues, they face discrimination and harassment. Many say they have been sidelined and aren’t allowed to do their job.
Kannabiran, who worked at the Srivilliputhur’s Sethunarayana Perumal temple and resigned in January, said, “I was hired for the post of archaka, but never worked as one. All I did was clean the temple,” he said.
Another priest, who is Dalit, said on condition of anonymity, “Even during a busy day, they [Brahmin priests] never ask me to perform rituals like abhishekam. I don’t have the courage to enter the inner sanctum even though on paper, it is my job to do so.”
As the chief priest of a temple in southern Tamil Nadu, 31-year-old Manigandan (name changed upon request) should perform pujas at the main temple’s sannidhanam, the inner sanctum where the main deity is kept. “The Brahmin priests said they wouldn’t enter the inner sanctum if I did the same,” he said.
Instead, Manigandan works at a temple for the Navagraha (nine planets) in the complex, which is referred to as a “sub-temple”. “The Brahmin priests call their relatives to help them with abhishekam,” he said. “I have no answer when devotees ask me why I don’t enter the inner sanctum.”
His Brahmin colleagues have also ensured that Manigandan does not make prasadam.
R Murugan, 34, was appointed a madapalli paricharagar, or cook, in the Sri Lakshminarasimha temple in Tindivanam. However, he has been denied entry to the temple kitchen and is not allowed to enter the main temple’s sannidhanam. Murugan is tasked with minor odd jobs like opening smaller temples, plucking tulsi leaves and lighting lamps outside the sanctum.
“During festival days, I was asked to manage the crowd along with the watchman,” Murugan said. He says that on one occasion, a priest placed a burning piece of camphor on Murugan’s palm, saying it would “purify” Murugan.
“The domination of hereditary priests prove that it is easy for a Dalit or a non-Brahmin to become an IAS officer or even a president in the country – but not a priest. These practices are a violation of Article 17 [abolition of untouchability] in the Indian Constitution,” said V Ranganathan, president of the Tamil Nadu Government Archakar Association and a member of the 2008 batch.
A WhatsApp complaint to HR & CE minister Babu about alleged untouchability faced by one of the priests. Source: Srinivasan
Lack of support
In December 2021, Manigandan complained about his mistreatment to the HR & CE minister P K Sekar Babu, when the minister visited the temple where Manigandan works. He told Babu about the discrimination faced by the temple’s non-Brahmin staff.
During his visit, Babu “warned” the Brahmin priests about how they were treating their non-Brahmin colleagues, according to Manigandan.
“Following that, the Brahmin priests asked us to perform pooja outside the inner sanctum to take pictures. Nothing changed later,” said Manigandan.
Murugan also tried to find redressal through due process. He called up HR & CE department officials in December 2021 to complain about not being allowed to do his job, but what followed was a continuation of harassment. “The priest asked me to cook prasadam outside the kitchen. I was provided with no utensils for hours,” said Murugan.
Since December 19, 2021, Murugan has been on medical leave. “I am scared to work alongside Brahmin priests. I have requested the executive officer to post me in a temple that has no Brahmin priests. I am hopeful that the department intervenes,” Murugan told Newslaundry.
Acknowledging the discrimination faced by non-Brahmin priests, the commissioner of the HR & CE department, J Kumaragurubaran, said, “Bent on removing untouchability in temples, we are working thoroughly to make the scheme a success. We will ensure that the non-Brahmin priests are given their right to perform rituals. In the meanwhile, as the government is supportive of the cause, I urge them to not give up the fighting spirit.”
Officiating non-Brahmin priests believe that the support of devotees and the state can help change the casteist mindset that dominates so many temples. “Devotees should question why non-Brahmin priests are not entering the inner sanctum. The executive officers in temples should ensure that the practise of untouchability is eradicated under their watch,” said a Dalit priest, requesting anonymity.
A legacy of mistreatment
The 23 non-Brahmin priests have faced discrimination because of their caste identities since they enrolled for the archaka training programme.
The course taught students religious practices as outlined in the Agama, as well as other Vedic, Saivite and Vaishnav texts. In addition to oral and written exams, the curriculum included a 10-day training at a private temple.
However, both the students and those who chose to teach the course faced virulent opposition.
“Brahmin groups declared they would banish anyone from the community who taught us and so, we struggled to find a teacher who would teach the Agama. A 85-year-old teacher from Bengaluru, who came forward to teach us, was attacked,” recalled Ranganathan.
Students who visited temples for training were mocked by Brahmin priests. At the Arunachalaesvara temple in Tiruvannamalai, which comes under the HR & CE department, Brahmin priests refused to let the students in training perform rituals involving the idol. “They defied the instructions from the HR & CE department by doing so. We made [an idol] ourselves after waiting for weeks,” Ranganathan said.
Soon after Stalin’s order was released in August 2021, a total of 24 writ petitions were filed by various Brahmin priests and religious groups, challenging the appointments and the archaka training schools. Ranganathan said some of the petitioners have the support of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The arguments put forward in these petitions include the claim that religious institutions should decide such appointments rather than the government; and that there will be an “overall dilution of religious practices” if the tradition of appointing priests only from families linked to the deity is abandoned.
“Tradition believes that such persons and families are preferred by the deity itself to perform the poojas and rituals. Such matters, apart from being essential religious practices, are core beliefs attached to the religious institutions concerned and cannot be negated by the State, nor be tested before a Court of Law,” reads a petition filed by A Mannadi, a hereditary archaka at Sri Madurakaliamman Temple, in Perambalur district.
In response to these petitions, 12 of the non-Brahmin priests have filed a petition of impleadment, which is a process by which a new party is brought into a legal action because they have a direct interest in the case and are therefore necessary parties.
“When these petitions can affect my job, why should I not be impleaded? The court should implead not just the working non-Brahmin priests, but also those who are awaiting appointments as parties,” said Vannamuthu, who is one of the 12 petitioners.
In February 2022, a bench of the Madras High Court disposed of the petitions of impleadment, stating the archaka are not necessary parties.
However, HR & CE commissioner J Kumaragurubaran is optimistic that currently-employed priests will be made respondents at the next hearing, which is scheduled for April 6. “The judge dismissed the petition because a prospective student tried to be impleaded. We are optimistic that the court would allow officiating archaka to become respondents in the next hearing,” he said.
S Vanchinathan, who is representing the non-Brahmin priests, said the petitions against their appointment advocate for untouchability. “It is a flawed argument constitutionally,” said Vanchinathan. “By arguing that people from a certain sect should only be archaka, Hindutva groups are promoting untouchability. How can their ways be allowed in a public temple?”
The HR & CE department plans to reopen the archaka training schools in April and if this happens, there will be a new batch of qualified priests – many of them from non-Brahmin backgrounds – next year. There are still 176 graduates from the 2008 batch who are awaiting appointments. The experiences of the older students while they were training and the challenges faced by the non-Brahmin priests who received posts in 2021 raise many concerns.
Despite all the obstacles they’ve faced, only a small number of the non-Brahmin archaka have chosen to either change professions or tender resignations from their appointed posts. Most welcome the state government’s decision to push for inclusivity, which has given them the opportunity to pursue their dreams and make history.
“I am a happy person when I go to a temple, but when I perform poojas, it feels like I am a step closer to God,” said a Dalit priest from the 2008 batch who requested anonymity. “The temple has always felt like home and I didn’t want to learn anything other than the rituals of pooja.”
On February 8, Velumurugan hoisted the flag at Naganathaswamy temple in Tiruchirapalli to usher in the Masi Thirvizha celebrations. He is the first ever non-Brahmin priest to perform this ritual.
“It takes time for everything to change,” said a Dalit priest who was among the priests named in Stalin’s August 2021 order. “I consider my appointment a victory.”
A weekly guide to the best of our stories from our editors and reporters. Note: Skip if you're a subscriber. All subscribers get a weekly, subscriber-only newsletter by default.