The bells of Guruvayoor

A.J. Philip Indian Express, September 22, 2000

The other day Justice K.T. Thomas of the Supreme Court told me how a few years ago when he was a judge of the Kerala High Court, he and his wife were profusely welcomed into the Kashi Vishwanath temple by the head priest, who knew they were Syrian Christians. But in his home state, the head priest of the famous Sri Krishna temple at Guruvayoor deemed it necessary to order punyaham -- a ritual cleansing -- after Vayalar Ravi's son accompanied byhis newly-wedded wife had `polluted' the shrine by his entry there. And to rub salt into the wound, the bride's parents were bluffed into paying for the punyaham. It reminded me of Kameshwar Jha, who after taking over as principal of C.M. College, Darbhanga, from his predecessor who belonged to a Dalit community, purified the chair with the sacred Ganga water in 1997.

The head priest of the temple justified his action on the ground that the Hinduness of the bridegroom was not certain as his mother Mercy Ravi was a Christian. Only a small section of the Ezhavas, the preponderant caste of Kerala to which Ravi, one of the tallest Congress leaders, belongs, follows the matrilineal system. Even if Ravi belongs to this minuscule group, the Hinduness of his son is unquestionable when the latter declares himself as a Hindu. The very fact that he had his wedding at Guruvayoor and had sought the blessing of Guruvayoorappan, as the deity is reverentially known in the state, should have settled the question once and for all.

Far from asserting this unassailable position, Ravi has tried to prove the Hinduness of his son by referring to his educational records and his membership of the Sri Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) yogam. Needless to say, the abode of God is for the devout and any discrimination on grounds of caste or accidents of birth is unconstitutional and, therefore, unacceptable. Far more reprehensible is the argument of the Devaswom Board that in matters of faith the head priest's is the last word. In other words, the Board justifies punyaham. It is strange that the Marxists who rule the state have not said a word against the priest and his benefactors in the Board, which when constituted for the first time in the fifties had R. Shankar, an Ezhava who later became chief minister, as a member.

At least in the past that is not how the progressive state reacted to obscurantism. In the thirties when the Ezhavas, inspired by Sri Narayana Guru, whose revolutionary social and religious teachings should have put him on a par with Lord Buddha and Guru Nanak but for the caste factor, sought entry into temples, the predecessors of the present head priest had opined that there was no need for such entry. But did that prevent Sri Chitra Thirunal Bala Rama Verma, the Maharajah of Travancore, to issue the famous Temple Entry Proclamation in 1936, which was a precursor of similar enactments in the rest of the country? Of course, one cannot easily forget that for more than a decade after the proclamation, the obscurantist priests of Guruvayoor managed to prevent Dalits from worshipping in the famous temple. That is what happens when matters of faith are left to the priestly class to decide.

If Ravi's reaction is anything to go by, he believes that it was his Ezhava background that prompted the head priest to order punyaham. While it is regrettable that Ravi's son had an ignominious return from the temple because of his mother's Christian birth, I do not know whether he is aware that it was Christianity which, in a way, allowed him to enter the temple. When in 1891 a "Malayali Memorial" signed by more than 10,000 representative Travancoreans was submitted to the government praying for the recognition of the right of the Ezhavas to enter the government service, the upper caste Hindus of the state prevailed upon the Maharajah not to concede the prayer. The memorialists sought only privileges that were already enjoyed by the Christians and the Muslims. P. Chidambaram Pillai in Right of Temple Entry says, "The Thiyya (Ezhava) Hindu of Hindu Travancore has not as much right of free citizenship as the lowest Hindu in the Mohammadan state of Hyderabad or the lowest Hindu of ChristianBritish India. To be a Hindu in the Hindu state of Travancore is not a privilege for the non-caste Hindus; it is not a mere handicap; it is a curse; it is an insult."

In dejection many of the Ezhavas embraced Christianity as borne out by the fact that the Christian population of Travancore which stood at six lakhs in 1901 increased to 17 lakhs in 1931. And when their fight for equity was not taking the Ezhavas anywhere, their leadership threatened that they would convert en masse, rather than stay as helots of Hindu society. The alert Diwan, Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer, realised the imminent danger and prompted the Maharajah to issue the proclamation. Otherwise, the history of Kerala would have been quite different. Whereas the Maharajah should have been eulogised for his brave action, the upper caste Hindus saw it as a betrayal. It was the "sanatanis," as they were called, who tried to obstruct Mahatma Gandhi when he visited Kerala as part of his campaign for Harijan welfare.

Those in authority who claim that the head priest of Guruvayoor has the last word on temple rites should bear in mind the heavy price Maharajah Marthanda Varma, who ruled Travancore from 1729 for about 30 years and who is known as the maker of modern Travancore, had to pay for paying heed to such advice. He had an able Brahmin diwan, Ramayyan Dalawa, who had little difficulty in having the Maharajah, whose name was, otherwise, a terror to his enemies, abjectly submit to Brahmin domination. He took three steps by which the whole state was surrendered, bound hand and foot, to the Brahmin. The first was the surrender of the whole country to Sree Padmanabha, the deity in Thiruvananthapuram, by which the ruler assumed the role of the vassal of that deity. The second and third steps were the setting up of oottupuras or feeding houses for the Brahmins throughout the state and the institution of murajapam. The latter was instituted once in six years for feeding Brahmins at a fabulous cost. This wassupposed to remove the sins of the ruler for burning down temples during the wars he waged. It was just an excuse to be fed at state expense. So costly was the feeding enterprise that Marthand Verma's successor had no money to discharge his obligations to the British government and had to take a loan from the Thiruvananthapuram temple to be repaid with 50 per cent interest!

One really wonders whether the punyaham would have been ordered but for the encouragement the priestly class gets from such abject surrender as in Uttar Pradesh where the Ram Prakash Gupta government repealed the 1962 Hindu Public Religious Places Act whereby the sants and sadhus will have a free rein and the state will remain a mute spectator. If this dangerous tendency is not put in check, it will be back to the days of Manu when "the people were nothing, the prince was little and the priest was everything".

It is strange that the Marxists who rule the state have not said a word against the priest and his benefactors in the Devaswom Board

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