An Ezhava priest challenges Brahminical priesthood at the Sabarimala temple

Courtesy CV Vishnu Narayanan
14 November, 2018

On 28 September, the Supreme Court lifted a 63-year-old ban on the entry of women aged between 10 and 50 to the Sabarimala temple. Situated in the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district, the temple is a shrine to the deity Ayyappan. It is managed by the Travancore Devaswom Board, or TDB, a socio-religious trust. The September judgment triggered massive demonstrations as protestors claimed that implementing the verdict would destroy the sanctity of the temple. Women who attempted the pilgrimage to the hilltop shrine were hounded and none were allowed to enter. The court has now agreed to hear review petitions challenging the verdict in an open court on 22 January 2019. The TDB, which has earlier expressed its disagreement with the judgment, has not challenged the court’s verdict.

Its actions at the Sabarimala temple ignore principles laid down in an earlier Supreme Court judgment pertaining to the eligibility for priesthood at another temple under the control of the TDB. In 1993, the TDB appointed a non-Brahmin priest as a santhikaran—subordinate to the head priest in the temple—at the Kongorpilly Neerikode Siva temple in Kerala’s Ernakulam district. A writ petition was filed against the TDB alleging that it compromised religious freedom by appointing a non-Brahmin priest. In 2002, the Supreme Court dismissed the petition, saying that “there is no justification to insist that a Brahman or Malayali Brahman in this case, alone can perform the rites and rituals in the Temple, as part of the rights and freedom guaranteed under Article 25 of the Constitution.” However, the post of the thantri, or head priest, has been passed on hereditarily within the Thazhamon Madom, a Brahmin family, since 1902. Moreover, only male Malayali Brahmins are appointed as santhikarans. There are two kinds of santhikarans—the melshanti, or chief priest, and the keezhsanthi, or assistant priest.

CV Vishnu Narayanan, a priest from the Ezhava, a backward-caste community, applied twice for the melshanti position at Sabarimala. The Ezhavas comprise the largest Hindu community in Kerala and are listed among the Other Backward Classes by the central government. After Narayanan’s last attempt this year, he received a letter from TDB which stated, “Rejected because [you are] not a Malayali Brahmin.” In an interview with Aathira Konikkara, a reporting fellow at The Caravan, he talks about the opaque application process and the 2002 judgment in appointing melshantis at Sabarimala.

Aathira Konikkara: How long have you served as a priest?
CV Vishnu Narayanan: I started out 26 years ago at Subramania Swamy temple [in Kerala’s Kottayam district]. I was there for six years. After that, at the age of 19, I became a melshanti in the Kuttikattu Devi temple in Kottayam and was there for four and a half years. Currently, I am the melshanti at Pallom Subramania Swamy temple in Kottayam.

AK: Are any of these temples under the TDB?
CVVN: No, they are private.

AK: Did you face discrimination at other temples you served in?
CVVN: No, it has not happened in the temples where I served so far. But then, I am an SNDP member [Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, an organisation that works for the welfare of the Ezhava community]. I have also largely been with temples associated with it.

AK: Were there priests from backward castes when you first started out?
CVVN: Definitely. There were a high number of members of backward castes who became priests. My guru, Mathanam Vijayan Thantri, had appeared for an interview to be the melshanti in Sabarimala in 1979. They came to know about his caste after he passed the interview. He was told, “You already have a job. Can’t you continue living with that?” He was rejected in the name of caste, because he was not a Brahmin. That is when they [TDB] realised that others [non-Brahmins] will also apply to the post. Since it was in 1979, I don’t have any first-hand knowledge about it. I have heard that it was reported in the papers and the guru has shared this with others.

From this, we need to understand that it was after 1979 that the Malayali Brahmin [criteria] was added for the appointment of Sabarimala’s melshanti—[if] it was stipulated in the notification it would not have been possible to apply or to appear for interviews.

AK: What are the qualifications needed to apply to become a melshanti at Sabarimala?
CVVN: In their notification, the first qualification they state is that the applicant must be a Malayali Brahmin—against the Supreme Court verdict.

He has to be a 10th standard pass. He must have 12 years of experience as a melshanti in total. One has to be a Melshanti for 10 continuous years in any temple which has pooja five times a day. If one shifts from one temple to another and does not go for a week, there would be a gap—that should not be there in the ten continuous years. He should have no criminal background, there has to be a police certificate as evidence for the same. Other requirements include a certificate from the organisation where he worked, a certificate from the thantri, a medical certificate, caste certificate, SSLC [Secondary School Leaving Certificate].

AK: Are there priests from backward castes currently working under the TDB?
CVVN: Yes. If you look at the recent list of priests appointed by the Travancore Devaswom Board, you will see that most of them are non-Brahmins—Ezhavas, NSS [Nair Service Society, representing the Nair caste], Vishwakarmas, Harijans.

There are [only a] few Brahmins coming in today. They themselves say that they don't get enough freedom because timing is a big issue in this job—they have to be there early in the morning and in the evenings as well. It affects their life with their families. The new generation is not willing to accept it.

There is discrimination in the sense that non-Brahmin priests are sent to common temples. The main temples—Ettumanoor, Vaikom, Chottanikara and others—still have Brahmins. In the case of Sabarimala, they have stated in their notification that they want a Malayali Brahmin.

AK: In the appointments made by the TDB last year, 36 out of 62 priests were non-Brahmins. Were any of them appointed as melshanti?
CVVN: They won’t be appointed initially as melshanti. There is a three-year probation period. It is part-time. So they go to the small temples. Later they are sent to the big temples. Even then, the non-Brahmins are not sent to the big temples. An example is the appointment of a non-Brahmin priest in Chettikulangara. Even that was strongly opposed.

AK: What could be the reason behind distancing non-Brahmins from the major temples?
CVVN: Usually there is savarna dominance in the major temples. Ninety percent of the staff in the Devaswom Board are savarnas. This is a stark truth.

AK: When did you file the petition in the high court?
CVVN: It has been a year now. I applied [to become the melshanti at Sabarimala] for the first time last year. I filed the case just a day after I applied. I knew that I would not be called—the notification states that the applicant has to be a Malayali Brahmin. But I applied in order to file the case. They did not [respond].

I applied this year as well. This time, I received a rejection memo which states that my application is rejected as I am not a Malayali Brahmin. I submitted a letter to the Devaswom Board stating this is against fundamental rights, against the Supreme Court judgment and anti-constitution. I haven’t received a response yet.

AK: Did you expect a positive response when you applied to become the melshanti for the second time?
CVVN: I did not apply the second time expecting them to call me. I knew that they wouldn’t invite me while the case is pending in court. I applied deliberately—I got the rejection memo which serves as proof of the way they work.

AK: Did they give a date for the next hearing?
CVVN: No, they did not. An amicus curiae has been appointed by the high court. Last hearing was before the Mandalakalam [pilgrimage season in Sabarimala in November every year] last year.

I don’t know for how many years this will go on. Shouldn’t a verdict have come before the new appointment that was made ahead of the Mandalakalam this year? Is there a need for an amicus curie when there is already a Supreme Court judgment? Shouldn’t the Supreme Court judgment simply be implemented? I shouldn’t question the court. But my sentiment is prompting me to raise this question.

AK: Have you received the support of any political parties or associations? What about SNDP?
CVVN: Political parties have not offered support. I have not sought it either. But many organisations and people who oppose savarna dominance have come forward with support. We are looking for funds to go to Supreme Court before 30 November. We are having a meeting [soon] in Cherthala [in the district of Alappuzha, Kerala]. General secretary of the SNDP Yogam will participate. We will decide how to take this further there.

We [Ezhavas] believe that regardless of religion, all humans are equal and that there is one caste, one religion, one god. So we view this issue seriously.

AK: Have other priests from backward castes also applied to Sabarimala?
CVVN: At present, nobody has applied, to my knowledge. But I do have a lot of support. Everyone’s opinion is that suitability should be the only criteria—it should not be based on the glory that comes from birth in a family. All human beings are equal.

Even in Sabarimala, it is said that there is no caste, no religion. Vavar Swami [who has a shrine in Sabarimala] was Ayyappan’s friend—he was a Muslim. So I don’t think Ayyappan has a caste. Performing the pooja of Ayyappan is most important. Caste has been stipulated in performing the pooja by human beings—god did not stipulate it.

Such immorality must end. If Malayali Brahmins are suited for the job, let them join. There is no problem with that. But the criteria should be suitability. There should not be a situation where those who are qualified stand outside, while those who are not qualified gain entry on the heritage of the family or the womb they were born out of. We have a democratic system. We all have equal rights, don’t we? None of us believe in caste differences today.

AK: What do you think of the Supreme Court’s decision on women’s entry into Sabarimala?
CVVN: The state has several temples. If you see, it is the women who visit them. So isn’t it enough that women visit these temples in the state? [Sabarimala] is the only temple visited by men. There is no need to end that as well, is there?

Majority of Hindu men pray or go to a temple only in relation to Sabarimala when they fast during the Mandalam season [the 41-day fast before the annual pilgrimage] to go to Sabarimala. Once women go there, men will begin to withdraw. So there is a possibility that they will withdraw from spiritual matters. Sabarimala is not anti-women—there is only the issue of age. The women devotees are addressed as Malikapurathamma [a goddess who is worshipped in a subsidiary shrine at Sabarimala]—women are respected to that extent.

Women have not been left out. It is as per age. They may face difficulties amid the crowd. The purity will not be there [as] chastity is paramount. The fast is the most important part of the Sabarimala pilgrimage.

AK: Based on the premise that “all humans are equal,” shouldn’t everyone have the right to pray at Sabarimala?
CVVN: Yes, definitely. All humans are equal. No doubt about it.

AK: So, is it right to exclude women on the basis of age?
CVVN: Purity is a part of Hindu rituals. That is the issue there. Otherwise, there are no differences among humans. God is within everyone. Now in a church, when someone dies, the dead body is brought inside the church. We don’t do that in temples; we don’t enter without a bath after we have visited a house where someone has died. So the issue of purity is very important in temples. Women have an issue once in a month which is seen in a certain way in the context of purity. That is the only issue.

This interview has been edited and condensed.