Column | When a young Maharaja made an epochal decision

New York Times clipping

In a state that is struggling to deal with the pandemic, an important anniversary passed by recently without much fanfare. November 12, 2021, marked 85 years since Travancore Maharaja Sri Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma lifted a ban on the entry of ‘lower caste’ Hindus in temples. Those of us with a ‘visible Indian appearance’ would not think twice about entering a temple in Kerala now, as long as we follow the simple mundu and veshti dress code, but until eight-and-a-half decades ago, birth determined a person’s eligibility!

It’s hard to imagine that in 1924 a social movement was needed to let people just pass along the public roads leading to the Sri Mahadeva Temple in Vaikom! Kerala very much deserved the ‘lunatic asylum’ tag. The Vaikom Satyagraha, led by the great philosopher Narayana Guru, was the first major step in the movement to grant access to temples to all Hindus in Kerala.

In 1936, the Maharaja who was just 24 years old, made the courageous but crucial decision to allow the ‘lower castes’ into temples in Travancore. He had the support of his prime minister C P Ramaswamy Iyer.

Greatest reform in 800 years

The Maharaja’s move created waves not just in India, but in many foreign countries. It made the top of the front page of the November 14, 1936, page of the New York Times. In a dispatch filed from Madras, the paper said: “The 24-year old Maharajah of Travancore struck a blow at the ancient caste system of India today by decreeing that none of his 4,000,000 subjects should be barred from state temples, hereafter for reasons of ‘birth, caste or community.” The paper called it the “greatest Hindu reform in 800 years.”

It is only fair to say that this kind of discrimination was not unique to the Travancore state or the areas that later made up Kerala, but the rigidity with which Malayali ‘upper caste’ Hindus practised the caste system pushed away many people away from Hinduism.

There’s little doubt that the Maharaja was inspired by Abraham Lincoln when he wrote the proclamation that banned caste-based discrimination when it came to temple entry.

On his birthday in 1936, he proclaimed, “Profoundly convinced of the truth and validity of our religion, believing that it is based on divine guidance and on all-comprehending toleration, knowing that in its practice it has throughout the centuries, adapted itself to the needs of changing times, solicitous that none of our Hindu subjects should, by reason of birth or caste or community, be denied the consolation and the solace of the Hindu faith, we have decided and hereby declare, ordain and command that, subject to such rules and conditions as may be laid down and imposed by us for preserving their proper atmosphere and maintaining their rituals and observances, there should henceforth be no restriction placed on any Hindu by birth or religion on entering or worshipping at temples controlled by us and our Government.”

The Maharaja’s act did not go down too well with the sections of the society that enjoyed the exclusive rights to enter temples. Initially, police escorts were required to allow members of the oppressed castes to enter temples.

Representative image: A temple in Kerala

Caste and us

Eighty-five years after this major reform, the question of caste does not arise when it comes to temple entry, but it would be wrong to say that the casteist mindset is a thing of the past in the Malayali community. Among Malayali diaspora communities, religious and caste barriers have largely faded in alien lands where the other is often the non-Malayali. There is a degree of resentment that people from other states in India and abroad feel towards Malayalis who they accuse of groupism. Some scholars studying caste-based discrimination in India have even privately termed Malayalis as a caste in themselves. This is not a compliment on the inclusiveness of the diaspora, but criticism of it leaving others out.

Within Kerala though, caste-related problems exist, even if they are not as bad as in the Hindi heartland and Maharashtra. Caste is definitely an issue when it comes to marriage. In a supposedly progressive state, feudal and tribal instincts are triggered even among ‘well educated’ people when the question of an inter-caste marriage comes up. This column could easily be filled up with stories of social boycott, family feuds and other unnecessary dramas that this writer has witnessed over this issue, but that would not be productive.

In the spirit of Sri Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma’s 1936 reform, Kerala’s 21st-century thinkers need to find a way to eradicate this useless institution of caste. Great modern civilisations have a way of retaining the good ideas and practices of the past while junking outdated ones. This is the only way for Malayali society to make serious social progress.

(Ajay Kamalakaran is the author of ‘A Week in the Life of Svitlana’ and ‘Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island’)

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