Non-Brahmin priests knock on Sabarimala temple door. Will they be let in?

Sabarimala Heritage Tourism Project moving at a snail's pace

Non-Brahmin priests who had applied for the post of Sabarimala melshanthi this year have found their applications rejected. Reason: They are not 'Malayala Brahmins'.

Being a Malayala Brahmin is the first condition laid down in the guidelines issued by the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) for the appointment of priests in the hill shrine. Sabarimala is the only temple under the TDB that insists on a Malayala Brahmin as priest.

Other temples had to drop their orthodoxy after a Supreme Court verdict in 2002 said “there is no justification to insist that a Brahmin or Malayala Brahmin alone can perform the rites and rituals in the Temple.” The case, N Adithayan vs The Travancore Devaswom Board, related to an upper caste challenge against the appointment of a non-'Malayala Brahmin' as the priest of Kongorpilly Neerikode Siva Temple at Alangad in Ernakulam.

The first batch of non-brahmin priests trained by P Madhavaji and Sashtrasharman Namboodirippad in 1986
The first batch of non-brahmin priests trained by P Madhavaji and Sashtrasharman Namboodirippad in 1986.

In 2017, after reservation norms were applied for the first time in Devaswom recruitments, 39 of the 72 priests recruited by the TDB after tests and interviews were dalits and members of other backward communities. Some like Sudhikumar, who was appointed as 'Keezhshanthi' in Chettikulangara Devi Temple, Mavelikkara, did face resistance and was not allowed to function. Now, after the government issued an order reinstating him, he seems to have been accepted.

Job application as a means of protest
Orthodoxy somehow managed to hold on in Sabarimala. It is not as if the non-Brahmin applicants were ignorant of Sabarimala's pre-renaissance rules on melshanthi appointment. They applied anticipating rejection. For these non-Brahmin priests, whose ancestors were once forcibly kept out of temples, it was also a kind of revolt, an attempt to keep alive the flames of Kerala's renaissance movement.

“I have the experience and the knowledge they (the TDB) have asked for. My only seeming drawback is I am not a Malayala Brahmin,” said Vishnu Narayanan, an Ezhava priest who had applied thrice and was the first to go to court against the 'Malayala Brahmin' stipulation, in 2017. “But isn't Sabarimala a place where caste and even religion are non-existent? Right on top of the sreekovil is written 'Thathwamasi' (loosely translated as 'What They Call God is You'),” he said.

Vishnu Narayanan has been melshanthi of Pallom Subramania Swamy temple in Kottayam for over 16 years. The requirement is 10 years as melshanthi. He has also learned pujas and tantric rituals from institutions approved by the Devaswom Board. He is also skilled in Sanskrit, another requirement for a Sabarimala melshanthi.

Outdated rejection slip
Besides rebellion, practical reasons also prompted Vishnu Narayan to keep applying for the melshanthi post. “The first time I applied (in 2017) they rejected my application without giving a reason. So I applied the next year, too. This time the rejection letter gave in bold the reason for rejection. 'Rejected for not being a Malayala Brahmin', it said. This I could take to court,” Vishnu Narayanan said.

Shaji Aravindan, a non-brahmin applicant for melshanthi post.
Shaji Aravindan, a non-brahmin applicant for melshanthi post.

On the basis of his petition, the Kerala High Court had appointed an amicus curiae in 2018 to study the issue. “Nothing has come of it and so we have filed the case once again,” Vishnu Narayanan said.

This year, the TDB called for applications for the post of Sabarimala melshanthi on May 27. Vishnu Narayanan received his rejection letter on July 14. His latest petition in the High Court has argued that the TDB's move to invite applications only from Malayala Brahmins was “unconstitutional”.

Non-Brahmin's Ayyappa connection
Shaji Aravindan is the other non-Brahmin candidate who has been rejected and has approached the High Court. “We also deserve to be Sabarimala melshanthi. We have been trained in pujas and rituals in the most scientific manner in vidya peetams approved by the Devaswom Board. They can't use caste to keep us out. Kerala has come a long way,” Shaji said.

He is now melshanthi of Panavally Arayankavu Ksehthram, Cherthala. But Shaji has a deep connection to Lord Ayyappa. He is also the chief priest of Cheerappanjira Kalari, a mythical martial arts centre in Muhamma, Alappuzha, where Lord Ayyappan is said to have acquired his 'kalari' skills. Cheerappanchira Tharavad is also the home of Subhadra/Poongudi, a young lady who had fallen in love with Ayyappa and is now deified as 'Malikapurathamma' in a shrine near Sabarimala.

Azhakathu Sastrasharman Namboodirippad
Azhakathu Sastrasharman Namboodirippad

Paliyam Proclamation
Both Shaji and Vishnu are disciples of Mathanam Vijayan Thanthri, the first non-Brahmin priest who had applied for the Sabarimala melshanthi post in 1979. He was interviewed and tested and was found very good. “But when they realised he was Eezhava, he was rejected,” Vishnu Narayanan said. “It was then that the TDB and others realised that a non-Brahmin could potentially apply for the melshanthi post. It was after this that the Malayala Brahmin stipulation was introduced,” he said.

The progressive movement to induct non-Brahmin priests in temples had begun with the Paliyam Proclamation in 1986. The proclamation was made from the Chendamangalam Palace in the presence of Azhvancherry Thamprakkal, the seniormost member of the traditional Namboodiri household Azhvancheri mana and other senior Brahmin members of the most influential Brahmin families in Kerala. They were persuaded by an RSS idealogue called P Madhavaji.

The whole idea took off from the philosophy that everyone is born a 'shudra'. It is their actions, karma, that elevate them to a Brahmin. Madhavaji then organised a 10-day study session ('patana shibiram') that trained non-Brahmins in rituals and tantras. As many as 25 non-Brahmin priests were ordained as priests fit to conduct pujas and rituals in any Hindu temples.

Azhakathu Sasthrasharman Namboodirippad was the priest chosen by Madhavaji to train the non-Brahmin priests. “Customs should change with the times,” said Sastrasharman, now the president of Aluva Thanthra Vidya Peedam. He has officially attested to the quality of many non-Brahmins who had applied for the melshanthi's post. Brahmin priests, too, seek certificates of quality from Sastrasharman. Some had even gone on to become Sabarimala melshanthis.

Vishnu Narayanan
Vishnu Narayanan

Poetic justice for non-Brahmins
In fact, the TDB itself had been running a training institute, Thanthra Vedantha School in Tiruvalla, since 1969 where everyone irrespective of caste were scientifically trained in 'Shodassa Samskara', the rituals performed at 16 stages of life from birth to death. The Supreme Court, in its 2002 order, had said it was a social imbalance that concentrated canonical powers in the Brahmin community. It even hints that sacred texts had not barred non-Brahmins from performing priestly duties.

“If traditionally or conventionally, in any Temple, all along a Brahman (sic) alone was conducting poojas or performing the job of Santhikaran, it may not be because a person other than the Brahman is prohibited from doing so because he is not a Brahman, but those others were not in a position and, as a matter of fact, were prohibited from learning, reciting or mastering Vedic literature, rites or performance of rituals and wearing sacred thread by getting initiated into the order and thereby acquire the right to perform homa and ritualistic forms of worship in public or private Temples,” the verdict says.

The apex court was, in effect, saying that training non-Brahmins to become priests was the morally right thing to do. The 2002 order observed that the public had no grievance or grouse against the non-Brahmin priests who had come through the Vedantha School.

Once bitten twice shy
Though the ground has been prepared, the LDF government is wary of rushing into a decision. “Many of us want this to happen. But we have to be careful. We don't want this to be made into a major controversy,” devaswom minister K Radhakrishnan told Onmanorama. “You know very well what happened with the decision to allow women's entry. We need to hold wide discussions,” he said.

Some of the leading Brahmin priests Onmanorama talked to had a common concern. “Now it is Sabarimala. Tomorrow, there will be clamour to appoint non-Brahmins as priests in Guruvayur and Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple where priests are appointed only from certain families,” they said, none wanting to be quoted.

They also offer a solution. “Let there be a fair and transparent decision. Conduct a 'devaprashnam' and leave the decision to the Gods.”

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