It is called Swarga, meaning Heaven. But inside the village that has abundant freshwater streams, hills and farmlands in Kerala’s Kasaragod district, the scourge of caste system runs deep so much so that many upper caste Hindus still consider people from the oppressed castes as untouchables.
Dalits, Adivasis and Other Backward Community members here are not allowed to take the temple’s main entrance, enter its sanctum sanctorum, offer money and dine with others.
They have to climb the rocky steps made only for the untouchables, sit under designated tile roofed structure, hand over their offerings to members of the upper caste communities, watch the festivities from a distance, wait for hours to collect food, take it out and eat it sitting away from the main dining area.
Untouchability, a criminal practice that the Article 17 of the Indian Constitution had abrogated in 1949, is still a norm for the Brahmin families who control the Jatadhari temple in Swarga in Enmakaje gram panchayat, which lies 30km northeast of the district headquarters of Kasaragod.
The issue came to light in 2018 when a member of a Dalit community complained to the police. The law enforcement officials, instead of registering a case, presided over a compromise deal that allowed the ‘untouchables’ temple entry. A few days later, the upper caste families walked out of the deal as “they felt traditions were sacrosanct”. They shut the temple and all the rituals came to a halt. No one has entered the temple for the last three years. People from oppressed castes believed it was a ploy to keep them out of the temple.
Not a regular temple
Jatadhari Daivasthana - abode of Jatadhari- is believed to have been built 600 years ago. The rituals were entirely different from the temples elsewhere. It never conducted daily pujas. It would open only on Tuesdays, Sundays and very special occasions. The Brahmin families, who controlled the day-to-day affairs of the temple, lit the lamps every night until its closure. The major attractions here were the Jatadhari Theyyam, staged four or five times a year, and the feast. The last such event was held in November, 2018.
Jatadhari, the incarnation of Lord Shiva, is mentioned in Malayalam writer Ambikasutan Mangad’s best-selling novel, Enmakaje - the English translation is titled ‘Swarga’ - which is based on the real-life stories of endosulfan victims. The poisonous insecticide sprayed on the cashew plantations for many years had either killed or maimed hundreds of people in Swarga. Subba Naik, a character in the book, mentions Jatadhari when someone asks him about the reasons for the birth of calves with deformities in his village: “Jatadhari’s curse appears to have fallen over this land. It cannot be washed off. It cannot be hidden. We have suffered much.”
The Jatadhari temple thus had a huge significance in the lives of the villagers, which explains why they preferred it over the three nearby temples - Cherkabe Subrahmanya temple, Palappadi Sastha temple and Kadu Kukke Subrahmanya temple.
But the caste discrimination appears to have robbed its name.
Scheduled Caste groups, such as Nalakadaya (who perform Jatadhari Theyyam), Moger, Bhaira and Mayila, Schedule Tribe group of Koragas and Other Backward Caste of Billavas (equivalent to Thiyya or Ezhava in Kerala), considered as ‘untouchables’, have been literally kept out of the temple.
On the other hand, pride of place was accorded to upper caste Hindus belonging to Kannada and Konkani Brahmins, Bunt, Tulu Gowda and Nair communities; OBC groups, such as Maniyani (Yadavs), Viswakarma, Pataali and Agassa. Influential Scheduled Tribe Marathi Naik too found a place in the ‘coveted’ list.
The first to raise voice against caste discrimination was 45-year-old Krishnamohana Posolya, a popular badminton player from north Kerala.
He said the scars of casteism are still fresh in his mind, which forced him to fight against the social evil.
When he was at school, his father used to take him to the temple festival. “I saw some people entering the temple through the main entry, while we took the rocky stairs on the temple’s periphery,” Krishnamohana recounted. The agonising wait for the feast, Krishnamohana said, made him cry many times. “The meals would be served from 2pm. Brahmins would dine first sitting on the matted floor, followed by others in the caste hierarchy. It would go on until 10pm. After everyone ate, the temple officials will ask members of our caste to bring our containers. They would fill rice, curry and payasam (pudding) in them. We had to leave the place immediately. We were not allowed to eat in the main dining area,” Krishnamohana said.
He didn’t go to the temple after passing out from Class 7. “I still believe in God, but I don’t want to be treated as untouchable. That’s why I stopped visiting the temple,” he said.
Around seven years ago, he had discussed the untouchability issue with a lawyer in Kasaragod, who advised him to resort to Ambedkar-style protests. But it was a non-starter.
Later, he began sharing his thoughts with his friend and social worker Srinivasa Naik.
In 2018, Krishnamohana complained to the Special Mobile Squad (SMS), which deals with atrocities against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, about the untouchability practice at the temple.
Additional Superintendent of Police Harischandra Naik, who was a Deputy Superintendent of Police with the mobile squad at that time, confirmed Krishnamohana's petition.
“Yes, we had received a petition against untouchability at the Jatadhari temple. We called both parties and formulated an agreement and sorted out the issue,” he said.
Surprisingly, the police did not register a case against the perpetrators of the crime.
Harischandra Naik, who hails from Swarga, gave a strange reason for his action. “We would not get any evidence if we registered a case. Moreover, the petitioners told us not to register a case.”
According to the deal, Harishchandra said, the four Brahmin families who control the temple had agreed to end all the discriminatory practices.
The deal, however, was short lived.
The Brahmin families, while attending a meeting of the 64-member temple governing committee two days later, stated that they would not intend to break the age-old customs. “They also expressed their unwillingness to run the temple. The temple has been shut for the last three years,” Harishchandra said.
Support pours in
When Krishnamohana launched his lone fight in 2018, a majority of people from the oppressed castes chastised him for acting against the wishes of the villagers.
Many of them had warned him that the curse of the Brahmins would befall him.
“They even tried to influence my wife to dissuade me. But I stood firm as I knew that I was fighting for dignity,” Krishnamohana said.
Social worker Srinivas Naik, whose support helps Krishnamohana tide over many crises, said very few people supported the demand for dignity in 2018. “People were afraid to speak about dignity. Because they feared that it would enrage upper caste people,” he said.
The duo’s efforts, however, worked wonders as Swarga witnessed a sea change in people’s attitude during the last three years.
Krishnamohana said the public support came quite naturally. “We didn’t demand the control of the temple. What we demanded was the permission to use the common stairs, offer donations on our own and dine with others. People from oppressed castes realised that those were just demands,” he said.
Fifty-one-year-old Gopalan, who belongs to the Scheduled Caste tribe of Mayila, said untouchability should end and they be allowed to live with dignity. “We have had enough. It is time to end untouchability and casteism in the society. I work in the areca farms owned by Brahmins. They talk to us while plucking areca nuts. Then why do they consider us untouchables in the temple?” he asked.
Sanjeev P, 50, a daily wage labourer who belongs to the Moger community, said he wishes to dine with others during the Jatadhari temple festival. “Hope I can fulfil my wish soon,” he said.
Yakshagana artiste Sreedhara Pedre, who is with the famous Kateel Yakshagana troupe in South Karnataka, said Jatadhari is the protector of the village. “Hence, we should end untouchability and re-open the temple,” Sreedhara, who belongs to the Naik community, said.
The demand appears to have garnered support from all sections of the society.
Vivekananda Bhatt, a Brahmin who runs a shop at Swarga, said he supports the demand to give equal status to oppressed castes. But he wondered whether it could be achieved quickly. “The caste equations are strongly embedded in the minds of people. So it is impossible to change their mindset all of a sudden. It will take time,” he said.
Politicians: Scared lot
Fear of losing upper-caste Hindu vote bank apparently prevents politicians in Enmakaje from denouncing the caste discrimination and untouchability.
Enmakaje gram panchayat president and Congress leader J S Somashekhara said he is not aware of any caste discrimination at the Jatadhari temple. “The temple has been closed and I am not in a position to talk about it now,” he said.
When asked whether he knew the reasons for the temple closure, he feigned ignorance. “I know the issue started three years ago. I don’t know the reasons,” he said.
Communist Party of India’s M Ramachandra, who represents Swarga ward in the gram panchayat, said he is not in a position to comment on the issue. When asked again, he said rituals and customs were important to Jatadhari temple. “Everyone should try to explore the possibilities of re-opening the temple,” he said.
Temple reopening, however, appears to be a distant dream with four Brahmin families sticking to their decision. They said that they don’t have the wherewithal to run the temple.
Sri Krishna Bhat, a senior member, said the families will not take the responsibility of re-opening the temple. “The management committee can open it if they wish to. We are not going to open it because we don’t have the resources to maintain it,” he said.
Fight to continue
Their adamant stand, however, has not lowered the resolve of Krishanamohana and Sriniavasa Naik to fight for dignity.
Sreenivasa said the government should intervene in the issue and abolish caste discrimination and untouchability from Swarga. “Only the government intervention can end the caste discrimination here,” he said.
Krishnamohana said the Brahmin families are mocking the villagers with their decision not to open the temple. “Everybody in Enmakaje knows that they are playing a dirty game. Now we will intensify our agitation. We will fight till we get justice,” he said.
(Note: This is part of a series that probes casteism in Kerala society)