The tussle over the administration of the temple dates back to the 1880s. So why has the Tamil Nadu government decided to probe alleged irregularities at the temple now and why is there resistance from the priests?

Tamil Nadu HR&CE minister PK Sekar Babu with Dikshithars of the Chidambaram Nataraja temple with the temple in the backdrop
news Explainer Friday, June 24, 2022 - 13:03

The Tamil Nadu government’s Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Department issuing notices to the Chidambaram Nataraja temple has stirred a fresh row over the administration of the temple. The HR&CE Department, which controls the administration of major temples in the state, sent a notice to the Dikshithars (priests) of the temple, asking them to keep ready the details and assets of the temple. However, the Dikshithars have blocked attempts by government officials to obtain these records. The tussle over the ownership of the Sri Sabanayagar temple — also known as the Chidambaram Natarajar temple or the Thillai Natarajar temple — is not new, and has been documented to date back as far as the 1880s. So why has the Tamil Nadu government decided to probe irregularities at the temple now, and why is there resistance from the priests? 

The Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) department, which controls the administration of all major temples in the state, sent a notice to Diskshitars of Nataraja temple, Chidambaram asking them to keep the details of accounts and assets of the temple ready for inquiry on June 7 and 8. 

The history

In 1885, the Madras High Court had held that the temple was a public property and therefore should be managed by the government. However, post Independence, in 1951, under the HR&CE department, the Tamil Nadu government appointed an executive officer to oversee the administration of the temple. The Dikshithars were not happy with this and contested this claim. They maintained that they are the sole administrators of the temple. Since then, there has been a long-standing legal battle between the Dikshithars and the Tamil Nadu government, with both moving pleas and subsequent appeals over the management of the temple. 

The Dikshithars are male married members from a Saivite Brahmin community. They are a micro-ethnic group and today their population ranges around 1,500. Dikshithars are an extremely exclusive group who marry within the community and are hereditary trustees of the temple. It is said that in the pre-Puranic times, the Dikshithars moved to what is now south India from the Himalayas and were appointed as caretakers of this temple during the Chola Empire. The last Chola king is said to have handed over the temple to the Dikshithars. The Dikshithars have maintained that they are an acknowledged religious denomination and in that capacity, they have a right to administer the properties of the temple. So in 1951, when the HR&CE Department was given control of the administration of the temple, the Dikshithars decided to challenge this. 

The legal battles over decades

In 1954, the Supreme Court passed a judgment in the Shiroor math case. The case was similar, in that the Karnataka government had also appointed an officer to manage the affairs of the math, which was opposed by the Mathadhipati of the temple. The main contention was that the appointment of the officer went against the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution in matters of religion and religious institutions belonging to particular religious denominations. The petition said that as per Article 26 of the Constitution, religious denominations have special rights and the freedom to manage religious affairs.

The term ‘religious denomination’ means collection of individuals having a system of belief, a common organisation, and designation of a distinct name — they could be sub-groups of a religion as well. The Supreme Court in 1982 defined it as “a religious sect or body having common faith and organisation and designated by a distinctive name.”

In a landmark judgment in the Shiroor math case, the Supreme Court held that Mathadipatis and Dikshithars are religious denominations, which meant that they have the freedom to establish and maintain religious institutions, and administer such property as well. 

In 1987, the Tamil Nadu government under MG Ramachandran again appointed an officer to oversee the temple administration. Though the Dikshithars moved the High Court again multiple times then, their pleas were dismissed. Since then, multiple such pleas and appeals have been moved in court.

Then, in 2013, the Supreme Court began to hear a civic appeal filed over the issue. The Dikshithars cited the Shiroor math case, and said that Dikshithars are a ‘religious deomination’ and their position with regards to the temple is like the ‘mathadhipati of a math’; and so the administration of the temple being handed over to the state government is violative of the provisions of Article 26 of the Constitution. The government countered saying that though Section 107 of the HR&CE Act exempts religious denominations from the Act, the law applies only to the owners of the religious institution, and Dikshithars are not owners, but caretakers of the temple. 

In 2014, the Dikshithars won the case in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court allowed their appeal and handed over the administration of the temple to the Dikshithars. The apex court bench of Justice BS Chauhan and Justice SA Bobde held that since the Dikshithars have been categorised as a religious denomination, the power to supersede their functions should be for a certain purpose and for a limited duration, and their right to administrate the temple cannot be virtually abrogated.

This means that the Supreme Court also held that the HR&CE Act does not apply to Dikshithars as Section 107 of the HR&CE Act states, “Nothing contained in this Act…shall be deemed to confer any power or impose any duty in contravention of the rights conferred on any religious denomination or any section thereof by Article 26 of the Constitution.”

Since then, the Dikshithars have been in charge of the temple. The Tamil Nadu government under J Jayalalithaa and the AIADMK decided not to contest or appeal the Dikshithars’ claim over the temple. 

Why the tussle re-emerged

In February 2022, as the country opened up after the COVID-19 pandemic and normalcy returned, the temple was opened to the public too. However, the priests at the temple continued to cite COVID-19 norms to keep devotees out. On February 13, a Dalit woman was stopped at the gates of the temple. A video emerged of a 37-year-old Dalit woman devotee — who wanted to enter the Kanaga Sabai inside the temple complex — being abused and shooed away by a group of priests at the temple. Twenty priests were booked under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, but no arrests were made. 

Amid protests, in May 2022, the Tamil Nadu government issued a government order allowing devotees access to the Kanaga Sabai, much to the annoyance of the Dikshithars. The Dikshithars, who have enjoyed unfettered power since 2014, are keen to keep the temple under their control, and have refused to allow devotees access to the Kanaga Sabai — which is a sacred stage that devotees can climb on to get a glimpse of the idol — citing COVID-19 norms. This is when the allegations of discrimination resurfaced, as well as allegations of misappropriation and mismanagement of temple funds.

"When devotees go to offer prayers at the temple, the priests put some camphor and shine a light towards the Nataraja idol to allow devotees to view it. Often, priests charge money for this, and in most temples, devotees get a receipt for the same. But at the Chidambaram temple, there is no receipt. They say they will not maintain any accounts," says Madras High Court advocate Rajenderan, who told TNM he was asked to pay Rs 500 as darshan fees when he recently visited the temple, and was not given a receipt despite demanding one. Those who pay are allowed up on the stage, and entry is restricted for those who don’t. 

This time, the DMK government under MK Stalin decided to probe these allegations. On May 26, the commissioner of the HR&CE department wrote to the secretary of the Dikshithars saying that the department has received complaints over the administration of the temple, and that it has set up a committee to inspect the records of the temple since 2014, which is when the Dikshithars were given complete control over the temple. The inquiry, the HR&CE letter said, will look into income or expenses of the temple, the value of jewels and assets of the temple, and will also inspect the audit reports of the temple.

The HR&CE Department has powers under Section 23 of the HR&CE Act to pass any orders that are necessary to ensure that temples are properly administered and their income is duly appropriated. Under Section 27, the trustee of the temple has to obey orders of the HR&CE Department. 

The letter from the HR&CE was strongly opposed by the Dikshithars. The temple Secretary replied to the Tamil Nadu government saying that the Nataraja temple is not a public temple and that the move of the HR&CE department was “aimed at state-sponsored oppression of a micro-community of Dikshithars who are around 1,500 people and performing religious duties.”

The Commissioner sent them another response. The HR&CE department said that the Sri Sabanayagar temple was a public temple established by former kings and endowed with several acres of properties for its maintenance, and said that the department has the power to appoint a committee to inquire into the affairs of the temple to streamline its administration.

“There is no law that prevents the government from demanding details of funds and expenses at the temple," says advocate Rajenderan. “The HR&CE has the power to seek accounts of any temple in Tamil Nadu, as it is categorised as a public temple. But the Dikshithars are adamant that they want to hold control over the temple and have the power. They also want to earn money and keep it for themselves. They make devotees pay for special poojas — around Rs 3,000 — but these expenses are unaccounted for. People are complaining every day, and an inspection will surely show some irregularities,” advocate Rajenderan alleges. 

However, advocate G Chandrashekhar, who has been the counsel for the Dikshithars in the Supreme Court, dismissed these claims that the HR&CE department has power under the Act to demand accounts and appoint an officer to oversee the funds. “The Supreme Court has said clearly that the Dikshithars are not bound by the HR&CE Act. Dikshithars have protection under Article 26 of the Constitution. They have a constitutional right. The Tamil Nadu government has no power to contest this,” he tells TNM. 

When a team of officials from the HR&CE department went to the temple earlier in June, the Dikshithars did not produce any records of expenditure. They have been insisting that the HR&CE has no jurisdiction to conduct the inspection. 

After the issue snowballed, Tamil Nadu HR&CE Minister PK Sekar Babu said that the Tamil Nadu government does not wish to take over the temple but only act as a bridge between the Dikshithars and the temple. The government is now collecting testimonies and responses from devotees who have alleged misappropriation of funds at the temple. 

Now, after being blocked by the Dikshithars, the Tamil Nadu government sought the opinion and suggestions from the general public on the administration of Sri Sabha Nayagar (Nataraja) Temple in Chidambaram. The government has received around 6,628 petitions and the HR&CE Department will now prepare a report that will decide on the control of the temple.

Also watch: OPS's son OP Raveendranath speaks to The News Minute on the AIADMK leadership tussle

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