Faith
The Siva temple is said to be 300 years old. And the tribals say, they don’t want the Board to turn it into a temple that follows upper caste rituals.

The tranquil atmosphere at the Malleeswara temple in Attappady is any devotee’s dream. But the tranquility right now is only on the surface, as a major fight is brewing in the region over who gets to manage the temple: The tribals of Attappady, who have traditional rights over the 300 year old temple, or the Malabar Devaswom Board, which has now formed a trust and taken over the administration of the temple.

Situated in the sleepy village of Chemmanur, on the way to Agaly, the temple is an important place of worship for the tribal people of Attappady. With the take over by the Malabar Devaswom Board, the people fear that their tribal rituals would gradually be eliminated from the temple, to make way for rituals of the upper castes at the temple.

And to ensure this doesn’t happen, the tribes are willing fight the long fight, and their first step is to go to court.

History

The Malleeswara temple, whose main deity is lord Siva, is said to be around 300 years old. There are 108 tribal hamlets in Attappady, and the annual Sivarathri festival at this temple is their largest festival. Not just people from the hamlets, even devotees from Tamil Nadu visit the temple for the festival. At the festival, the tribals offer their first harvest to the god as an offering.

Traditionally, generations of tribes who live in the hamlets of Osathiyur and Kollamkadavu in Attappady have held the right to manage the temple administration and perform the rituals.

Two other hamlets – Abbannur and Pottikkal – have the right to light the lamp on top of the Malleeswara Kudomudi (hill) on Sivarathri every year.

While the people of Osathiyur and Kollamkadavu belong to the Irular community, those from Abbannur and Pottikkal belong to the Mudukkar community. The Irular are believed to have traditional rights over the temple, and the Mudukkar have some rights through a marital alliance.

Until the 1960s, the temple was administered smoothly without any external interference. The tribals enjoyed complete authority over the temple.

However, things started to take a turn in 1975-76, as there was a rift between the tribes over the administration of the temple.

The rift, and the solution

“From then on, it happened almost every year. The rift would take place during the time of the Sivarathri festival, over who is the real authority of the temple. There were also arguments over the revenue collected during the festival,” says UC Kunchan, former president of the Malleeswara temple committee. Kunchan belongs to Osathiyur hamlet. 

Speaking to TNM, Kunchan, who is also the chairman of the Girijan Sevak Samithy – a tribal welfare organisation – says that at that time, the dispute was resolved by the then district collector of Palakkad, Madhava Menon.

“Seeing the fight happening every year, Madhava Menon set a draft scheme with 12 guidelines under the Madras State Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act for the temple administration,” Kunchan says.

As per the draft scheme prepared on March 31, 1976, the administration should be carried out by five traditionally authorised people appointed either by a committee or by a deputy commissioner. Four of the administrators should be selected from among the people of the four hamlets – Osathiyur, Kollamkadavu, Pottikkal and Abbannur. The fifth member should have acceptance of all the people. The draft scheme said that the committee should elect a chairman in two months, whose duration in office would be two years.

“Though the draft scheme clearly said that the committee members should be those who have traditional rights over the temple, at that time, our people did not have the ability to read and understand what it said. It was a time when our community members used to hide themselves when they saw people from outside. They couldn’t read or even speak Malayalam to understand the guidelines in the draft,” Kunchan says.

The people in Attappady’s tribal hamlets speak Irula language – which has more resemblance to Tamil than Malayalam.

Osathiyur

“The ignorance of the tribal people was utilised by those who have no traditional rights to the temple, who in due course took over the temple administration,” Kunchan claims. 

“Though there were voices of dissent, they weren’t strong enough. This interference only ended when some temporary solutions were reached in 2006,” he adds.

In 2006, the tribals held a public meeting, and elected Kunchan as the temple committee president. He continued till 2014, getting re-elected to the post every two years.

Another fight

However, in December 2014, a group of people including Ayyavadan, who is the Moopan (tribal head) of Osathiyur hamlet, tried to become the head of the temple committee. While Ayyavadan said that he wanted to do more developmental activities in the temple, Kunchan claims he was misguided by some outsiders.

In the committee that was formed for the conduct of the 2016 Sivarathri festival, Ayyavadan and his supporters got the upper hand. Sivakumar, the temple priest, became the president of the committee. In 2015 and 2016, the committee was led by Ayyavadan and Sivakumar, and Kunchan says he was kept away from the affairs of the temple.

Apparently upset with alleged irregularities in the temple administration, Kunchan then complained to Nooh, the then Sub-Collector of Ottappalam. Nooh directed the formation of a committee with representation of two people from each of the four hamlets, and three others from the public.

But the issues continued, even necessitating police interference. In 2017, the District Collector intervened. Following this, the Sivarathri festival committee was formed with Kunchan as president. But the temple committee itself was dominated by people loyal to Ayyavadan and Sivakumar.

In December 2017, Kunchan filed a complaint with the Revenue Divisional Officer, asking them to direct the temple committee to present their revenue-expenditure accounts. Following the complaint, two meeting were held – one in December and one in January 2018 – at AHADS (Attappady Hills Area Development Society). The meetings were chaired by Ottapalam Sub-Collector Geromic K George, but the warring factions couldn’t come to a consensus.

The twist

The Sub-Collector then handed over the issue to the District Collector Suresh Babu, who then took the issue to the Devaswom Commissioner K Murali. The Devaswom Board called for applications to form a trust for the temple administration. On January 21, the trust was formed under the Malabar Devaswom Board, with Siva Subramania Das as president. The members of the trust are K Chandran, P Velli, B Rajesh and AV Murugan.

This has managed to bring the warring tribal groups together. 

“Though the members belong to the tribal hamlets, they don’t have traditional rights to take over the temple administration. Only people belong to Devanar clan have the traditional rights. We are going to challenge the taking over the temple by the Devaswom Board,” Kunchan says.

“Taking away the rights from us will in future completely change the temple rituals, and in due course there would be no similarities with what we have practiced. We have to resist this at any cost,” says Pazhaniswami of Osathiyur.

Ayyavadan and others also feel the same. “We can’t be mere spectators now. All we want is for the temple traditions to remain intact. We have realised our mistakes,” says Ayyavadan.

Ayyavadan (white shirt) and Pazhaniswami

“The temple has to be ruled by us – by people who have the traditional right, not by anyone else,” says Rengan of Kollamkadavu. 

The priest, Sivakumar, too, echoes the opinion. “If the Devaswom Board is taking over the temple, we will have to resort to other protest measures. We do pujas in Irula language and there is no recital of Sanskrit mantras here. But if we are kept away from here, everything will take over a U turn,” he says.

On Sunday a meeting was held in Agaly in which around 500 people took part supporting the cause of retaining the temple with the rightful tribal people. Representatives of 18 tribal organisations also participated in the meeting.

“We oppose turning the temple into one run by upper caste people, conducting pujas like Ashtamangalya puja with Brahmin priests, bringing astrologers… All of these are alien things to tribal people,” Kunchan says.