Kerala HC issued interim stay on order allowing churidar-clad women entry into Padmanabhaswamy temple.

Not against churidars oppose autocratic move Supporters of HC stay in Padmanabhaswamy case
news Tradition Friday, December 09, 2016 - 11:30

The Kerala High Court on Thursday issued a stay order on allowing churidar-clad women entry into the famous Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram.  

The stay comes nearly a week after the temple’s Executive Officer (EO) KN Satheesh had relaxed the dress code on 29 November for women, who were till then traditionally required to wear either a sari or adorn a mundu (dhoti) over their dress.

The relaxation -deemed historic by many- however was short-lived with opposition erupting from various quarters, citing unwarranted interference with age-old temple customs. 

The very next day saw the district court issuing a stay order on the same. A division bench of the Kerala High Court also stayed the Executive Officer’s controversial decision, after two private parties approached the Court seeking withdrawal of the same.

The Court reportedly observed that the officer had no authority to make changes to temple traditions, and that the right to do so lay only with the tantri (priest). The Administrative Committee and various devotee groups had cried foul over the EO “deliberately keeping the stakeholders away from the decision-making process."

How it all started

Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple is believed to have been established over 5000 years ago. A strict dress code is prescribed for its devotees, both women and men alike.

After a representation to the temple administration went unheard, Thiruvananthapuram-based lawyer Riya Raji filed a petition in the Kerala High Court on September 29, asking for churidars to be included in the ambit of the prescribed dress code. 

Following the instructions issued by a single bench of the HC, EO Satheesh issued an order on November 28, allowing women to wear churidars and enter the temple. 

Arguments and counter-arguments

Srivaraham Vijayan -BJP state committee member- had earlier pointed to the “distraction” that clothes like churidar and leggings can cause among the other (male) devotees. 

However, activist Rahul Easwar -who had also opposed the EO’s decision- believes that the real issue is not whether churidhars can be allowed in the temple, but the one-sided decision taken by the officer. 

“The officer did not consult any stakeholders in the matter. Neither did he call for a meeting nor did he reach out to devotees, the tantri, or the royal family. The churidar is not what we oppose, but the officer’s unilateral decision. In fact, 94% of the devotees are of the opinion that churidars must be allowed, and that we should adapt to the changing times. The argument of a small section of conservative Hindus is that they cannot allow anyone to wear stitched cloth inside the temple premises,” he avers.

Rahul claims that the various devotee groups are set to request the temple administration to allow churidar-clad women entry into the temple in the next meeting. 

Speaking to The News Minute, EO KN Satheesh insists that the order was issued after asking for the opinions of both the devotees and the Administrative Committee. 

"I however did not receive a response from the Administrative Committee in time, and so their response was not included.” 

Satheesh admits that the Committee had opposed his decision to relax the dress code. He goes on to add that he would follow the HC's order in the matter, and officially file his response, if the Court demands it.

Opining that traditions and social norms have always been subject to change over the years, Deepa Nishant -social commentator and Associate Professor at Sree Kerala Varma College in Thrissur- says:

“The reason they cite is in itself problematic. Modern technology like metal detectors and CCTV cameras are used at the temple….their own staff make use of mobile phones inside its premises, but surprisingly the churidar is not allowed.” 

Deepa cites two reasons for the same: According to her, the said norm is in place to please the shops near the temple, and also at the end of the day, it is simply a matter of power-play. 

She feels that if the same decision had come from the royal family, there would be no fuss at all. 

“They are upset that an outsider dared to change a long-standing tradition. Even long after the royal family has lost its authority, people -including Rahul Easwar- are still trying to exercise a privilege bestowed by birth by making rules,” Deepa observes. 

Terming the High Court’s decision as “extremely disappointing,” Mahila Congress President Bindu Krishna said that the restriction on churidars is an infringement of women’s freedom. 

"The HC has said that the tantri is supposed to have the last word. If that was the stance adopted by the law in the country, the Temple Entry Proclamation of 1936 would never have happened. Why is the Court not ready to help us get rid of such old, absurd traditions? The temple receives devotees from across the country, and the churidar is the most practical attire of all. The sari is not Kerala’s traditional attire, but is still allowed inside temples,” she argues. 

Parvathy -actor, theatre artist and social activist- however has a different take on the subject. Even though churidar is convenient attire and a ban is not justified, she would personally prefer that “the decorum of the temples be maintained”. 

“These are traditions that have been practised since ages. As far as the Padmanabhaswamy temple is concerned, the deity is believed to be the King of the land. How would one dress when one goes to meet the King? That’s the decorum one ought to maintain in temples too,” she feels. 

For Parvathy, it is not a matter of women’s freedom, but the fallout of an autocratic decision by the officer. 

“I do agree that tying a mundu over one’s dress is rather funny. A churidar would any day be a better option. But the matter would not be resolved by simply allowing the same. There is always the pending debate with regard to leggings and jeans,” she remarks. 

(With inputs from Haritha John)