Right to worship in Tamil: Why protests raged against Chidambaram temple priests

Saivaite devotees have launched a protest to demand access to the revered sithambalam medai, offer devotional hymns in Tamil, and the arrest of the 20 priests who harassed Jayasheela, a Dalit woman.
Protests at the Chidambaram Nataraja temple
Protests at the Chidambaram Nataraja temple

At the famous Chidambaram Nataraja temple in Cuddalore, devotees have been demanding their right to sing hymns in Tamil and gain access to the revered sithambalam medai within the sanctum sanctorum, which the Brahmin priests have held complete control over. These protests are challenging at once the authority of the dikshitargal, the specific priestly class in charge of the temple; a Sanskritised form of worship; and entry based on caste location. In this regard, multiple organisations and parties espousing progressive ideologies, including the Dravida Kazhagam (DK), Makkal Adhigaram, Thanthai Periyar Dravida Kazhagam (TPDK), Dravida Viduthalai Kazhagam (DVK), CPI(M), VCK and others, had thrown their support behind the protesters.

The protests that began on Februrary 28 were also affected by the February 13 incident this year, when the priests harassed Jayasheela, a Dalit woman devotee who wanted to climb on to the Kanaga Sabai, with casteist slurs. Videos circulated widely on social media show a large group of dikshitargal raising their voices against Jayasheela and even chasing her away. Twenty priests were booked under the Prevention of Atrocities against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act (PoA) and under multiple sections of the IPC, but so far no arrests have been made. Protesters are also demanding that these 20 priests be taken into custody immediately and charge of the temple be transferred to the Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Department.

“These are the three demands: First, access to the sithambalam medai where devotees can sing the Tamil hymns again. Second, the arrest of the 20 priests who harassed Jayasheela and third, bringing the temple under HR&CE control,” advocate Rajenderan and a member of the Deiva Thamizhar Peravai tells TNM.

Who are the protesters?

The Deiva Thamizhar Peravai is a coalition of many smaller organisations such as the Hindu Veda Marumalarchi Iyakkam and Deiva Tamil Vazhipaattu Iyakkam. This coalition works to promote the use of Tamil chants for rituals and important ceremonies.

Mohanasundaram Adigal, a member of the Deiva Tamil Vazhipaattu Iyakkam and a working committee member of the Deiva Thamizhar Peravai says that the singing of Tamil hymns at the sithambalam medai had been allowed prior to the beginning of the pandemic, but had been stopped amid COVID-19 restrictions, “now that the restrictions have been eased, we are asking that we be allowed to resume. The dikshitargal carry out all their rituals as before, they allow whomever they choose on to the sithambalam medai, but we are not given access citing the pandemic. To us, the reason for their actions seems to be untouchability.”

He also adds that the protests have been paused for the time being after the local authorities and police asked for a week’s time to intervene. “This request happened on March 1 though we continued our protests until March 5. We are giving the state government time to come to a decision. In the meantime, we also intend to submit a petition with our demands to the Chief Minister, the Commissioner of Police and to Sekar Babu, Minister for the HR&CE Department,” says Mohanasundaram Adigal adding that protests will resume based on the state government’s decision.

For the Dravidar Viduthalai Kazhagam, despite their organisational ideal of atheism, the issue is one of social justice, “A temple needs to remain a public space. If untouchability is being practised there, we cannot accept it. The state government has brought back into force the right for all castes to become archakars (priests). Yet, this has not been brought into effect in the Chidambaram temple. We see the current issue as one abolishing untouchability and caste pride within the temple, not as one of devotion or belief,” says Viduthalai Rajendran, President of the DVK. With regard to the right to sing the Thevaram, he adds, “The DVK supports this too. Years ago, when a Tamil poet attempted to register his protest by climbing the sithambalam medai and sing the Thevaram, he was assaulted and chased away.”

Viduthalai Rajendran was referring to the incident in March 2008. Arumugasamy, a Tamil poet, peacefully rendered Tamil hymns seated on the sithambalam medai despite the opposition of the dikshatars. He was arrested along with 34 of his supporters and later released by order of then Chief Minister M Karunanidhi. A GO was passed at the time allowing permission for Tamil hymns to be offered at the sithambalam medai following the protests. Arumugasamy passed away in 2017, aged 96.

“The dikshitargal insist that only Sanskrit worship can be allowed. The temple is dedicated to Siva and believers say that Siva nurtured the Tamil language. So why can’t there be devotionals in Tamil in a temple situated in Tamil Nadu? Doesn’t disallowing the hymns hurt the sentiments of Tamil people?” asks Viduthalai Rajendran. “Let those who want Sanskrit worship pursue that by all means. Our demand is that Tamil shouldn’t be treated as a polluting language.”

Ku Ramakrishnan of the TPDK told TNM, “Despite Arumugasamy’s protests, this situation prevails. It appears to us that restricting access to the sithambalam medai effectively stalls the singing of Tamil hymns too. Though we are an atheist organisation, the issue is one of social justice including the harassment of Jayasheela, so we offered our support to the protests.”

Legends and legal tussles over the centuries

From legend to multiple court cases, the Chidambaram temple has long been a site for Tamil Saivite traditions to fight for a place against Sanskritised Brahminical worship. “The Thevaram and Thiruvasagam is central to the Tamil Saivite faith,” says advocate Rajenderan “The texts were kept locked at the Chidambaram temple. Before the time of King Raja Raja Cholan’s rule, the dikshitargal Brahmins were brought in from the north to conduct poojais. It must be remembered that the Chidambaram temple is the most important one to the Tamil Saivaite tradition.” As one of the legends has it, it was the dikshitargal who locked away the Thevaram and Thiruvasagam texts, until they were “outwitted and forced to release them back to the public,” Rajenderan says.

Stories aside, the legal tussle for control over the temple and by extension the form of worship allowed on the premises has been a long and fraught one. The first known challenge to the dikshitar’s authority occurred in 1885 when the priests approached the Madras High Court to deem the temple as private. The court ruled against them saying it was a public place of worship, The Hindu reported in 2014. With the formation of the HR&CE department in 1925, the dikshitars demanded and were granted exemption for Chidambaram temple to come under the department, but they were expected to show accounts to the government as per a section of the Act under which the HR&CE was formed. The temple was then asked to set up a nine-member committee of dikishtars answerable to the government.

This provision was challenged in 1935 by the dikshitar and a tussle for complete private administrative control has ensued since. In 1987, by government order, an executive officer was to be appointed to oversee the temple administration which was challenged by the dikshitar secretary on behalf of the temple in 2009 at the Madras High court. A single bench judge ruled for the transfer of administration to the state government amid allegation of misappropriation of temple funds by the dikshitar trustees. The Supreme Court in 2014 set aside the MHC order re-transferring administration back to the dikshitars.

Ravikumar, VCK MP for Villupuram, says, “The actions of the dikshitars make it clear that the state government needs to take action to regain control of the temple. That untouchability is being practised by the priests is proof that they do not respect the law of the land that prohibits untouchability. The Chidambaram temple is a public space and should rightfully be administered by the state government.”

The protesters also believe the police have been unhelpful with the recent protests and attribute the lack of resolution to the priests’ non-cooperation. Sidhharmungil Addiyar of the Hindu Veda Marumalarchi Iyakkam that is also part of the Deiva Tamil Peravai, says, “The dikshitars have been citing the Supreme Court order in their favour but have failed to produce a copy of it so far. The police have instead asked us to wait until March 7 to give the priests time to do so.” Asked why the police need to access a copy of an open court document only through the priests, Siddharmungil Addiyar says they have no idea but have waited as requested. “Depending on police action, we will take further decisions about restarting the protests.”

He also alleges that when the Deiva Tamil Peravai pointed to the 2008 GO that grants permission to offer Tamil hymns at the sithambalam medai during peace talks organised by the revenue collector and police during the protests, the police asked them to wait 10 days. “Why do they need that much time for enforcing a government order that has already existed for so long?” he adds.

Advocate Rajenderan alleges that the change of state government in Tamil Nadu during that period from the DMK to the AIADMK regime played a role in how the case was argued on behalf of the state in the 2014 Supreme Court hearing. “Now with the DMK back in power, as a party that claims to be founded on Periyarist values, we are demanding that the temple be brought under HR&CE control once again.”

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