Learning about Swami Ananda Theerthan, a little known anti-caste crusader from Kerala

To defy the caste system, Ananda Theerthan would name Dalit students Varma and Namboodiri, which were dominant caste surnames. He would also give them Christian and Muslim surnames, disregarding the religion of their parents.
Swami Ananda Theerthan
Swami Ananda Theerthan
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The 'Swami' in his name and the saffron of his robes might put in your head the image of a religious preacher, but Swami Ananda Theerthan was far from one. A crusader against all forms of discrimination, especially caste, Ananda Theerthan waged his wars in his birth land of Kerala and nearby regions in south India. He was assaulted time and again for his forays with Dalits into spaces forbidden for the lowered castes, like schools and temples. Hardly any of it is recorded, except in the memories of those he fought for. There is little left even on the internet about Swami Ananda Theerthan, a revolutionary who donned the garbs of an ascetic.

The documentary on this little known reformer, Swami Anandatheerthan: Nishedhiyude Aatmashakti, made by Bindu Sajan and Abhijith Narayanan, was a revelation to its viewers, during its premiere at Bharat Bhavan in Thiruvananthapuram on Sunday, January 21. 

The filmmakers’ quest for the man began from wondering if the life of someone who did much for Dalits and the lowered castes in Kerala has been recorded in history. There is a campus named after him in the Kannur University, and there are a few scattered academic papers on him. Yet, an internet search would throw up only a few pages. Bindu and Abhijith, with the help of their creative consultant Sajan Gopalan, were able to unearth a lot more. 

Abhijith and Bindu
Abhijith and Bindu

Ananda Theerthan was born in 1905 to a Konkani Brahmin family in Thalassery. In his early 20s, he was drawn to the teachings of Gandhi, turning up at Gandhi’s ashram in Gujarat, taking part in the civil disobedience movement and the Salt Satyagraha in later years, and going to jail for it. He was also influenced by the teachings of Sree Narayana Guru, another early crusader against caste, and became his last disciple. 

He made Payyanur in Kannur the centre of his work after a protest there, held in the aftermath of the Guruvayur Satyagraha, to allow Dalits the space in front of the Kandoth temple, left Communist leaders like AKG and Keraleeyan brutally injured. Payyannur, he realised, was steeped in casteism, and so he proceeded with the setting up of a school for Dalit children there. He struggled to find space for it since none of the privileged caste members owning land would let him have it for a school for Dalits. Finally, a Muslim man let him build his school, named after Narayana Guru: Payannur Sree Narayana Vidyalayam, in 1931.  

Sri Narayana Vidyalayam
Sri Narayana VidyalayamDocumentary still

The documentary also records his stint in Tamil Nadu, where he followed similar methods to fight caste. He led Dalits to use the water of a pond in Madurai, forbidden for the lowered castes in the 50s, and got beaten up for it, on  the orders of the village officer. He worked for the Harijan Sevak Sangh there, and encouraged the Dalits to come out and claim their rights to use the roads, to drink tea in glasses, to wear proper clothes, say the villagers that Bindu and Abhijith spoke to. Stalin Rajangam, a professor and writer, says in the documentary that there is mention of Swami Ananda Theertha in the writings of Ambedkar. 

He had done similar work in Karnataka too, one of the filmmakers Bindu says, and that her work on this great person is not yet complete.

A joke about the saffron robes of Ananda Theerthan is that Sree Narayana Guru made him wear it so that he would get fewer beatings since someone in an ascetic’s clothes tends to be attacked less. Yet, his reform works in Kerala put him at the receiving end of several brutal attacks. In 1971, he was almost killed when a few young people beat him and tried to set fire to his bruised body after another temple visit with Dalits, but he was saved in the nick of time by three Muslim men in a car. However, another brutal beating in the later years of his life had finally left him too weak and bedridden, affecting even his mental health. Swami Ananda Theerthan passed away in November 1987.

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