On January 30, 2023, when hundreds of Dalits from the Thenmudiyanur village near Thandarampet in Tiruvannamalai district entered the Muthumariamman temple for the first time in 80 years, it was touted as a historic move by the Tamil Nadu government. A year later, the temple has been all but abandoned by the village’s caste Hindus, who have instead installed a new Muthumariyamman idol in a separate spot away from the temple. They have also been performing poojas for the new idol, even conducting a village procession with it on January 22, 2024, and have allegedly been refusing to enter the original temple after Dalits entered it.
Speaking to TNM, some Dalit residents in the village alleged that caste Hindus were trying to encroach upon government poramboke land to construct a new temple, likely exclusively for dominant caste people. “It is clear that caste Hindu villagers are considering constructing a new temple near the community pond, as was indicated by the idol procession and subsequent poojas near the pond,” said C Murugan, a Dalit resident of Thenmudiyanur.
Nallathambi, a former panchayat president from the Udayar community, didn’t refute the allegation that they might build a new temple, instead claiming, “If at all we erect a new temple, it would be constructed on patta land, not poramboke land.” When asked, he said no social restrictions have been imposed on caste Hindus in the village against worshipping at the existing Muthumariamman temple. “They simply refused to go to the temple after the Dalits’ entry,” he said.
Thandarampet tahsildar Abdul Raheem also said that the ground near the community pond was cleared only to cook Pongal, and that there was no plan to construct a temple there.
The 80-year-old Muthumariamman temple has been under the control of the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department (HR&CE) for the last 30 years. Even as Dalit residents were entering the temple with police protection for the first time in January last year, villagers from Udayar, Agamudaiyar, Reddy, Naidu, Chettiyar, and Vanniyar communities had staged protests against their entry outside the temple. The temple was later sealed and police protection around it was beefed up to avoid any untoward events. Citing possible caste violence, it was kept closed for nearly seven months.
Sathiyasheelan, a Dalit resident from the village, told TNM that they had also filed a petition with the HR&CE to allow them to be part of the temple’s 12-day festivities after the Pongal celebration on January 15, but their request was neglected this year as well.
It is to be noted that in Thenmudiyanur, caste Hindu residents celebrate post-Pongal festivities for 12 days. As the village houses more than 10 castes, each day’s celebration would be dedicated to one particular community. There has been a prolonged demand by Dalit residents that they be included in the celebrations, but it has never been paid heed to, even by the HR&CE.
The Dalit villagers, however, made Pongal delicacies and offered it to the deity inside the temple premises on January 15, said Murugan. “Even on that day, the caste Hindus were stubborn that they would not enter the temple which was opened for Scheduled Caste residents of the village,” he said.
TNM made multiple attempts to contact the HR&CE department regarding the new idol installation by caste Hindus, and the lack of permission to Dalits to participate in post-Pongal festivities, but there was no response. We also tried to reach Tiruvannamalai SP Karthikeyan and District Collector B Murugesan to know why such an idol procession was permitted to be conducted in a village, which has become a simmering hotspot for atrocities against Dalits.
It may be recalled that within a few days after the temple entry, caste Hindus had unleashed a wave of violence against Dalits in addition to imposing a social and economic boycott on them. The caste Hindus even cut off water supply to the small farmlands owned by Dalits, while many Dalit labourers in the village were removed from their jobs. A petty shop owned by a Dalit single woman in the village was burned to ashes and several other such crimes were committed, with the police — though bound by law to register cases under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act — reluctant to file even a basic FIR in most cases.
The article will be updated if and when we receive the officials’ response.