On 28 September, the Supreme Court lifted a 63-year-old ban on the entry of women aged between 10 and 50 to the Sabarimala temple. Situated in the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district, the temple is a shrine to the deity Ayyappan. It is managed by the Travancore Devaswom Board, or TDB, a socio-religious trust. The September judgment triggered massive demonstrations as protestors claimed that implementing the verdict would destroy the sanctity of the temple. Women who attempted the pilgrimage to the hilltop shrine were hounded and none were allowed to enter. The court has now agreed to hear review petitions challenging the verdict in an open court on 22 January 2019. The TDB, which has earlier expressed its disagreement with the judgment, has not challenged the court’s verdict.
Its actions at the Sabarimala temple ignore principles laid down in an earlier Supreme Court judgment pertaining to the eligibility for priesthood at another temple under the control of the TDB. In 1993, the TDB appointed a non-Brahmin priest as a santhikaran—subordinate to the head priest in the temple—at the Kongorpilly Neerikode Siva temple in Kerala’s Ernakulam district. A writ petition was filed against the TDB alleging that it compromised religious freedom by appointing a non-Brahmin priest. In 2002, the Supreme Court dismissed the petition, saying that “there is no justification to insist that a Brahman or Malayali Brahman in this case, alone can perform the rites and rituals in the Temple, as part of the rights and freedom guaranteed under Article 25 of the Constitution.” However, the post of the thantri, or head priest, has been passed on hereditarily within the Thazhamon Madom, a Brahmin family, since 1902. Moreover, only male Malayali Brahmins are appointed as santhikarans. There are two kinds of santhikarans—the melshanti, or chief priest, and the keezhsanthi, or assistant priest.
CV Vishnu Narayanan, a priest from the Ezhava, a backward-caste community, applied twice for the melshanti position at Sabarimala. The Ezhavas comprise the largest Hindu community in Kerala and are listed among the Other Backward Classes by the central government. After Narayanan’s last attempt this year, he received a letter from TDB which stated, “Rejected because [you are] not a Malayali Brahmin.” In an interview with Aathira Konikkara, a reporting fellow at The Caravan, he talks about the opaque application process and the 2002 judgment in appointing melshantis at Sabarimala.
Aathira Konikkara: How long have you served as a priest?
CV Vishnu Narayanan: I started out 26 years ago at Subramania Swamy temple [in Kerala’s Kottayam district]. I was there for six years. After that, at the age of 19, I became a melshanti in the Kuttikattu Devi temple in Kottayam and was there for four and a half years. Currently, I am the melshanti at Pallom Subramania Swamy temple in Kottayam.
AK: Are any of these temples under the TDB?
CVVN: No, they are private.