Why the secular government is not a rightful manager of Hindu temples

Why the secular government is not a rightful manager of Hindu temples

Can ‘Government failure’ be an excuse for stopping a population from practising their religion? Recently, a local Court order has blocked the regular festival schedule of a temple under the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department (HR&CE) citing lack of public facilities.

“A series of orders issued by a civil court, staying auction of temple shops and suspending bus stand project has apparently hindered the famous Oonjal (swing) festival of Sri Angala Amman Temple, Melmaliyanoor near Chennai,” says a report published in Times of India.

The court had apparently cited lack of public amenities including poor hygiene and police security as reasons for stopping the swing festival.  Lord Shiva is believed to have become relieved of the Brahmahatya dosha at Melmaliyanoor by worshipping the Angala Amman, the manifestation of Goddess Parvati, on the new moon day. Hence, the Oonjal festival, a monthly Amavasya ritual whereby the goddess is rocked on a swing to pacify her anger, is celebrated on every New Moon day with great enthusiasm. Since the twenty minutes long Amavasya Swing Festival attracts lakhs of pilgrims to the temple town, and despite repeated pleas, the temple administration failed to make improvements in the public amenities, including hygiene, two local activists filed a case against the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department (HR&CE).

According to the HR&CE Act, the management and control of the temples and the administration of their endowments are one of the primary responsibilities of the department. But the performance of HRCE department has never been up to the mark and many serious objections and complaints have been raised by the devotee communities all over Tamil Nadu regarding the same.

Madras High Court in March 2017, directed the HR&CE department to restore possession of 14.31 acres of land donated to a Coimbatore temple for establishing a flower garden and grant the land deeds in the name of the temple. The said land was originally given by a lady to the Sri Kari Varadaraja Perumal Temple in Peelamedu Sowripalayam Village in Coimbatore district, for setting up a Nandavana Pushpa Kaingariyam (flower garden). But a private trust appropriated the documents and sold the lands to 35 others from 1996 to 2011. Since the devotees reached the court, a remedial action took place. Nevertheless, the possibility of private or non-Hindu entities appropriating the land of various temples cannot be neglected. The HR & CE department should be held responsible for such lapse as it is their duty to maintain the temple properties as well.

The HRCE department wields only administrative control over the movable and immovable assets of the temples. However, plenty of instances can be cited where the endowment authorities step above their limits and misuse the property of the temples. In February, HR & CE department went overboard and ordered slashing of 545 naturally grown trees in the Sona Nathi Thoppu, which belongs to the Arunachaleswarar Temple for the construction of tourist homes. Media reports of a video clipping, which allegedly revealed that an official embezzled money from the hundi collection of a temple administered by the HR&CE was doing rounds a few years ago.

The authorities of the secular government often treat the sacred as a little milch cow and a tourist attraction that have to be developed into pleasure resorts. Hence, they did not hesitate to cut down the trees around the Girivalam path for building tourist Yatri Nivas. The department had let out the mandapams in the corners of the tank of Kumbakonam temple for commercial purposes although the mandapams are intended only for performing sacred rituals. The Kalyana mandapa where the lord’s marriage occurs is now functioning as a bazaar in Srivilliputhur Temple. An inscription there says that Emperor Krishna Deva Raya had built the mandapa to accommodate the population of entire Srivilliputhur district to watch the Kalyana utsavam. This occupation of the space meant for the devotees by dealers summarises the transmutation of the position of temples and faith under the secular government.

The issue of irreparable damage caused to ancient temples in the name of renovation by the HR&CE department was taken to court by a devotee in a PIL.  The first bench of the Madras High Court Chief Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Justice M Sundar formed a panel, headed by senior advocate P S Raman, to inspect the temples and file reports to the court.  The affidavit filed by HR&CE commissioner sought to prevent involving the UNESCO in conservation and renovation of heritage temples in the state. The annoyed court had even threatened to ‘abolish’ the Hindu religious and charitable endowments (HR&CE) department and revoke the Act.

Madras high court has now issued a blanket ban on the demolition of any heritage temples. Based on the recommendation of a ‘consultant archaeologist’, the HR&CE department had razed centuries old temples in Tamil Nadu. The ban on demolition by the high court came after the PIL filed by Rangarajan Narasimhan of Srirangam saved a 700-year-old temple — Rasa Kovil at Vellode in Erode district from destruction. Nevertheless, more and more stories of the HR&CE atrocity on the renovation activities are popping up. The Recent one being the alleged distortion of the Murthy of the Bhooloka Vaikuntam, Srirangam temple. The locals allege changes in the dimensions of the moola Murthy and new ornamentations and attachments on the Murthy after the recent renovations. Since the deity of a temple is unique and is installed according to the local legends and distinctiveness, any mutation on the structure and characteristics of the Murthy infringes the uniqueness of the particular temple. Thus, violation of the Murthy is transgression on the fundamental rights of the religious faith. In Sirur Mutt case, the court had opined that the state can interfere only in the secular affairs of the religious institutions taken over by it. But often the state control of temples lead to endangering the smooth performance of the regular ritualistic functions of the Hindu temples. Also, the prices for darshan openly promotes economic discrimination. The devotees are allowed to see the deity closely only if they pay. Unpaid people have to stay at a distance and look at the deity. While the secularists cry against the caste system in the Hindu society, the secular government promote overt class discrimination in the Hindu temples.

Although India is a signatory to the 1972 UNESCO World Heritage Convention, the archaeological survey of India and the various government bodies neglect the ancient heritage monuments of the Hindus. If at all any renovation and restoration activity is done in the Hindu temples, some amount of violation of the sentiments of the community accompany such works. Post-Independence democratic state perpetually neglected the welfare of the majority religion and the ancient cultural legacy of the Hindu civilisation. The general lack of sensitivity to the underlying concept of the temple as the core of the Hindu social life as well as the reluctance to nurture the ideals of the Hindu religion prevailed in the Nehruvian secular system also contributed to the pathetic shape of the Hindu temples today.  The Tamil Nadu government authorities don’t even have a proper account of the actual number of temples under HR&CE control, which is why once they even tried to exempt the department from the purview of the Right To Information Act.

HR & CE officials are committing a blatant abuse of law not only in the delinquent administration of the temples and its assets, but also by intruding into many other matters of the temples. Neither the HR & CE Department nor the court can appoint Executive Officers without ample jurisdiction. Moreover, mismanagement or better administration cannot be a reason for the taking over of temple or mutts by the government. However, the secular government has been projecting themselves as benevolent saviours of the Hindu community and temples while usurping the control of the sacred spaces. Ideally, the Executive Officer’s office or any non-religious positions should not be within the temple premises. Also, the secular officials have no power to fix the price for the rituals and darshan. To learn more about the legal aspects of the HR & CE Act and the constitutional basis of government control over Hindu religious institutions, please refer these: (1) and (2).

By neglecting the archaeological and religious heritage monuments, by apathy and carelessness of the administration towards the significant remains of a magnificent civilisation and by hurting the right to practice the religion of the majority community, the secular government of Tamil Nadu has committed grave assault on the Hindu community of the state. The Hindu temple and city architecture style is fashioned after the cosmology of life. The callousness of the atheist, anti-Hindu administrations and the apathy of the members of the Hindu community has reduced the spectacular architectural legacy to a disorganised emblem of shame.

Anjali George

Anjali George is an activist, writer and a reformer who is extremely passionate and ardent about the preservation of Indic and indigenous cultures. She is one of the pioneers behind the ‘Ready To Wait’ movement, that was launched to ascertain the rights of the indigenous women in opposition to a politically motivated attack on the tradition of Sabarimala temple. She serves on the Board of Frankfurt City's Council of religions, Indic Collective, and Shaktitva foundation. She is also the chairperson of People for Dharma.