The south Indian state overturns centuries of discrimination against non-Brahmins
Pariahs no more — Kerala appoints its first Dalit Hindu priests
A small temple in Kerala witnessed a historic change last week when Yedu Krishnan took charge as its head priest — the first Dalit, or member of Hinduism’s lowest castes, to be appointed to such a post in the state.
For centuries, temple priests have been drawn from the Brahmins at the very top of the rigid caste hierarchy. But Mr Krishnan is one of six Dalits — and one of 36 non-Brahmins — who were recruited as head priests this year by the state-appointed Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), which manages around 1,250 temples across Kerala.
On Monday, Mr Krishnan became the first of the Dalit recruits to begin his duties. At the Manappuram Mahadeva Temple, near a grove of banana trees in the village of Keecherival, the 22-year-old priest was welcomed into his post by drummers and a reception committee.
Members of the temple’s administrative committee draped Mr Krishnan in garlands and touched his feet — signs of respect that would once have been unthinkable toward a Dalit. Mr Krishnan then ceremonially opened the doors of the main shrine in the pink-walled, shingle-roofed temple.
The remaining priests will join their temples by the end of this month.
Mr Krishnan is not from Keecherival, but grew up in another village, Chalakkudy. “I remember visiting a temple when I was six years old, and being drawn to it somehow,” he told The National. “When I was 12, I joined a scripture school.”
Alongside his studies, he began to serve in temples as one of several juniors under a head priest.
“The school was very good to me,” Mr Krishnan said. “I faced no problems because of my caste. The teachers saw to it that I was treated like everyone else.”
Mr Krishnan sat the TDB recruitment exam in March and was among 400 candidates shortlisted for interviews held in July.
This year the board decided to select candidates using the system employed by India's state and central governments to reserve a number of posts for members of disadvantaged or oppressed castes and communities. In Kerala, 32 per cent of government jobs are reserved for these castes.
Mr Krishnan however was one of several members of these castes and communities who passed the exam and interview within the general category, rather than through the reserved quota, ranking fourth out of 62 candidates selected by the board.
“It took a lot of hard work,” he said, “but I wanted to show this was work that could be done by anyone, of any background.”
Discrimination based on caste was abolished when India became independent in 1947, but most Hindu temples still hire only Brahmins as head priests. This continues despite a 2002 supreme court ruling that caste should not be a consideration in the appointment of priests.
As a result, non-Brahmin head priests are a rarity in the country. Occasionally, a temple will make the headlines for appointing a Dalit to the post. In 2014, a temple in the coastal city of Mangalore, in Karnataka state, named two Dalit widows as head priests — a double strike at conservatism, given the rarity of women in the profession.
The TDB’s recruitment policy this year, however, marks the first systemic attempt to open up the priesthood to people from all castes. The TDB chairman, Prayar Gopalakrishnan, said the move would “achieve Hindu unity” in Kerala.
The appointment of non-Brahmin priests is the continuation of a process begun in 1936, when the then-reigning royal family of Travancore ordered temples to open their doors to worshippers of every caste, said K N Raveendranadh, president of the Hindu Aikya Vedi, a non-profit that works to preserve Hindu heritage in Kerala.
Before the Temple Entry Proclamation, as it was called, people from Hinduism’s lower castes were routinely forbidden to worship at temples. “The proclamation made it so that anyone who believed could enter,” Mr Raveendranadh told The National.
Still, decades elapsed between the proclamation and the TDB’s removal of barriers to priesthood. “This kind of thing is difficult to put into practice,” Mr Raveendranadh said. “There were a lot of Brahmins who believed they were the only ones authorised by God to serve in temples, and since they held power, they didn’t allow others into the profession.”
Even today, the spirit of the 1936 proclamation is not implemented uniformly, he said. In February, a temple in Azhikkal maintained its practice of having its deity’s annual procession through the village stop only at non-Dalit homes. The temple’s administrators had, in fact, turned down a request from the Dalit community that the goddess bless their homes as well.
The TDB has also resisted calls to appoint a non-Brahmin priest at Sabarimala, the state’s richest and most famous temple.
Two years ago, a priest at another temple petitioned Kerala's high court, arguing that Sabarimala’s strict preference for Brahmins violated the constitution’s abolition of caste discrimination. The petition is still to be heard by the high court.
“As per the existing norms, only Brahmins can be appointed in Sabarimala,” said Mr Gopalakrishnan, the TDB chairman. “The board will go with the court’s direction in this regard.”
The Sabarimala temple also prohibits women between the age of 10 and 50 from worshipping there. This is ostensibly to preserve the deity's purity by removing sexual temptation but it is another rule that has been legally challenged and is awaiting judgment by the supreme court.
“We’re trying to push for the kind of policy where every Hindu, if he or she is qualified, can be a priest at Sabarimala also,” Mr Raveendranadh said. “But it’s natural that all this should take time. Religion moves very slowly.”