On Wednesday, December 4, the Supreme Court will decide the much sought return of the sacred Nataraj temple at Chidambaram to its traditional custodians, the Podu Dikshitars. The Chidambaram temple, where Shiva eternally dances the dance of creation that maintains the stability of the worlds, is a major landmark of India’s Hindu civilisation, and Hindus have long considered its takeover by the State Government as a religious affront.
Other States have also taken over major Hindu temples in the country, on grounds of alleged mismanagement, but in reality to control the rich offerings by devotees. Not a single temple in a state of disrepair and neglect has ever benefited from the solicitude of the secular State. It goes without saying that no political party has ever dared interfere in the management of the religious institutions of non-Hindu faiths.
All important dynasties, the Pallavas, Pandyas, Cholas and Cheras, lavished devotion and generous grants on the temple and its priests. Parantaka Chola laid the golden roof above the sanctum. Legend says the crystal linga, ‘Spatika Linga,’ that is worshipped six times daily, was gifted by Adi Sankara. The saints Thirugnana Sambandar, Thiru Navukkarasar, Sundaramurti Swamigal and Manickavasagar visited and sang in praise of Nataraja. Rajendra Chola I, a descendant of Parantaka and son of Rajaraja Chola I, gifted the entire village to the Dikshitars, as recorded in copper plates (Epigraphica Indica – Karandai Plates). Thus the Brahmins assumed responsibility for the temple puja and administration, and also the judicial and administrative duties of the village.
The temple houses the Lord in three forms — in anthropomorphological form as a murti of Sri Nataraj called the Sakala thirumeni; in semi-anthropomorphic form as the crystal linga of Chandramouleswarar or the Sakala nishkala thirumeni; and the formless Chidambara Rahasyam or invisible space within the sanctum sanctorum, the Nishkala thirumeni.
The temple was endangered when Haider Ali camped at Chidambaram in 1780 and used its fortified premises for his defense against the British. It then fell into the hands of the British and the French. As wars engulfed the region, the Dikshitars hid the Nataraja murti and important valuables in various places in Tamil Nadu and Kerala for nearly 60 years. When the Marathas began to rule a portion of the erstwhile Chola country from Tanjore, they were keen to restore Sri Nataraj at Chidambaram; an inscription in the thousand-pillar mandapam records the reinstallation of Nataraja in the Chit Sabha in 1773 AD.
When the East India Company, and later the British Crown, seized the ruling rights and powers of native kings, including the Marathas of Tanjore, they took over control of most temples in south India via a regulation act in 1817. But the Chidambaram temple managed to get exempted from the purview of the Hindu Religious Endowment Bill of 1891. Later, the Podu Dikshitars applied to the Governor-in-Council in 1925 and won exemption from the Hindu Religious Endowment Act, 1925.
The Indian Constitution in 1950 defined special religious rights for religious denominations, and in 1951, the Podu Dikshitars, claiming to comprise a religious denomination within the meaning of Article 26, were able to defeat an attempt by the then Madras Government to appoint an Executive Officer to manage the affairs of the Chidambaram temple. The Madras Government went in appeal to the Supreme Court in 1953, but later withdrew the appeal without conditions and the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal as withdrawn in February 1954.
When the Dravidian parties began to rule Madras (now called Tamil Nadu) and saw the rich temples as money-making opportunities, atheists from these political parties began to be appointed as trustees in most temples. Temple properties were sold or leased out for pittances; huge transactions were made from which the temples never benefitted. These parties could not digest the fact that the most important Saivite temple had somehow eluded their control. They began making baseless allegations against the management; appointed four prominent ‘citizens’ to periodically ‘inspect’ the temple as ‘Honorary Visitors’ through a notification which was quashed by Justice Mohan (later Chief Justice of Madras and Karnataka High Courts and then a Supreme Court Judge) in Writ Petition 616 of 1981. However, dogged attempts to take over the temple continued.
In July 1987, the Hindu Religious & Charity Endowments Department (HR&CE) appointed an executive officer to manage the temple vide a notification (P 52754/82/L.1). The temple appeal against the notification (WP No.7843 of 1987) was dismissed in February 1997; a subsequent revision petition was also rejected; this was challenged in W.P. No. 18248 of 2006.
In February 2009, Judge R Banumathi overturned the landmark judgment given by the Division Bench in 1952, which declared the Dikshitars of Chidambaram a religious denomination protected by Article 26 of the Indian Constitution, and ruled, “The alleged acts of mismanagement are writ large on the face of it.” She upheld the appointment of an Executive Officer by the HR&CE department. Strangely, as if expecting the judgment, within hours the Executive Officer took charge in Chidambaram temple with a posse of policemen.
In a serious affront to devotees, the Joint Commissioner, HR&CE, installed hundis in the temple despite protests by the Dikshitars, as hundis have no Vedic or Agamic sanction. Prior to this, the Chidambaram Temple never had a hundi as the Podu Dikshitars normally do not accept cash donations. They accept the materials necessary for puja and festivals in kind, a fact that is recorded in Gazetteers and District Manuals. The installation of hundis was thus a serious infarction of religious traditions.
Worse, the hundi collections of large temples are not used for the betterment and maintenance of the Hindu temples. Rather, the HR&CE deposits the funds in banks and after earning interest up to a certain level hands over the funds to the Government for non-temple, non-Hindu purposes such as donation to the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund, populist Government schemes like mass weddings, and so on. In fact, the Joint Commissioner even announced a Rs five crore scheme to build gardens, toilets and shopping complexes in the temple, which detract from its sanctity and divinity. This is being done at the cost of taking away the only source of livelihood of the Dikshitars who have maintained the continuity of the temple and its traditions for over 2000 years.
The Podu Dikshitars turned to the Supreme Court as their last hope in 2009 (Special Leave Petition (Civil) No. 30278 OF 2009), with Dr Subramanian Swamy appearing on their behalf. The core contention of the trustees is that the temple is a denominational Religious Institution belonging to the religious denomination of the Podu Dikshitars, though it is open to the wider Hindu community for worship. It is thus covered by Section 107 of the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment Act, 1959, and all provisions of the Act are not applicable to the Temple. The temple is specifically a Saivite temple and its sectarian affiliations are clear from the fact that the puja and rituals are performed as per the unique traditions of the Podu Dikshitars, traditions which are not found anywhere else in Saivite or Hindu tradition.
It is pertinent that in its proceedings, President’s Inspection Notes, March 31, 1946 (with Annexure to the Board’s Order 4398 dated 14-15.3.1946) the Board set up by the British Government observed, “It is an ancient and renowned temple in South India but its constitution is peculiar. The trusteeship of the temple is vested in the Podu Dikshitars… I have no quarrel of the claim of the Podu Dikshitars that they are hereditary trustees of this temple and that the temple came into existence because of the efforts of their ancestors.”
Thus, from the copper plates of the Chola kings to the British rulers, the historical evidence supports the claims of the Podu Dikshitars.