The Supreme Court on Monday morning set aside the takeover of the sacred Nataraj temple at Chidambaram by the Tamil Nadu State Government, and paved the way for the return of the temple administration to its traditional custodians, the Podu Dikshitars, thus marking the opening of the year with a major civilisational victory for Hindu dharma. The Special Leave Petition by Dr Subramanian Swamy and the Podu Dikshitars was admitted by the Supreme Court; the State Government has been given an opportunity to argue why the temple should continue to be under its control.
The development is a landmark for Hindus and could pave the way for the return of all temples taken over by various State Governments, as Justices BS Chauhan and J Chalemeshwar ruled that ‘small and silly mistakes’ made by the trust cannot be grounds for the Government takeover of temples on a permanent basis. Temples maybe taken over for short periods to sort out problems. A major beneficiary of this decision will be the Shirdi Sai Baba temple in Nasik, Maharashtra, which has long been eyed by the State Government on account of the richness of the offerings made, which escalate with each passing year. Other prominent temples in the grip of respective State Governments include the Tirupati Balaji temple in Andhra Pradesh and the Tripura Sundari and Chauda Deota temples in Tripura.
The devout have long resented the takeover of temples whereby State Governments take over the huge temple coffers and use the same as per their whims, without regard to the sentiments and needs of the traditional guardians and the devotees. Tamil Nadu’s Hindu Religious & Charity Endowments (HR&CE) department controls 36,425 temples; 56 mutts; 47 temples belonging to mutts; and 1721 specific endowments and 189 trusts. The policy of interfering in temple administration in the south began with the British, but around 1840, they decided to give up this policy. Some major mutts agreed to administer some important temples and endowments so they could be run according to temple traditions, but only upon receipt of written agreements (Muchalikas) as a protection against the Raj again taking back the temples.
In this manner, the temple funds were used for the rituals of worship and upkeep of temples. But in 1925, the Madras Hindu Religious Endowments Act, 1923 (Act I of 1925) was passed for better administration of certain religious endowments. It was challenged and repealed in 1927 and thereafter amended several times; the Act XII of 1935 empowered the board to notify (takeover) a temple after giving reasons for the same. The first attempt to take over the Chidambaram Sabhanayagar temple in 1947 failed, but attempts continued to be made thereafter. The Indian Constitution of 1950 guaranteed certain special religious and administrative rights to religious denominations or sections thereof. But the then Madras Government passed the Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments Act in 1951; it gave wide ranging powers to the Commissioner. The HR&CE immediately engaged in litigation with several leading temples whose traditional trustees sought the return of the temple management.
Devotees have long resented the department managing temple affairs because there is no accountability of the funds received, utilisation, and even agama rules are flouted in the quest for money, which is not the purpose for which temples are built. A small example is the issue of prasadam stalls. For devotees, only food prepared piously in the temple kitchen and offered to the deities in the temple in the traditional manner is regarded asprasadam. But the HR&CE has been regularly auctioning prasadam stalls to the public (highest bidder) and in the process, food items from outside the temple premises are sold in packages inside the temple premises, a practice unheard of anywhere in the country.
Other shops and commercial activities are also being permitted within the temples premises. Temple hundies are a huge source of funds for the department. In the Chidambaram temple, the department illegally installed hundies though the Podu Dikshitars did not keep hundies traditionally; nor did they sell archana tickets. They only collect funds in kind when needed for temple upkeep and special activities. The Podu Dikshitars have been the archakas and trustees of the Chidambaram temple from time immemorial; they printed their temple constitution for the first time in 1849. A dikshitargets the right to do sacramental service to lord Nataraja and participate in temple administration only after marriage. The community performs duty at the temple in groups of 20 and each batch stays for 20 days till each has in his turn performed the complete tour of puja at the different shrines of the temple where the daily pujas are held.
Though the daily administration of the temple is done by a nine-member management committee, all major decisions are taken by the general assembly of Podu Dikshitars in a democratic way. The dikshitars live ascetic lives; the temple possesses invaluable offerings of jewellery made by former rulers and rich merchants, which are physically verified as per rules once in four days, 20 days and six months. There has been no embezzlement till date. The Chidambaram dikshitars are different from other Brahmin sects in that they are found only in Chidambaram town and form an endogamous clan; they marry only within their community. They are fervent devotees of Shiv. Their pujarituals are special and are found nowhere else in the Hindu world, and are believed to have been expounded by the sage Patanjali. The Podu Dikshitars were among the first to open the temple to all castes of Hindus. Chidambaram is possibly the only ancient temple in Tamil Nadu which permits non-Hindu devotees to have darshan of the deities including the presiding deity Nataraj. In the two main festivals celebrated every year, devotees of all communities are permitted to participate with equal respect and status.