PK Sekar Babu, Minister of Tamil Nadu’s Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department (HR&CE), recently declared that Hindus of all castes would be hired as priests in the department’s nearly 36,000 temples. He also stated that women might be appointed as temple priests after completing required training. The minister also stated that the government will take steps to ensure that qualified people are appointed.
The declarations have sparked intense arguments in the state, notably surrounding temples that are now welcoming women priests. While some social activists have applauded the decision as a step toward gender and caste equality, others believe the government should not meddle with agama sastra, a rulebook for temples that includes rules for pujas and other ceremonies as well as restrictions on structure and construction of shrines.
The initiative to appoint non-Brahmin priests in temples began during the era of social reformist and rationalist Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, who launched the ‘Koil Nuzhaivu Porttam’ (temple entry agitation) to eradicate discriminatory practises against non-Brahmin priests, according to Tamil Pe Maniarasan, president of Tamildesa Podhuudamai Katchi.
“In 1971, Kalaignar Karunanidhi amended the HR & CE Act to abolish the hereditary appointment of priests which paved the way for non-Brahmins to become priests. Many outfits challenged the Act and later Kalaignar informed the public that the Supreme Court had struck down the amendment. In 2006, the DMK government again issued an order where it mentioned that any Hindu possessing requisite qualification and training can be appointed as Archaka in temples. It was again challenged by many outfits, including Sivachariyargal Nala Sangam, in the Supreme court. The case continued for many years, and in its judgment in 2015, the court didn’t strike down the DMK’s order but allowed any qualified Hindu to be appointed as priest in Hindu temples while ruling that the appointment of archakars will have to be made in accordance with Agamas,” he said.
After the DMK government issued an order in 2006, 207 men, many of whom were from the SC/ST groups, were trained to serve as priests in important temples. The initiative was put on hold after the first group graduated from as many as six schools. Only two non-Brahmin priests trained by the government have been appointed to temples thus far.