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Home > News > Interview

The Rediff Interview/Chennas Raman Namboodiripad, Guruvayur high priest

'Why don't they bring a law to allow everyone into a temple?'

June 06, 2007

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As the controversy over the purification ritual at the Guruvayur temple seethes,'s Prem Panicker spoke to the Chief tantri (priest) of the famed shrine, Chennas Raman Namboodiripad, to understand the reasons for the conflict between temple tradition and apparent modernity. The concluding segment of a two-part interview:

Part 1 of the Interview: 'I don't make the rules at Guruvayur'

Kerala Dewaswom Minister G Sudhakaran has gone beyond the question of humiliation, and raised the larger question of your entitlement to pronounce verdict on who is a Hindu and who is not, and to decide who can enter the temple and who should not; that your position as chief priest has made you arrogant; that you are enriching yourself at the expense of the temple and behaving in dictatorial fashion...

Mr Sudhakaran has been saying all sorts of things; he used abusive language recently while referring to me and asked if I could prove I was a Hindu. I cannot respond in similar language -- that is not my culture.

The simple answer to that is, I don't have to -- the Dewaswom Board did that, when it appointed me tantri to Sri Guruvayurappan.

There are some implications to being named a tantri. We are supposed to be in a paternal relationship -- pithrusthanam, the position of father -- to the deity; we are in the position of being the deity's local guardians here on earth and the interests of the deity are paramount. Even as per the Dewaswom Act, that governs the functioning of temples, that principle is enshrined.

What it then means is that we are supposed -- no, not just supposed, we are mandated -- to run the temple as per the prescribed rules, handed down through the generations. We are supposed to be the final arbiters on all matters of ritual.

I say that not in arrogance, but as a matter of fact -� that is what is written in the Dewaswom Act; when this position was legally challenged, the Supreme Court in fact supported that stand and confirmed that as far as the rules and rites and rituals governing a temple are concerned, the tantri's word has the force of law.

As to the question of who I am to decide who can enter the temple and who cannot, where have I ever said I am the deciding authority? There are laws governing these things; the Temple Entry Proclamation Act of 1936 permits entry to all those who are Hindus.

As per its provisions, and the provisions of the Guruvayur Dewaswom Board, if there is a question of your religious orientation, you can go to the Arya Samajam office in Kozhikode, and get a certificate from them, and that is enough.

It is not my business to enforce who enters the temple and who does not -- that is the business of the Dewaswom Board officials.

Since there was a problem over Ravikrishna's entry in 2000, the board officials should have, when Ravikrishna came to the temple for the ceremony, checked to see that all was in order. After all, he is the son of a minister; it is not as if he landed up here unannounced.

It is the Dewaswom Board that therefore decides or should decide to exclude or allow anyone; my responsibility, as I keep pointing out, is to take prescribed action if something has been done that, as per the existing laws or rules governing the temple, is wrong.

And that is all I have done, so I don't understand why I am being made the villain here.

And then, of course, there is the question of my enriching myself. How? People imagine that I get paid huge amounts -- but the fact is, I do not.

The position of chief priest, that I perform, is a duty, not a right.

When our family was given this duty, no remuneration was fixed, and we still do not get paid for what we do.

Does the Dewaswom Board pay us a salary? No. Do we get a share of the money the devotees donate? No.

There is only one thing we are entitled to. There is a puja we perform -- the Udayasthamana Puja. To conduct it, a devotee has to pay Rs 50,000 minimum, I think. As per tradition, when we perform that puja, we get a share of the ingredients that are used: a little salt, a coconut, a portion of the vegetables, rice, and so on.

Earlier, we actually got all that in kind. More recently, the Dewaswom gives us that in cash, as per current value. So, each month, we get some money for that -- and the maximum we get is about Rs 2,000.

That is all we get -- two thousand rupees, for performing our duties as chief priest and local guardian to Lord Guruvayurappan; this, in one of the richest temples in India. We do not get anything more than that - a fact the minister, and everyone else claiming we are enriching ourselves, could have easily verified.

In the case of the renowned singer K J Yesudoss also...

What is the case of K J Yesudoss? I have read in the papers that he has repeatedly said he is a devotee of Lord Guruvayurappan. In that case, where is the problem?

All he has to do is go to the Arya Samaj, tell them he is a devotee, that he believes in idol worship, get a certificate, which takes five minutes, and then he can enter the temple any time he wishes, as many times as he wishes.

So where is the problem? If there is a problem it is certainly not from my side -- if he does enter the temple on those grounds, I am not going to perform a punyaham.

These two instances appear to have triggered a larger debate. People I have spoken to these last couple of days repeatedly made the point that times have changed and that religious observations, like everything else, should change with these times. They say that the priests are tradition-bound; that they are resistant to change...

I don't know what they want me to do. When they say I am tradition-bound, what does that mean? For instance, there is a tradition that a certain type of music has to be played for certain pujas.

Since times have changed, am I supposed to change that music; am I supposed to say that the chenda and maddalam and nadaswaram should be replaced with the guitar?

What exactly do they want me to do?

Changing times have brought changed rules. For instance, lower caste Hindus were not allowed into the temple, not so long ago -- this year, we are in fact celebrating the platinum jubilee of the Temple Entry Proclamation of 1936, that allowed all Hindus irrespective of caste to enter the temple.

That was a change that came about thanks to changing times. How did it come about? Because it was mandated by law.

In the case of this Act, the then Raja of Travancore decreed that all Hindus could enter temple. At that time, he was the authority; his decree had the force of law, and from that point on, every Hindu has in fact been allowed into the temple.

I am not resistant to reform or to change; my point is, I am not empowered to bring about that change. That has to be done by law. Sudhakaran, Vayalar Ravi, they are all powerful ministers, they are the ones who make the law.

So instead of abusing me, why don't they bring a law that says anyone can enter the temple, anyone at all?

The moment such a law is passed, I will gladly obey it. Have they tried to bring such a law and been opposed by me? No. So why do they keep saying we are tradition-bound and resistant to change?

I repeat, I have no authority to make laws, or to change the rules that govern this temple. If there is dissatisfaction with how things are, the politicians can easily correct that by changing the laws -- like every other citizen of the country, I will gladly obey.

Until then, I can only do as my tradition, my religion, the code of this temple, tells me to do -- and that is all I have in fact done.

Photograph: Prem Panicker

The Rediff Interviews