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Home > News > Specials

The Rediff Special/ Prem Panicker in Guruvayur

Avoidable temple row in God's own country

June 12, 2007

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At its core, it is the story of innocent actions and unintended consequences.

Way back in 2000, Vayalar Ravi, wife Mercy and other family members arrived in the Sri Krishna Temple in Guruvayur, Kerala [Images], for the wedding of their son Ravi Krishna, a Mumbai-based advocate, to Nisha, daughter of MD Purushottaman, a liquor baron and prominent leader of the Ezhava community.

The wedding was, as per the temple's traditions, solemnised in the mandap situated in the corridor that leads to the main entrance of the temple. Once the rites were completed and the couple descended from the mandap Mercy Ravi, in a spontaneous expression of happiness, took off one of the chains around her neck and put it on her son.

The couple, with Ravi, Purushottaman and others in tow, then entered the temple to offer prayer; Mercy, a Christian by birth and belief, stayed outside; as a non-Hindu, she was not permitted entry into the temple premises.

An unknown devotee spotted a cross dangling on the gold chain Mercy had draped around her son's neck, and complained to one of the priests that a Christian had entered the temple.

A simple clarification could have ended the matter right there � but then Guruvayur Dewaswom Board chairman PT Mohanakrishnan, who was accompanying the bridal party as friend and facilitator, quickly took out some money, handed it over to a Dewaswom board official, and asked him to do the punyaham (purification) ceremony.

Mohanakrishnan was likely attempting to forestall embarrassment and controversy; his action, however, had the unfortunate affect of creating a precedent that was to come back to haunt the family, and stir controversy, on May 17 this year.

On that date, Ravikrishna returned to the temple with father Vayalar Ravi, wife Nisha, and infant son Rajiv Krishna. The Krishnas had earlier lost their first-born child; grateful for their second child, a son, Ravikrishna and Nisha wanted to solemnise their baby's first-feeding ceremony (annaprasam, or choroonu) in Guruvayur temple.

The next day, some devotees brought the attention of chief priest (tantri) Chennas Raman Namboothiripad to the incident; he also saw pictures of the ritual in the local press, and promptly ordered a punyaham.

"I had no option," the tantri told The precedent existed; there was in the interim no word from the family clarifying Ravikrishna's religious orientation, and hence in accordance with temple custom, he could do no less.

"Yes he did," Dewaswom Board chairman Kalathill Ravindran told "There was no time frame within which to conduct the punyaham; he could have informed us, we could have checked things out and then acted as the situation warrants.

"Instead, by acting in haste, the tantri has created a situation where, if Ravikrishna produces proof that he is a Hindu, we are all in trouble."

Ravikrishna has produced that proof; in a letter to Ravindran alleging public humiliation and mental stress, the advocate has submitted copies of his school certificate and other documentation that proclaims him a Hindu.

The Dewaswom Board finds itself in a fix; today (June 12), the managing committee of the board meets in Guruvayur to consider Ravikrishna's complaint, and its options.

Even so, the matter could have been resolved with little fuss except for what some devotees, and representatives of Hindu organisations, claim is inspired fishing in troubled waters by the "atheistic" Communist government now in power in Kerala, fronted by Dewaswom Board minister G Sudhakaran.

This is not Sudhakaran's first attempt to 'reform' what he calls the rigid orthodoxy of Guruvayur � some months ago, the minister dashed off a letter to the Dewaswom Board, demanding that famed playback singer KJ Yesudoss, who has to his credit several CDs worth of devotional songs in praise of the temple's presiding deity, be permitted unconditional entry to the temple.

That demand set off a firestorm, with the government and liberal-minded bodies and Hindu organisations taking opposing stands in an increasingly acrimonious debate.

To his credit, the singer at the centre of the storm defused the situation, with a statement proclaiming that while he was a devotee of Guruvayurappan, he did not wish to enter the temple cloaked in a shroud of controversy.

Sudhakaran backed off � but seized his moment again when the Ravikrishna controversy hit the headlines, with a stream of statements alleging that the tantri had committed an offence under the Indian Penal Code by discriminating against the lower castes; that the chief priest had moreover violated the provisions of the Temple Entry Proclamation Act of 1936 per which Hindu temples were accessible to all castes within the Hindu fold; and threatening to arrest and prosecute the priest if a complaint was given to him.

On Monday June 4, Kerala Chief Minister Achuthanandan upped the ante even further. In Guruvayur to inaugurate the AKG Memorial Gate honoring the late Marxist leader AK Gopalan in the diamond jubilee year of the temple entry movement, Achuthanandan heaped scorn on the purification ceremony and called for a second revolution to finish the work begun way back in 1931 by Comrade 'AKG'.

In November of that year, AKG had led a historic march from Cannanore to Guruvayur; on arrival at his destination, he led hundreds of volunteers in a satyagraha before the temple gates, in the face of brute force by the temple authorities, demanding that the lower castes be allowed entry.

The satyagraha captured the national attention, with the likes of Mahatma Gandhi [Images] and, in Tamil Nadu, EV 'Periyar' Ramaswamy Naicker extending support; though it was abandoned at a request from Gandhi, it triggered the sort of public debate that resulted in the Raja of Travancore, then titular head of Kerala, issuing the Temple Entry Proclamation of 1936.

For those seeking symbolism, the June 4 event was ripe. The six-foot ceremonial lamp was lit by three people: Kalathill Ravindran, a Hindu; Guruvayur MLA KV Abdul Khader, a Muslim; and Chief Minister Achuthanandan, a self-proclaimed atheist.

The reactionary forces that once denied entry to lower castes have yet again surfaced in Guruvayur, the chief minister declaimed, while calling on 'true believers' to initiate yet another reform movement to force the temple to end repressive attitudes towards the lower castes and adopt progressive policies.

Next: 'Couldn't Ravi Krishna have clarified things before he entered the temple?'

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