Chidambaram Natarajar Temple inspection row: A litmus test for DMK

A bone of contention between the government and the priests (Deekshithars) for long, the latest controversy surrounding the temple is over the priests there preventing the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments authorities from conducting an inspection following public complaints received about the temple.
Chidambaram Natarajar Temple
Chidambaram Natarajar Temple

CHENNAI: The Chidambaram Natarajar Temple row could be a litmus test for the ruling DMK. After conceding to Aatheenams (Pontiffs) in the Dharmapuram Mutt’s Pattinapravesam issue and suffering the criticism of sympathisers on the Ambur Biryani festival issue, the Dravidian model government of Chief Minister MK Stalin is under compulsion to assert its authority in the Chidambaram Temple dispute, more so after the Deekshithars dared the state administration and prevented a scheduled inspection.

A bone of contention between the government and the priests (Deekshithars) for long, the latest controversy surrounding the temple is over the priests there preventing the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments authorities from conducting an inspection following public complaints received about the temple.

The abode of Lord Shiva was in news a few months ago after the Deekshithars forcibly evicted a woman devotee when she attempted to climb on the Chitramabala Medai (a dais outside the sanctum sanctorum of the main deity) in the temple. Late last month, the state government issued a GO permitting devotees to climb the Chitrambala medai, which also contributed to the latest face off with the HR&CE Department. While the Deekshithars argued that the department lacks the legal competence to do the inspection, state HR&CE Minister PK Sekar Babu has asserted on more than a few occasions that the government has the authority and they were exercising restraint as they were bound by the Chief Minister’s word.

Meanwhile, there has been an outcry from the secularists over the government not doing enough to reign in on adamant Deekshithars, the BJP-led saffron camp have used it to gain one-upmanship over the ruling DMK by subtly backing the Deekshithars.

MP Sathiyavel Muruganar, an Agamam expert and member of the advisory committee to HR&CE Department, says: “It is not correct to equate Pattinapravesam with Chitrambalam affair. Chidambaram temple is different. They (Deekshithars) have been rebelling since 1849. They are very obstinate in their proclivity. They are trying to establish that they are supreme and stake a claim for the ownership of the temple. To satisfy the condition for ownership, they must have established the temple and they must maintain the temple without any problem incessantly. They do not satisfy both conditions. Both the aspects have been ignored by the High Court and Supreme Court verdicts as well.”

“They claim to be a separate denomination. They admit that the temple has existed from time immemorial. If they did not establish the faith, how can they become a separate denomination? The state government has a social compulsion to take over the temple. As per Article 25 of the Constitution, the state has the right to intervene when social order, peace and public health are threatened. From 1886 to till date, numerous complaints have been received about the temple. No court or judge has held that they (Deekshithars) did not engage in irregularities. The Deekshithars have publicly admitted that they do not do it as per agamam. Vedas never endorse agamas. Deekshitars are a splinter group. Their method of worship is not at all related to agamam. Hence. The government has the compulsion to do it. I do not say that the government will do it properly. But, when an individual errs, only the government can interfere. If the government fails, accountability can be fixed and one can sue the government in the court,” reasoned Sathiyavel Muruganar, who was one of the petitioners (Impleading petition) in the 2014 case in which the apex court had settled the ownership question of the temple.

Writer Aazhi Senthilnathan, a regular critic of the temple issue, says, “Government should definitely take over Chidambaram temple. Some of the worst atrocities are happening there. How can someone stop the singing of Thevaram and Thiruvasagam in a Shiva temple. The Deekshithars stopped it. The government should assert its rights. The temple is a cultural centre as much as it is a place of worship. Equality should exist there. It is the society’s property. The government should have control over it.”

CPM state secretary K Balakrishnan, who has been a regular critic of the temple affairs, said, “Tamil Nadu is handling the issue patiently. The moves are measured. No court judgement says the temple belonged to the Deekshithars. They might have been classified as a denomination temple, but the temple is a public temple. Article 26 of the Constitution says that even if a temple is a denominated temple, it should function in accordance with the law and not according to the whims and fancies of the denominators.”

“The government is treading cautiously. I do not think the government will retract. The government should proceed further and bring the temple under the control of an executive officer of the HR&CE Department. BJP ruled Himachal Pradesh has framed laws to bring 12 temples under government control. I am confident the government will not retract,” said Balakrishnan, who was a MLA of Chidambaram constituency.

Unsurprisingly, the Deekshithars have discredited the arguments and continued to claim propriety of the temple. G Chandrasekhar, counsel for Pothu Deekshithars, Sri Sabanayagar Temple, Chidambaram says, the government tarnished the image of Deekshithars by leaking the information of the scheduled inspection to the media.

“It was one of the reasons we had objected to the inspection. The Sirur Mutt case has upheld us as a separate denomination and we have complete control of the temple. The January 6, 2014, verdict has given final quietus to the question of the administration of the temple. Under Article 26 of the Constitution, a temple controlled by the denomination sect is given exception from all other provisions, in the instant case Section 33 of the HR&CE Act 1959. We are not saying that we are above law and do not want to furnish accounts to anyone. The government has appointed a committee illegally. Even the complaint copy was not given to us. We are ready to furnish the records to a legally competent authority having jurisdiction. We will take a legal course of action. Under Section 107 of the HR&CE Act, the department has no legal jurisdiction to inspect the temple.”

However, the counsel for Deekshithars refused to state as to who according to them was legally competent to inspect the temple records. Alleging that the government had issued GO to climb the Kanagasabai (artha mandapam) without consulting them despite them being a respondent in a related case before the High Court, Chandrasekhar says, “Indeed people were allowed to climb the Kanagasabai in the past (pre COVID). Only 300 to 400 people visited then. Now, devotees are visiting in thousands. Hence, we are objecting.”

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