Barely two weeks after it pioneered social change with the appointment of six Dalit priests in temples under its jurisdiction, the Travancore Devaswom Board is back in the news, but for the wrong reasons.

The autonomous body that controls temples in South Kerala has denied Vishnu Narayanan, an experienced priest from the Ezhava community, the largest Hindu segment in Kerala, classified among Other Backward Communities, the opportunity to become Melshanthi or head priest at the Sabarimala Ayyappa Temple and Malikappuram Devi Temple by stipulating that only Brahmins could apply for the two vacant posts.

In August, Narayanan moved the Kerala High Court, asking it to direct the board to abide by a 2002 Supreme Court order and allow all qualified Hindu priests to apply for the vacant posts. The court had completed the hearings regarding his petition on October 3, and a verdict is imminent.

On October 17, the board selected two Brahmins – AV Unnikrishnan Namboodiri and Anish Namboodiri – as head priests of the two temples for a one-year term, beginning November 16.

Narayanan said that the board denied him the opportunity to become head priest by completing the selection process for the vacancies before the verdict was announced. He described his exclusion from the selection process as “blatant caste discrimination”.

“The board discriminated against me as I was not a Brahmin by birth,” he said. “By denying me a chance, the board violated the 2002 Supreme Court order [N Adithyan vs Travancore Devaswom Board] that clearly stated that caste pedigree should not be considered while appointing priests.”

So far, non-Brahmin priests have not led rituals in both the hill shrines that lie next to each other in the Western Ghats in the state’s Pathanamthitta district and attract more than 50 million devotees every year.

Vishnu Narayanan, the Ezhava priest. (Photo credit: Special arrangement).

Court battle

The Travancore Devaswom Board issued a notification regarding the appointment of head priests in the two temples in July. It stipulated that those from the Malayalam Brahmin community, between 30 years and 60 years of age, knowledgable with regard to puja and tantra (an Indian occult tradition), who have passed matriculation (Class 10), and have served as a head priest for 10 years in major temples were eligible to apply.

Narayanan, 37, fulfilled all the criteria, except that of caste. He has served as a priest for 19 years in famous temples in the state. He holds two Master’s degrees and learnt temple rituals from the famous chief priest, the late Mathanam Vijayan. At present, he is the head priest of the Pallam Sree Subrahmanya Swami Temple in Kottayam district.

The board received 149 applications, including Narayanan’s.

After Narayanan filed his petition with the Devaswom Bench of the High Court, it issued a notice to the board. The board went ahead with the recruitment process. The board called 110 priests for interviews on October 3 and October 4. Narayanan was not one of them.

After the interviews, the board drew up two lists of 14 priests – one each for Sabarimala and Malikappuram – from which the two head priests were selected through a draw of lots on October 17.

“The court has not delivered the verdict yet but the board has completed the selection process,” said Narayanan. “I don’t know the status of my application. I am denied justice.”

A few days before the priests were selected, Prayar Gopalakrishnan, chairman of the Travancore Devaswom Board, told Kerala Kaumudi, a leading Malayalam newspaper, that Narayanan’s case was pending in the High Court and that the board would act according to the court directive. “We would invite Narayanan for the interview if the court directed us,” he said. “We haven’t rejected his application.”

Vishnu Narayanan during a puja. (Photo credit: Special arrangement).

Other non-Brahmin priests

The exclusion of non-Brahmins from applying for positions in prestigious temples puts a question mark over future opportunities for the six Dalit priests appointed to various Kerala temples recently.

One of them is Yedu Krishnan, who hopes to become a priest in the Sabarimala Ayyappa Temple some day. Krishna is the head priest at the Manappuram Sree Mahadeva Temple in Pathanamthitta now. “One should become a Brahmin not by birth, but by deeds,” he said. “I am a Pulaya [Scheduled Caste] by birth. I don’t think devotees are bothered about my caste pedigree. They come to temples for darshan. Everyone is equal before God. So all priests should be allowed to do pujas in all temples.”

KM Pradeep Kumar, another Dalit priest who assumed office at the Sree Dharma Shastha Temple in North Parur in Ernakulam recently, also said his wish is to become the head priest of Sabarimala Ayyappa Temple. “It is a dream,” he said. “If a Pulaya can become a priest, they can lead pujas at Sabarimala too.”

Yedu Krishnan took charge at the Manappuram Sree Mahadeva Temple earlier this month. (Photo credit: Special arrangement).

Role of recruitment board

Yedu Krishnan and Pradeep Kumar’s recent appointments as temple priests was made possible by the Kerala Devaswom Recruitment Board that was set up by the state government through a legislation in 2015. This board introduced reservations for the appointment of temple priests in Kerala this year.

The recruitment board is entrusted with filling vacancies in more than 3,300 temples that come under the state’s five Devaswom boards – Travancore Devaswom, Malabar Devaswom, Kochi Devaswom, Guruvayoor Devaswom and Koodalmanikyam Devaswom.

All the five Devaswoms inform the board about job vacancies from time to time. It then conducts examinations on the model of Kerala Public Service Commission, and appoints eligible persons while complying with the state’s reservation policy.

The recruitment board, however, only fills permanent positions. The two vacant positions in the Sabarimala Ayyappa Temple and Malikappuram Devi Temple were temporary posts, which is why the reservation policy was not applied here.

M Rajagopalan Nair, chairman, Kerala Devaswom Recruitment Board, said that it would be difficult to appoint non-Brahmin priests in the Sabarimala Ayyappa Temple and Malikappuram Devi Temple. “Brahmin priests have been conducting rituals in both temples for many years,” he said. “It is difficult to change that practice and bring the appointments under the recruitment board.”

The Left Democratic Front government, led by the Communist Party of India, does not seem keen to disturb the status quo either.

Responding to a query on Narayanan’s petition, senior communist leader and minister for Devaswom Kadakampalli Surendran had said that the appointment of non-Brahmin priests in Sabarimala would be considered after reaching consensus at the social and legal level. “The government favoured the appointment of non-Brahmin priests to all temples,” he had said.

Narayanan remains optimistic. “The Travancore Devaswom Board cannot keep non-Brahmin priests out for a long time,” he said. “Everything will change soon.”