CHENNAI: In a significant development, a temple in Madurai has broken caste barriers by appointing a non-Brahmin as a priest, fulfilling the long-cherished dream of ailing former Tamil Nadu chief minister and DMK chief M Karunanidhi.
According to a report by the DNA, this is the first time that a temple managed by the Tamil Nadu government has appointed a non-Brahmin priest.
In 2006, the then chief minister and DMK president M Karunanidhi had issued an order stating that members of all castes, with suitable training, could be appointed 'archakas' at the temples maintained by Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department (HR & CE).
The DMK government also offered a 'junior priest certificate' course in 2007-08 for all castes and established six training centres for the training.
12 years since, a priest from the Most Backward Caste (MBC) community has now been appointed as 'archaka' in an HR & CE-controlled Ayyappan temple at Tallakulam, Madurai. He was among the 206 non-Brahmin candidates who were given the 'archaka' training provided by the state government in 2007-08.
The identity of the priest has not been disclosed by the government which feared repercussions if people visiting the temple learn that the priest is not a Brahmin.
The priest informed that he joined the temple three months ago and was appointed through the due interview process.
The appointment of a non-Brahmin as a temple priest is significant considering the centuries-old caste barrier to become priests in Tamil Nadu temples.
The development is also being viewed as a result of the massive social justice movement across the state which called for the appointment of priests from all castes in public temples.
Taking a major step in this regard, the Karunanidhi government had in 1970 passed an order to clear the way for members of all castes to become priests. However, the order was struck down by the Supreme Court.
But in 2006, the DMK government once again issued the order, and this time, the Supreme Court upheld the decision. Reacting to the top court ruling, the DMK chief said that it was done to “remove the thorn in the heart” of social reformer Periyar.
In 2015, the SC upheld the state's right to appoint members of all castes as priests, but also stated that the “appointment of 'archakas' in temples following Agama rituals of individual temples concerned would continue".
A senior HR and CE official confirmed that the appointment of the non-Brahmin priest was done as per Agamas Shastra (the manual for worship, temple building and rituals) of the individual temple.
Since breaching the sanctum-sanctorum dominated by the Brahmin community for centuries was one of the most important aims of the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu, the appointment has given hope to other non-Brahmin priests who are awaiting an appointment.