The unholy management of temples in Tamil Nadu

Under kings or village administrations, temples were always plagued by complaints related to misuse of their assets, until the East India Company took over them. Representational image only. Photo: iStock.

(Following the Supreme Court’s landmark Ayodhya verdict, the government is busy figuring out the contours of the Trust that will build the Ram temple. In this context, The Federal in the third part of the series looks at how temples are managed in Tamil Nadu)

The forest region is presided by the deity Maayon

The mountain region is presided by the deity Cheyon

The agricultural region is presided by the deity Vendhan

The coastal region is presided by the deity Varunan

The above lines mentioned in Tholkappiyam, one of the earliest works in Tamil literature, shows that ancient Tamils chose and worshipped their deities according to the terrain or land types they lived in. These deities were later attributed shapes, names, colours and avatars. Stories, both oral and written were woven on them and were passed from one generation to the other.

Changing hands for better

As time passed, these deities were gradually moved from the shelter of trees to permanent structures, which we today call temples. Primarily built as places of worship, temples soon metamorphosed into revenue-generating machines for kingdoms which had huge acres of land under their possession. Whether under kings or village administrations, temples were always plagued by complaints related to misuse of their assets, until the East India Company took over them.

In 1789, when the British established the Board of Revenue in the then Madras Presidency, the administration of temples came under the board’s control. In 1817, the Madras Regulation VII was passed. Under this regulation, the revenue department was entrusted with monitoring the financial assistance and donations made to temples and find out whether they were used for temple management purposes or were serving vested interests. The period saw a substantial decrease in complaints related to the misuse and mismanagement of temple assets. The Regulation was in force till 1839.

The birth of HR & CE department

In a populist move, the British in 1858 decided to hand over the temples to respective trusts. This, in turn, brought down the frequency of complaints related to temple mismanagement.

In 1925, the Justice Party during the premiership of Panaganti Ramarayaningar, the king of Panagal, introduced the Hindu Religious Endowments Bill which in turn paved the way for establishing the Hindu Religious Endowment Board, which took care of the management of temples in the presidency.

After Independence, the then Tamil Nadu government passed the Hindu Religious Endowment Act in 1951. After undergoing amendments in 1959, the Act came into effect in 1960. Later, the Hindu Religious Endowment Board was upgraded as the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department (HR & CE).

In 1971, the then chief minister M Karunanidhi, made the department into a separate ministerial portfolio and appointed M Kannappan as its first minister. It was during his period that the temple’s income was diverted to start orphanages and schemes related to eradication of begging.

Also read | Tirumala, India’s highest-earning shrine, autonomous only on paper

Trust’s TN’s way to run temples

Temples in Tamil Nadu are managed through two ways – they are either run by hereditary managers known as dharmakarthas, or are managed by officials appointed by the government in places where the number of dharmakarthas is few; these officials are given designations of temple secretary, commissioner, joint commissioner and executive officer.

The HR & CE Act mandates the formation of a board of trustees for every temple. These trustees are ‘non-hereditary’ in nature. The trust usually is a five-member body of which one member belongs to the SC/ST community and another is a woman. The tenure of each trustee is two years. In the absence of a board, the government appoints a ‘fit person’ (Thakkaar in Tamil) to take care of the temple until the formation of a board. In a recent ruling, the Madras High Court clarified that the court does not have the power to appoint a Thakkaar and that the power is only vested in the state government.

“Although a retired HR & CE official is mostly chosen as the Thakkar, the ruling political party often interferes in the appointment process by delegating a non-government individual or a person of their choice as the caretaker,” said an official of the department on conditions of anonymity.

The department currently controls more than 44,000 temples in the state. But, the temples today are more than just places of worship. They are centres of several social, economic, educational and cultural activities. Almost all temples provide food under the Annadhanam scheme of the state government, impart spiritual education along with provisions for Ved Pathashalas, develop artistic taste by appointing musicians and hosting music festivals, conduct marriages of the poor, act as shelter and care centre for elephants as well as cater to the livelihood of priests who work on their precincts.

Where’s the money coming from

How are the schemes running? What are its financial sources?  – are questions that often follow such revelations.

The annual income from 44,000 temples would run into thousands of crores of rupees. But department officials are unaware of the exact income, as it differs from one temple to other. However, according to one account, around 300 temples in the state are currently earning more than ₹10 lakh annually while 650 others are earning between ₹2 lakh and ₹10 lakh every year. Another 35,000 temples are able to generate income less than ₹10,000 per annum.

In order to balance the expenditure of temples, the HR & CE department diverts money surplus funds from rich temples to the impoverished ones and to the tourism development fund.  Besides, the department collects 2 to 8 per cent of temple income as administrative and auditing fee, which comes anywhere between ₹50 crore to ₹80 crore.

“However, public donation like hundial (collection box in temples) revenue is the major source of income for the department. The second major financial source is the revenue earned through the assets of temples like dry and wetlands, buildings and sites. Revenue generated through the second source is given to the temple administration for its maintenance,” says Bharathi, secretary, Federation of Tamil Nadu HR & CE Associations, Chennai.

According to the data available with The Federal, the department has nearly 5 lakh acres of both dry, wetlands and rainfed lands, 22,600 buildings and 33,665 sites in its possession.

“We have more than 44,000 temples across the state. Each and every one of them needs to be consecrated once in 12 years. But only 600 of them are affluent. The remaining are located in villages and in an ailing condition. Poojas are conducted at least once a day in these ailing temples for which they need funds. Keeping their condition in view, the state government has deposited ₹1 lakh in the account of around 1,500 Aadi Dravida temples (for scheduled castes) to enable their maintenance through the interest money. The government also diverts surplus funds from affluent temples to the poor ones,” Bharathi adds.

Also read | Allegations of mismanagement taint governing of Kerala temples

In order, yet not transparent

Despite the Tamil Nadu government’s claim that it diverts the surplus income generated from rich temples towards the development of medium and small temples, mostly in rural areas, Hindutva groups and the BJP have accused the government of diverting the income from temples to fund its populist schemes.

The department, however, has rubbished the allegations.

“The HR & CE conducts a departmental audit every financial year. But we are demanding to bring the department’s accounts into the general audit too. That way, the department cannot hide its true income,” says P Vasu, state president, Tamil Nadu Association of Temple Priests, Salem.

It has been alleged that most of the temples do not file their income tax. The BJP alleges that idols have been stolen in many temples and the managing bodies of many others have sold temple land without the state government’s permission while not allocating enough budget to manage the temples with the help of public tax.

BJP senior leader, Ila Ganesan says the department should hand over the temples to private bodies as it is done in north India.

“In the north, all temples are managed by private bodies. We demand that the HR & CE hands over all temples in the state to private bodies. But the question is who will take care of the temples. During former chief minister Karunanidhi’s regime, a committee formed under Kundrakudi Adigalar (senior) decided that bhakth sabhas should be formed to manage the temples. The decision, however, was not implemented. The truth is only 20 per cent of a temple’s income is used for the day-to-day expenses of the particular temple,” he alleged.

Poorly paid staff

Since 2005, Tamil Nadu has been enjoying the unique distinction of being the first state to pass a rule to employ individuals from all castes as priests. The HR & CE department also conducts refresher courses for the priests every year. However, there are complaints that only archakars, pattaacharyas and odhuvaars are allowed to attend this programme, and village temple priests (poosaaris) are excluded from the course.

“Most of the priests who trained under the ‘priests from all castes’ scheme, lack the knowledge of performing poojas. Many priests appointed through the scheme have been shown the door due to lack of knowledge. It will be helpful if they are allowed to attend the refresher course,” says P Vasu.

Others allege that around 70 per cent of the priests in village temples do not get salary on a regular basis, the only source of income for them being the money left by worshippers on the archana (money offered for worship) plate. Their daily earning amounts to a meagre ₹300 per day. The interest earned from the deposit made by the government into the temple’s bank account is used only for its maintenance and not to pay salary to the priest, Vasu says.

“If the department properly collects the rent from tenants who are using land and buildings owned by temples, the salaries for the priests can be easily paid. Earlier the executive officer of a temple used to collect the same, which was used to pay priests. But now, the government pays the salaries directly. While the officers have become lethargic, the rent amount is meagre and has not been raised for years, leaving the temple body with almost no revenue,” Vasu rues.

M Senthil, state president of Tamil Nadu Hindu Temple Federation says if the department only collects rent from properties owned by temples, it would amount to almost ₹50,000 crore.

Need to look beyond ‘collection box’

“The HR & CE department focuses only on temples which are having hundials (collection box). They are not taking enough measures to collect the rent. Take Palani Murugan temple for instance. Around 450 houses are under the possession of the temple. But the rent amount for each house is a mere ₹100 which has not been collected for years. The rent amount fixed for land is even meagre at ₹ 300 per acre. The department has not increased the rent and it has not even collected the existing rent. This is the condition of the department today,” Senthil says.

He says even though the municipality sends notice to a defaulter who fails to pay its taxes, no such actions is applied by the HR & CE department on rent defaulters. “We don’t want such an inert department and hence are demanding the government to return back the temples from HR & CE to the village administrations. That way, the income generated from temples will be used for the respective village,” he adds.

But Vasu rejects the idea of dissolving the department. “It is because of the HR & CE department that we are now aware of the assets owned by temples. An able management of the department is the need of the hour,” he says.

Countering the allegations Bharathi says, the case of encroachment of temple possessions are being dealt through the courts.

“The department has numerous temples. But there is a shortage of manpower. On the other hand, we have sent orders to the revenue officials of all the districts, to inspect the allegations of changing of pattas (temple deeds) of temple lands. We are trying our best to reclaim all the assets related to temples,” he said.