Explained: Why unholy row over Chidambaram temple is back in news

The conflict between the HR&CE dept and temple priests has surfaced again despite a Supreme Court ruling that the priests, not the government, will manage the temple. But, the government is asking for temple records after receiving complaints

Sri Natarajar temple in Chidambaran: The quarrel is over who the temple belongs to.

A five-member team from the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) department, who wanted to check the financial records and other administrative details of the famous Natarajar temple in Chidambaram, were unceremoniously turned back by its hereditary priests and the temple custodians, also known as podhu dikshithars.

Their argument was that the HR&CE department, which manages 44,000 temples and trusts in Tamil Nadu, has no locus standi to demand an inspection of the records since it is not a “public temple”. The team returned after a darshan of Lord Nataraja.

Also read: Tamil Nadu home to most temples in India, says survey

Meanwhile, PK Sekar Babu, Tamil Nadu Minister for HR&CE department, who had been assuring the temple authorities that the government has absolutely no desire to take over the temple, and only embarked on this exercise to resolve complaints raised by the devotees, warned of legal action against the priests. To avoid a standoff or a protracted legal battle with the temple authorities, he had visited the temple a day earlier to explain the reason for the inspection of records.

However, the priests dug in their heels and refused the HR&CE team access to their records. Babu then called the new development “unfortunate” and told a daily newspaper that refusing permission to the HR&CE team is against Manu dharma.

According to him, the Natarajar temple is a public temple, and the HR&CE Department has a right to look into complaints or irregularities in it raised by devotees. Further, he asked, if the priests had nothing to hide, why is there so much resistance by the temple authorities to enquire into complaints of irregularities? The Federal finds out why the row between the temple authorities and the government has surfaced again.

Also read: Will govt take over Chidambaram temple? What TN Minister says

What did HR&CE seek to check at the temple?

Upon receiving “several complaints” about the priests, the HR&CE Department had sent a notice to the temple seeking all details related to the temple dating back to 2014 — such as revenue and expenditure, audit reports and bank passbooks, present status of the properties; details of donations, jewellery, and other valuable items and their estimates; details of land belonging to the temple and lessees and register of lessees.

To scrutinise the alleged irregularities in the management of the temple wealth by the dikshithars, the department justified its notice, quoting Sections 23 and 33 of the Hindu Charities Act, 1959. These sections allow the HR&CE to inspect temples on complaints received by the general public and devotees. They can check if the rules and regulations are being followed correctly or if the temple management needs a reorganisation.

HR&CE’s locus standi 

In 2014, the Supreme Court gave the reins of the management of the 1,200-year-old temple to the dikshitars, or priests. The apex court reversed a 2009 Madras High Court order that had ruled in favour of the state government by permitting an officer from the HR&CE Department to oversee the administration, and ruled that the podhu dikshithars will run the temple. The SC further ruled that the priests constituted a religious denomination and they, not the government, should manage the temple.

This order brought an end to a dispute that was many decades old, as to who runs the temple.

The dikshithars protect their interests

The podhu dikshithars defended their right not to allow the HR&CE Department officials to study their records. According to them, the authorities lack the jurisdiction to automatically call for records or make an inspection “in this denominational temple at will”. They issued a statement in which they said that they maintain all accounts and other records as per their bye-laws of their temple sattam (law). And, they added that they will cooperate with a “validly formed committee that has jurisdiction of verification and audit.”

One dikshithar, however, told The Indian Express that the inspection was triggered by a hate campaign against the priests. He said that the HR&CE should tell them about the complaints filed against them and give details about the (alleged) irregularities reported  in the temple.

Unmasking the government’s real intention

The crux of the issue is that though the HR&CE head has claimed that the department is not interested in taking over the temple, political parties in the state continue to demand that it do so. And, this cry has gained momentum with the DMK coming back to power in Tamil Nadu.

During a review meeting, as reported by IE, Chief Minister MK Stalin directed a team of lawyers to be appointed to study the feasibility for filing an appeal petition challenging the SC verdict. Also, a committee headed by a joint commissioner is studying what is going on at the Chidambaram temple. Further, Stalin has said that the government will not hesitate to take action against the “errant people”.

Even S Ramadoss, leader of PMK, a BJP ally in Tamil Nadu, has demanded a probe against the priests. He accused them of trying to commercialise temple properties.

The complaints against the priests

There have been a slew of complaints against the priests. A senior priest at the Chidambaram temple had arranged the wedding ceremony of a businessman’s family inside the 1,000-pillar hall of the historic 12th century Nataraj Temple. He was subsequently barred from performing rituals in 2019.

Last November, a senior priest reportedly slapped a woman devotee for questioning a ritual he conducted in an allegedly faulty manner. He was suspended by the dikshithars for two months,

In February this year, 20 priests of the temple were booked under the SC/ST Act. They allegedly stopped a Scheduled Caste woman from offering prayers and they did not allow her to enter the Kanagasabai Medai, a holy platform to offer prayers.

In fact, the state government issued a formal Government Order last month to permit devotees to worship from Kanakasabhai mandapam at the temple. This practice had been stopped by the temple management during the pandemic but the restrictions were not lifted.

The SC too said in its 2014 judgment: “We would also like to bring on the record that various instances whereby acts of mismanagement/maladministration/ misappropriation alleged to have been committed by podhu dikshitars have been brought to our notice.”

So, whose temple is it? 

There is one theory that the priests are the custodians of the temple, while the secular and administrative aspects should be under the government’s control. Another newspaper report, citing the SC verdict, said the state government can take over the management if it has to ‘remedy’ an alleged evil. 

“Even if the management of a temple is taken over to remedy the evil, the management must be handed over to the person concerned immediately after the evil stands remedied,” the SC order was quoted as saying. 

Therefore, if the HR&CE probe panel does find irregularities, the state government can ask for the temple management back until the alleged ‘evil’ is rectified.