Muzrai & Mandir: Money and power play in Karnataka temples

By privatising the running of temples in Karnataka — divided by wealth and power into the A, B and C categories — the Bommai government is doing several things

We are at a moment in Karnataka history when more than two centuries — if not more — of State control of the temples, mathas, dargahs and chattrams is decisively unravelling. (Representational image)

For some time now, we have been reading news stories in Karnataka that start with the phrase, ‘owing to pressure from Hindu right-wing groups…’. Such ‘pressure’ ensured, variously, that non-Hindu establishments were not be paid from Muzrai funds, that government officials were transferred, that non-Hindus were not be appointed in the Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowment Department.

Though still informally referred to as the Muzrai department, the new nomenclature — the Hindu Dharmika Samsthegalu Matthu Dharmadaya Datti Ikakhe — is the result of such ‘pressure’. (‘Muzrai’ refers to allowances granted for religious or charitable purposes.)

Also read: Breaking into Karnataka’s power circuits, ‘mathadishas’ wield de facto authority

Now has come the promise of Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai at the BJP conclave last week that 34,559 Hindu shrines and temples will be formally ‘liberated’ from State control. Apart from goose-stepping with the Sangh Parivar’s larger design for India, of what new ‘power sharing’ agreement is this announcement a sign?

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Unravelling State control

Clearly, we are at a moment in Karnataka history when more than two centuries — if not more — of State control of the temples, mathas, dargahs and chattrams is decisively unravelling. Despite government control or rather regulation, Hindu institutions have been ducking under the radar in formal and informal ways.

Mathas, and temples run by mathas, had dropped out of State scrutiny following the reframed rules of 1997.  Also now exempted are gaddiges (samadhis of gurus) and temples run by hereditary families from Muzrai. For some time now, the remnants of the Mysore Wodeyar family have been clamouring for control of as many as 36 temples, including the rich Chamundeshwari temple.

Other temples have simply provided only fuzzy accounts of their collections to the State: the Kukke Subrahmanya Swami temple in S Kanara, among the wealthiest in the State, is one such.  And due to recurring theft at the temples, hundis have begun to be opened every month, rather than once every three or four months. And, meanwhile, proliferating private temples have resisted even registration with the State.

The Chief Minister’s announcement comes shortly after the State Government moved very swiftly to save 93 unauthorised shrines in Mysuru district (most of them Hindu, and slated for demolition in keeping with a 2009 Supreme Court order). The Karnataka Religious Structures (Protection) Act, 2021 saved unauthorised (read illegal) religious structures on public land from demolition throughout the State, and put paid to any municipal control on illegal construction.

Rising opacity vs heightened visibility

The absolute freedom with which temples are built and find support from local communities parallels the close scrutiny of religious activity, whether in formal or informal settings, of Christian and Muslims believers. So, the increasing opacity of Hindu religious structures/activities, now sanctioned by law, is matched by the heightened visibility of, and therefore unbridled hostility towards, practices of other religions.

The formal freedom that is now offered to Hindu religious establishments will legitimise the layer of activity to which we are already getting accustomed: of extortionists and vigilantes exerting their ‘pressure’ even on members of the amorphous ‘Hindu’ community to contribute/support, or else…

Also read: ‘Forced conversion’ myth & poisoning of public sphere against Christians

When Tipu Sultan brought together the system of ready money grants and land grants to temples (respectively Naggad Uttara and Jamin Uttara) under a new bureaucratic Muzrai regime, his goal was to systematise and regulate activities that had clearly become quite suspect and irregular. In his order to the Amaldars and Sheristadars in the year Sadharana, (1790-91), he said: “The temples are under your management, you are therefore to see that the offerings to the gods and the temple illumination are duly regulated out of government grants. The offerings are to be subsequently distributed among the poor, but they ought not to be partaken of by the pujaris.” He enjoined the bureaucrats to keep a strict eye on the temple jewels, which were to be kept sealed after use in rituals and festivals, to make lists (called tasdik pattis) which would regularise and record all temple services, grants, etc.

The Poornaiah as Dewan continued to retain the State’s hold on the temples, mosques, dargahs and other religious institutions, commuting land grants where possible for better management. It was, of course, under the British, and particularly under the Mysore Dewans of the late 19th century (at that time, zealous Brahmin Muzrai commissioners), that the temple was ‘cleaned up’ and increasingly became merely a place of worship, stripped of its other roles, as the fulcrum of music, dance, discourse, and learning, with the abolition of the Devadasi and her dance, the gejje puja, the nattuvan, etc.

Muzrai dept as adjudicator

As many historians have shown, the Muzrai department increasingly became an adjudicator in the multiple disputes that arose within and between temples, about trustees, processional routes, insignia and honours that were paraded. It resolved disputes relating to the headship of mathas, rights to different kinds of bodily markers, and the working of the annachatrams. Famously, the Muzrai department responded to petitions from local people against the corrupt Nath panthi head of the Adichunchunagiri matha in the early 20th century (called Adhityanath), stripping him of his rights for a brief while before restoring them.

That control was of course steadily eroded, partly as a result of the impact of electoral democracy on these institutions.  In 2017, there was a move to once more include the increasingly powerful and visible mathas in the Muzrai lists.  Attempts were also initiated to regulate archaka salaries, to thereby reduce the possible attractions of theft, corruption, non-reportage of revenues, and so on.

By privatising the running of temples in Karnataka — which are divided by wealth and power into the A, B and C categories — the government is doing several things.  It is, indeed, as the Opposition has noted, creating a layer of beneficiaries, drawn from the ever growing (and unemployed?) ranks of those who will take over the important temples at least.

Shared sovereignty

This is a form of shared sovereignty which has been in operation over the last few years, sharply increased in the last few months, which empowers and legitimates non-state actors.

The BJP-led government has taken advantage of the Muzrai department’s control to urge temples to do its behest. The Muzrai department has used its powers to instruct temples to conduct rain prayers, conduct go (cow) pujas, special pujas to coincide with the Ayodhya Ram Mandir bhoomi puja, and even feed the poor during the migrant crisis. Perhaps the State now feels confident that such activities will be willingly undertaken by a grateful private temple administration.

But there is another — perhaps equally important — reason why the BJP in Karnataka wishes to turn the running of temples over to ‘the people’.  It is the fear of democracy itself. Unlike States like Tamil Nadu and Kerala, which have considerably liberalised the appointment of priests to temples, to include lower castes and in rarer cases, women, Karnataka has resisted introducing any policy on the same, saying that many temples in the State are anyway headed by non-Brahmins. Coupled as it is with the proposed legislation or even ordinance against conversion, this anti-democratic thrust will lay the basis for a Nava Karnataka that is fulfilling the majoritarian, upper caste and masculinist dreams of a Nava Bharat.

(The writer is former Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, New Delhi and  Visiting Professor, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal).

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