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Tamil Nadu’s temple Entry struggle ends for Dalits

  • Published
    4th Aug, 2023
Context

People from the Dalit community entered the local Mariamman temple at Chellankuppam village in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruvannamalai district for the first time in more than half a century.

Background
  • While most of the major temples in Tamil Nadu became accessible to Scheduled Castes around Independence, the struggle for entry into several smaller temples in the State continues to date.
  • In a similar case, dalits of Eduthavainatham village in Kallakurichi district also entered the Sri Varadaraja Perumal Temple for the first time in this year.

About the Marimman Temple:

  • The temple dates back to 1827, when it was known as Mariamman Kovil or Kling Chapel.
  • Established by Indian pioneer Naraina Pillai, the original wood-and-attap structure was built by immigrants from the Nagapatnam and Cuddalore districts of South India.
  • It is dedicated to the goddess Mariamman, known for her power to cure illnesses and diseases.
  • Mariamman temple issue is in between the Dalit community and the Vanniyar community.

Caste system in India:

  • The Caste system which divides Hindus into rigid hierarchical groups based on their karma (work) and dharma (the Hindi word for religion, but here it means duty) is generally accepted to be more than 3,000 years old.
  • It divides Hindus into four main categories - Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and the Shudras. Many believe that the groups originated from Brahma, the Hindu God of creation.

Roots of Caste system in Tamil Nadu:

Caste population constitution in Tamil Nadu:

Vanniyars (22%), Dalit/SC/ST (21%), Mukkulathor (20%), non-Tamils (10%), Nadars (8.5%), Vellala Gounders (7%), Christians (7%), Muslims (6%), Mudaliars (5%), Muthurayars (3%), Chettiars (2%) and Brahmins (2%).

  • From 200 to 100 BC, social stratifications were evident in the Tolkappiyam, a treatise on Tamil grammar and classical poetry, with the following groups: Anthanars or Parpanars (priests or Brahmins), Arasars (kings or Kshatriyan), Vanikars (merchants or Vaishyas) and Vellalars (agriculturists).
  • Although these groups have parallels to the previously described four-tier varna system, the two cannot be superimposed.
  • In the Tolkappiyam, these groups are associated with profession as opposed to birth.
  • As the complexity of TN social fabric diversified, Portuguese and British colonizers arrived; solidifying caste in administrative language as better jobs opportunities were afforded to upper castes or Christians.

The word caste itself is derived from casta (Portuguese) after Jesuit missionary Henriques used the term in his observations of society in the 1500s.

Struggle against caste based discrimination in Temples:

  • The struggle for castes considered “avarnas” (SHUDRAS) by the Hindu orthodoxy to enter temples, especially the ones maintained under Agama traditions, can be traced even back to the 7th-8th century AD with the tribulations faced by Nandanar, a Dalit, in entering Chidambaram Natarajar Temple, as documented in the Bhakti literature.
  • In modern history, one of the earliest documented temple entry struggles in present day Tamil Nadu were the attempts made by the Nadar community in the second half of 19th century in multiple places, especially in the southern region, where they faced severe discrimination despite making economic progress.

The Vaikom Satyagraha: (The Temple Entry Movement)

  • The princely state of Travancore had a feudal, militaristic, and ruthless system of custom-ridden government; some of the most rigid and refined social norms and customs were seen in Travancore.
  • Lower castes like the Ezhavas and Pulayas belonged to State of Kerala presently, were considered polluting and various rules were in place to distance them from upper castes.
  • These included a prohibition, not just on temple entry, but even on walking on the roads surrounding temples.
  • On March 30, 1924, the Satyagrahis walked in procession towards the forbidden public roads.
  • They were stopped 50 yards away from the place where a board cautioning the oppressed communities against walking on the roads (surrounding the Vaikom Mahadeva temple), was placed.
  • Gandhi arrived at Vaikom in March 1925, held a series of discussions with leaders of various caste groups and met Maharani Regent at her Varkala camp.
  • In 1936, the historic Temple Entry Proclamation was signed by the Maharaja of Travancore which removed the age-old ban on the entry of temples.

Is practicing caste system legal?

  • Independent India's constitution banned discrimination on the basis of caste, and, in an attempt to correct historical injustices and provide a level playing field to the traditionally disadvantaged, the authorities announced quotas in government jobs and educational institutions for scheduled castes and tribes, the lowest in the caste hierarchy, in 1950.
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