It should be an honour second to none. In the heart of many a devout Saivite, there is a dream that arises when one sees Lord Nataraja at the most holy Chidambaram temple. It beckons to let go of all else, to devote life to Him alone. There are a few men born with this opportunity, the dikshitar priests whose lives revolve entirely around His service in His foremost citadel. Earning birth into such hereditary priesthood is regarded as a glorious fulfillment of many lives of bhakti and purification, and so it was centuries ago when the maharajas ruled strong, their empires centered around temples rather than palaces. In those days, a vibrant host of 3,000 priests served at Chidambaram.
These days, the dikshitars, reduced to little more than 300, find themselves as characters in a very different story. Though the massive stones of Lord Siva’s temple still hold firmly in place, the walled chambers now witness a depopulated and impoverished priesthood, struggling to perform their work and, in some cases, even to survive. The decline of the dikshitars started centuries ago but has intensified in the last fifty years. The latest and most severe blow was a hostile takeover by the Tamil Nadu government on February 2, 2009, which has sparked outrage, public protests and a cloud of uncertainty, all meeting nothing more than an odd silence from the Indian media. To shed light on the controversy, Hinduism Today correspondent travelled to Chidambaram in March 2009.
The Tamil Language Conundrum
The dikshitars’ latest woes were brought about by one incident, a catalyst of things long in the making. In 2008, the oduvar Arumugaswami-a singer of sacred Tamil songs called devarams-accused the dikshitars of not allowing him to sing to Lord Nataraja. The story brought extensive negative publicity to the priests. Stripped of most details, the news reached the Indian media portraying the dikshitars as arrogant Sanskritists, contemptuous of the Tamil language and callous toward the people’s needs. The case was taken to the government and then to the local courts, causing a commotion of proportions unseen in Chidambaram’s recent history.
“This is a fabricated story,” decries B Kadhiresan, a lecturer of English at nearby Annamalai University and a member of the Organisation for the Protection of Hindu Temples. “This is the main temple that historically promoted the Tamil language and also the singing of devarams. The songs, scribed on palm leaves, were hidden here in hostile times. When the Cholas took over, the dikshitars handed them the devarams, and the kings made them public.”
Discredited and Vulnerable
The incident with the oduvar at Chidambaram provided ample ammunition for the interventionist camp. The dikshitars, a reclusive community with no media savvy, were easy prey to the campaign of disinformation that followed. Rumours abound, a popular one being that the dikshitars wanted to forbid spoken Tamil even in conversations inside the temple complex. TV stations as far as Malaysia showed the dikshitars as a clique of decadent, money-grabbing priests who ran an unkempt temple with filthy walls and unfriendly services. With a sweeping media spin against them, the dikshitars, few of whom speak English, did not stand a chance.
The oduvar, backed by a mandate from the state court, was finally allowed to sing just as he wished, while the dikshitars just stopped the puja and waited before they would proceed. One hot-tempered young dikshitar did not take this well. Far from the eyes of the crowd, he gave Arumugaswami a beating-providing more fuel for the fires of criticism. Dr Ananda Nataraja, a dikshitar who currently works as a professor of Tamil language at Annamalai University, observes, “That was the mistake of one particular dikshitar. The community tried to protect him, which I think was wrong. The governing body of the dikshitars, however, publicly criticised his actions.”
Cries of mismanagement escalated. The temple itself, in its state of relative decay, was pointed to by critics as evidence of poor management. The Hinduism Today team also took notice of the dirty pillars and stained stones. They stand as a paradox, a contrasting background to the priests who, undeniably, have a strong affection for the temple.
A new rumour took flight, its source unknown, about how jewels from Lord Nataraja Himself had been missing, stolen or lost by the priests. Though government officials mentioned this freely in conversations, none would make a formal charge. Still, the cascade of accusations and slander further eroded the standing of the beleaguered priesthood.
A Long-Planned Takeover
The Tamil Nadu government’s decades-long interest in Chidambaram Temple is notorious. In India, administration of temples follows state law, not federal law. Tamil Nadu has an estimated 38,000 Hindu temples, with all but the smallest ones run by the government-and Chidambaram was the last big one outside the system.
Back in July, 1983, Hinduism Today reported, “The Tamil Nadu State Department of Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Commission has unveiled a plan, long anticipated by observers of the political scene, to assume the administration of the Chidambaram Nataraja temple.” In 1987 the post of executive officer for Chidambaram was created but not implemented. Until now, the judiciary had dismissed all attempts to seize control.
Finally, emboldened by current circumstances, on February 2, 2009 the Tamil Nadu government appointed an Executive Officer with ample powers to oversee the temple in all aspects. On that same evening, the officer arrived at Chidambaram.
Protesting in the Streets
The dikshitars immediately appealed the takeover, but the Chennai high court judge, Ms. Banumathi, upheld the decision. Popular outcry quickly followed.
On March 25, over 6,000 devotees joined a protest march and rally, demanding a reversal of the takeover. Braving the hot weather, a crowd of men, women and children chanted slogans and carried signs demanding, “Leave the temple!” Many waved flags representing Hinduism, with kolams or Nandi, Siva’s mount, and often the whole crowd chanted a reverberating Aum Namasivaya that resonated along the streets of the small temple-town.
The Priests Today
If in the old days 3,000 priests worked to keep the temple clean and the vibration pristine, the diminished ranks of today, with just 373, are woefully deficient. In fact, much of the criticism aimed at the dikshitars is a direct result of their impoverishment and decimated ranks. It is a vicious cycle that only brings further decay.
There are, among the dikshitars, some who face the challenge with a full heart and dignified forbearance. S. Kailasa Sankara Dikshitar, 52, keeps an inner perspective, seeing not financial, but mystical missteps behind the problems. “Since 1957, we dropped many of the traditional ways. We do not perform a ghee abhishekam to the sphatika (crystal) lingam anymore. We abandoned certain rites that are expensive. We have even missed kumbhabhishekams and performed them on the wrong dates. Our rites deal with forces of the cosmos. I feel that if we solve this, it will have a positive effect on the Tamil people, in Sri Lanka and in the world.”
D Raja Dikshitar, a young mystic of 25, explains what it means to be a dikshitar, whether the times are good or bad: “We are connected to the Lord all the time. My life and my temple activities cannot be separated. Even as babies, when we drank milk from our mothers, we were creating a commitment to this divine task.”
The next step, according to B. Kumar, the dikshitars’ lawyer, is to take the case to federal courts. The argument is that the dikshitars are a minority protected by constitutional laws. “It is a crystal-clear case. The rights of denominations are safeguarded under the constitution. The bench said that the podhu dikshitars are a denomination and are entitled to the management of their institution.” In Indian law, denominations, or micro-minorities as they are sometimes called, are small groups that share a common heritage and are the living embodiment of a tradition that needs to be preserved. As B Kumar explains, “This is not a temple where there are just ten pujaris. They are 373 families. That is why, in 1952, the state bench decreed that the podhu dikshitars are entitled to remunerate themselves using the donations given to the temple. It is a community prohibited by tradition from taking any other remunerated job. If a podhu dikshitar takes any other avocation, he is disqualified from sharing the proceeds.”
For the Tamil Nadu government, this means that all noteworthy temples are under state management, but only as far as the Hinduism is concerned-the houses of worship of all other religions have so far been left undisturbed. Our correspondent inquired if there is a plan to continue to also take over mosques and churches. Mrs Thirumagal said, “I cannot comment on why only Hindu institutions or temples are taken over. It is basically a government’s decision. But wherever mismanagement is taking place, we will take over.” It is a position that draws criticism. Dr Thiagarajan Rajagopalam denounces, “If the government is taking over Hindu temples, can it claim to be a secular government? Under the garb of secularism, the government is silent about the administration of any temple of other religions. This is wrong. A full takeover of property that does not belong to the government is tantamount to stealing the temple.”
The dikshitar’s-and Chidambaram’s-future is unsettled. How will their woes be solved, and how will their heritage survive, only Lord Nataraja may say. All is His dance, and though some of His steps are fierce, the diskhitars know well it is also an infinite dance of bliss.
(This is an abridged version of a lengthy article appeared in Hinduism Today, October-December 2009)