A Madras High Court Division bench comprising justices R Mahadevan and P D Audikesavalu has fixed 8 -week time frame to prepare an exhaustive set of guidelines encompassing spiritual to scientific upkeep of temples, idols, assets, historical monuments, paying salaries to staff, filling up vacancies in the post of trustees, maintaining the animals owned by the temples and safeguarding their water bodies. It issued a list of 75 directions to the Tamil Nadu government.
The Division bench gave this directions on a batch of PILs including Suo Motu public interest litigation petition taken up by the HC on the basic of reader’s letter titled “ The silent Burial’ published in a leading English daily. The bench ordered reconstitution of state-level and district-level expert committees, comprising of structural experts to accord sanction for repairs and renovation of temple and archaeological sites. It said “ the committees should met at least once every month and conduct periodical inspects of monuments and temples, prepare reports and forward them to the government for appropriate action”.
The court ordered that the Mamallapuram World Heritage Area Management Authority (MWHAM) should be set up within 8 weeks to manage and safeguard all monuments and that a 17-member Heritage Commission should also be constituted to act as an advisory body to the Authority comprising Historians, archaeologists, anthropologists and other experts. The Judges said “ The Heritage Commission shall identify all the structures, monuments, temples , antiques with historical/ archaeological importance within Tamil Nadu state , formulate a list with age of such monuments by classifying them within their period group, issue appropriate notification, render periodical advise to the State, supervise the restoration, repair works etc. and maintain the same. No structural alterations or repair or any monument/ temple/idol/sculpture/ murals notified under the relevant Central and State legislations should be permitted without the sanction of the commission”
The Court directed the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) “to conduct field survey of temples that are more than 100 years old, estimate the damages and restore the structures as per rules within 6 to 12 months. The funds of individual temple should first be used for the maintenance of those temples conducting festivals, making payment to its staff including the archakas (priests) Oduvars, Musicians, folklore and drama artists and only the surplus fund could be utilized for attending the repair and maintenance of other temples. The state government to set apart sufficient funds for preservation of ancient monuments. ” .
The judges said in their 225 page judgment on 7th June ,2021 ” There is dire need to manage and conserve our ancient cultural heritage and monuments employing better advance technology in protecting, preserving and nourishing the same”. They directed the HR and CE department to a report within 8 weeks listing out the numbers temples without trustees , the duration of such vacancy particularly of the persons appointed as ‘ fit person’ and the steps taken by the department to appoint trustees. “A special Tribunal shall be set up to deal with matters relating to religions institutions that come under the provisions of the HR and CE Act. The Central government shall implement the Ancient Monuments Act in letter and spirit by declaring all religious structures more than 100 years old temple, temple tanks, mutts, temple chariots, jewels, art, artifacts and sacred coves including private denomination temples as ‘ national monuments’ with immediate effect.
The HC bench comprising Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice R Hemalatha, on March10th this year, directed the TN government to make every effort to protect the temple properties all over the state and to mobilise the funds for the purpose of maintenance, up keep and even restoration of temples. It said “temple lands often fall into disuse are encroached upon and water bodes within temple lands become virtual public properties without any protection. It is imperative that appropriate measures are taken in such regard all over the State”.
Following courts orders and after the demand for hand over the temples and assets to Hindu saints and liberate temple from the clutch of HR and CE, the new government has embarked on a mission to digitalize temple records, other documents in a phased manner. TN HR and CE minister Sekar Babu after inaugurating this new project said “ all the temple records kept in store rooms will now be available online. The new measure is to protect temple properties and those assets which are under the control of private persons would be retrieved”.
The Minister announced that 5.5 acres property worth Rs.250 crore in Saligramam belonging to Vadapalani Murugan temple was retrieved. “ encroachments around a mandapam belong to Sri Ranganathar temple in Srirangam was removed by HR and CE last week.” He told media that the land in Saligramam was originally leased out to TN Corporation for Development of women for 29 years starting 2008. The social welfare dept. constructed a hostel for working women on a portion of the land. The payment of lease amount which had been fixed at Rs.1 lakh month, was defaulted ( approximately Rs. 2.75 cr.due) since 2008. Now HR and CE has taken back the land. In the vacant land private vehicles were parked. Now the entire lands has been taken back. The Minister said it was only a trailer wait for the main picture.
But devotees said it was a drama to befool the public. While the land remains with the HR and CE , how could they get back it? Except for a govt. building, the remaining portion was a vacant land where vehicles were parked by locals. From whom they retrieved the land? It was leased to government. To remove the encroachment , it needed a minister and Corporation Commissioner with a full police force to physically present . Was it needed? Who allowed owners of private vehicles to part in the government land? What action it is going to take on the officials who allowed such violations. It is to be remembered that the late Ramagopalan, founder of Hindu Munnani, launched a protest opposing the government move to lease out the temple land to social welfare department.
In another development, CM M K Stalin said non- Brahmin trained priests would be appointed in all Temples coming under the HR and CE .
Leading Advocate B Jagannath said “Already at least 54 Non Brahmins have been appointed 2006 in non Agama temples- presently more than 200 have completed course on all Vedas – if they are being appointed in non- Agama temples- then no problem. But it is known from various sources that these 200 Non Brahmin Archakas have full backing of Dravidar Kazhagam leader K Veeramani and Christians and they would be ready to install Jesus Christ Statue in such Temples. They will most likely appoint SC people in Vanniyar Temples to provoke them the most. They would also go to the extent of having meat in temples in Sanctum Santorum of various temples triggering an outrage amongst Hindus but justification by DK and DMK. As per Agama they can't appoint non Brahmin in Agama temple if so it's Violation of Agama and can be struck down in SC. I don't think CM Stalin would be stupid to do it to the extent of developing animosity against DMK amongst the Hindus especially after his optics and intention of earning a good will as a Government for all”.
A bench headed by justice Ranjan Gogoi and justice N V Ramana in 2015 had upheld a Hindu temple’s right to appoint priests on the basis of individual traditionally codified practices but underlined that inclusion or exclusion as per the religious code should not be based on the criteria of caste, birth or any other constitutionally unacceptable parameter. “if the Agamas (code) in question do not proscribe any group of citizens from being appointed as Archakas (priest) on the basis of caste or class the sanctity of Article 17 or any other provision of Part III of the Constitution or even the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 will not be violated”. While refusing to strike down a Tamil Nadu government order of May 23, 2006 that had allowed any qualified and trained Hindu to be appointed as priest in temples in the state. The judges held that any attempt by the state to modify or dilute the requirements in the Agamas would amount to a negation of fundamental rights.
Another advocate who do not want to be identified said that it was not the duty of a secular government to appoint archakas in Hindu temple and remove them. It’s mandate is to manage the temples efficiently and protect the idols, rare artifacts and properties including movable and non-movables. The past experience showed that HR and CE miserably failed in this regard. It is none of its business to interfere in temple traditions and agmas. Can it say in Shia mosque or Sunni mosque trained mullas, moulvis of other faith can be appointed applying the same yardstick saying all are Muslims?. Can it also appoint pastors in RC, Pentecost and sub sect churches those who are trained in theology or in a seminary?. Why it poke its nose only in Hindu run temples. In village temples non-brahmins are conducting rituals as priests. It is part of the Christian agenda, temples are mail pillar of Hinduism and the Brahmins are stumbling block in their mission to Christianize the nation”.
In another related development, Justices N.Kirubakaran and T.V.Thamilselvi of Madras HC on 8th June directed the TN Govt. to explain what happened to 47,000 acres of temple land since the policy note for 1984-85 states that there were 5.25 lakh acres whereas the note for 2019-20 refers to only 4.78 lakh acres. With the judiciary stepped in to the arena more seriously and a whip in hand, it will be a tough time for the DMK government in the state.