Lost Lands, Imprisoned Deities And Neo-Colonial Misery: It Is Time We Freed Meenakshi Amman And Other Temples From Government Control


Jan 06, 2022, 11:17 PM | Updated 11:17 PM IST

Meenakshi Sundareshwar Temple in Madurai.
Meenakshi Sundareshwar Temple in Madurai.
  • The takeover of temple administration by the British was a sacrilege. The continuation of this colonial policy renders India is still a neo-colonial state, shackling its soul. It is time the government steps out of religious places, and let them be.
  • The Sangam literature of classical Tamil describes her as the consort of Shiva, who reigned the celestial city of Madurai for millennia. The patron and embodiment of all classical arts, she combined valour and beauty personifying the feminine Shakti tradition of India. The inheritor of Malaydhwaja's kingdom, who raised her as a son, she combined the feminine with the purusha, ruling Madurai with her consort, Sundareshwara.

    But today the, the goddess who conquered India from the southern tip to the Kailasa and reigned Madurai for many millennia is in captivity. And with this forced legalised capture, the large temple of Meenakshi also exemplifies the miserable state in which a perennial civilisation has been taken over by the government, which has surreptitiously taken over control of over thousands of its temples.

    It is time that Shri Meenakshi, and thousands of other living deities are released from a forced control by politics, and be restored to their independent positions, as is the case with all other religions.

    The first time I visited the hall of thousand pillars was when I was in the Class XIII. My wanderlust parents had taken me to a month-long unplanned tour of south India, the fag end of which was in Madurai. The ornate gopurams giving an illusion of a celestial ladder into the sky, took my breath away. And for the first time in my life, I felt something deep moving in me, which has always attracted me to the town of Madurai, the seat of Shri Meenakshi.

    A Rajasthani boy hailing from a non-religious family (my father subjected himself to the puja only on Diwali), it was a feeling I had experienced for the first time. What particularly inspired me was the delicately carved statues of dancing women and men which formed the interiors of the temple. The effect they created was dynamic, in such ancient and solid a structure. Later, I had the same experience in the much smaller temple of Hosyaleshwara in Belur, with its exquisitely carved madanikas.

    This novel experience found its expression in me in the form of bharatanatyam, a dance which I started to learn at the age of 25, and have continued to learn and perform for more than a decade. As I was learning the complex choreography of a varnam on Meenakshi, retelling her story of the conquest of Kailasa with the rich gestural vocabulary of bharatanatyam, it dawned on me that the foremost female warrior of ancient India is under captivity for nearly a 100 years, first by the British, and then its successor, the Indian state.

    The devasthanam board and their replicas in other states that should have no legal right to take over temples of India are controlling the vast resources of Indian temples, gnawing them from within and drawing from their continuous patronage by the millions, while preventing the temples to perform their social duties. It is time that this unfair practice is brought to an end, and Sri Meenakshi, the embodiment of Shakti, is freed from the shackles of a state that has no basis or business to run religious temples.

    The sacred geography of India is what binds this large landmass into a single whole. Giving space to expressions from atheistic to theistic, dualistic to non-dualism, repudiation of deities to worship of living animals, enhancing inanimate rivers and mountains to being human-like or gods, there are gaps within this ancient framework to all philosophies sans those that attempt to annihilate it entirely.

    The shrines, which unlike other religions serve as place to worship, are consecrated abodes of the living deities, who are under Indian law considered as the sole proprietor of the space. In the name of the presiding deity, therefore, the temples served as the fulcrum of society, culture and civilisation.

    The great temples of the south India, or Odisha, provided the support needed to create, perform, recreate, and nurture the classical arts of India. The temples provided a structure to employ thousands or millions of people, creating a highly interconnected society, which could depend upon each other, while also investing in its welfare.

    Meenakshi temple, for example, was endowed by the Pandyas, the Vijayanagar rulers, and the Nayakas with thousands of acres of land, gold, and other assets. In total, according the government website, the Tamil Nadu temples had a total endowment of 5.5 lakh acres, a staggering number. These fixed resources, and continued addition by the communities helped these temples to act as social organisations running schools, hospitals, and even acting as financiers for businesses and commercial naval expeditions.

    It is a pity that while the government has taken over such vast resources, they have reduced these temples to mere methods to fend for its own appointees, and only barely survive. In effect, just as the colonists ruled their colonies, extracting resources but just letting the colony survive to continue being extracted, the temples have been reduced to a pitiable state of erstwhile colonies.

    History Of The Hostile Takeover

    The history of the takeover of the fulcrum of Indian cultural life started during the British time, way back during the rule of British East India Company in 1817. The Madras Presidency passed the Madras Regulation in 1817 taking over temples so as to transfer the wealth away. It is alleged that a lot of gold and precious ornaments, basically the liquid assets, were taken away "legally" by this regulation.

    But the biggest onslaught on temples' freedom came a century later, with the passage of Madras Religious and Charitable Endowments Act, which effectively brought all religious institutions under the British control. As it usually happens in India, the minorities were able to wriggle themselves out, but the Hindu temples remained under government control, and have remained there since. Subsequently, many other southern Indian states passed similar laws in order to take over the temple properties.

    The Plunder Of Temples Continues

    Since Malik Kafur destroyed the Meenakshi temple nearly a millennia ago, she has again been enshrined and ruled Madurai again. The British took over the temple a century ago, but this slow plunder has continued unabated since even after India's political independence from the British. The result has been more than disastrous, rather scandalous.

    The temples have lost all semblances of governance and discipline, and have been reduced to be cash cows for secular governments, who use them like their colonial masters in a mercantile fashion till they would wither away and die. The temple devasthanam boards are secured for political acolytes, and in avowedly anti-theistic governments (like Tamil Nadu), and governments with Christian heads (like in AP), the largest temples are manned by people who are fundamentally antagonistic to the temples themselves.

    Much more has been chronicled about it by eminent social scientists like T R Ramesh, and J Sai Deepak, so I will avoid too much detail, but suffice it to say that the temples have been taken in order to destroy them from within, while pillaging their vast resources. The Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department of Tamil Nadu lost a stunning 50,000 acres of temple lands in just five years, as noted by the High Court of Madras.

    Those lost lands are hardly recovered, but we know little about other losses which are not yet accounted for. In this inflationary period, my own place of work, the Yale University increased its endowment from $26 billion to more than $50 billion within a span of five years, but we find that our temple endowments have not budged at all. India has arguably undergone a higher asset inflation in the last 20 years. The state of endowed assets under these administrations should be compared against privately managed endowments to assess the true loss of value incurred by governmental control.

    Instead, the temples are left with no funds to manage affairs that they used to as the central fulcrums of society: their cash collected from devotees' donation is taxed, and then distributed as salaries to politically appointed board members. Little is left for the upkeep of the temple, and certainly not for the vast charitable social activities that the temples traditionally used to manage.

    This last aspect has made the temples lose the connection with their surroundings, which in many parts of south India is now going through rapid evangelisation, mostly from the US funded fundamentalist church activities. There is massive corruption, with more than 50,000 acres of temple endowed land being lost.

    The Meenaksih Temple's own lost land is apparently "given over" to St Mary's Church, which owns nearly 50 acres of land held by Meenakshi, just to cite one example. To top all this neo colonial misery, the government imposes a huge tax (20-25 per cent) to ’manage’ the temples. Is it any different from the colonial powers who ruled over India, looted its treasures, destroyed its industries, and then charged taxes for their service?

    Whenever I visited these architecturally beautiful temples, I myself was appalled by the ‘fees’ temples used to charge to enter their premises. My family was not religious, and so as a child my interest was purely touristic. You could access the temple inner sanctorum after paying a fee, graded in order to gain you an earlier entry. It felt like a bribe to the deity, was unfair, and only added to the propaganda about the Indic religions being class-based.

    Little did I know that these entry fees, and the miserable upkeep of the temples were basically government-board decisions. Most temple priests and employees were totally against such practices but could speak little against the political masters. The Meenakshi Temple, which was the centre of classical arts of the Tamils for nearly two millennia, was reduced to merely a shrine, and a touristic spot. This, and many other such examples convinced me that it is essential to free the temples, and the spirit of India itself has to be liberated.

    Dawn Of A Realisation Of India's Unreleased Shackles

    A new awakening has thankfully started. Eminent scholars have started talking about this issue, documenting details about the loss of endowment lands, pilfering of large funds, and even smuggling of precious sculptures. The ancient soul of India, which is the only living ancient civilisation on earth stems from its ancient temples which organised lives, provided a structure to the society beyond the spiritual and religious needs, and served as the chief patrons of the ancient classical art forms for which India is proud of, including music, architecture and dance.

    Cases have been filed recently in many states, but the politics of the southern states is still orthogonal to this concern. A crucial impetus came when Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev lent his influential voice in support of the liberation of religious places in India. Eminent lawyers through the Indic initiative have both litigated and are spreading awareness of this issue through various forums.

    But the biggest sign of public anger is the strong public resistance that the Bharatiya Janata Party government faced in Uttarakhand, where it attempted to take over control of the religious sites. Possibly, today is the right time to address this century long issue, which has orphaned the Indic systems from any structured organisation.

    Relieving Hindu temples is also an approach which should be welcomed by all communities. It is one demand which does not pertain to other religions, and hardly affects them. But if it is not met when people are aware of the demand of free religious institutions, the demand to bring the church and the Waqf property under the governmental fold will only increase with significant legitimisation. It cannot be anybody's case that these temples were uniquely subjected to abuse, as if financial or other abuses do not occur in other religious institutions.

    Such cases, when brought to light, will create a legal way to take over church and Waqf boards based on the precedence of Indian temples. Therefore, it is in everybody's interest, as well as an apt step for a ‘secular’ government to get out of managing any religious institution. This feeling is no more nascent and will slowly create a sufficiently massive movement, and considering that it simply asks from the government a fundamental right, would be difficult to counter. The government is not asked for any largesse or support, but merely to step away and let the temples be managed by its devotees, as it always has been.

    Liberating The Soul Of India

    It is only the British who took away her liberty, but sadly the government of an avowedly free India has continued to follow this colonial takeover of the nation's soul. For the soul of the nation is what this network of temples is, linking the whole of the landmass of South Asia in a sacred geography. The grand temple of Madurai brought Shiva from Kailasa, in today's political Tibet, to stand beside Meenakshi as Sundareshwara.

    Only this deeply connected geographical appeal could have brought a Marwari boy from Rajasthan to want to learn bharatanatyam, just to be able to experience from within the ethereal beauty of the ruler of Madurai, Meenakshi, the one with fish-like eyes. Through twists and turns, it has taken me 15 years to be able to learn this exacting choreography on a complex rhythmic piece on Meenakshi. As I practise this bharatanatyam varnam, the yearning is to perform this dance when she is liberated, along with countless lynchpins of India's sacred soul from this neo-colonial exploitative arrangement. India may be politically free, but its soul remains shackled. It is time we ask for this freedom of India's soul.

    Kshitiz is a Research Professor at Yale University working in Cancer and Stem Cell Biology. He is also a writer, bharatantyam dancer, and the author of the book “The Revenge of Shakuni”.

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