This temple town in Karnataka shows what inspired leadership can do for a temple and its devotees, only if the state keeps out.
A temple that has Shiva as its main deity, Vaishnavite priests and a Jain household for administrators, and is not just an important pilgrim centre, but also the centre of socio-economic transformation of the region, is certainly an example to emulate.
Shri Kshetra Dharmasthala in Karnataka is one such shrine, which shows exactly how a temple that is not bogged down by state interference can turn out to be much more than a mere place of worship.
Temples in India originally were the nucleus of the habitation around them. Villages mushroomed around them and most people had roles or duties associated with their functioning. From artists to gardeners, to sculptors, to musicians, to priests, and to those entrusted with the upkeep of the temple – everybody worked with the temple as the epicentre of all activity.
Cut to the present age where despite some temples having hundred folds the wealth and resources that the temples of yore could imagine, society around them has hardly any reason to thank them for their existence.
In such times, misappropriation of temple wealth, disregard for heritage, decline of cultural activities and thereby the extinction of various art forms associated with them has become a norm. However, this temple in Karnataka is an example of all that a temple can be and do, if only it is allowed to.
The Dharmasthala Manjunatha Temple is run by a Jain family, the Heggades, who were entrusted with this duty over eight centuries ago. Since then, they have not just turned this village into a flourishing town but also made it the source of social, economic, educational, administrative and judicial reform in the region.
The head of the family or the one who runs the administration of the temple is called the dharmadhikari (hereditary administrator) and this position is said to be a unique one as he is seen here as the representative of the deity himself. The ‘Heggade’ is seen as speaking for deity Manjunatha and is expected to dispense justice, and advise those who approach him.
Dr Veerendra Heggade, the present dharmadhikari, who completes five decades of having upheld the dharma, took the mantle from his father at the age of 20 on 24 October 1968. Since then, his word for many is the law, his actions have set a benchmark, and his thoughtfulness revived hundreds of other temples all over the state.
As one heads to the parking lot of the temple, one sees huge chariot bases parked there. Ornately carved old chariots that are no longer in use at temples are brought here and are on display for visitors.
To the right of the temple is the house that hosts seekers of dharma in all its forms. There is an air of calm and hope in the room in which he sits each day at allotted time slots to meet people who either come to offer their first harvest, seek solutions to their disputes, aid to meet their medical needs and expenses or plain advice. Clad in all white, he sits there listening patiently and disappointing none.
All this is possible to a large extent because there is no external authority imposing impossible rules in the name of governance. “Every temple has its own culture, own tradition, its own parampara. There is no question of the government intervening especially in the customs and traditions of any place. Wherever you see government intervention, you see a lot of confusion because it may be more democratic but it doesn’t serve the purpose. A democratic administration can be there but you can’t have a democratic house. In a house you have parents and elders, and similarly it is for rituals in a temple. I feel interference of the state in religious and spiritual activities are not in good taste,” says Dr Heggade.
The independence that non-interference of the state guarantees has seen the temple function as an axis of many a reform. The dharmadhikari’s role has been seen as one who facilitates the four ‘danas’ or services – annadana (food), abhayadana (security and solace), aushadhadana (medicine) and vidyadana (education). This sums up the major contributions of the temple to society.
The annadana that is organised here has been lauded the world over for its automated and hygienic kitchen that serves lakhs of visitors every day. Apart from listening to people’s issues, the dharmadhikari at the temple provides monetary aid to the underprivileged in the form of scholarships, medical aid or pensions, which on certain days reaches a few lakh of rupees.
On the cultural front, Shri Dharmasthala Manjunatheshwara Yakshagana Kala Kendra has been supporting the traditional local dance form, Yakshagana, through bhajana kammata workshops, which are held to train bhajan groups in villages and gurukuls that impart education in the traditional guru-shishya parampara to young children.
In society, the temple organises mass marriages, where the dharmadhikari blesses each couple in person, apart from taking care of the feast expenses, wedding finery for the couple and the mangalsutra for the bride. On the other hand, the jana-jagrathi de-addiction programme through which many rural families in this part of the country have been saved from ruin are also well known.
Dharmasthala has often been hailed as the cleanest temple town, and its temple restoration wing the Sri Dharmasthala Manjunatheswara Dharmothana (SDMD) Trust has helped restore more than 200 temples. The SDM Medical Trust, on the other hand, has its multi-speciality hospitals throughout India, which offer free medical aid to the needy. A glimpse of it can be seen as one enters the Mahadwara of Dharmasthala at Ujire in Karnataka. The stretch of a few kilometres from the dwara to the temple are what ancient temples in their own way looked like, with curated gardens surrounding the various educational institutions, the naturopathy and wellness centres. They are a tiny glimpse into what this mammoth institution of a temple has managed to do for the society.
All this has been possible, because what drives the man steering these efforts is a passion and the vision to refine dharma, in his own way.
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