Investigation: How A Prominent Hindu Temple In Kerala Is Being Harassed By State Government Officials
Vellayani Bhadrakali temple's triennial festival preparations have been disrupted by an outrageous demand by the state police — to take down the saffron decorations that have been the norm for ages.
A regrettable standoff has suddenly developed at Vellayani Bhadrakali temple, on the southern outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram, between the local administration and the temple authorities.
This large Devi temple is located beside Vellayani lake, a wetland which attracts bird watchers around the year, and lakhs of devotees during the ‘Kaliyootu Mahotsav’ held once every three years.
It is run by the Kerala Government’s Travancore Devaswom Board, and has various committees which are elected annually from among people living in the surrounding Kalliyoor panchayat.
The triennial festival is set to commence on 14 February 2023, and will be the first full one in six years, since the 2020 edition had to be prematurely terminated on account of the Wuhan virus epidemic. So, the enthusiasm and preparations are extra-special this year.
However, these have been severely dampened by a needless problem which has cropped up.
The issue is that the Kerala Police have asked the temple authorities to replace their standard saffron-coloured buntings (torans) with multi-coloured ones, since the police fear that decking the approach road to the temple with purely monochromatic saffron decorations may lead to a law-and-order problem.
This is an absurd, outrageous, and deeply insulting demand which the police have no right to make.
It is official interference in a tradition which has been carried on by the temple for ages, and hurts religious sentiments to the hilt.
So, why are the police forcing the Vellayani Bhadrakali temple to replace saffron torans with multi-coloured ones, on the eve of the most important festival in the region?
This is what Swarajya’s investigations uncovered:
According to Sreekand Kalliyoor, a member of the temple’s festival committee, preparations for the festival were progressing with great enthusiasm, and the saffron torans had just been raised on the approach road to the temple, when, on mid-morning of 7 January, the local police arrived to issue their egregious instructions.
The demand was made by Nemom Station House Officer (SHO) Rageesh Kumar, Inspector of Police, and he was accompanied by a large police posse which included, inter alia, Sub Inspector (SI) Vipin Gabriel and Assistant Sub Inspector (ASI) Shaji.
(Note: SI Gabriel and ASI Shaji’s names do not feature on the list of personnel posted to Nemom SHO, when the website was checked on the evening of 9 February. Consequently, the capacity in which they were present at Vellayani temple is unclear).
When asked why they had to replace the saffron torans, the temple representatives were informed that the police had received a telephonic complaint on the offensive colour of the torans, and hence wanted them replaced with multi-coloured ones to avoid a law-and-order problem.
The details of the complainant were not revealed, and the instructions were delivered by the SHO verbally. No complaint or order was given to the temple representatives in writing.
The temple refused to take down the saffron torans, and the police party withdrew.
The next day, 8 February, four senior members from Vellayani temple’s advisory and festival committees met Anil Jose J, the Deputy Collector (General) ADM at Kudappanankkunnu Civil Station, Thiruvanathapuram, for a routine, pre-scheduled meeting to review preparations and arrangements for the festival.
The Nemom SHO, Rageesh Kumar, was present at this meeting.
During this meeting, the temple representatives raised the issue, of being asked by the SHO to replace saffron torans with multicoloured ones. But no decision was taken either way, and the meeting ended inconclusively on the point of saffron torans.
Speaking to Janam TV later that night, N Gopan, General Convenor of the temple’s festival committee, said that the SHO kept muttering ‘saffron, saffron, saffron’ when they raised the matter with Deputy Collector Anil Jose J.
Kalliyoor adds that they did not understand why a simple saffron bunting would raise so many hackles.
The answer was provided to Janam TV in the same debate on the night of 8 February, by AH Hafeez of the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), the CPI-M. He said, just as the SHO had, that saffron torans would lead to a law-and-order problem.
So, now we have a Communist party functionary and a government official trotting out the same argument.
As this piece goes to press, the ground situation at Vellayani Bhadrakali temple is that the local police continue to make verbal demands of the festival committee, who, in turn, have refused to comply in the absence of any written notices, or logic. The saffron torans still bedeck the approach road to the temple.
Having detailed the what, where, when, and how, one point remains: the ‘why’.
Why would a temple be harassed by authorities thus, exactly when the committees and volunteers are rushing to complete preparations for the festival?
This question has many interesting answers.
First, Vellayani temple has been the target of specific ire for some years now. In 2017, a similar objection was raised over the saffron flag (the bhagwa jhanda or kesari dhwaj) erected on a flagpole at the temple’s entrance.
At that time, the festival committee decided to avoid confrontation and took down the flag (the CPI-M-led government had returned to power in the assembly elections of 2016, and everyone was wary of their menacing swagger).
In 2020, the festival committee elections were ‘contrived’ to include the Marxists in good numbers. As a result, the committee decided that the traditional saffron torans would be replaced with red-coloured ones.
Second, Vellayani temple lies within the boundary of Nemom assembly constituency, which is one of the seven assembly segments making up Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha seat.
It is a stronghold of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Veteran BJP leader O Rajagopal polled heavily in this segment in the 2014 general elections when he lost to Dr Shashi Tharoor of the Congress by just 15,470 votes.
But Rajagopal won the seat in the 2016 assembly elections with 47 per cent of the vote, defeating local communist heavyweight V Sivankutty by a robust margin.
It was the first time the BJP won an election in Kerala, and came as a shock to communists. Sivankutty, whose claims to notoriety include vandalising the legislative assembly in 2015, when in opposition, won in 2021 in a tight three-way contest.
So, we may well understand why a ruckus was engineered at Vellayani temple over the saffron flag in 2017, ahead of that festival.
Third, the temple lies in Kalliyoor panchayat, which the BJP won back-to-back in the local body polls of 2015 and 2020.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the temple has a delightful organisational setup for the conduct of rituals. By tradition, the head priest is not a Brahmin, but a member of the blacksmith caste (similar to Vishwakarma). They are called Kollam Asharis, identify as Other Backward Castes (OBC), and are referred to locally as “Vaathi”.
However, the temple functionaries are upper caste Nairs. This is how Vellayani temple has functioned – by devotion, with no place for meaningless caste hierarchies, or the patriarchy temple priests are always accused of by the communists.
And the symbolism inherent in this remarkable structure, sources told Swarajya, is why Vellayani temple is a target for harassment: the usual suspects are worried that this edition of the triennial festival, which is expected to draw very large crowds, may galvanise a wide supra-caste consolidation which could carry forward into the general elections of 2024. Trust the Marxists to view anything and everything as existential threats to their staying on in power.
Just to be sure, Swarajya asked if the Congress party was also involved in attempts to harass the temple. The answer was an emphatic no, because the Congress is no longer a force in this area after the delimitation of 2009.
This is correct: the Congress didn’t contest Nemom assembly seat in 2011 or 2016, and came third in 2021.
Thus, to summarise in conclusion, this temple is being persistently targeted because it shatters those old narratives which kept social divides alive for crass electoral gains, and is a rallying point for a local surge which raises more and more people above the manacling morass of manufactured identities, to a better place. And it is not alone.
There are a thousand other unknown places like Vellayani Bhadrakali temple, dotting unknown corners of our land, where the flame of our civilisational awakening is sought to be extinguished by desperate forces, who perceive even something as benign as a saffron toran as a threat.
The best way to counter such perfidy is by bringing their machinations under the relentless glare of widespread public scrutiny, because, in the end, and as always, the truth alone triumphs.
Perhaps this, more than anything else, would aid the festival committee in ensuring that devotees enter the temple for the festival next week, through an approach road decorated with row upon row of saffron torans, instead of the multi-coloured ones the local police want.
Maybe then, malign forces would understand that the decorations have not been put up for them, but, in spite of their harassments, for the Bhadrakali of Vellayani.
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