[Statutory warning: This is going to be a long read but you will discover many shocking truths about Tamilnadu’s temples.]
I received a message on WhatsApp recently:
Govt of TN that had taken over the Nanganallur Anjaneyar Temple, today announced that they will return the temple management to the trustees. The Free TN Temples is already beginning to show early wins. This is a step in the right direction as devotees must manage temples and govt must stay out of it.
Why is this news a cause for celebration and what is this Free TN Temples effort? Let’s explore …
There has been systematic exploitation & destruction of Tamilnadu’s temples for the past several decades now. In many cases, the primary culprit is the HR&CE — Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments — Department, which ironically is supposed to be taking care of the temples. So, a few years back, some people started taking steps to free up Tamilnadu temples from the control of HR&CE.
Now, Sadhguru is breathing fresh air into this with the #FreeTNTemples movement. He feels that this election period in Tamilnadu is the right time to capture the attention of political parties for releasing temples from the clutches of Government departments.
What is this HR&CE department?
The HR&CE act & department in Tamilnadu has its origins in the British era when Hindu temples were first brought under the Government's control in 1817. Then temples were returned back to the trustees but the Government started taking over Hindu temples with a radical change to the Madras Religious and Charitable Endowments Act from 1935. The idea was basically to loot all the temples’ wealth.
But this shameful act has been continued post-independence in India with the Tamilnadu State Government taking control of over 36000 Hindu temples along with management of these temple funds.
The key point to note is that Churches, Mosques, and Gurdwaras are not controlled by the Government authorities, but only Hindu temples are.
Why should Hindu temples be freed from HR&CE?
First of all, the Indian constitution declares the Republic of India as a secular democracy. By definition, this means that no religion should interfere in Government and the Government should not interfere or control any Religion. So, there is a question of the constitutional validity of the Government controlling Hindu Temples. No Church or Mosque is controlled by the Government — so why should Hindu temples alone be?
More importantly, most people might not have cared if the temples were well maintained by the HR&CE. But that is not the case. The state emblem of Tamilnadu is a temple. However, the mismanagement of temples has been so horrible that it might even trigger large-scale social protests if only the common public comes to know of the extent of this damage. Right now, only those who have some level of interest in temples know this and are crying hoarse.
The top categories of temple abuse are:
- No maintenance for temple structures
- No rituals & poojas happening in temples
- Theft of idols and jewels in temples
- Encroachments and mismanagement of temple lands
- Pujaris / Archakas left in the lurch with no salary
- Very poor experience for devotees due to lack of facilities at temples
No rituals or maintenance processes happening
It is well known that Hindu temples have certain maintenance processes called poojas that need to be done daily, in some cases at least twice a day.
However, the HR&CE department has admitted in the Madras High Court that out of the 44,000 temples it has records of, almost 12000 temples have no pooja taking place even once a day.
There is a sacred ritual called Kumbabhishekam (consecration process) that should happen every year or at least once every 12 years. But even in some of the best-known temples managed by the government, this consecration process is not happening regularly or happening in a very delayed manner. In some cases, it is the HR&CE department that has put a hurdle to this consecration process. What can be more ironic than this?
No maintenance of Temple Structures
It is heart-wrenching to see thousands of temples remaining in shambles in Tamilnadu.
- Temple gopuram is broken
- Walls are falling off
- Mandapams are broken or removed completely
- Temple Chariots are in pieces
- Temple tanks are abused horribly
When asked about this pathetic state of our temples, the TN HR&CE openly lies that there is no money to manage Hindu temples.
Blatant Looting of Temple Properties
As per Government records, out of the 44,000 temples that it has records of, there are at least 34,000 temples earning less than 10,000 rupees per year.
Do you know that as per TN HR&CE’s own records, there are over 4.8 lakh acres of land that is in the name of temples?
The sale price of 1 acre of land in Tamilnadu is anywhere between Rs 1 lakh to Rs 40 lakhs, depending on the area. If we fix a minimal price of Rs 3 lakhs per acre of land, the worth of the temple lands here is a whopping Rs 14400,00,00,000 (i.e.) Rs 14,400 crores.
And many of these are agricultural lands that are leased to others. If each acre of land earns just Rs 10,000 per year as profit, most temples of Tamilnadu can be very well taken care of. Apart from lands, there are several thousands of square feet of building property with temples which can earn good revenue for the temple.
However, what is happening instead is open looting of these:
- Some are encroached by mafia
- Some land records are changed & sold to private parties
- Lands & Buildings leased at extremely cheap prices to favorite parties
- Usurping in the name of fictitious people,
- Using the temple money for the personal interests of HR&CE officials, etc.
Next is the disaster of complete temples missing.
In Thanjavur, there is a famous case of a Shiva temple being encroached upon and converted into residential quarters in Thoppul Pillaiyar street. These are just a few well-known examples.
Some unofficial statistics say that more than 6000 such temples are missing now across the state, having been partially or fully encroached or converted into something else.
Idol & Jewel Theft
Theft of idols and temple jewels is not a phenomenon isolated to the temples of Tamilnadu but it has happened rampantly for decades and right under the noses of the HR&CE officials.
What kind of poor management is this that temples housing crores of rupees worth of idols & jewels, do not even have a single CCTV camera for their safety?
Hungry Archakas & Gluttonous Officials
At this point, one might start thinking, “Why is nobody speaking against such exploitation and bad handling? Surely, the Pujaris or Archakas of the temples must be able to see this and do something about it!”
However, the Pujaris are powerless because they have to report to the same HR&CE officials who oversee all this mismanagement and looting of temple properties.
The Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court had asked for clarification regarding the appointment of members to district committees and trustee boards of temples across Tamilnadu.
In another court case, it has come to light that the presence of Executive Officers of HR&CE in many temples is not even legal.
Did you know that the archakas or the people who conduct the poojas at temples in Tamilnadu do not have a fixed monthly salary? The HR&CE department takes over the control of temples but does not pay them any money really.
Many temple priests or archakas are getting their salaries in 3 digit numbers in INR every month, about Rs 750 per month ~ USD 10.5 per month. Rs 750 per month is less than what most daily wage laborers in India earn per day. With such a pittance, the priests are also supposed to look after the temples, doubling up as cleaners & at times as security personnel.
Thanks to the Periyarist and subsequent Dravidian politics, there is no social respect for these priests despite their almost selfless service to the upkeep of temples, and they get assaulted in a few cases.
There is no wonder that many archakas want to get out of that service and definitely not want their children to become one either.
During the COVID-19 lockdown period, a few moulvis (practitioners of Islamic law) took pity on some archakas and helped them out because the HR&CE left them in the lurch.
Gory Experiences Of Devotees
In 2019, the temple town of Kancheepuram was thronged by lakhs of devotees from nook and corner of India for a darshan of the Athi Varadar deity after a long gap of 40 years at the Sri Varadharaja Perumal Temple. However, the poor facilities and crowd mismanagement have made what was to be a pleasant experience into a severe inconvenience for the elderly, pregnant women, and people with disabilities.
- There were only 6 bio-toilets around the temple and they were also not cleaned regularly.
- Queues were just too long and many had to suffer the hot sun for hours
- Provision of water was completely insufficient and local residents pitched in to support the devotees passing by
- For almost a kilometer, pregnant women and elderly people had to walk before they could avail a wheelchair facility
This is not the case of just 1 temple. Except for a handful of major temples, none of the others have even basic drinking water facilities or toilets for devotees who go there.
#FreeTNTemples to stop our temples from dying
It is obvious that the TN HR&CE department has failed to properly maintain temple premises or manage the temple assets or simply support the archakas and the devotees.
If the sordid conditions presented in this post persist,
- There will soon be no daily maintenance processes held at any of the temples, including simple lighting of a lamp. Such temples will soon cease to be the energy centers that they were created to be.
- Archakas are already leading a pathetic life under HR&CE’s control. With this present generation of caretakers gone, no one would come forward to take care of temples.
- Once a temple is without anyone to care and in shambles, people will stop coming to that temple.
- Somebody would encroach an abandoned temple premise, remove the existing structure or build something on top of it.
- The death of the temple will be complete with no caretakers from the society and the Government department either too greedy to loot the temple properties or too apathetic towards it.
Sadhguru and many others are fighting dearly for this release of temples from the clutches of government control and into the hands of devotees who can actually do the temple maintenance properly.
Separate trusts can be formed with responsible individuals from each community and temples be managed by such trustees. On any day, a devotee will care more for his/her deity than an indifferent government official.
Thanks to the efforts of a few dedicated activists fighting for our temples and awareness movements like #FreeTNTemples, a few temples are beginning to come into the hands of devotees now.
[PS: Only the surface of this issue has been scratched here and a lot more has to see the light of the day. Almost all of the information has been collected from published media records in the public domain.]