A temple on the Kerala-Karnataka border that had banned Dalits from entering premises for years has finally reversed the ban and allowed Dalits to enter.
Three years ago, Krishna Mohana, a Dalit resident of a small village in the northernmost district of Kasaragod in Kerala, climbed the 18 steps of the temple during the annual festival of Jatadhari 'Devasthanam' at Swarga in Enmakaje panchayat bordering Karanataka. Mohana climbed the holy steps – forbidden steps in his case – and entered the temple complex, a centuries-old right reserved only for the ‘upper castes’ in the village.
A commotion followed, the police intervened and reached a compromise of sorts – it was decided that Dalits would be allowed into the temple. In a strange twist that followed, the temple administrators claimed to have lost the keys to the temple, effectively shutting it down for everyone in the village.
Few days ago, a group of Dalits, led by Pattikajathi Kshema Samithi (PKS) from the district, entered the temple and climbed the very 18 steps that Mohana dared to traverse.
In doing so, they effectively declared an end to the age-old custom that had been prevailing in the village, despite the historic Temple Entry Proclamation, which came into effect in the region in 1947, that abolished the ban on avarnas entering temples.
The temple entry proclamation in the princely state of Travancore, now part of Kerala, that abolished the ban on avarnas entering temples was passed in 1936. The same came into effect in Kasaragod area which was under Malabar region in 1947.
"It's not just the ban on entry through the holy 18 steps, but Dalits are not even allowed to watch the Theyyam performance up close. They need to stand at a distance. Even to offer dakshina to the deity, the Dalits need to hand it over to a higher caste person, who in turn will deposit it before the deity," B M Pradeep, the district secretary of PKS said.
He said PKS wants to put an end to blatant discrimination.
The Minister for Welfare of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Backward Classes, K Radhakrishnan admitted that such evil practices are being followed by some still in our society and a government order alone will not be enough to end such practices. He said societal intervention is required to end this menace.
Pradeep said the worst part is the food, which is considered as the prasadam of the deity an incarnation of Lord Shiva, being served separately.
"The temple authorities call out the names of the 'lower castes' to distribute the prasadam and Dalits are not allowed to consume the food near the temple while those of other castes can," he said.
Our parents and forefathers faced the worst kind of discrimination and we also continue to battle the same, Mohana (45), a former state-level Badminton player and father of two, said.
"We are treated in an utmost disgusting manner. Think of our children. During the festival season, children from higher castes can play along the steps or inside the temple premises while our children can't. If this continues, what will I tell my children? When they ask what I have done against such discriminatory practices, I need to answer them," Mohana said.
Even though the members of the scheduled caste in the locality are concerned and disgusted by the discriminatory practice, most of them are not ready to openly challenge it. While some fear that it will 'provoke' the deity, others fear the local residents.
"We want them to consider us at least as humans," a member of the Dalit community told PTI on condition of anonymity.
"Now that the festival has been stopped for the last three years, some people go around and say that it was due to Mohana. As a person from a lower caste, I want to openly talk against it but I can't. If I do so, the elders in my family will get hurt and worry that the deity will curse our family," he said.
Only the members of Brahmins, Konkani-speaking Brahmins, Bunts, Tulu Gowda, Nair, Marathi, which is officially a Scheduled Tribe, Maniyani (Yadavs), Vishwakarma, Paatali, and Agasa -- the last four being other backward classes (OBC) are allowed to take the steps which lead directly to the front of the Sanctum Sanctorum.
Scheduled Castes such Nalkadaya (Kopala), the caste which performs the ritual of Jatadhari Theyyam, Mugera and Baira, Scheduled Tribes such as Koraga and Mayila; and OBCs such as Tulu-speaking Billava (equivalent to the Malayalam-speaking Thiyyas) are prohibited from using the steps.
For the 'untouchables', there is a separate route outside the boundary wall that takes them to the back of the temple.
Though the temple is owned by four Brahmin families, it is established as a trust and funds are collected from the public for its day-to-day functioning.
Radhakrishnan, who is also the Devaswom minister of the state, said despite the passing of temple entry proclamation in 1936 and the country attaining freedom in 1947, the society is yet to disentangle itself from the social evils that were practised for long.
"A government order alone will not be enough to end such practices. We have taken steps to create awareness among the people against such social evils. Even though we have necessary laws in place, people are yet to disentangle themselves from such practices. It may take time but we will end such evil practices," Radhakrishnan said.
He said the government has made all possible interventions in the matter.
"There are certain limitations for the government as it's a private temple and not government-run. However, the matter has already been discussed with the Malabar Devaswom Board and we will intervene if needed," Minister said.
Shreenivasa Naik, a Left follower, helped Mohana to file the complaint with the Special Mobile Squad (SMS), a wing of Kerala Police to probe complaints under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act in 2018.
"We were summoned for an open discussion chaired by the then DySP and the temple authorities agreed to end the discriminatory practices. However, they decided to keep it closed citing frivolous reasons," Naik said.
Naik, who is from a caste that enjoys the privilege, said such a discrimination cannot be accepted as the deity does not belong to a particular person or family.
He said while distributing the food for devotees which is the Prasadham of the deity, the practice of calling out the caste name cannot be accepted.
"We wanted all such discriminatory practices to end. But they simply closed the temple so that they don't have to end the practice," Naik said.
The temple has three main festivals. The first is in the Malayalam month of Chingam and the next is during Deepavali. The third special day is during the Tulu festival of offerings to earth.
During these days, food will be served from 2.30 PM. Distribution will begin for the higher caste first. Then they will call out for the castes in descending order. The Dalits will have to wait as they are in the bottom part of the hierarchy.
The PKS has raised three demands including direct access to all devotees, irrespective of their caste and tribe, to the temple be allowed; allow all devotees to directly offer money in the temple and stop the practice of the calling out the names of castes while distributing food and introduce a buffet system for the feast.
The Kshema Samithi has filed a complaint in this regard to Minister Radhakrishnan.
The temple authorities, when contacted for a response to the PKS marking an end to the discriminatory practice of the temple, refused to comment.
(With PTI inputs)