The parlous state of Hindu temples in India
There was shocking news recently about the collapse of the raja-gopuram of the Sri Kalahasti temple near Tirupati. This is no ordinary temple – it hosts one of the five important Saivite jyotir-lingas, each associated with one of the elements (earth, wind, fire, air and ether). The gopuram was built by Krishnadeva Raya of Vijayanagar in 1516 CE, although the shrine itself is a millennium or two older. Most nations would treat such ancient monuments as a treasured part of its cultural heritage, but not India.
The 150-foot tower, a typical Southern-style vimana with intricate carvings, was damaged by lightning some years ago, yet absolutely nothing was done by the authorities. After the collapse, to add insult to injury, a report by a commission said the tower had “outlived its life”. Would this same logic apply to, say, the Taj Mahal – has that outlived its life? It is the business of the State to maintain its cultural heritage and artifacts. There are reports of similar damage to other temple towers, eg. at Srirangapatna near Mysore.
Then there was the news that the Kerala High Court lambasted the Travancore Devaswom Board for being corrupt and inefficient. The Court observed that Hindu temples are struggling“orphanages”, poorly maintained and falling apart; Hindus are orphans.
Furthermore, a Cochin Devaswom Board official got drunk and vomited within the temple precincts at the Siva temple at Vaikom, necessitating elaborate purification ceremonies. This is also no ordinary temple – a major Saivite shrine, it is also historically important. It was the Vaikom Satyagraha in 1924 that led the way to the dramatic Temple Entry Proclamation in Travancore in 1936. And the official’s ‘punishment’? He was promoted to Vigilance Officer!
All these events point to an abomination in the allegedly secular Indian State – there is no separation of Church (meaning religion) and State, as is the norm in modern nations. The State must be indifferent to religion, and it should not allow religious sentiments to color its actions — the true definition of the term ‘secularism’.
A Devaswom Board is an oxymoron. There should be no involvement of the State in religion, which should be left to individuals and religious groups. In fact, that is so with non-Hindu religions in India – they can run their own affairs with no interference from the government, except for largesse – such as Haj subsidies for Muslims, and Andhra’s own subsidies for Christians to travel to Palestine/Israel on pilgrimage.
On the other hand, Hindu temples are under the control of an interfering State, with disastrous results: they are being destroyed systematically by the rapine and pillage of the malign State. On the one hand, temple offerings are expropriated by the State; yet, the State does not even perform basic maintenance. The offerings, amounting to crores, from large shrines such as Tirupati or Sabarimala, are simply treated as general government revenue, and are not recycled to small, poor temples.
Traditionally, temples were the centers of the community, running cultural events, acting as a focal point for efforts such as water conservation, drought relief, famine avoidance, and so forth. This is in the racial memory of Hindus – and so we contribute whatever we can afford to the temple. The State has found it convenient to appropriate these funds. The pittance that a poor believer donates is grabbed and diverted by the Government!
The malice is obvious in Kerala where the State controls most of the temples through the Devaswom Boards, which, it is said, are infiltrated by atheists and anti-Hindus. It can be seen in the difference between Board temples and others. The latter, private temples belonging often a joint family, are thriving, while the Board-controlled temples are impoverished, falling apart, and finding their lands stolen.
I found this to my chagrin at my own family’s centuries-old temple, which we had handed over to the Travancore Devaswom Board about a hundred years ago. On my previous visit, about five years ago, the temple, while old, was thriving. Today, it is on the verge of being abandoned, thanks to indifference and possibly even malice on the part of the Board: an alleged renovation has been totally botched.
This is, amazingly, a continuation of a colonial-era crime – a British Resident named Munro, a missionary bigot, forced the Maharani of Travancore circa 1819 CE to commingle temple lands with government lands, with the result that a lot of those lands, essential to the income and running of temples, were alienated. Consequently, the 10,000+ temples in Travancore then have now been reduced to a mere 2,000.
Governments have no business interfering in religion. It is a crime against the people of India for the government to ruin these cultural treasures, a common heritage of this nation.
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