Traditional temple

Tamil Nadu government warns temple officials to act after priests bar inspection team

Tamil Nadu Minister for the Department of Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE), Sekar Babu, has warned the Sri Natarajar Temple administration in Chidambaram of legal action against the priests if they obstruct a government-ordered inspection.

It came after a government team visited the temple on Tuesday to inspect the accounts and administrative details and was denied access by the temple’s dikshithars, hereditary guardians and archakas (priests). .

While the inspection was scheduled in advance and multiple reminders were sent to those involved, they refused to entertain the government team, officials said.

The HR&CE department had researched all temple-related details dating back to 2014 – among other things, income and expenses, audit reports and bank books, current state of properties; details of gifts, jewelry and other valuables and their estimates; details of temple-owned land and tenants and register of tenants.

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The government notice ordered relevant temple officials to submit the details to a five-member committee, which visited the temple on Tuesday. When the committee members reached the premises, they received a traditional welcome and were taken for a darshan. Later, however, the priests’ lawyers presented their case and the reasons for their refusal.

Minister Sekar Babu said, “It is about inspecting the administrative aspects. We sent them a notice about the inspection last month. They responded, and we resubmitted the notice in detail earlier this month. I visited them yesterday at Chidambaram Temple. I also had a darshan and sat with them, trying to explain that the government was not trying to take over the temple, but the Supreme Court order (from 2014) made it clear that it was a public temple.

Noting that there are “several complaints” against the temple administration, the minister said, “It is the duty of the department to investigate these complaints and find out the truth. If there are no issues found after the inspection, the government’s duty is done.

A dikshithar, however, said The Indian Express that the inspection was triggered by a hate campaign against priests. “We cannot accept this…. Tell us about the complaints filed against us; give us details of the (alleged) irregularities reported here. Give us the 2009 report prepared by the state government on the total assets here,” the dikshithar said.

While the government is trying to talk to the priests through multiple channels to avoid a standoff and a legal battle over their refusal, the issue is also linked to the campaign to return Hindu temples to worshipers from the clutches of the government.

Incidentally, S Ramadoss, leader of PMK, an ally of the BJP-led NDA in the state, was among those who called for an investigation against the priests for allegedly trying to commercialize temple properties.

Controversies that dikshithars have faced in recent years:

◾ In addition to unsubstantiated accusations of corruption and irregularities in the management of temple wealth, a senior priest at the Chidambaram temple was banned from performing rituals in 2019 after being found responsible for organizing the wedding ceremony of a businessman’s family in the 1000-pillared hall of the historic 12th century Nataraj Temple.

◾ Last November, a committee of Pothu Dikshithars suspended a senior priest for two months for allegedly slapping a devotee for questioning a ritual he allegedly conducted in an allegedly flawed manner.

◾ Last month, the state government issued an official government ordinance allowing devotees to worship the Kanakasabhai mandapam at the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram after the practice was not resumed by the temple management even after the lifting of pandemic restrictions.

◾ In 2014, the Supreme Court restored custody of the temple to dikshithars. Although the dikshitars handle routine ritual functions and are the guardians, secular aspects such as administration and finance are under the control of the government.