Tamil Nadu Breaks Caste Barrier


Engraving by Shoberl, c. 1820

May 24, TAMIL NADU, INDIA (BBC) — Dravidian athiest working to displace Brahmins in Tamil Nadu temples.

The new government in India's Tamil Nadu state has decided to end the monopoly of Brahmins and high-caste Hindus in the state's temples. It has decided that priests in Hindu temples all over the state will be drawn from every caste.

Until now, the priesthood in Tamil Nadu had been the exclusive preserve of high-caste Hindus, especially Brahmins. The new government, led by the DMK party, took office in Tamil Nadu after state elections earlier this month. The DMK has a history of fighting against what it calls "the domination of Brahmins and the concept of Brahmanism in the fields of education, employment, religion and social hierarchy".

Party president and new Chief Minister M Karunanidhi - despite being a self-declared atheist - tried to appoint temple priests from all castes when he ruled the state in the early 1970s. But his government's order was struck down by the courts.

Court judgement

Mr Karunanidhi says his latest order is based on a Supreme Court judgment delivered in 2002 which said that non-Brahmins could be appointed as priests as long as they were qualified to carry out the duties.

Not all Hindu temples have Brahmins for priests.

There are several temples in villages, where local residents belonging to various castes other than Brahmins act as priests.

But bigger and more famous temples that attract more devotees and earn more revenue have only Brahmins as priests.

Tamil Nadu has a long history of rivalry between Brahmins and non-Brahmins in all walks of life including politics, religion and social spheres.

Their differences even once sparked a movement for a separate "Dravidian nation" with Tamil Nadu breaking away from the rest of India - Dravidian being a term used to describe non-Brahmins as one group.

Some analysts describe Mr Karunanidhi as the last surviving patriarch of the Dravidian movement. His rival, AIADMK leader J Jayalalitha, who was ousted from power in the recent polls, is a Brahmin by birth.


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