Thiruvananthapuram, July 24: Sabarimala, one of the most renowned temples in south India, was sucked into a scandal today with the main priest being relieved of his duties following a police disclosure on television that he has been visiting a prostitute.
The stunning allegation is being seen as the latest round in a murky battle for control, the first shot of which was fired in public when an actress claimed that she touched the idol of Ayyappa, the reigning deity of the temple in south Kerala.
The idol controversy had pitted the board governing the affairs of the temple against the main priest, Mohanararu Kantararu, who stands accused of visiting the prostitute now.
The report, purportedly exposing the sleaze involving Mohanararu, was flashed by a local television channel in the evening bulletin with quotes and visuals of central range DIG K. Padmakumar, who is based in Kochi.
According to Padmakumar, the priest had lodged a complaint with Kochi police last midnight that a gang photographed him after he was forced to pose with a nude woman. They also assaulted and robbed the priest, the complaint said.
Padmakumar claimed that a deputy superintendent of police investigated and found that the complaint was false. “In fact, the priest had visited the woman in the photo at least 20 times, according to the watchman. The priest’s complaint was an afterthought to wriggle out of the scandal after being caught by neighbours of the apartment in the city,” the officer said.
As the channel carried the “expose”, Punalur Madhu, a member of the Travancore Devaswom Board ' which manages temples in the region ' came on line, announcing that the directors had discussed among themselves and decided to strip the priest of his duties “to save the abode of Lord Ayyappa from infamy”.
Temple affairs minister G. Sudhakaran was next in line, condemning the priest for “his undesirable activities, spoiling the fair name of the temple and cheating innocent believers. The board has the full support of the state government to take any step laid down by rules and regulations”.
The Left Front minister added that the world should know that the so-called spiritual leaders, leading a bohemian life, were doing so at the expense of unsuspecting followers. “People who revere such elements should realise what they’re doing,” he said.
The board has asked the supreme priest of the temple, Maheshwararu Kantararu, to take over charge from his son, Mohanararu, whose term was to end on August 16.
Mohanararu, in his forties, was not available for comment but his father reacted to the allegation with disbelief and said the family is ready for any inquiry.
“This is totally incredulous. Let the government and all authorities investigate the allegation. There is nothing to hide. We will submit to any probe. After all, we are not politicians,” Maheshwararu said.
The Thazhamon family ' to which the father and son belong ' holds hereditary rights to priestly duties in the temple, which draws over 3 crore pilgrims and rakes in Rs 100 crore a year as revenue. The chief priest from outside the family ' a coveted position ' is picked through lots.
The temple is located atop the pristine Western Ghats. Pilgrims are expected to observe 41 days’ abstinence and trek along the woods to reach the Ayyappa abode at a height of more than 900 metres.
Recently, the CPM-led government, now locked in a confrontation with some denominations of the church over a bill to regulate fees and admission to private professional colleges, had ordered a police probe into Kannada actress Jaimala’s claim that she had touched the idol and that a priest had led her into the temple’s “forbidden” precincts.
The revelation came after a celebrity astrologer, Parappanangadi Unnikrishna Panicker, proclaimed that Ayyappa’s abode was defiled by female presence during the past two decades. He handed down an atonement chart and the board members initiated measures for penance.
But Maheshwararu rubbished Jaimala’s claim as a fabrication, fuelling speculation that a tug of war between the board and the astrologer on one side and the priest’s family on the other was being played out.
At the centre of the row is the temple tradition barring worship by women between puberty and menopause. Many see this as an anachronism at a shrine that accepts people of all faiths.