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To the priests what is theirs & not Caesar’s

The Nataraja temple at Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu

Jan. 6: The Nataraja Temple in Tamil Nadu’s Chidambaram, considered as one of the holiest Shiva temples in the country, will be managed by priests and not the state government, the Supreme Court ruled today.

A bench of Justices B.S. Chauhan and S. Bobde said the Tamil Nadu government’s July 1987 order appointing an executive officer to manage the temple was “arbitrary, illegal and unjust”. The government had stepped in alleging malpractices by the priests.

The ruling draws the curtains on a legal battle and serves to bring to the foreground fascinating traditions that govern life in one of the most revered temple towns in the country.

The shrine at Chidambaram, 340km from Chennai, is actually called the Thillai Natarajar Temple and the present temple is said to have been built during the 12th-13th century.

Thillai refers to a type of mangrove trees found in swamps near in the area. Chidambaram — a word made more famous because of the country’s finance minister —stands for Chid (sky) and Ambaram (cloth) or “he who has the sky draped around him like a cloth”. The Lord is identified with five natural elements and, in Chidambaram, it is the sky.

It is said to be the only temple in which Shiva is present in three forms — in the human form as Nataraja performing the cosmic dance, as a Spatika Linga (crystal phallus that is worshipped six times daily) and as an invisible space within the sanctum sanctorum from which is derived the Tamil phrase “Chidambara Rahasyam” (the secret of the Chidambaram). Legend has it that the Spatika Linga was gifted by Adi Sankara.

The temple used to be administered for long by Podu Dikshitars, an endogamous clan found only in Chidambram, in line with the temple constitution written centuries ago and printed for the first time in 1849.

But a government order took away the administration from the hands of the Podu Dikshitars, which has now been restored to them by the apex court. The Supreme Court held that the Dikshitars constitute a “religious denomination” and their rights “are to be preserved and protected from any invasion by the State”.

The Podu Dikshitars are male married members of the families of Smarthi Brahmins who claim to have been called for the establishment of the temple in the name of Lord Nataraja.

Any Dikshitar gets his right to do sacramental service to Nataraja and participate in temple administration only after his marriage.

But the Chidambaram Dikshitars differ from other Brahmins in many respects. Their life, religion, education, training, culture and vocation revolve around the Nataraja temple. From the time of birth, they are dedicated to the services of Nataraja and the Chidambaram temple.

There are around 250 Dikshitar families in and around Chidambaram now.

The Supreme Court said the government can take over the management of a temple to remove any “maladministration” but such an arrangement cannot be for an “indefinite period”.

“Even if the management of a temple is taken over to remedy the evil, the management must be handed over to the person concerned immediately after the evil stands remedied. Continuation thereafter would tantamount to usurpation of their proprietary rights or violation of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution in favour of the persons deprived,” the bench said.

The Chidambaram temple has had a glorious past with all important dynasties — the Pallavas, Pandyas, Cholas and Cheras, Vijayanagar and the Marathas — lavishing devotion and generous grants on it. Parantaka Chola had laid the golden roof above the sanctum.

It is believed that Rajendra Chola I gifted the entire village to the Dikshitars who assumed responsibility for the temple puja and management and also the judicial and administrative duties of the village.

The Dikshitars are said to be fanatical about defending the rights and sanctity of the Nataraja temple. When another group had tried to enter the premises in the 19th century, the Dikshitars were said to have climbed atop the temple tower to leap to death. The shocked intruders beat a hasty retreat.

When the East India Company and later the British Crown seized the powers of native kings, they took control of most temples in south India through a regulation act. But the Chidambaram temple managed to secure exemption from the purview of the Hindu Religious Endowment Bill of 1891. The Podu Dikshitars applied to the Governor-in-Council and won exemption from the related law in 1925.