Friday, April 6, 2018

Mannar Koil Bhattar Priest Salary case

Periya Nambi descendant Narasimha Gopalan takes up the cause of the Priests in TN temples 

Long Serving Priests  in around 50 ancient temples around Ambasamudram get less than Rs. 1000 per month  

Pleads with the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court to direct HR & CE to pay fair and reasonable salary to Priests
After making repeated pleas over the last many years to the HR & CE about the financial plight of the Archakas and other temple servants in ancient temples in Tamil Nadu and the critical need to revise upwards their salary to a reasonable living standard, Periya Nambi Narasimha Gopalan, the Head Priest at Sri Rajagopalaswamy Kulasekara Azhwar Temple, Mannar Kovil, Ambasamudram Taluk and the 29th descendant of revered Acharya Periya Nambi (, has filed a Writ Petition against the HR & CE at the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court that the current salary paid to him (and to priests and temple servants similar to him in remote temples managed by HR & CE) is so abysmal that even the basic survival is becoming increasingly difficult for these priests.

Narasimha Gopalan at the time of filing the Petition was getting a monthly salary of Rs. 750 which itself is up three fold from Rs. 250 that he had been receiving for almost a decade. His father performed service at the temple in the 1980s at a salary of just Rs. 55 per month. Currently, there are six other full time service personnel at the temple each of whom gets just a three figure salary every month.

Shocking Salaries to Priests
Shocking is the fact that a priest at the nearby Vilvanathar temple in Pathamadai is paid a salary of Rs. 19 per month while at the historical and ancient Kailasanathar temple in Brahmadesam, the priest is paid a salary of Rs. 215 per month. Even in the now popular Nava Tirupathi Divya Desams on the Eastern Side of Tirunelveli, the official salaries to most priests continues to be low and it is the monthly 'Sambhavanai' from Venu Srinivasan to each of the priests over the last two decades that has helped them sustain their family.

Similar is the fate of most other priests in the region. Narasimha Gopalan has put together data on the salary paid to Priests and other temple service personnel in close to 50 ancient temples in the Ambasamudram region.

As per the data, in almost all the temples, the service personnel including the priests receive only up to three figure salaries every month. One has to wonder as to how a priest can run a family with such a low income all through his life.

He cites a verse from the Thirukural “ஆ பயன் குன்றும் அறுதொழிலோர் நூல் மறப்பர் காவலன் காவான் எனின் .” If the ruler does not take care of his subjects and does not give them their fair dues, the cow count will decrease and the Brahmins whose job it is to chant and teach the Vedas will leave and go to other jobs.

‘Frustration is bound to increase and unless corrective action is taken, it is likely that in the decades to come they will all move away from temple service in line with what Thiruvalluvar stated all those centuries ago’ says Narasimha Gopalan

With such low salaries, most of the temples located in remote areas have been finding it difficult to attract service and support staff. And thus one finds that in many remote temples, the priest is left all alone to take care of all the daily maintenance work as well in addition to performing the pooja.

Salary restriction based on income of temple
HR and CE also has a restriction on payment of salaries to staff that cannot go beyond 40% of the total income of the concerned temple.

In his petition, Narasimha Gopalan says that irrespective of the income of the temple, the nature and working time of rendering services by the archakas are by and large one and the same. It is also to be borne in mind that priests in such remote temples have to take care of all the sannidhis at the same time and all through the day. Determination of salary and discrimination based on the income of the temple where they are employed is unconstitutional.

T.R. Ramesh, President, Temple Worshippers Society who has filed a number of cases in the Madras High Court against the HR & CE says that the fundamental problem lies in the classification of temples based on their incomes and not based on their religious significance like Thevaram Sthalam or Divya Desam.
 “They are not classified by how big the temples are and how many sannadhis they have or based on the extent of immovable properties that belong to the temple. Every Divya Desam and Thevaram Sthalam should have adequate number of priests and that is possible only by giving the priests a reasonable monthly income and benefits. It is ethically incorrect for the HR & CE to put a salary disbursement cap of 40% of the temple’s income and pay such shockingly low salaries to the priests.”

Even though the Archakas are admittedly office holders under Section 55 of the HR&CE Act, 1959 and most of them have been providing service for several decades having completely dedicated themselves to the service of the Lord, they are continued to be paid meager three digit salary.

Narasimha Gopalan has said in his petition that non consideration of priest’s livelihood and not to let them to lead a decent life is abrupt violation of Article 21 of the Constitution of India. It falls to the government to initiate steps in order to secure them a decent living and minimum wages, says Narasimha Gopalan.

Ramesh says that the priests are placed at par with sweepers and below drivers in designation. This is totally unfair. Priests have to learn the Vedas for at least 7 years and learn and train in shastras for 3 years.  The position of Priests must be much higher and salary fixed accordingly

Fair and Reasonable Salary to Priests
In his petition, Narasimha Gopalan has pleaded with the Court to invoke its extraordinary jurisdiction under Article 226 of the Constitution of India and direct the HR & CE to fix a pay scale for Archakas and other servants who are directly associated in the temple service.

He is of the view that at least Rs. 400 per day (Rs. 12000 per month) would be a reasonable salary for full time long serving temple priests and service personnel in remote temples in Tamil Nadu.

Managing the Temple all alone
The reference of Shenbagam flowers in Kulasekara Azhwar’s verses motivated him to convert the huge open area in the outer prakara of the 5 ½ acre temple into a Nandavanam. He sowed the seeds in 2008 and today it compares with the best with a wide variety of flowers that includes Shenbagam, Malligai, Iruvatchi, Magilam and Parichatam. With the idea of providing resting and nesting place for birds and parrots, he added Thothagathi, Naaval and Maruthai trees as well. In recent times, he has also started to grow 70 teak trees.

For over a decade, he has taken care of the maintenance of the temple almost all alone. Today, the temple wears a fresh look. All the Sannidhis and prakaras are clean. Unlike in the past, the lamp now glows at the temple, a significant improvement from the decades gone by.

Naamam Potuttaan??
When he once heard the phrase ‘Naamam Potuttan’ (a reference of the sacred ash of Vaishnavites being used to indicate a cheat), he raged in anger. He moved the Madurai High Court pleading an order to restrain the use of this terminology both in movies as well as in public places. He is hoping the judgment would be delivered soon in his favour (

He has also made himself a party to the dress code case in the High Court and is planning to go on an appeal against the earlier verdict. He asks if it will be acceptable in the corporate world for an interviewee to go to a job interview in shorts and T shirt saying that his strength is in the intelligence of the mind and not in the dress that he wears. He strongly believes that there is a certain dress code required for presence at temples to create the devotional environment.

It is hoped that the HR & CE will realize the unfair treatment meted out to priests in thousands of temples across the state and fix a fair pay scale that will give financial respectability to the priests. In the absence of such a step, it may be left to the Courts to forcibly make the HR & CE take corrective steps and reverse the injustice done to the priests over the last many decades.

(A version of this story featured today in The Hindu Friday Review)

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