The judiciary in Kerala is apparently divided over a temple ritual a Muslim munsiff had begun more than a century ago at the famous Guruvayur temple.
The controversy started with a section of judicial officials defying a Kerala High Court order prohibiting them from attending the Kodathi Vilakku — or the Court’s Lamp — ritual at the centuries-old Sri Krishna Temple at Guruvayur in Thrissur district, in their official capacity.
Their participation has now sparked a debate on secular and democratic institutions established under the Constitution promoting a particular religion.
According to the temple authorities, the Kodathi Vilakku ritual was started over a century ago by the then Chavakkad Munsiff, Keyi, a practising Muslim.
The event, that was organised as part of the temple’s Ekadasi festival recently, is accompanied by a host of rituals and programmes.
The temple premises is lit with lamps, and several other rituals, including a dawn-to-dusk puja (udayasthamana puja), parading of caparisoned elephants and performing art forms like Thiruvathirakkali.
High court intervenes
The annual event continued without controversy until 3 November, 2022, when Justice AK Jayasankaran Nambiar directed the high court administration to issue an official memorandum to the principal district judge in Thrissur district.
The memorandum barred all judicial officers in Thrissur from taking part in the ritual in their official capacity. The judge has also objected to the name Kodathi Vilakku, which referred to the country’s judicial system.
“Judicial offices in a secular and democratic society are independent and must not be used to promote any particular religion,” the judge noted.
Interestingly, the Munsiff Court Bar Association in Chavakkad, the town next to Guruvayur temple, has been sponsoring the event. The association also displayed banners to promote Kodathi Vilakku.
Justice Nambiar, while holding that there was nothing wrong in the bar association members organising such events — individually or collectively — warned against the use of the term Kodathi Vilakku.
The judge felt the name was unacceptable since it creates an impression that the courts in the state are in some way connected with the event.
“The fact that judicial officers of all ranks, including those professing other religions, feel compelled/obliged to attend the annual event that is invariably attended by the high court judges as well, indicates the extent to which the term, Kodathi Vilakku, can be misleading,” the memorandum had stated.
“As secular democratic institutions under the Constitution, the courts cannot be seen engaging in activities that promote any particular religion. Accordingly, while steps are being explored to prevent the organisers of the event from using the name ‘Kodathi Vilakku’ in future, the Judicial Officers of Thrissur Judicial District are advised not to actively involve themselves in the organising of the said event either by consenting to be a part of the organising committee or in any other manner. They shall also not feel compelled or obliged to attend the event,” the order continued.
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Court staff attend the ritual
Three days after the order was issued, the event was held with the participation of judicial officials, triggering a fierce public debate.
The event, held on 6 November, had banners with Kodathi Vilakku imprinted on them. Local media reported that lawyers and court staff had participated in the ritual.
The attendees also included N Seshadrinathan, district judge and president of the Kerala State Judicial Officers’ Association.
Moreover, the events were inaugurated by Justice P Somarajan of the Kerala High Court. High court justices SV Bhatti and Justice N Nagaresh also visited the temple during the event.
Several former high court judges, including justices (retired) Padmanabhan Nair, NK Balakrishnan and KP Jyothindranath, had also taken part in the ritual.
Guruvayur Devaswom Board, which manages the temple, informed that contributions from lawyers, court staff, advocate clerks, and judicial officers from courts in and around Chavakkad helped in meeting the expenses.
‘Nothing official about it’
When contacted, organising committee president, advocate S Velayudhan, pointed at the high turnout of judicial officials and lawyers, saying the event was not sponsored by any court of law in the state.
“The event has an organising committee which has many members from the Chavakkad Bar Association as members. Without official links with the court system, the committee organises the event by collecting donations,” he told South First.
“The bar association is not involved in it officially. The memorandum permits people to participate in religious events in their personal capacity,” he said.
Kerala High Court Advocates Association president Advocate Rajesh Vijayan also justified the event, saying it involved nothing official or concerning the country’s judicial system.
Guruvayur Devaswom Board chairman Prof V K Vijayan told South First that the Devaswom had no role in organising the event, and an independent committee was in charge.
“I don’t find anything objectionable in the term Kodathi Vilakku, he said. “It has been used for a long time without any objections from the public,” he added.
However, critics within the advocate community, who preferred anonymity, said the event was being booked in advance with the Devaswom under the name of the munsiff of Chavakkad.
They wanted to remove the term Kodathi (court) and have no objection to continuing the ritual.
“Several judges and lawyers took part in the ritual this year without insisting on dropping the word Kodathi. High court judges dishonouring a high court order is not a healthy trend,” they said.
Interestingly, the temple has a similar event named Police Vilakku, sponsored by the state Home Department. Police officers in Thrissur attend the event.