The government has not initiated their one-year internship in Vaishnava temples.
A Tamil Nadu government advertisement kindled in N Ranjitha — a Dalit woman from Tamil Nadu’s Thiruvarur district — the hope of becoming a priest.
The 25-year-old graduate in visual communication had read about the Sabarimala controversy that stemmed from a Supreme Court order on women of all ages being allowed to visit the hill shrine in Kerala.
Ranjitha had been facing discrimination as a woman as well as a Dalit. When she came across the government advertisement inviting applications from women and non-Brahmins to be trained as priests, she grabbed the opportunity.
Becoming a priest was one way to ease the discrimination, she thought. Additionally, she has been pious and devoted.
When she announced her decision to join the Archakar Training School run by the Sri Ranganathar Temple at Srirangam in Tiruchirappalli, her neighbours were stunned.
“Everyone said how could I, a Dalit, become a priest? They said I would not get a job even if I completed the course,” Ranjitha told South First.
The woman, however, decided to chase her dream. The Tamil Nadu government has trained 94 non-Brahmins — including three women — in the 2022-23 academic year to become priests in state-run temples, which also include Agamic temples such as the Arunachaleswarar Temple in Thiruvannamalai.
During the training period, they were taught the Agamas (a set of scriptures), shlokas, the Vedas and 4,000 Tamil verses composed by the 12 Alvars (poet-saints), among other rituals.
Having completed the course in July, the batch of students received the course completion certificate from Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Minister (Hr&CE) PK Sekar Babu at a function in Chennai on 12 September.
Now they have to undergo hands-on training for a year at any of the Vaishnava temples in Tamil Nadu before becoming priests.
However, they have not received any information about the training. “I am afraid my neighbours’ words will come true,” Ranjitha said.
Being the only educated one in her poverty-stricken family, Ranjitha cannot afford to sit jobless at home. “The delay in getting posted is causing financial distress at home,” she said.
The Tamil Nadu government provided free accommodation and a monthly stipend of ₹3,000 to students undergoing the one-year course at the Archakar training schools.
While the first set of non-Brahmin students were enrolled in 2007-08, the government opened up the course to women a year ago.
“I am proud to be in the first batch of women to be trained as a priest,” said 22-year-old S Ramya, Ranjitha’s batchmate and a native of Cuddalore.
Like other students, Ramya, too, has been looking forward to the one-year training programme at Agamic temples to put the theory learnt into practice.
“We never performed pujas in temples during the course. The training period will be an opportunity to do so,” Ramya told South First.
A devoted woman, Ramya, who pursued an MSc in Mathematics, did not opt for employment since she wanted to join the Archakar training school. “I wanted to change the fact that there are no women priests. I am happy to be a part of the revolution,” Ramya said.
“This uncertainty is slowly killing my hope,” she said as no information about the training had been forthcoming.
According to one stream of thought, women in the menstruating age are deemed impure and unfit to perform pujas and enter the sanctum sanctorum.
Even at the Archakar schools, these women were asked to go on leave during their menstruation period.
“We don’t read the scriptures during those days,” said 23-year-old Krishnaveni S, another trainee at the Srirangam school.
“Even though we are well-versed with the customs, I am sure there would be challenges when we work in a temple. That’s why we are desperately waiting for the training session,” Ramya added.
Srirangam Koil Miras Kainkaryaparagal Matrum Athanai Sarntha Koilgalin Miraskain-karyaparargalin Nalasangam, an association of Archakars, contended in a writ petition filed before the Supreme Court that priesthood should be the profession only of Brahmins.
“Agamas is an extensive subject that requires years of intense training. Those who are experienced in Agamas do not undergo any certificate course. Instead, they obtain deekshai from their guru at a very early age — between five and seven — and undergo rigorous Vedic education for a minimum of three years,” the petition said.
“Of the 301 qualified students (207 in 2007-08 and 94 in 2022-23), only 24 students have been appointed as priests till now. Others are still waiting to be hired because they are not born into Brahmin families,” said V Ranganathan, president of the Tamil Nadu Government Archakar Association and a member of the 2008 batch.
“Despite the intervention of the government and a strict constitutional law, we are unable to eradicate the practice that has been continuing for 2,000 years in the Agamic temples. Brahmin priests have been filing hundreds of petitions against the Tamil Nadu government’s move,” he told South First.
He further opined that the government should abolish caste discrimination in temples and allow people of all castes and genders to become priests.
Meanwhile, HR&CE Minister Sekar Babu told South First that he was unsure when the training for non-Brahmin priests would begin.
A senior official in the HR&CE Department said that the decision on training was yet to be taken.
“It is a complicated situation. There is an ongoing case in the Supreme Court against the training and appointment of non-Brahmin priests in Tamil Nadu,” the official said, requesting anonymity.
There is a batch of petitions against the appointment of non-Brahmin priests. In July 2023, the Tamil Nadu government passed a Government Order (GO) saying that non-Brahmin priests should undergo one-year training under senior priests.
The GO was passed after a case was filed by Thri Sundarars of Thiruchendur Temple at the Madurai bench of the high court contending that the non-Brahmin priests were unaware of temple rituals.
Later, the aforementioned writ petition was filed before the Supreme Court by Srirangam Koil Miras Kainkaryaparagal Matrum Athanai Sarntha Koilgalin Miraskain-karyaparargalin Nalasangam.
The Supreme Court, in the last week of September, ordered to maintain a status quo regarding the appointment of priests in Agamic temples.
Explaining the court case, counsel for All Castes Archakar Association, S Vanchinathan, told South First that the status quo order on the appointment of priests did not stop the HR&CE Department from commencing the training.
“The government order mandating the training has been challenged. But neither the Madurai bench nor the Supreme Court has granted a stay on the matter. We don’t know what is stopping the department,” Vanchinathan wondered.
It may be noted that the HR&CE Department issued orders to train six non-Brahmin students in three temples of Theni. But, the orders were immediately withdrawn. “This is suspicious. It looks like the RSS is influencing the department’s decisions,” said Vanchinathan.
Priesthood has always been a profession confined to Brahmins and men. Even though the Dravidian model of governance vouched to change it by starting schools to train non-Brahmins in 2007, it was only the last year that women were included in training.
Apart from devotion, it is a desire to be part of a revolution that made the three women join the course.
“I was earning ₹18,000 a month at a mobile company in Chennai. I quit my job to become a priest,” Ranjitha said.
“My parents are not employed. It is tough to run the family with the meagre income of my brothers,” she said. As there are not a lot of employment opportunities in her hometown, Ranjitha is willing to take up any job that comes her way.
Despite knowing that the profession has financial and social disadvantages, Ramya chose to study it as “she wanted to be the first woman priest in the country”.
“I wanted my daughter to enter the sanctum sanctorum and perform puja to the deity. Priesthood doesn’t fetch money. But Ramya has the opportunity to change the age-old customs,” S Tamilarasi, Ramya’s mother said.
Agamas literally mean traditions. They set down the rules to be followed while constructing a temple, the purification ceremonies to be performed, locating the place for a temple, deciding the method of construction, choosing the mode of installation of the prime deity and allied deities, selecting the type of sculptures to be carved, manner of consecration, settling the nature of daily pujas and naimithika pujas (on special occasions).