“Brahmam Okate,” the song rises up to the sky from the Dhenupureeswarar Temple at Madambakkam as if bidding farewell to the setting sun. The devotional song by Annamacharya mellifluously speaks of equality, like the sun that shines for all.
“Nindara Raju Nidirinchu Nidrayu Nokate
Andane Bantu Nidra Adiyu Okate
Mendaina Brahmanudu Mettu Bhumi Okate
Chandaludundeti Sari Bhumi Okate
Brahmam Okate, Para Brahmam Okate…”
(The richest king and a servant find equal solace in the embrace of sleep. Also, a Brahmin and a person of the lowest caste tread upon the same earth. There are no distinctions of caste and class as the essence/God is one.)
In the Mandapam, S Suhanjana, a non-Brahmin Othuvar sings Thiruvasagam — Tamil hymns for the evening aarti. She sings for about 10 minutes, eyes shut in devotion. After the aarti, two women approach her for a selfie.
Othuvars sing hymns in Saivite temples in Tamil Nadu. Those who sing at Vaishnavite temples are called Thiru Araiyars. The soulful songs touch the devotees unlike the Sanskrit mantras recited by the priests.
Suhanjana, 30, has been working at the Dhenupureeswarar Temple in the southern suburb of Chennai for the past two years. Having completed a three-year diploma at the government music school in Karur, Suhanjana chanced upon a Tamil Nadu government advertisement, inviting applications from non-Brahmin women for the posts of Othuvars.
“The 63 Nayanmargal (Tamil Hindu saints) that heaped praises on Lord Shiva with music during the sixth and eighth centuries belonged to various castes. Caste is never a barrier between a person and God,” Suhanjana told South First. The 63 saints influenced the Bhakti movement in medieval India.
In May 2021, the Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments (HR & CE) Department appointed 37 Othuvars, including 10 women. While the department has been lauded for its initiative to cut through caste and gender barriers by appointing non-Brahmin women as Othuvars, it has now come under fire for its alleged step-motherly treatment towards the gifted singers.
Disparity in salary
Working in one of the biggest temples of Tamil Nadu, Suhanjana is content with the pay she receives. However, Othuvars in smaller temples in rural areas are paid as less as ₹3,000. They are a dissatisfied lot.
“Temples in the state are divided into five categories. Othuvars in temples maintained by deputy commissioners are paid more than ₹45,000 while those working at the temples maintained by superintendents are paid as less as ₹3,000. The department which propagates gender equality seems to have forgotten about equal pay for same work,” said Mu Sivanesan, 35, who earns ₹13,500 a month. He has seven years’ experience at the temple.
An ardent lover of the Tamil language, Sivanesan enjoys singing hymns at the Brihadeeswara Temple, constructed by the Chola emperor Raja Raja-1. “The profession of Othuvars is continuing due to Raja Raja-1,” Sivanesan said.
The meagre salary he receives is not enough for a decent living, including for meeting the educational expenses of his two daughters, aged seven and four.
“When all executive officers and joint commissioners in the state receive an equal pay, why is the disparity here,” he asked.
The department has fixed Othuvars’ salary based on the respective temple’s revenue. “How is it fair when we do the same work,” questioned another Othuvar from Erode, who has been receiving ₹11,000 a month as salary.
Eight Othuvars South First spoke to have been drawing monthly salaries ranging between ₹11,000 and ₹20,000. All of them have been working for more than six years.
While Suhanjana’s tale highlights the HR & CE Department’s move of ushering in inclusivity, many qualified candidates are awaiting jobs in temples.
There are 183 vacancies of Othuvars in 154 temples maintained by the HR & CE Department, according to a senior HR & CE official. “I have been attending an interview for the post of Othuvar in a government temple for 25 years,” said Harish (name changed).
The department also invites applications from eligible candidates. However, Othuvars complained that the advertisements do not mean much. “Every time there is an advertisement, I attend the interview. I attended one six months ago. I got no response,” said Harish, an Othuvar who sings in private temples.
Devendra Kumar alias Gurubaran, 43, who studied the course to become an Othuvar in 2000, did not get a job. “I step in whenever the Othuvar at Palani temple goes on leave. Doesn’t that say I am skilled to be an Othuvar? But the HR & CE Department is reluctant to appoint me,” he told South First.
Without a full-time job, Gurubaran who has an MA and MEd in Tamil, works as a part-time Tamil teacher. Even recently, he attended an interview to become an Othuvar in a government temple.
According to HR & CE rules, 2020, anyone with a three-year certification from any of the religious or government or any institution related to Thevaram are eligible to work as an Othuvar.
Several Othuvars did not attend the interviews since the salary mentioned was less than ₹10,000.
A disappearing profession
Lack of employment opportunities is discouraging many Othuvars from pursuing the profession. The student population in Othuvar schools is depleting every year due to the uncertainty over landing a job.
“When I joined the Madalayam as a teacher five years ago, there were 25 students. The previous batch had seven students and the current one has just three students,” Sargurunathan K, 39, a teacher at the Kaumara Madalayam at Chinnavedampatti in Coimbatore told South First.
Many Othuvar schools, including those at Palani and Chidambaram, did not have any student for more than five years. “There were no admissions here for over two decades,” said A Kumara Sami, who works as an Othuvar at the Annamalaiyar Temple in Tiruvannamalai.
Students who studied to become Othuvars have switched to other professions. South First spoke to Othuvars who have become auto-drivers, police constables, and drivers.
“I became a vegetarian 10 years ago while studying to be an Othuvar. I am still a vegetarian, and sing at concerts. I also sing Thevaram at home twice a day,” said Jayabalan (name changed), who drives an auto-rickshaw to earn a livelihood. He is still applying for the job, even though his hope has been diminishing each day.
From 1997 to 2023, more than 2,500 students who studied in the state’s 17 music schools and seven Othuvar schools became qualified Othuvars.
Only 650 of them are in the profession and, of them, only around 100 are working in HR & CE-maintained temples, said Mu Sivanesan, member, Othuvamurthigal Welfare Association.
This statistic matches with the data provided by the HR & CE Department, which has made permanent appointments of Othuvars in 84 temples. It has also appointed 17 others on a temporary basis.
“This government which emphasises the importance of Tamil treats those who sing devotional Tamil songs badly. Isn’t it hypocritical,” questioned A Kumara Sami.
“Tamil Nadu government is not keen on appointing Othuvars as the post is not seen as a revenue-generating one. We have been demanding the government to employ Othuvars in temples for over 20 years, having met three different chief ministers in the state and every HR & CE official possible. We have lost hope,” said Palani Shanumugasundaram, president of the Othuvamurthigal Welfare Association.
The HR & CE Department officials were not willing to comment on the issues that the Othuvar community has been facing.