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Rediff.com  » News » 'I don't make the rules at Guruvayur'

'I don't make the rules at Guruvayur'

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June 05, 2007 15:20 IST

On Monday we published an interview with Union Minister Vayalar Ravi, on how he felt humiliated when the Guruvayur temple performed a purification ritual after his grandson's first-feeding ceremony.

Today we present the first part of a two-part interview, with the Guruvayur temple head priest Chennas Raman Namboodiripad on why the temple did what it did.

Some 15 kilometres away from the Sri Krishna Temple in Guruvayur, approached through serpentine lanes barely the width of a car, that wind through homes and grooves of coconut palms, is Chennas Mana, the ancestral home of the tantris (head priests) of the Guruvayur shrine.

It is a simple home, built in the naalukettu style that characterises traditional homes in ancient Kerala. Unless his priestly duties call him to the temple early in the morning, it is in this home, on a spartan, standard-issue 'easy chair', that Chennas Raman Namboodiripad sits in the mornings, catching up on the newspapers.

On May 19, the tantri caught sight of a photograph in the papers that gave him pause. Attached to a small news item, the photo-caption said Union Minister for Overseas Indians Vayalar Ravi, with son Ravi Krishna, daughter-in-law Nisha and the couple's infant son had visited the temple for the annaprasam (first-feeding) ceremony of the infant.

The octogenarian tantri asked his son, Chennas Satheesan Namboodiripad, to carry out a basic punyaham(purification) ceremony -- and thus set off a firestorm that has triggered allegations of obscurantism and caste prejudice, produced threats of arrest and retribution, and polarised sections of the polity and public.

Around 1 pm on June 4, Chennas Raman Namboodiripad -- who not so long ago had undergone a triple bypass surgery -- is resting in his favourite chair, when I drive up to the courtyard of his home, and find a chair near his.

"I have not been giving interviews because they don't understand," he says, right up. "For them (he clearly means the television news channels), everything is a story and every story needs a hero and a villain, and in this story I am their villain -- and nothing I say seems to make a difference."

With that, he settled down to answer (in Malayalam -– what follows is a verbatim translation) questions relating to the controversy:

An interview conducted by rediff.com's Prem Panicker.

Why did you order the punyaham ceremony?

In our religious practice there is a concept: aranhaal paavam -- a sin becomes one only when you become aware of it. But when you do come to know that a wrong has been committed, you are duty bound to apply the prescribed remedies -- which in this case is the basic punyaham ceremony.

The child, whose annaprasam ceremony was conducted -- what was his sin?

That is precisely the issue: that child committed no sin, no fault. He is born to a Hindu mother, the daughter of M D Purushottaman, who has, in fact, sponsored the gold-leaf paneling on two doors leading to the temple. The problem was with Ravikrishna, who is the son of a Christian mother and thus presumed to be a non-Hindu.

As per the prescribed rites of the temple, we are supposed to carry out a punyaham when we know that a non-Hindu has entered the temple, and so I had no choice on seeing the photograph but to ask for the punyaham to be conducted.

As a priest, how are you aware -- or expected to know -- of the religious orientation of everyone who visits the temple?

That is why I mentioned the concept of aranhaal paavam. In 2000, Ravikrishna solemnised his wedding at the temple, and when he entered the temple after the ceremony, the then tantri, the late Chennas Diwakaran Namboodiripad, my father, had ordered the punyaham.

At the time, I was assisting my father as junior tantri, hence I was aware of the background and given that knowledge, I could do nothing else.

You should understand that we are not like judges -- a judge has the power to rule based on his interpretation of the law. We, however, do not possess discretionary powers -– there are prescribed rules and regulations governing the conduct of the temple, and we are supposed to enforce them verbatim.

Is there some book, some code of laws, you refer to in making these rulings?

Not really. The position of tantri, the head priest of the Guruvayur temple, is hereditary. The eldest male in the Chennas tharavad (household) automatically becomes the tantri; the other qualified male members assist him as junior tantris. For instance, my son Satheesan and my younger brother Chennas Vasudevan Namboodiripad, who used to be a scientist with ISRO, currently assist me.

As hereditary priests, it is part of our heritage; when we are young, we are taught the Vedas, the shastras and then the rites and rituals and rules that govern Guruvayur -- those rites and rules were handed down by Adi Sankara himself, and handed down through the generations of our family.

Just because we have the hereditary rights to be head priests at Guruvayur does not mean that as soon as we are old enough we enter the temple and start performing pujas. Even for that, there are certain rules -- for instance, we have during our formative years to serve as priests, tantris, at the Sankaranarayanan temple near here. I suppose you could call it an apprenticeship.

It is only when you are deemed proficient to perform the Agnihotri Yagam that you are acknowledged as a tantri, and can enter the sanctum sanctorum of Guruvayur. All these things too were prescribed by Adi Sankara -- we do not have the discretionary powers to say which of those rules we will follow and which we will not.

The argument advanced by Ravikrishna and others is that the matrilineal system, by which the child inherits from the mother, has been abolished by an act of the state assembly 30 years ago. Hence, it is being argued, Ravikrishna inherits from the father -- in his case Vayalar Ravi. And since Ravi is a Hindu, Ravikrishna is by default a Hindu.

That Act refers to inheritance of property, not of religious beliefs. As per the code governing our religion, your religious beliefs are handed down to you from your mother -- who, in this case is a Christian.

I am forced to keep repeating this -- I did not make the rules or the code that governs Guruvayur; as head priest, I am merely charged with implementing them.

Minister Vayalar Ravi has said that your act is unfair to his family, and all its future generations, since you have deemed that those generations that follow Ravikrishna are non-Hindus -- and in doing so, you have deprived all those generations of the right to worship according to Hindu beliefs, including entry to Guruvayur.

That is why, when you asked for an interview, I said I did not want to speak, because I am tired of people deliberately providing misinformation. Let me clarify: there is no question of the religious orientation of that child, Minister Ravi's grandson. He is clearly a Hindu, he was born to be a Hindu mother, as I pointed out at the outset.

Hence, that child, and the children that come after him, are Hindus. So too are the children born to those children -– all those generations the minister is speaking about.

The question was only about Ravikrishna, and Minister Ravi should know that; I do not know why he, and other interested parties, are spreading this story that an infant son and all future generations are being discriminated against.

It is my understanding that Ravikrishna has submitted a formal complaint to the Guruvayur Dewaswom Board; in it, he narrates what happened and says that as a result, he and his family have been subjected to much humiliation. What is your reaction?

I understand that such a complaint has been filed, though I am not privy to its contents. As far as I am concerned, I have already submitted a full, factual report of what happened to the Dewaswom authorities. It is all now up to them.

However, the point about the humiliation suffered seems well taken...

Simply because I asked for a punyaham to be performed? Firstly, you should understand this: A punyaham is a basic ritual, that is performed several times a week. If, for instance, a child or even an adult vomits in the temple, or is incontinent, we have to perform the punyaham. If blood is shed, even accidentally, we have in fact to perform an even more elaborate ritual.

So tell me, a little child is brought to the temple; the heat, the pushing and shoving of the enormous crowds, they all upset the child and he throws up. When we perform the punyaham, are we insulting that child, are we humiliating it? Or if someone is hurt, and we perform the more elaborate form of the punyaham, are we adding insult to that injury?

All these things are being said to make what we did sound bad, when all we did was follow the prescribed rules.

Tomorrow: 'Why don't they bring a law that says anyone can enter the temple?'

Have you visited the famed Guruvayur temple? What has your experience been like? Send us your recollections of the temple, your experience, both as text and photographs, and we will publish them. Mail your submission to citizen.reporter@rediffmail.com

Prem Panicker

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