POLITICS
08/11/2018 10:51 AM IST | Updated 08/11/2018 10:52 AM IST

Opinion: The Sabarimala Controversy Revives The Debate Over the Brahminisation Of Kerala's Famous Deity

The Mala Araya tribe has long laid claim to the Ayyappa shrine at the centre of the BJP's south strategy.

Policemen stand guard at the Sabarimala temple in Kerala this week. A local tribal community called Mala Arayas has claimed ownership of the temple.
ASSOCIATED PRESS
Policemen stand guard at the Sabarimala temple in Kerala this week. A local tribal community called Mala Arayas has claimed ownership of the temple.

The aftermath of the recent Supreme Court verdict allowing the entry of women into Kerala's Sabarimala temple regardless of their age has been cataclysmic, with the BJP and the Sangh organisations converting it into a fortuitous political opportunity.

What followed was unprecedented religious vigilantism that openly and violently defied the Supreme Court order even as the state government scampered to maintain law and order. No woman could enter the hill-shrine and the constitutional right of equality that the country's apex court sought to enforce didn't work.

However, the verdict has had an unintended spin-off: it has revived a subaltern history of worship that openly challenges the alleged "Brahminical usurpation" of faiths, beliefs and places of worship of native communities in Kerala.

While the faith-vigilantes and BJP supporters were fighting against the implementation of the Supreme Court order, a local tribal community called Mala Arayas (also Malai Arayas in some research literature), who have been known to live in the hills where the Sabarimala shrine is located for centuries, has claimed ownership of the temple. Citing both written and oral historical evidence for their claim of worship of the deity—Lord Ayyappa—at the shrine, a leader of the community said he would approach the Supreme Court to get their temple back.

According to PK Sajeev, General Secretary of the Aikya Mala Araya Maha Sabha—a welfare organisation of the tribe—who staked the claim, the temple was established by his community centuries ago and was usurped by a local "king" and a family of priests that introduced Brahminical rituals which are now practised there. Sajeev, who rose to instant media attention following his claims and threat to approach the Supreme Court, quoted the British missionary Samuel Mateer, who wrote extensively about the history and local customs of the erstwhile princely state of Travancore (southern Kerala, where the Sabarimala temple is located) and elements of history from the knowledge of his community.

In his Native Life in Travancore, Mateer quotes a local Christian priest Rev.W.J. Richards of Cottayam (now called Kottayam): "Thalanani was a priest or oracle-revealer of the hunting deity Ayappan, whose chief shrine is Sabarimala, a hill among the Travacore Ghats." According to Mateer, Lord Ayyappa was a "hunting deity" and the priest was a tribal.

The summary of Sajeev's story is the Brahminical overrun of their local system of worship and how it was converted into a big religious pilgrimage that now attracts about 50 million pilgrims each year.

It was not just Mateer who wrote about Mala Arayas and their link to Sabarimala. Tribal research literature does show that till the 18th century, Lord Ayyappa, then called Sastha, was their deity and they had established special offerings and annual rituals spanning several days to propitiate him.

In fact, most of the ritualistic acts that the devotees perform today such as pettathullal (a dance- procession from a nearby place), dropping of pebbles at a particular location during the trek to the shrine, and undertaking the temple trek in batches, have their origin in the Mala Araya custom. The tribals also worshipped the deity at another place called Arakulam. In the contemporary narrative of Sabarimala, popularised by accounts of the late 20th century devotees, erstwhile kings, and movies, it's all about Hindu mythology and the local "king".

Tribal research literature does show that till the 18th century, Lord Ayyappa, then called Sastha, was their deity and they had established special offerings and annual rituals spanning several days to propitiate him.

Much before the controversy broke out, researchers had pointed out that the folk songs of the Mala Arayas (Malayarayan nattupattu) dealt at length on their association with Sabarimala and the deity. Moreover, they also note that literature on the Hindu temples in the region does not refer to the Sabarimala shrine because it was a tribal place of worship.

Sajeev's claims have some historical credibility because the Mala Arayas once ruled the hills in the region and hence the places of worship and hill deities also belonged to them. The ruler of Travancore annexed all the forest land in the late 18th century. Those who ruled the hills suddenly became the tenants of the local "raja" and soon, their Sabarimala shine was taken over too.

Apparently, it was not restricted to Sabarimala alone. In an interview with Caravan magazine, Sajeev said: "Majority of temples in Kerala, which belonged to Parayars, Pulayars, Sambavars or Adivasis were Brahminised and adopted other customs—including temples managed by my own community such as the Karimala and Nilakal Mahadeva temple."

That some of the present Hindu rituals are probably not native and that Lord Ayyappa is not a Hindu deity finds credence also in the research by the late Prof A Sreedhara Menon, a well-known scholar of Kerala history. He had found elements of Buddhism in Ayyappa worship. Mateer's writing also offers nothing to show that Sabarimala was a Hindu temple as it looks today

Lekshmy Rajeev, a writer and researcher on Kerala temples, also supports the Mala Araya argument of Brahminical usurpation of Sabarimala.

According to Rajeev, it's reasonable to conclude that the deity had its origins in the Mala Arayas. She also says that the family which now claims priestly rights to the temple took control in 1902 with the help of the local Raja and the strategy was similar to the alleged usurpation of temples by Brahmins in other parts of the state. Some scholars aver that the temple in the present form came after 1950 when it was gutted by a fire. Others even allege that the fire was the result of a conspiracy to complete the usurpation of the temple.

It's not just Sajeev who laid claim to the temple. A 90-year-old woman from the Mala Araya community has said that her grandfather was the last priest of the temple, an assertion that is consistent with the reference in Mateer's account of the temple.

If the Mala Arayas indeed go to the Supreme Court, it would be yet another interesting legal battle that will call into question not only the ownership of Sabarimala, but also a religious legend that has become a political pivot for the BJP.

The established historical references linking the Mala Arayas and Sabarimala cannot be overlooked and hence the priests who claim proprietary rights to conducting the rituals of the temple, the Devaswom Board—the statutory government body that owns a large number of temples in the state—and the local "palace" may not find it easy to keep the Mala Arayas out of the picture.

What will be equally significant will be the continuation of the debate on the alleged "Hinduisation" of native beliefs that Sabarimala has opened up.

If the Mala Arayas indeed go to the Supreme Court, it would be yet another interesting legal battle that will call into question not only the ownership of Sabarimala, but also a religious legend that has become a political pivot for the BJP.

Although the state government may not support the Mala Araya claim in a court of law because it will come into direct conflict with the ownership of the money-spinner temple by the Devaswom Board, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan's initial remarks at least obliquely supported the argument that the members of the tribe once conducted the rituals at the temple.

It's not the first time that the Mala Arayas are claiming ownership of the rituals at Sabarimala.

In 2011, they had staged protests asking for a return of their right to light the "Makara Vilakku", a ritualistic lighting of fire that was made out to be a divine phenomenon till a few years ago. Although it may not be successful either in the short or long term, given the religious and administrative consequences of retroactive restitution, it will certainly bolster the political movements of the oppressed classes against the upper caste Hindus.The Kerala Pulayar Maha Sabha, an organisation of the Scheduled Castes, has already announced a campaign in support of the Supreme Court verdict, to counter the BJP's political efforts.