Ten years ago, when I was 12, I was brought to Sree Guru Deva Vaidika Thantra Vidyapeedom at Madaplathuruthu for schooling in priesthood. Here, under K.K. Anirudhan Thantri, I was initiated into a disciplined lifestyle, Sanskrit and the priestly ritual texts—there’s a syllabus. I remember, back in my school, my Class 7 teacher Fonsi Miss had asked us what we wanted to do when we grow up. That’s the first time I said that I wanted to be a priest. She announced it in class; everyone was curious and interested. No one laughed at me. In fact, I got a lot of encouragement. Earlier, only the Brahmins could become priests. It takes years of rigorous learning to be a priest and I’ll have to continue learning all my life.
Initially, I could only come for weekend classes—I was at the PSHS Government School at Thirumadikunnu back home near Chalakudy, 30 km away. In Class 10, I moved into the Vidyapeedom and stayed at the Shanti madom here. It was an intensive phase—early morning, evening and weekend classes and regular day school at nearby Kodungallur. I did my BA and MA in Sanskrit Literature too at Kodungallur Vidwathpeedom.
My association with temples began when I was five or six. I’d go with friends to the Nalukettu Sree Dharmashasta Bhadrakali temple near my home to help out Sunil Shanthi there. We helped out in cleaning the premises and gathering flowers for pooja. My father Ravi and mother Leela worked as helpers for masons or found work in the fields on daily wages. I have one brother.
My mother was happy I was going to the temple—she felt it would keep me out of trouble! I was very naughty. I loved climbing trees, especially the huge banyan. We’d go swimming in the canal. I can never forget those happy times. I once got into trouble for playing with an unspent fire-cracker I found in the temple area. I burnt my hand badly and was scolded by both Sunil Shanti and my mother. One thing I truly regret from back then is throwing stones at dogs and hens!
I never encountered any discrimination. When I was small, I didn’t know a caste barrier kept Dalits out of temples. When I was 10, someone told me about it, and I remember saying that’s not possible: I won’t allow that.
Once Sabu Shanthi at the Vidyapeedom asked the class: “Where do you see God?” He was very pleased with my response. I told him I see God in my gurunathan. Our guru, Anirudhan Thantri, always quotes from the Parashara Smrithi: “Janmana Jayate Shoodraha/ Karmana Cha Dwija Smrithaha” (At birth all are Shudras/ Only by his deeds does one become a Brahmin). From the time I wake up at Brahma muhurtham, before 4 am, I invoke God. I sit on my bed filling my body and soul with mantras. Only then, after asking forgiveness from Mother Earth, do we step down on the ground.
In a surprise test once, I was the only one who recited a mantra right in my batch...I was thrilled! Our guru says only after we perfect our training should we be allowed to enter the sanctum sanctorum. Till then, we assist senior priests. My guru asked me to chant the mantras 51 lakh times. I spent altogether 10 years schooling for priesthood; it took me three years to meet his approval.
My guru, who is from the Ezhava community, has told us how much he suffered during his early life as a priest. He was initially not allowed to perform pooja at temples. The support from his guru, Venkitaraman Swamy, helped him surmount all hurdles. Three Brahmins from the Palakkad Samoohamadom moulded my guru’s values. We are all inspired by the visionary gurus who broke caste barriers. Today my guru is in charge of 60 temples across Kerala. My friends at the Vidyapeedom treat me like their own brother. Last year, my family faced a financial crisis, and I wondered if I should look for a better-paying job. My parents asked me to continue—and it’s my friends here who helped me financially.
I was serving as shanti at the Valiyakulangara Bhagavathi Kshethram when my friends and guru urged me to appear for the Public Services Commission. My rank was 42 in the main list and four in the community-based final list. I’m both happy and tensed. Mother wants me to continue at Madaplathuruthu. I have taken charge as shanti at Manapuram Mahadevan temple, Thiruvalla.
I joined Facebook in 2012 but started checking it only after I got a government-allotted laptop. I had about 250 FB friends. When I changed my profile picture, I was quite disappointed that I got only 11 likes. Now a friend shared a picture of mine in a group and it has amassed over 3,200 likes! I’m still trying to understand that.
(The writer is the first Dalit to be appointed temple priest by the Travancore Devaswom Board))