WHEN the high priest of an ancient temple in central Kerala "crossed the sea" to attend a seminar in England, little did he realise that the trip would put his priesthood in jeopardy. On his return earlier this month, Vishnu Narayanan Namboodiri, melshanti (high priest) of the 2,000-year-old Sri Vallabha Temple at Thiruvalla, was barred from entering the shrine on the grounds that he had desecrated his position as high priest and needed to undergo penance for breaking a Vedic taboo.
Namboodiri refuses to atone for a 'sin' he says he did not commit. "Nowhere in the Vedas does it say that a priest cannot cross the sea," he contends. But the temple's tantri (head priest) Akkeeram Kalidasa Bhattathiri, who clamped the entry ban on the high priest, insists that the Vedas forbid trans-oceanic travel. "The tantris are the supreme authority on temple rituals and customs. We have the records to prove our stand. We will never compromise on our age-old traditions," he told Outlook.
The controversy has already snowballed into a row between the Tantri Samajam, the statewide forum of head priests, who are rallying behind Bhattathiri, and the Devaswom Board, the temple administration authority. Board president V.G.K. Menon, who is backing Namboodiri, has denounced the ban on the high priest's entry into the temple. "The Devaswom Board is the final authority on temple matters. Its word is final. The tantri is an employee of the board," he points out.
With both side adopting rigid postures, an early settlement to the imbroglio does not appear likely. And the issue has also divided the local temple-going community of Thiruvalla. Says Gopinathan Nair, president of the Temple Advisory Committee, which reflects popular sentiment: "We support the stand of the tantri. The high priest cannot defy his superior. He should take the penance, or else he will not be allowed to enter the temple."
The Devaswom Board, for its part, ordered an inquiry and followed it up with a direction lifting the ban on the high priest. But when it came to executing its direction, the board backtracked. Notes Namboodiri: "The board said that I was free to enter the temple and resume my duties. But the local people were agitated and were supporting the tantri. How can I go in without the support of the people? I would need a police escort and there could be a lathicharge. I do not want a confrontation. I do not want the temple washed in blood."
Popular sentiment is the tantri's trump-card in what has developed into a war of attrition between ecclesiastical authority and official authority. Public wrath is also a means for the head priest to exert pressure on his subordinate to relent and agree to undergo penance for his 'sin'.
A beleaguered Namboodiri accepts this demand for atonement, but on condition that his guilt should first be established on the basis of the Vedic texts or the sayings of the Rishis. That's the position he has adopted ever since he was stopped at the temple entrance. Namboodiri recalls the telephonic conversation he had at the time with the tantri: "I appealed to him to save the temple, the country and the Vedic tradition from disgrace. I agreed to undergo penance provided it was done without delay and not made public. I was concerned that this kind of primitivism should not be publicised. I offered to be washed in sulphuric acid if necessary."
The tantri apparently declined the offer, saying he was too busy. The high priest then contacted the board president in Thiruvananthapuram. The Temple Advisory Committee members claim that Namboodiri also spoke to the press. Meanwhile, a conclave of head priests resolved to marshal scriptural evidence to disprove the high priest. "Lord Ram had to reach Lanka without breaking the sea-crossing taboo. So he built a mud bridge over the water and went across," argues Tantri Bhattathiri to buttress his stand, unmindful that this would also appear to absolve the modern-day priest who travelled by air. In fact, Namboodiri substantiates his viewpoint by citing the closing sentence of the Yajur Veda which proclaims: "The ocean is my relation."
The controversy has triggered a debate on tradition versus modernity. Priests like Namboodiri, who is also a reputed man of letters and has received the National Award for poetry, dismiss religious taboos as "peripheral nonsense". Says he: "I expect the tantri to cite Vedic authority when he charges me with sin. Instead, he wants me to bow before his authority. I am too old to accept that from a man of the age of my daughter." Retorts the head priest: "I may be young. But I speak on behalf of God."
The high priest's alleged disrespect to his superior has angered a substantial section of devotees. He is perceived as an arrogant intellectual who has disdain for the common man and covets power. Says Balasubramaniam Potti, a high priest at the same temple: "Namboodiri has been referring to me as his deputy. I am of equal status. In fact, I have been a high priest for the past 20 years. He has only three years' experience."
There are complaints that Namboodiri abbreviates many of the rituals while performing them. Says Uttaman, a shopkeeper: "The temple exists for the people. The priest must satisfy us with his sincerity while performing the pujas. Namboodiri's style of conducting pujas does not inspire us. He does things his way, not the way they are always done down the years."
Tantri Bhattathiri adds: "We have respect
for writers. But can we allow Sugatha-kumari to conduct pujas according to her fancy just because she is a well-known poetess? We cannot permit our ancient rituals to be modified by modern poets. I was instrumental in making Vishnu Narayanan Namboodiri a melshanti. Now I am not sure I did the right thing."
Namboodiri was appointed high priest three years ago by circumventing an injunction brought against his appointment by a rival candidate who claimed to be better qualified. The high priest is unfazed by the uproar. While waiting patiently for the final decision of the authorities, he visits the temple each morning to pray as any other devotee. "It is the will of God that Namboodiri cannot enter the temple. He is not able to perform his duties as a melshanti. It is an indication that there is a power beyond our control," muses Bhattathiri.
Perhaps the last word belongs to the common devotee who joins his palms in prayer each morning at the Thiruvalla temple: "We don't want an eminent poet to perform the pujas. We want just a humble priest." But that doesn't solve the tradition versus modernity imbroglio.