Old Folds And A Wrap-Around
Astrologers in Kerala insist Lord Krishna is miffed at devotees for not wearing saris. This has kicked off an uproar that includes many icons and Supreme Court intervention
More and more women are seen in saris at the Guruvayur temple these days, after the astrological exercise — the devaprasnam— held earlier this month found that the dress code relaxation did not go down well with the deity. According to the men, who inherit the right to manage the temple’s spiritual matters, women have voluntarily reverted to saris or the traditional half-sari while visiting the temple. Independent sources also confirm this even though the churidar, perceived to be a North Indian dress, is gaining popularity in Kerala.
The Guruvayur temple, whose main idol is believed to be over 5,000 years old, is known for its rigid traditions which include a stern rule requiring men to enter the temple barechested and clad only in a mundu (dhoti). The decision to allow the churidar was the only minor concession that those in favour of change were able to wrest from the temple authorities in decades.
However, women devotees chose not to celebrate the minor concession ever since the eight-day-long devaprasnam found that the Lord preferred women to come to the temple in traditional attire. Those who have visited the temple after the devaprasnam say there has been a drastic reduction in the number of churidar-clad women coming to the temple, though the temple board has not reversed its decision on the issue. A senior temple official said the wide media coverage the devaprasnam received could be the reason for women switching back to traditional dress.
“Despite the social reform movements of the last several decades, Guruvayur continues to remain obstreperously and obstinately orthodox in its ritualistic religiosity,’’ points out noted Malayalam writer P. Surendran. “If a non- Hindu gets a darshan of the Krishna here, the temple will be polluted and Krishna will need to take several baths. Of course, no Kerala temple permits entry for non-Hindus, despite the modernity, education and revolution Malayalis babble about.”
IT WAS not long ago that the thanthri (head priest) at Guruvayur conducted a punyaham or cleansing ritual after Union minister and prominent Congress leader Vayalar Ravi’s son’s marriage was conducted here. Ravi is an Ezhava, in official terms an OBC Hindu, belonging to the great tradition of the reformer Sri Narayana Guru. His wife Mercy, also a Congress worker and a former MLA, was born a Christian. Their children have been brought up as Hindus. But, for the thanthri, that was not pure enough. Guruvayur, so used to caving in to VIP bhakts, did not dare say no to the wedding and to the presence of Mercy, but did the next best thing: clean up after the act.
Kerala’s famous playback singer KJ Jesudas, born Christian, has still not been allowed to enter the temple even though he is a self-proclaimed devotee of Guruvayurappan. A recent statement by Devaswom Minister G. Sudhakaran that Jesudas should be allowed inside the shrine sparked a controversy that subsided only after Jesudas himself made it clear that he was not interested in worshipping at the temple if it hurt devotee sentiments.
These days one can hardly find a woman in a churidar in the temple. This seems a voluntary change and no one can alter the centuriesold temple rules,” says a close aide of the thanthri. This is happening despite almost all women’s groups in the state dubbing the devaprasnam as an attempt to revive conservative traditions.
Even Devaswom Minister Sudhakaran has come out in support of the women’s groups. “These astrologers create problems for their own selfish ends,” he says. Agrees noted poet and activist Sugathakumary, “There was no devaprasnam to ratify the decision of the then Travancore dynasty to open Guravayur for all Hindus irrespective of caste. We require changes in accordance with the times.’’
It was very recently that the Supreme Court dismissed a petition challenging a Kerala High Court order that upheld the decision to allow churidar and salwar in Guruvayur. Manoj V. George, counsel for devotee K. Mohandas, argued in the apex court that the Guruvayur Devaswom Managing Committee had no right to interfere in spiritual matters. Rejecting the argument that tradition should be preserved, Chief Justice KG Balakrishnan asked the counsel, “Do you know that women were not allowed to cover the upper part of their body? It was only after a revolution that they were allowed to cover the upper part of their body, so should we go back to that practice?”
However, prominent women in Kerala are in favour of a ban on the churidar in temples. Athlete PT Usha, movie star Navya Nair and poet OV Usha are among them.