The other day I came across an article in a Malayalam weekly (Samakalika Malayalam, Book 19/Issue 33) on a couple of examples indicating how temples in what is now the state of Kerala enjoyed exclusivity for the Hindus who belonged to higher echelons of the pecking order. I found the article extremely remarkable and this opened quite a few thoughts.
Do we really think places of worship – whether a temple or a church or a mosque or a gurdwara – are exclusive for the particular community? While churches, mosques and gurdwaras do not probably harbor such an attitude towards other faiths, temples are a different lot altogether. Until the early part of the 20th century, entry into temples in this part of the world was taboo for the so-called low-caste Hindus as well as people of other faiths/religions. When I first heard about this several years back, I was totally put-off because the first thing that came to my mind was the apparent dichotomy with the other faiths. I felt such a distinction should not be made for followers of the same faith! I still hold that belief true. After all, would any Hindu God care if his worshipper is ranked high or low? Certainly not, but the followers of the faith would. What a shame!
The article in the weekly that I mentioned before talked about a couple of letters written by two prominent Nairs of the time to the Government imploring them to consider constructing a different road for the lower ranked Hindus to walk. The existing roads apparently closely adjoined the temples and if those people traversed the road, the temple itself would be devoid of purity and would be difficult to clean! I found it ridiculous on so many counts! The belief that some of the Hindus were born to lower ranks because of horrific deeds they did in their past lives is also eminently laughable.
I am of the view that the British did not realize the magnitude of the problem and they obviously procrastinated on the issue for so many years! Christianity entered Kerala only in the first century AD and Islam much later during probably the 8th century AD. Hinduism being the older religion had undergone several churns by the time the British entered the picture. The caste classification among Hindus in Travancore/Cochin/Malabar was much more complex and quite different from what they saw in other parts of India. There already was a clear division on what the higher ranked and the lower ranked Hindus could do. This convolution in the system puzzled the British considerably and they ended up doing nothing to either loathe the system or take measures to get rid of it.
The location of temples were towards the interiors of the land whereas churches and mosques were established adjacent to the main territorial routes. My theory is that this got the higher ranked Hindus thinking – a theory of exclusivity was formed in their minds. They further developed the thought process into one by which they could alienate the lower ranked Hindus from even walking the roads adjoining the temples! Churches and mosques were possibly built in close proximity to the land routes because they could not acquire property in the upcountry. I think the cunning higher ranked Hindus exploited this and turned it to their advantage. Untouchability was extended to unapproachability. We may have to believe that the British government considered favorably the requests from the higher ranked Hindus. The intricate web of the Hindu caste system defied reasoning and they were left with nothing but to acquiesce.
The Christians and Muslims perhaps never tried to stop people of other faiths from entering their places of worship even during those times. I tend to think they encouraged this so they could add more numbers if any of the people from the other faiths chose to convert. Some of the Hindus did convert to the other faiths to avoid the oppression by the higher ranked Hindus as well as being attracted to the novelty that the new religions brought. There are accounts of forced conversions as well but since that is not the focal point of this piece, I will not enter into that realm. It could also be argued that the churches and mosques were constructed near to the major roads because the concerned faiths learned from their experiences elsewhere and decided that such a location was easier to attract people who migrated from other places.
The concept of religious exclusivity was invented by the higher ranked Hindus for the benefit of their own ilk and the Europeans including the British were merely meek spectators to this evil until just before and just after independence, such acts of discrimination on the basis of caste were outlawed. However, the sorry fact remains that in spite of all the laws and all the progress we have made as human beings, some element of religious exclusivity is being practiced by all faiths today right under our noses!