‘Temple Entry Movement in Kerala During the Early 20th Century
Balu G Nair,
Word Count- 1472.
“Day after day they gathered before the bars of the forbidden road and asked for admission. In rain or shine, they sat there silent witnesses against what they considered to be an unfair tradition”.
Temple entry movement was one of the most important events in the annals of Kerala history. It brought a new light into the dark lives of the so- called ‘untouchables’ or the lower castes. The movement which was spearheaded by the Kerala wing of the Indian National Congress was ably assisted by the entire progressive section of the civil society of Kerala. It was a socio- religious reform movement which reformed the lives of the ‘avarnas’ or the caste people Community Bernard">lower caste people. The movement went through a number of steps. The right for ‘untouchables’ to enter the temple roads and use other spaces which were exclusively meant for the ‘savarnas’ or the caste system in India">upper caste people were the initial demands of the agitators who later on raised the demand for temple entry. The movement was not confined to a single event. It went through a number of stages in the form of Vaikkom Satyagraha which took place in 1924, the Guruvayur Satyagraha of 1931, the Temple Entry Proclamation of Travancore in 1936 and the declarations in Kochi and Malabar later on which gave the lower castes access to temples. The movement was not confined to any single section of the society even though it was for the cause of a particular section of it. The movement, even though it went through a lot of tense moments, never turned violent and was marked by its peaceful nature. The movement assumes much importance in the modern era when the demand for allowing non Hindus into temples in Kerala has gained much attention. This essay traces the origin and development of temple entry movement, the effect it had on the Kerala society and its contemporary relevance.
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Kerala Society During the Onset of Temple Entry Movement
Caste system was deep rooted in the Kerala society during the onset of the 20th Century. The lower castes were not only ‘untouchables’ but they were ‘unapproachables’ also. The caste system was so heinous that it prompted Swami Vivekananda to describe Kerala as the ‘lunatic asylum of castes’. The oppressed classes were not allowed to use many of the roads, public buildings and government schools. They were completely banned from entering the temples which were administered by the upper castes. Most of the roads near the temples were exclusively for the upper castes. The concept of ‘untouchability’ created a situation where in the upper castes were polluted even by the sight of the lower castes within a specific distance. Even when the lower castes Hindus were disallowed from using the temple roads, non Hindus were free to walk through them. The irony was that the same lower caste person who on converting to another religion was completely free to use the temple roads. This dichotomy brought to light the hollowness of the caste system and prompted the onset of the agitation against the caste system towards the late nineteenth century.
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Vaikkom and Guruvayur Satyagrahas
Vaikkom Satyagraha was the turning point in the temple entry movement. It marked the introduction of temple entry movement in an organizational nature in Kerala. The movement was initiated by TK Madhavan, who was an influential leader of the ‘Thiyya’ community. He introduced before the government a request for abolition of ‘theendal’ (untouchability) and also demanded the entry for ‘untouchables’ into upper caste Hindu temples. The movement was staged outside the Vaikkom Mahadeva Temple and the satyagrahis demanded entry for untouchables into the Vaikkom temple roads. The movement had strong backing by the Indian National Congress. The Kerala Wing of the congress accepted abolition of untouchability as one of their primary programs and constituted an untouchability abolition committee (‘Ayithochadana Sangam’).
The Satyagraha formally began on March 30th 1924. Eight months after the start of the Satyagraha, the movement ended successfully. Gandhi himself came down and made a pact which allowed entry into roads on three sides except for the one on eastern side. The factors which led to the emergence are interesting to note. Apart from the brewing resentment and anger against the caste system, the awareness and enlightenment among the lower castes achieved through English and public educational systems, the apathy created among the upper caste supporters of the movement by leaders like Sree Narayana Guru were instrumental in making the movement come true. The movement had a substantial backing from the upper caste people also and it went a long way in inspiring the future movements. For the next five years, the demands never took the form of an organized agitation. The demand for entering the upper caste temples arose formally for the first time during the Guruvayur Satyagraha. The agitation began on the 1st November, 1931 and it demanded entry for untouchables into the Guruvayur temple and also called for the abolition of untouchability. This movement again was organized by the Indian National Congress and was led by leaders like K. Kelappan. Mannath Padmanabhan and A.K. Gopalan. It is worth noting that this movement was organized and led by upper caste Hindus. They had the wholehearted support of the lower caste people also. The movement did not yield any immediate result. But, it went a long way in abolishing the evil practices of untouchability.
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Temple Entry Proclamation in Travancore and Further Developments
The much awaited declaration regarding the abolition of ban on untouchables came in 1936 in the form of a ‘Temple Entry Proclamation’ in Travancore. The proclamation was issued by the last Maharaja of Travancore, Sri Chithira Thirunnal Bala Rama Verma. It allowed the untouchables to enter all the government run temples in Travancore (these are the same as the upper caste temples mentioned earlier).
This proclamation was mainly inspired by the huge conversion rate among the Hindus. But, the proclamation only facilitated the lifting of ban with respect to the temples in Travancore. The ban on temples in Malabar and the Kochin areas remained. Malabar Temple Entry Bill was passed only in 1938 and a 1948 proclamation by the Rajpramukh facilitated temple entry in Kochi. The relevance of temple entry movements does not end here. The idea of temple entry which was first conceived by Dr. B R Ambedkar was meant to address the larger question of uplifting the lower castes. Temple entry movement played a pivotal role in enabling Kerala to become one of the most egalitarian states in India. The role played by the temple entry movement in the abolition of practices related to untouchability is unparalleled. While Article 17 of the Indian Constitution provides for the abolition of untouchability, this purpose was practically achieved by movements like temple entry movement. The fact that temple entry movement helped in bridging the gap between upper and lower castes cannot be ignored. The movement was also successful in effecting legal changes by bringing about temple entry proclamations. Lastly, it brought respect to the damned life of the untouchables. The movement also enabled the enforcement of values like equality, personal liberty and gave rights against exploitation and discrimination which were later embodied under relevant articles of our constitution.
Contemporary Significance of the Movement
The movement never died out in its entirety and took on a wholly new dimension towards the late 20th century. The movement now demands the right of entry for non Hindus into temples in Kerala. It is a well known fact that only Sabarimala temple and a few other temples in Kerala allow entry for non Hindus. The movement is now centered mainly on the Guruvayur Sree Krishna Temple which is one of the most well known temples in India. The movement was ignited when a ‘punyaham’ (purification ritual) was done after the ‘choroonu’ (rice feeding ceremony) of the grandson of Union Minister Vayalar Ravi was done inside the temple. Even though the minister and his son are practicing Hindus, the ritual was carried out since the Minister’s wife was a Roman catholic. The movement further gained prominence because the temple denied entry to the renowned singer Dr. K J Yesudas. It is worthwhile noting that any foreigner who furnishes an order from the Kozhikode Arya Samajam is allowed into the temple without any clamor. The movement now is mainly led by the student’s wing of the Left Parties. It is a shame to the nation that people are even now discriminated on the basis of castes and untouchability practices are still carried out in a veiled form. It is high time that a democratic nation like India put an end to such practices. The bugle of second temple entry movement is resonating and we should rise up to it.
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[ 2 ]. Emily Gilchriest Hatch, Travancore (A guidebook for the Visitor) 21 (1933)
[ 3 ]. Socio Religious Reform Movement, available at http://www.kerala.gov.in/history&culture/socioreligious.htm#templeentry
[ 4 ]. Id
[ 5 ]. See
[ 6 ]. R Krishnakumar, No to Non Hindus, Frontline June 29, 2007, 56.
[ 7 ]. See E L Sivathambika, ‘The Untouchables and their Struggle for Temple Entry in Kerala, Since 1920’ (Ph.D. Dissertation submitted to MG University, Kerala)
[ 8 ]. Id
[ 9 ]. T.L.C Vol. VI, no.5, 1924, 321 as quoted in Id.
[ 10 ]. Vaikkom Satyagraha Commemoration Volume, Ed. Sukumaran Moolakattu, 1977, 75 as quoted in Id.
[ 11 ]. Supra 2
[ 12 ]. Supra 5.
[ 13 ]. Id.
[ 14 ]. Id.
[ 15 ]. Id.