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Temple priest bludgeoned to death in Tamil Nadu for allegedly refusing to conduct wedding ceremony

Author: Ramanathan S.
Publication: The News Minute
Date: July 7, 2015
URL:   http://www.thenewsminute.com/article/temple-priest-bludgeoned-death-tamil-nadu-allegedly-refusing-conduct-wedding-ceremony-31920

Last week, The News Minute was apprised of an incident of the brutal death of a Brahmin priest in Thanjavur in June. Caste-based violence against Dalits is a regular occurrence in Tamil Nadu, but as this incident illustrates, economically weaker sections of ‘upper-castes’ like Brahmins are also not safe from the violent outbursts of the powerful intermediate-castes, whatever the reason for the outbursts may be.We are publishing portions of a translated version of a story on the priest’s death which appeared in a Tamil magazine called ‘Sudesi’. All facts and opinions are attributed to ‘Sudesi’ magazine.

Translation by Sridhar Krishnaswamy. (The incident has received negligible media-attention, except some small TV reports. Translation follows)

It is a story that is fantastic even by Indian film standards. Even if it had appeared in a movie, the reaction would have been, “This can happen only in a feudal set up of medieval times.” But this has happened in the 21st century, it is not fiction, but reality. Tiruvaikavur is a village in the Papanasam taluk in Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu.

he temple here is one of the 108 holy shrines of Lord Shiva, the reason why it was taken over by the TN government’s Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department (HR&CE), although their control is only on paper. The temple has 21 statues. The early Dharmakarthas, or temple trustees, have left an account of the jewels, both gold & silver, belonging to the temple. It is unknown as to what is left of the jewels today. For several years, a priest (shivacharya) named Kannaiya Sastrigal was looking after the religious affairs of the temple. The majority community of the village, the Padayachis (a sub caste of Vanniyars) had given him a house to live in and also paid him a small monthly salary. The village was similar to the ones shown in Tamil movies. The Vanniyars who have lived there for generations were the feudal lords of the 300 families that lived in that village.

It may not be believable, but even today others in the village can only hope to get the leftovers of what the Vanniyar families got. One day there was an allegation against Kannaiya Sastrigal that he stole an idol from the temple. Village elders beat up Sastrigal. The police investigated the matter, and records show that Sastrigal was not involved in this robbery. There is no information on what happened to the missing idol. The Sastrigal left the village immediately after this incident. The temple remained locked for years and was opened only on certain occasions. Daily Pujas were stopped. 

In 2002, village elders arranged for one Ganesa Gurukkal to conduct at least one puja a day. This went on for some time but even that stopped as he had to travel a long distance from his house. Later Harihara Pandaram, a man who had learnt the Vedas was appointed as the priest. He stayed only for a few days. Later, when a retired Indian Railways official from Thattangudi saw the status of the ancient temple, bereft of a lamp and daily pujas, felt disheartened and arranged for one Manikanda Gurukkal to do the pujas.

A monthly pay of Rs. 7,000 and accommodation was fixed for Gurukkal. As his father was also involved in religious activities, Gurukkal used to ask his father to take his role when he had to attend to other commitments. Manikanda Gurukkal refused to live in the same house as Kannaiya Sastrigal. He built a small thatched hut for himself. His wife Sasikala and his two children, a son and a daughter, lived in Seelanaickanpatti. To meet his family expenses, he conducted rituals at various family ceremonies in the village. As his father was also living close-by in Aduthurai, they could switch jobs to meet their commitments.

Last month, an influential Padayachi family approached Manikanda Gurukkal for conducting the marriage of their son. Gurukkal told them that he had already accepted two other functions on the same day. The Padayachi family insisted that he should return the advance he had taken for the other ceremonies and accept their offer. The Gurukkal declined. The Gurukkal thought the matter ended there, even as that wedding was conducted on June 10. On June 14, Gurukkal was on his way to Aduthurai village to pick his father for conducting Pradhosha puja at the Tiruvaikavur temple. Being a village track, the path was covered by trees. That was when fate played its cruel role.

Karthik, the groom of the wedding he refused to conduct, was drinking alcohol with his friends at the rice storage facility on that path.  Seeing Gurukkal drive down that path, Karthik called him out. The Gurukkal is known to have called a friend from his mobile phone at 4:27PM and told him, “I am apprehensive of the way they are calling me, I am worried.” The friend says that even as the Gurukkal spoke he could hear the noise of Gurukkal being beaten up.  It looks like the Gurukkal was beaten up till 5.30 PM. An old lady who saw this incident told another woman that Gurukkal was being beaten up. That lady called up her husband who was working in the labour welfare department in Chennai. He complained to the Thanjavur police officials, who passed on the information to Kapisthalam Police Station. When the police finally arrived it was 8 PM. Witnesses say that the drunken youth had beaten up Gurukkal from 4:30PM to 5:30 PM. He sustained internal injuries and was admitted in the hospital in a state of coma. He was kept in a life supporting system for some time. But he soon succumbed to his wounds. He had severe injuries in the head and stomach. This also affected his kidneys, said the doctors who treated him.

He finally passed away on June 21 at 12:45 PM. He was 41 years old. When the police enquired the villagers on the day of the incident they were silent. But after the perpetrators left the place, they opened up and told the truth. “300 families live here. The caste fanaticism and the rigid control of the wealthy amongst us is beyond words. Please save us. How bold must be these cruel men to openly say ‘Yes. We did it.’,” was what the agitated villagers told the police. Gurukkal had also given a statement to the police on the day of the incident, which is recorded in the FIR. The accused have also corroborated this statement. Most political parties, including DMK, Tamil Manila Congress, ADMK and PMK have united in their appeal for the bail for the accused. On the other hand, there was no one to take care of the victim. The aged father had to pay for the medical expenses, post mortem and cremation. Fortunately there were some good samaritans to help.

Sripriya, a social activist was willing to help. She used the social media to contact people who were equally willing to help and made arrangement for the cremation. Gurukkal’s wife and children are yet to recover from this loss and the wife still laments that a man who served God had to finally die like this. The Government has declined any compensation as Gurukkal was only a temporary recruit at the Thiruvaikavur temple. He had applied for a permanent post as pujari in a temple at Aduthurai under HR&CE and had got the posting, but he was to join duty only a few days later, says his father. It is impossible to wipe out memories of the state of the hapless survivors, the wife and the two young children. Are we so inured to such tragedies?
 
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