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In an apparent effort to mitigate social criticism, the Cochin Devaswom Board renamed the ritual, Kaal Kazhukichoottu, which involves washing the feet of Brahmins, as Samaradhana at Sree Poornathrayeesa Temple, Thripunithura. Photo: YouTube/Kerala Tourism

The age-old temple ritual, Kaal Kazhukichoottu, which involves washing the feet of Brahmins and feeding them as a way of penance, has run into controversy in Kerala. The ritual has been in vogue in some Hindu temples for centuries. Mostly, temple priests wash the feet of Brahmins, who are later offered food and dakshina (donation). Devotees go for the offering to display penitence, as prescribed by astrologers. Winning the goodwill and blessings of Brahmins by honouring them and providing them food and money seems to be the core idea of the regressive ritual, which reinforces caste hierarchy. The continuance of the ritual to date has evoked sharp response in the State, which has made earnest efforts to do away with caste discrimination.

In the face of public backlash and Kerala Devaswom Minister K. Radhakrishnan’s response, the Cochin Devaswom Board, which manages a few temples in central Kerala, was forced to call off or modify the ritual in three temples. In an apparent effort to mitigate social criticism, the Board renamed the ritual as Samaradhana at Sree Poornathrayeesa Temple, Thripunithura. The Board, in consultation with the Thanthri Samajam, a forum of temple priests, clarified that the ritual “shall not be restricted to any particular community but will be open for all those who offer poojas at the temple”. Yet, the ritual will remain an all-Brahmin affair in the temple as only Brahmins carry out rituals in their capacity as the temple’s chief priests and so, it is only the feet of Brahmins which will be washed.

Earlier, a tender notice floated by the Guruvayur Devaswom seeking cooks for preparing food in connection with the festival at the Sree Krishna Temple had met with stiff opposition as it insisted that the cooks and their helpers should be Brahmins. The justification of the temple authorities was that they were merely following the custom that has been in vogue for centuries.

The intervention of Mr. Radhakrishnan, the second Dalit in the history of the State to handle the Devaswom portfolio, gave the social campaign the required momentum. He was quick to castigate the practice as one that didn’t augur well with the rich tradition of social reformation in the State. The Minister, who is also a member of the Central Committee of the CPI (M), equated the advocates of the practice with those who denied temple entry to Dalits and other backward communities.

As expected, the government’s intervention didn’t go well with a section of Hindu priests who viewed it as an affront to Hindu customs and temple practices. Swami Chidananda Puri, the head of the Marga Nirdeshak Mandal of the Kerala Dharmmacharya Sabha, a platform of Hindu spiritual heads of the State, said that a secular government should not interfere or sit in judgment of a temple practice. His views were promptly seconded by the Vishva Hindu Parishad. Arguing for the continuance of the practice, the Sabha, in a resolution, noted that government interference in the issue amounted to interfering with and insulting the Hindu customary practices.

The CPI(M), which got its fingers burned in 2018 in the wake of the Supreme Court judgment allowing women of all age groups to worship at the Sabarimala temple and reportedly alienated a section of upper caste Hindu votes in a few constituencies, has chosen to steer clear of the issue, leaving it to the Devaswom Minister’s discretion. The party and the government will have to tread a fine line considering the volatile nature of the issue and wait for a consensus to emerge.

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