Saturday, 26 December 2009

Outcaste at home

After a visit to the Meenakshi temple in Madurai in April 2007

Stephan had said that he would like to see the famous temple after which I had been named. I had seen the Minakshi temple as a child and thought I wouldn’t mind seeing it again. So, since we were in Chennai and Madurai was not too far, we decided to go there at the end of the working week. But we had to wait till Sunday since on Saturday there was a government-sponsored Tamilnadu Bandh over the OBC reservation issue. Stephan, being a German, had never heard of a state-sponsored bandh and was not too amused by the delay, and also the additional hassle of having to re-schedule flights, taxis, hotels etc. Well… we Indians believe that if one wants to earn some poonya by doing a real tirtha-yatra, then one has to be prepared to suffer a lot of additional hardship and expense, I jokingly told Stephan, little knowing how badly my poor wise-crack would misfire on us later.

It was scorching hot when we arrived in Madurai that Sunday around noon. The temple would reopen only at 4 p.m. we were told. We decided to wait, braving the sweltering heat and the attendant unpleasantness. Our guide was not too happy with our insistence about going in – he was not sure we would be allowed. “But why not, a temple is for everybody, isn’t it?” He did not seem convinced and it was not until later that I began to understand what he had in mind.

Till we reached the inner courtyard with the lotus tank there was no problem. But at the further end of the corridor there was a board which declared that Muslims and Christians were not permitted beyond that point. I was taken aback. I had visited many mosques and participated in many Church services in recent years, even though I was not just a Hindu but also a Hindu Brahmin. No one had ever refused me entry. What was the matter with Hinduism? Why did we need a rule like this?

“Maybe they are scared that the Muslims and the Christians will go in and desecrate the temple,” Stephan suggested in an attempt to be fair.

“That only shows their insecurity, nothing else. You think a silly rule like this can stop anyone from making mischief if they decide to do so? ” I answered angrily.

“In the Pashupatinath temple in Nepal they also have similar restrictions, I have heard. They have the same rules also in Tirupati and many other temples here. This is not an exception,” our guide said, hoping that that would placate me.

“Two wrongs do not make a right,” I retorted angrily. “Since when has Hinduism become so intolerant? Our greatest strength has been our all-embracing character and our liberal-mindedness.”

“Not any longer, Madam,” our guide answered quietly.

I was embarrassed and tried to apologize to Stephan. But he seemed to take it in his stride. “This is rather unfortunate, but this rule does not prohibit me as I am neither Christian nor Muslim. Let’s try to get in.” To our right we saw a very long queue of devotees waiting to get into the temple through the general entry route. I directed our guide to buy us two higher-priced special entry tickets.

But we did not get very far. Suddenly a rather menacing looking, dark, pot-bellied priest blocked our way and started shouting, “Ille, Ille, Ille!” When I protested and told him that we were neither Christian nor Muslim, he demanded to see our ‘conversion certificates’ issued by the Shankaracharya at Kashi. Stephan raised his hands in surrender at that point but I was not going to give up so quickly. “But I was born Hindu. I am a Hindu Brahmin, my name is Meenaxi. Where is the question of conversion?” I asked him in English, and repeated in Hindi to make sure.

Either he did not understand me or he pretended not to. I did not understand what he said in his long loud and lewd-sounding reply either. But from his expression it was clear that he did not believe me. On the contrary it was obvious from the look of disgust on his face that he thought our presence was defiling the sanctity of the temple, and from his menacing hand waving that he wanted us out of there immediately. I had perhaps never seen such uncouth behaviour anywhere before in my life.

Normally I do not take injustice lying down. But that day I don’t know what happened to me, I just tamely gave in and we walked out, just as we had been instructed! Till today I have not understood why I did not do more to protest. Maybe the incident was just so unexpected that I just did not know how to handle it -- I had never before in my wildest dreams imagined that I would have a problem in getting into a Hindu temple. Maybe living abroad for many years had made me soft and unaccustomed to such rudeness. I was completely unprepared for such a battle. I do remember telling myself while standing there that if some puny self-righteous priest decides to scream and shout and be abusive I did not necessarily have to follow suit. After all that was a temple, not a fish market! It was a place for being quiet, calm and friendly, not for being angry and insistent.

Nevertheless as we walked out, hot angry tears trickled down my cheeks. We sat for a few minutes in the outer courtyard steps to let the truth sink in. We were both more than a little stunned by what had just happened. Although I’m not a regular temple-goer, I had really looked forward to the darshan of my namesake goddess. I had consciously tried to psyche myself into the proper frame of mind for going to a temple that morning, but it seems that had left me completely unable to stand up for myself. I felt very hurt, doubly wronged, not to speak of the embarrassment I felt about Stephan having to be involved in this unpleasantness.

But he was more sorry for me than for himself, “Don’t be so upset, didn’t you say your goddess is everywhere -- she will know you had come to see her.” Yes, but then why do we have to leave from her doorstep, without seeing her? This was somehow all wrong. I knew in my heart that, left to herself, the goddess would have never refused us entry – after all she could read people’s minds. But poor thing, her fate was worse than ours. First of all, she was a prisoner in her own house. Not just that, she had absolutely no control over her guest list. She had to leave that job to her over-zealous keepers who had the last word on that. And if that was not bad enough, she had not even been able, in all these years, to teach her own house-hold staff some basic politeness and good manners!

Seeing me trying to drown my own unhappiness in the imagined greater misery of the goddess, the matter-of-fact Stephan tried to get me back to reality. “Leave the goddess out of this -- she is out of this game in any case. Let us get back to the facts.” By then he had worked out what was bothering him most. “That these priests here cannot hope to read people’s minds I can understand. What I don’t understand is how they can claim to be able to read a person’s religion from just a look at his or her face. Admittedly it was probably not very difficult for them to decide that I was a doubtful case, but why did they not allow you in – you are Indian, you are Hindu, you are Brahmin, what more could they want?”

“Don’t ask me. This is the first time ever that such a thing has happened to me. How and why beats me completely,” I answered unhappily.

“Maybe the fact that we went in together made them suspicious,” Stephan suggested. “In that case I am sorry.”

“It is someone else’s turn to apologise, not yours,” I sulked. “In any case, I was not going to go in without you.”

“Another thing, in your salwar-kameez, you look quite different from the other sari-clad women waiting in the queue, you know. Maybe that and the fact that I was with you confused them. ” Stephan said.

“Whose side are you on? Stop finding excuses for them. They don’t deserve it. I am not the first salwar-kammez wearing Indian who has come for a darshan to this temple. I might not look south-Indian but I certainly look very Indian. In any case, if they were confused they could have asked a few questions, not shouted us out of that place in that outrageous manner.” I snapped.

Stephan didn’t try to find reasons for that. Even though he was extremely level-headed and always tried to be fair, he too found it hard to forgive bad behaviour. “I agree with you there. Even if they thought us both to be doubtful cases, the whole affair could have been handled in a more civilised manner without allowing it to degenerate into such a spectacle. It is absolutely disgusting.”

The whole system seemed completely random and arbitrary, and the manner of enforcement incredibly high-handed and peremptory. Neither of us could make any sense of what had just happened. I wondered whether I should try again to go in, but the mere thought of having to face that bad man again seemed so unpleasant that I decided not to. We left it at that and headed for the airport, hoping somehow that time and distance would help to heal the hurt.

Stephan’s analytical mind kept working even during the flight. He was still intrigued by the procedure of implementation of that crazy rule. “Tell me, are there not many Indian Christians and Muslims who don’t look any different from the Indian Hindu? How are they prevented from going in? Do they check the `conversion certificates’ of every person standing in queue?”

“That is highly unlikely,” I answered.

“Conversely,” Stephan carried on, “there might be many Indian Hindus who might not look exactly like the average Indian. How do they get in?”

“Maybe they all have certificates from the Shankaracharya,” I replied grumpily.

“Saying what? That they don’t need a certificate from him?” Stephan continued. “I don’t see the connection between `looks’ and `conversion certificates’.”

“Neither do I. Let’s stop this analysis. I’m sick of all of that. Nothing makes any sense to me, no matter how hard you try to explain it.”

“I wanted to be fair. But I must admit I don’t see the logic at all. But I still feel very sorry for you – they should have let you in, at least.”

“I don’t see why I am particularly better qualified to see the goddess than you.”

“Well, simply because you are a born Hindu, in fact you are Meenaxi herself! My case is rather different. I have left the religion I was born into, but I have not felt the need to convert to another. I believe in God, and I am happy to just leave it at that. I do not feel the need to belong to a particular religion, although I would have been very happy to pay my respects to your Goddess Minakshi.”

“But the rule excluded only Muslims and Christians. As long as you are neither, how could they stop you from entering?”

“You saw how.” No further explanation was necessary.

When we spoke about that incident to our friends in the south, they did not seem surprised. This sort of intolerance and high-handedness was fast becoming a rule, rather than an exception, in Hindu temples. Temple priests were becoming more and more suspicious, fundamentalist and aggressive. Threats to temple purity, real, imagined or self-propagated, were regularly being fed to the public to make them more radical and thereby supportive of such intolerant and exclusionary temple policies. Many temples in fact had gone one step further and allowed only Hindus in, we were told. Forget about allowing non-Hindus, the day is not far off when even lower-caste Hindus will not be allowed into the temples in south India. Temples are fast becoming the exclusive domains of the high-caste Hindus. All politics in Tamilnadu is nothing but caste politics. Don’t you see now why the government had to call a bandh over the OBC reservation issue – it is the only way any government can survive here.

We heard all that and much more. I had not realised that so much had changed. Some of the stories we heard were terrifying – can so much happen in the name of religion, at this age and time, in a new progressive India? Don’t fool yourself, my friends told me, people might be earning more money here these days but their minds are getting smaller and shallower. And as far as the religious pandits are concerned, they are hell bent on ushering in the Dark Ages again. Just about everything is possible in this country – it’s not for nothing that they keep advertising ‘Incredible India’, be happy that you don’t live here, a friend added cynically.

I had not reckoned on that when I had decided to move to Germany a few years back. Although I had tried to keep track of the news, I could see that I was quite out of touch with recent developments (if they can be called that) in India. So what happened to us in Madurai came as a big shock, made worse by the realisation that it happened in South India – for I had long believed that sanity, reason and plain good common sense prevailed above everything else in the south! Silly romantic me! Just showed how little I knew of the ground reality.

Although the Madurai incident happened more than a month ago, I’ve still not been able to come to terms with it. How could they not allow me into my `own’ temple? And if they did, why did I allow it? Should I write to the temple authorities and demand an apology? Well, what good would that do? It would help to soothe my ruffled feelings but it would change nothing in this new aggressive face of Hinduism, of which that was only just an ugly but minor manifestation.

I have long wondered how so much intolerance, so much fundamentalism, verging on fanaticism, could have taken root within our great all-embracing all-inclusive religion? Is this unreasonable, prejudiced, blinkered and radical new face of Hinduism something that I can understand, accept, and be proud of? Today if there is anything I feel, it is not pride but shame, real shame.

There was another time about fifteen years ago, when I had felt the same sort of shame. The occasion was the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. The demolition was a disgrace to every Hindu. I felt very deeply ashamed, and was on the verge of an ideological collapse. I declared I wanted to have nothing to do with Hinduism any more. My father, who understood my inner crisis well, even sympathised with it, but who was a greater soul with a deeper sense of social responsibility, helped me to see sense by asking, “I can see you don’t like what is happening, but how do you think your leaving the fold will help to reverse that? If all right-thinking, liberal-minded Hindus like you decide to opt out of Hinduism now, do you think Hinduism will ever have a chance of regaining its former glorious image?”

I had listened to my father then. My father was wise, sane and sensible. But he had miscalculated the power and strength of the fundamentalist ideology. Today, almost fifteen years later, the situation has not improved, if anything it has become much worse -- the fundamentalist juggernaut has continued to roll, gaining strength, in the meantime. The fact that a vast majority of Hindus are actually moderates at heart has not made an iota of difference. It is the vocal aggressive minority who dictated terms. With the result that today that terrifying juggernaut has become completely unstoppable.

My father would not have stopped me from opting out today. He would possibly have also chosen to leave himself. This recent incident in Madurai might have meant nothing to that foul-mouthed priest who threw us out, but it certainly has sent me a very clear signal -- get out! And it is certainly much easily done this time. The last time I had wanted to opt out by myself. This time I don’t even have to bother with that since the high-priests of Hinduism themselves have declared me a `kafir’, they have stopped me from entering a temple, disowned me, made me an outcaste in my own home.

Strangely enough, I am beginning to feel that there could be some justification in that. After all, I don’t think I could be loyal to this new brash brand of Hinduism at all. This is not the religion I was born into. These are not the same class of priests as those who had blessed my parents when they had gone to Madurai just before my birth. This is not the great religion my father had wanted me to be a responsible member of. The voice of sanity, of reason, of tolerance has long been lost in the cacophony of aggression, of suspicion, of hate, of mistrust. What good is a religion if it cannot teach its followers anything positive? Why do we need to bother about religion if it cannot help us to realise that all human beings are equal? Why do we need priests who are so petty that they believe that shutting a door can keep God away from someone?

In fact I am relieved. That someone else has taken the decision for me. That I don’t need to feel guilty anymore about all the evil that goes on in the name of our religion. That I don’t need to feel responsible next time I hear or read of some Hindu vandals on the rampage. That I don’t need to feel disloyal each time I pass by a Hindu temple and do not enter. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with our gods, it is the priests and their associates that I do not want to have anything to do with. What Stephan had chosen to do in relation to his parent religion years ago I am choosing to do now, in relation to mine. And if he has managed to keep his faith and his basic humanity intact, without the intervention of priests, I trust so will I. After all, the non-violent and happy religion I grew up in is not dead, it still lives at least within me. That will keep me going.

There is one thing though, that has not been satisfactorily resolved by this deal. My name is still Meenaxi. I feel a bit uneasy about leaving my namesake Minakshi in the clutches of those hungry hounds posing as her keepers. If she is not careful, they will stop at nothing, not even from wolfing down her own flesh, to appease their appetites. “Dear Goddess, please, don’t let these monsters devour you. And do let me know when you are your own mistress again, so that I can come to see you. After all, we two don’t have any quarrels with each other, do we?”


  1. Meenaxi,dont b surprised by this incident-yes,Muslims n christians r not allowed in most of the temples of Orissa,tamilnadu,Nepal.let me tell u abt my personal experience-u konw we hav been brought up in an extremely cosmopolitan area.No hindus,no muslims,no Sikhs-only all Indians!Infact some of my Muslim colleagues from other states sometimes tell me 'Tum kya musalman hoi???u put bindi,no hijab etc etc-dont u evr feel neglected-i tell them dat in Assam we never feel da difference.MY opinion changed wen my son went to Bangalore,it was vry difficult for him 2 find a house simply for da reason dat he was a Muslim!Believe me,i was shocked!!

  2. About 20 years ago I went with appoopans family to the family temple in Kerala, and they got me a conversion certificate from the pandit, I got a new name in the bargain and I had to put on a sari in order to be aloud inside. It was the only time I was ever alowed to wear a sari, and they stuck me with a thousand pins for fear I could let it slip :-) So this is not a new development, they wouldn't let anyone in the temple who didn't wear doti or sari, leave alone being of a different complexion, love Petra

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