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Temples have played a big role in history. The reason for this is that temples in those days played a key role in overall administration as they also served as the treasury, king’s court, and so on. Historically, temples have always been owned by government rather than private individuals, nor have they been administered by individuals. Whether Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas or Vijayanagar or even the Mughal empire, big temples have always been under the control of the government.

From the time big temples started being constructed, they have always been under the control of government. Kings had given lands to temples so that they could function. Kings have always controlled those properties directly or indirectly.

Only after the rule of kings got over and East India Company started ruling that the government started stepping back from temples. Only in that time did the temples belong to private individuals

Since temples were run largely by the brahmin caste group, some belonging to that caste group stole temple property in the interim period when Company stepped back from temple control. This led to demands for intervention against malpractices in temples. As a follow-up, the Madras Endowments and Estate Regulation Act came into force in 1817. The Board of Revenue was tasked with monitoring if financial support being offered to temples was being put to proper use.

In 1858, Christian organizations petitioned Queen Victoria that a nation with a Christian background should not administer or oversee the affairs of other religions. As a result, the role of British government was rolled back and temple administration passed on to local groups. Temple trustees started emerging. If problems arose in their functioning, courts could be approached.

When the British government became friendly with upper caste groups, it stepped away from temple property which led to looting of temple property without being accounted for. The public kept giving pressure to the government demanding its intervention to set right this situation.

In 1926, under Justice Party rule, the Madras Hindu Religious Endowment Act was passed and a board was set up. The government was vested with the power to appoint administrators to temples suffering from poor administration. In the debate that ensued on this bill, C Natesa Mudaliar, one of the founders of Justice Party, said much public money had been spent in establishing temple property but the property is being enjoyed by members of just one community. Revenue from those properties is being spent for the growth of Sanskrit, a dead language, whereas Tamil literary works, which are alive, have been left uncared for, he said.

Some people today are talking about using temple funds for public works. But, over hundreds of years, temple revenue and temple property has been used not only for temple functioning but for other aspects without any oversight. The aim of the 1927 Act was to use temple property for public works.

The 1927 Act set up a board to which temple administration was given. Omandur Ramaswami Reddiar, premier of Madras Presidency (1947-49), inquired into malpractices and corruption in temple administration. He found that many people from the dominant caste groups were not paying proper lease rent on temple property. He played a key role in making the board a government department. This was opposed by the dominant caste groups. Omandurar, who faced the opposition, responded by saying that from Visakhapattinam to Tirunelveli, some 65 cases were pending related to theft of temple property and went ahead with the reforms.

There was more opposition saying government should not interfere in religious affairs. Critics said outside government there was a Ramaswamy wearing black shirt, a reference to Periyar, and inside government there was a khadi-wearing Ramaswamy, a reference to Omandur. To this Omandur responded that reforms on devadasi system and temple entry of Harijans were opposed similarly. He also said that worship in temples should be made in Tamil. The names of gods and goddesses should be in Tamil. In effect, Omandur helped to bring in Tamil to temples in a significant way.

In 1951, the Madras Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments Act was passed that overhauled temple administration. Powers of the officials were defined. Hereditary trustee positions were recognized. Officials were not given full powers to pull up erring trustees. At the same time, temple functionaries were not given hereditary rights.

In 1959, Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act was passed. This act established a new department. The commissioner heading this department had full powers to supervise and instruct assistant commissioners and officers as well as hereditary trustees. It was made mandatory that the leasing and selling of temple property for over five years needed permission from the commissioner. This Act brought in by Kamaraj administration gave full powers to the department.


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