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The Chidambaram Thillai Natarajar or sabhanayakar temple, though one of the five ancient pancha bhoota (five primordial elements) temples of Saivism in Tamil Nadu, is no stranger to controversies. The government of Tamil Nadu or the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE), which manages over 36,000 Hindu and Jain temples, have very little or no say in the day-to-day functioning of the temple. However, the freedom enjoyed by the Podhu Dikshitars, in charge of temple administration, has led to controversies, including allegations of mismanagement of funds and violations of government orders.

The Podhu Dikshitars, a religious denomination, have often been at logger heads with the state government. In 2009, they pushed back against the government’s bid to take over the temple administration. After a series of litigations, the Supreme Court on Jan. 6, 2014 granted them freedom (under Article 26) to continue administering the temple.

The latest row over allegations of child marriages performed at the temple has, however, caught the temple administrators on the wrong foot.  According to the police, several child marriages are said to have been conducted in the temple from early 2021 and in October 2022, the police registered three cases and arrested six persons, including members of some Dikshitar families.

The issue took on a sectarian turn with the recent intervention of Tamil Nadu Governor R N Ravi. Given the ‘infodemic’ on the issue with mainstream, social media and political parties all claiming the truth, G. Chandra Sekhar, lawyer for the Sabhanayakar temple Podhu Dikshitars, spoke to to clear the air and alleged harassment of the priests by the police.

 The latest controversy raging over allegations of child marriages at the temple has caught the temple administrators ‘Podhu Dikshitars’ on the wrong foot

Questioning the handling of the case, Chandra Sekhar said the way the police registered three cases of child marriage under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2009 (earlier law was Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929), arrested six persons including the parents of the bride and groom, and got medical tests (alleged two-finger tests for virginity) on the girls concerned has aroused suspicions of a hidden agenda. The police approach to the case is totally wrong as they are trying to change an apparently social welfare-oriented case into a POCSO (Prevention of Child Sexual Offence) one, hence the two-finger tests on the minor girls, he alleged.

G. Chandra Sekhar, lawyer for the Sabhanayakar temple Podhu Dikshitars

Conceding that child marriages are a legal offence, Chandra Sekhar said before an allegation or a complaint is scrutinized and proper legal method of sending summons to the persons concerned is adopted, the police went berserk, arresting some Dikshitar family members including some not connected with the case and even keeping a woman illegally in the police station till 11 pm. The Supreme Court guidelines on arrests have not been followed in letter and spirit, the lawyer asserted.

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The tide of disinformation against the Dikshitars has to be stemmed and wrong notions doing the rounds about the micro-ethnic community have to be dispelled, he said.

Chandra Sekhar said last year the Dikshitars had petitioned the DGP, the Home Secretary and other top officials, highlighting harassment by the police.
Recalling the circular issued by the DGP in December, 2022 to all district SPs not to make arrests in haste in POCSO cases involving teens (minors), Mr. Chandra Sekhar asked why the police had arrested some Dikshitars ‘in haste’ without showing sympathy.  Saying that the police intend to change the case of child marriage to the more serious POSCO offence, the lawyer said even in POSCO cases, the DGP has advised the police to go slow.

He also referred to a suo moto investigation on May 25, 2023 by Ramesh, a member of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, who said that the allegations of child marriage were not true echoing, Tamil Nadu Governor Ravi. What the police have done is a violation of child rights as well as human rights, Chandra Sekhar alleged.

Dikshitars in 2009 opposed the government’s bid to take over the Chidambaram temple and after a series of litigations, the Supreme Court on Jan. 6, 2014 granted them freedom to continue administering the temple

Asked why the Governor has spoken in support of the Dikshitars in this controversy, he said while he did not know the reason, the Dikshitars are grateful that Mr Ravi is supporting their minority community. The reasons for the Governor’s decision to take up the issue now are best posed to him, Chandra Sekhar added.

According to Chandra Sekhar, the Dikshitars have their own canons which stipulate the mandatory age of 21 and marriage as required for men from the sect to become Dikshitars.  So, child marriage has no space in the temple’s codified structure, he said.

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Quoting a mythological belief, the lawyer said Lord Shiva is said to be the sabha nayakar or Speaker of the Assembly of Dikshitars, who are hence Podhu Dikshitars (general members) in the Chidambaram temple which the Saivite canons call Golden Assembly (ponnambalam), one of the five famous ‘ambalams’ in Tamil Nadu.

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