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n 1812 the for­tunes—quite lit­er­ally—of heaps of tem­ples in south­ern Ker­ala found them­selves in the hands of a man who was born in far­away Scot­land. It was one of those strange ironies of colo­nial rule in In­dia, for Colonel Munro had orig­i­nally come to princely Tra­van­core as the East In­dia Com­pany’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive. Quickly, how­ever, he was also el­e­vated as min­is­ter by the rul­ing princess, a for­mula de­signed to give the Bri­tish the power they de­sired while skip­ping ac­tual an­nex­a­tion. Munro’s goal, with his split loyalties, was to bal­ance the gov­ern­ment’s books and en­sure the com­pany re­ceived reg­u­lar trib­ute. And as part of his cam­paign to aug­ment rev­enues, he took over 348 sig­nif­i­cant tem­ples and 1,171 smaller shrines across the land, so that 62,000 gar­dens and 63,500 acres of cul­tivable land be­came state prop­erty overnight. Hereafter, sums were dis­bursed to the tem­ples for their up­keep, but so valu­able was the real es­tate seized that it still pro­duced an enor­mous bal­ance—an amount that could be used for other pur­poses, in­clud­ing to ser­vice po­lit­i­cal obli­ga­tions to the com­pany.

It was an act that birthed reper­cus­sions felt to this day, for some of Ker­ala’s cel­e­brated shrines—in­clud­ing Sabari­mala, for ex­am­ple—re­main un­der gov­ern­ment con­trol, pro­vok­ing per­sis­tent ques­tions about what busi­ness pre­cisely the state has in in­sti­tu­tions of faith. To be fair, Munro’s ac­tion was not uni­lat­eral— tem­ples, with un­reg­u­lated funds and pow­er­ful trustees, were a po­lit­i­cal threat to the emerg­ing mod­ern state on the one hand, while on the other, there were com­plaints that rev­enues were be­ing em­bez­zled; in some in­stances, trustees de­cided to steal even the idols of their deities. In neigh­bour­ing Tamil provinces, too, the story was sim­i­lar: the col­lec­tor of Than­javur, John Wal­lace, noted that tem­ple cus­to­di­ans in his ju­ris­dic­tion had piled up debt to the tune of ₹2 lakh (a colos­sal fig­ure at the time). Like in princely Tra­van­core, in Bri­tish ter­ri­to­ries, too, the com­pany was em­broiled with­out de­lay in the busi­ness of re­li­gion. And here, too, prof­its fol­lowed: in 1846, af­ter all ex­penses were de­ducted, the Madras Pres­i­dency found it­self with ₹8 lakh in sur­plus from tem­ples, a fig­ure promptly di­verted to the “gen­eral ed­u­ca­tion fund”, while an­other lakh was “ex­pressly de­voted” to a high­way project be­tween cot­ton-pro­duc­ing Tirunelveli and the port of Thoothukudi.

To be clear, as po­lit­i­cal sov­er­eigns, the com­pany did pos­sess cer­tain pre­rog­a­tives where th­ese es­tab­lish­ments were con­cerned. Hindu rulers re­served the right to in­ter­vene in the af­fairs of shrines should the need arise, and in 18th cen­tury Madras, the Chris­tian Bri­tish of­ten con­tin­ued tra­di­tions in­sti­tuted by pre­vi­ous pow­ers, in­ter­ven­ing when nec­es­sary. So, for in­stance, in 1789, when quar­rels arose in the Thiru­val­lur tem­ple and of­fi­cials dis­cov­ered that the Brah­mins in charge “had mort­gaged part of the prop­erty for their own pri­vate use”— the com­pany saw to it that the men were made “an­swer­able for the few things miss­ing”. Devo­tees also, with­out means to stand up to in­flu­en­tial lo­cal trustees, ap­proached the com­pany, invit­ing the lat­ter to proac­tively in­ter­vene in tem­ple af­fairs. This led, in 1817, to the ear­li­est of­fi­cial leg­is­la­tion (in Madras pres­i­dency) on the sub­ject to en­sure in­comes from tem­ple en­dow­ments were dis­bursed “ac­cord­ing to real in­tent and will of the granter” and not frit­tered away by un­trust­wor­thy trustees. It was a good step in the­ory, though in about two decades, the com­pany found it­self in­volved in as many as 7,600 tem­ples—a state of af­fairs it had not quite ex­pected when it set out to up­hold tra­di­tion.

As it hap­pened, de­spite fi­nan­cial gains, this was an un­com­fort­able po­si­tion for the com­pany. Mis­sion­ary pro­pa­gan­dists, for in­stance, lam­basted Bri­tish of­fi­cials for pro­mot­ing “idol­a­try”: by pro­tect­ing tem­ples, or­ga­niz­ing fes­ti­vals, su­per­vis­ing re­pairs, and set­tling dis­putes, the com­pany had be­come pri­mary trustee for as­sorted Hindu deities. As one rev­erend com­plained in 1831, “When we point out to (the Hin­dus) that idol­a­try is not the wor­ship of God…they ask, ‘How can you say so? Who keeps our pago­das in re­pair? you not do it your­self? If you do th­ese things, where is the rea­son­able­ness and pro­pri­ety of say­ing idol­a­try is sin­ful?’” In fits and starts and un­der grow­ing pres­sure, then, the Bri­tish at­tempted to ex­tri­cate them­selves from this knot. While in Tra­van­core the Hindu ruler clung on to the tem­ples, in Than­javur over 2,000 shrines were re­turned to lo­cals, and big­ger tem­ples were placed in the hands of com­mit­tees, pan­chay­ats and some­times “in­flu­en­tial” in­di­vid­u­als. This, pre- dictably, led to its own pol­i­tics, fea­tur­ing caste com­pe­ti­tion, sec­tar­ian rivalries, and much con­fu­sion, made worse by flawed le­gal in­ter­ven­tions through the 19th and 20th cen­turies.

In the end, what the colo­nial regime be­gan, sec­u­lar In­dia in­her­ited, and this pe­cu­liar mix-up of gov­ern­ment with tem­ples con­tin­ues to this day. For the Bri­tish, the is­sue even­tu­ally be­came one of sev­eral com­pli­ca­tions to ne­go­ti­ate in the sub­con­ti­nent—from the start, the com­pany ruled through bu­reau­cracy and cen­tral­iza­tion, es­sen­tial in­stru­ments for a for­eign power in an alien land. One­size-fits-all rules were put in place de­spite con­tra­dic­tions, which, how­ever, in in­de­pen­dent In­dia raise valid ques­tions that the colo­nial power wasn’t ear­lier obliged to an­swer. In Sabari­mala, for ex­am­ple, this is one of the ar­gu­ments posed by crit­ics of the re­cent Supreme Court judge­ment— that dif­fer­ent tem­ples have dif­fer­ent fea­tures which can­not be guided by a sin­gle prin­ci­ple. Cer­tainly, there is room for a new frame­work to pre­serve the in­di­vid­u­al­ity of In­dia’s countless shrines—a new vi­sion with an ac­com­moda­tive mech­a­nism—though some over­ar­ch­ing prin­ci­ples must still pre­vail. Af­ter all, even be­fore the days of Colonel Munro and the Bri­tish, In­dian sov­er­eigns in­ter­vened in tem­ple af­fairs. Now, the Constitution is supreme, and while di­ver­sity should be re­spected, this para­mount doc­u­ment must nec­es­sar­ily be obeyed.

Medium Rare is a col­umn on so­ci­ety, pol­i­tics and his­tory. Manu S. Pil­lai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sul­tans (2018).


Colonel Munro, who was ap­pointed res­i­dent and ‘di­wan’ of Tra­van­core in 1812, en­sured that tem­ples had to pay trib­ute to the Com­pany.

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