The Nataraja temple at Chidambaram is like a limbo of suspended time. Inside its gates, oblivious to the rush of activity outside, a group of young Dikshitars sit cross-legged reciting ancient Sanskrit texts. Caught between tradition and the lure of a brighter future, this is a new generation of Dikshitars preparing themselves for a preset destiny: the guardianship of the Nataraja Temple.
For 900 generations before them, their ancestors have done the same. “Nataraja summoned 3000 Dikshitars from Mount Kailash to perform the rituals in the temple. In other temples the people who offer prayers to Lord Shiva are called Shivacharyas. Here only the Dikshitars are allowed to perform puja,” says Venkatesa Dikshitar, a spokesperson of the community. The children must have heard this story countless times. It’s probably repeated until it seems real; until it is accepted.
The 51 acre temple and the town built around it constitute the Dikshitars’ world. Clad in simple white dhotis and shawls, the children dress up identically with their distinctive kudumi and ash-smeared foreheads. Male children and unmarried youngsters learn the vedas and holy texts while undergoing training in temple administration and traditional rituals. Typically, this training happens in addition to the children’s mainstream education.
Though the Dikshitars boast of unmatched scholarship, most children do not study beyond twelfth grade. Most of them get married by eighteen. “Human resources are fundamental to the successful administration of the Nataraja temple. Many Dikshitars are needed to supervise the temple’s administration and conduct daily rituals. To meet this need, our ancestors promoted child marriages,” Venkatesa Dikshitar explains.
In other words, only the married members of the community are allowed to participate in the temple’s administration, and therefore, its earnings. In 2014, V. V. Swaminathan, former, Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Minister, filed a petition in Madras High Court seeking action against the Dikshitars for allegedly conducting 18 mass child marriages in the temple. “The Dikshitars who only marry within their community, traditionally marry at a very young age. The males are married to even girls below the age of five,” he said to Deccan Chronicle following the Madras High Court’s decision to trash the case. The community promptly denied the allegations stating the mass activity was only ‘poonal kalyanam (thread ceremony)’.
The truth, however, is hard to conceal. It is only worse in the case of women. “My daughter studied until twelfth grade and now has a son,” Venkatesa Dikshitar says. Restricted from partaking in the temple’s rituals and crippled by the community’s traditional lack of education, Dikshitar women are reduced to straightjacketed gender roles that confine them to the four walls of their houses. “Thillai penn ellai thandal,” Venkatesa adds proudly while referring to a popular saying that translates into “No Chidambaram woman ever crosses the border of the town.”
No Chidambaram woman ever crosses its border.
Owing to their years of mandatory training in the rituals of the temple, the Dikshitars have little choice but to dedicate themselves to the temple’s administration. Elected committees oversee the temple’s governance while its land is managed by a government appointed tasildar. Guarded by stringent rules, the temple’s jewelry is the only property that the Dikshitars have access to. The lack of a steady source of income or fixed salaries forces the Dikshitars to rely on sponsorship and donations from the devotees
“We treat Lord Nataraja as the head of our family. We would even refuse salvation as we want to serve Nataraja for generations. It does not matter if only one Dikshitar survives in the end. The other 2999 are Nataraja himself,” Venkatesa Dikshitar smiles. Caged by their own traditions, the Dikshitars find liberation in self-imposed bondage.