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'Menstruation Is Natural, Why Should It Stop Us': Woman Priest in Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu government in a recent announcement said that women trained in ‘agama’ will be allowed as temple priests.

Updated
Politics
6 min read

Video Editor: Vivek Gupta

Women in Tamil Nadu, until recently, were not officially allowed to enter the sanctum sanctorum of temples.

This is set to change, as the Tamil Nadu government has decided to pave the way for women trained in Agama Shastra to be appointed as priests in temples managed by Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment (HR&CE) department.

Agamas are a framework of scriptures that describe temple construction, deity worship, installation of idols, and conduct of puja.

Cheering the decision is 76-year-old Kalaiarasi Natarajan. She runs an ‘all-women’ yet unrecognised temple in Chennai – and thinks appointment of women priests is the first step towards emancipation.
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Kalaiarasi's Journey to Priesthood

Kalaiarasi never had a social circle. She was always at home in Gandarvakottai near Thanjavur, reading books on spirituality and Tamil literature. Even after marriage and five children, she would forgo her sleep and spend long hours at night to keep her “connection with the Gods” intact.

"I could not go out of my house after the age of 13. As per our village customs, girls cannot go out after attaining puberty. So, after that I used to be at home, reading books, and playing indoor games with my siblings, and friends. I got married very young, before the age of 16. Then there were no games or anything for me. I used to do only household work and read as many books as I could."
Kalaiarasi Natarajan to The Quint

Kalaiarasi Natarajan when she was 15 years old

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)
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At the age of 15, she got married to her maternal uncle T Natarajan, who was a machine operator at a cycle manufacturing company. Influenced by her husband, Kalaiarasi dabbled with politics as she first supported the Congress, then Janata Party and later Janata Dal.

However, in 1994, when Natarajan learnt Shaiva Siddantha at a unit of Thiruaavaduthurai Adinam in West Mambalam, a world opened up for her.

“That is when I understood that the practices followed by most temples were all brought by the Aryans. And that they were all wrong. For instance, they say that women cannot become temple priests. But Shaiva Siddantha does not say it.”
Kalaiarasi Natarajan, Shaivite Priest

Natarajan performs puja for the temple deity, decorated with rice and grapes

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

Ever since, Natarajan, has been striving hard to break the existing patriarchal notions. She has been encouraging women to do pujas in temples.

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Subversion of Tradition?

In Tamil Nadu, although scores of women have been working as priests at rural temples that have sub-cultural deities like Lord Karuppannaswami, Mariamma, and Sudalai Madan, they are not allowed as priests at other temples which perform strict Agama practices; where Brahmin men are priests.

Through veda pathashalas, that teach vedas and agamas to children, priesthood in these temples have always rested with the Brahmins.

Enter Natarajan, a non-Brahmin, but still a dominant caste Hindu woman.

"If they (Brahmin priests) think it will affect uterus, let them not do. We are not interfering in that. For us, the Nanmarai is the song we sing. That does not affect uterus, heart, or tongue. It does not affect us in any other way. Our practice of worship is unique. It is entirely different from theirs."

Natarajan at her Avadi house, sitting amid a pile of spiritual books that she has carefully preserved over the years.

(Photo: Dheepthi OJ\The Quint)

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Women Who Want To Be Priests

Natarajan also began heading an organisation called Tamil Saiva Peravai, to propagate her spiritual ideology. She now runs a small temple called Tamil Saiva Perumal Thirukovil, which is located four kilometres away from her house in Avadi, Chennai.

The temple only has a couple of shrines, built over a platform and a temporary roof. It is situated in a corner of an open plot.

“We got the temple’s principal deity, a swayambhu lingam (believed to have self-manifested). So, we built a small platform for it. And I began performing puja,” Natarajan said.

After watching her, a dozen other women, including her daughter Madumitha, joined Natarajan’s efforts. Now they are a self-sufficient spiritual community of women. However, Natarajan says they need the government’s help in constructing a roof and other essentials for the temple.

Natarajan along with her ‘all-women’ priests after a special puja at their temple.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

Every year, at least 24 different pujas take place at the temple, including Shivaratri, Guru poojai, Masi maga vizha and Pradhosha puja. “We all pitch in Rs 100 or Rs 200, every month, for temple expenses,” she explained.

She added that hundreds of people from across the state also drop in at the temple during big pujas like Shivaratri.

Now, Natarajan and other women priests at the temple want to take up the offer which the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government has extended.

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The DMK, a Dravidian party that has been in principle supporting the democratisation of temples since its inception, is on the right track, Natarajan thinks.

However, she is not very happy with women priests being restricted to only small temples.

“We want to be archakas at Tiruvannamalai Temple and Kapaleeswarar Temple,” she said.

Her demand may not be fulfilled soon, now that strong opposition against priesthood for women has come up from different quarters.

Those Who Oppose Women’s Priesthood

Representatives of Akila Indiya Aadhisaiva Sivacharyargal Seva Sangam, Chennai on Friday 18 June, submitted a memorandum to Chief Minister MK Stalin, urging him to reconsider the statement issued by the HR&CE. The ‘archaka’ association said that the announcement has shocked their community. Several other priests and vedic experts have also been vehemently opposing the move.

"Among the various kinds of agamas, women can study only Shakta Agama, used in temples where the main deity is a Goddess. Also, pronouncing vedas requires one to control the breath, regularly. If women do so, their uterus might get affected."
MK Krishnan, a priest who has studied agama

Madumitha, Natarajan’s daughter performs and abhishekam for the temple deity.

(Accessed by The Quint)

In an attempt to reinforce women’s domestic role, V Vasudevan, a vedic expert and Sanskrit teacher at a Chennai school said, "In vedas, women are called Grihini which means one who takes care of the household. So, they cannot become priests".

"Also, they are weak. So, they cannot handle the kind of work a priest is required to handle."
V Vasudevan, a Vedic expert
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Those opposing the move, also stigmatised women of menstruating age.

‘Menstruation Is A Biological Process’

Rubbishing the claims, Natarajan said, "Menstruation is a biological process. Menstrual blood is similar to any other human waste, like urine or sweat."

"At my temple I ask the women to take bath in abhisheka thirta (water) and visit the temple during their periods. If they feel good, I even encourage them to perform pujas during their periods."
Kalaiarasi Natarajan, Shaivite Priest

The decorated goddess at Natarajan's temple.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

Dr Nallur S Saravanan, professor and head of Shaiva Siddantha department at University of Madras, Chennai said that the tradition of restricting women’s temple entry during menstruation reinforces patriarchal norms. Tamil society is one that stresses on equality and gives more importance to women, he said.

As for vedas affecting women’s uterus, Dr Saravanan said, "We say Sanskrit is not the language of God."

"Instead, let us sing Tamil songs sung by Saivite saints and Tamizh scholars including Karaikkal Ammaiyar and Thirugnana Sambandar and do pujas."
Dr Nallur S Saravanan, professor and head, Shaiva Siddantha department at University of Madras, Chennai

So far, the Tamil Nadu government has not called for applications from women who are interested in the job. Will there be a change in the temples' spiritual fabric? Natarajan remains hopeful.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Tamil Nadu   Women   DMK 

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