In the beginning of November, the furore over the Supreme Court order for the Mahakaleshwar Jyotirlinga had started dying down but had left behind a lingering sense of foreboding and mistrust. You will recall how a disgruntled female social activist first filed a lawsuit against alleged irregularities by the Mahakaleshwar Temple management, and, when that was thrown out, sued them for erosion of the Jyotirlinga. The Supreme Court (elsewhere SC), city intellectuals hungry for recognition, the local press and the Archaeological Survey of India (henceforth, ASI) had all piled on, which led to the Supreme Court order that listed what bhaktas could and could not do, within temple premises.
Soon, there were news that priests at Mahakaleshwar had refused to alter the way the Bhasma Arti of the Jyotirlinga was done; the SC had ordered them to cover the Jyotirlinga and then apply bhasma on It. Was this the priests’ last hurrah before they went down? Or would this cause more erosion of the Jyotirlinga and lead to its replacement? While replacement instructions exist for all categories of moortis, a Swayambhu moorti manifests itself and isnt really bought off the rack. Were there other Swayambhu moortis at similar risk? In almost all temples, administration is under a trust (interchangeably called Committee), chaired by city officials, and headed by the DC and including the chief priests. However they’re more concerned about the revenue, increasing footfalls to the temples by gaudy additions and sales of devotional material, and maybe its upkeep. The spiritual authority governing Indian temples goes by verbal and occasionally jotted-down tradition. In short, there are two management streams, official and spiritual, with divergent approaches, looking after temples. One evening I was discussing this with Sri Abhishek Muglikar who insisted that I investigate more. He also volunteered to sound out dharmic leaders that he knew, speak to people on ground and help me with research.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
Ill begin my story in Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh. On 23 July 1983, a constable posted at the Pashupatinath Temple in Mandsaur, stepped into a tea shop near the temple and shot dead the owners nephew. After shooting more folk, he removed his shoes, entered the temple complex and shot the owner of a shop that sold idols, one of his original targets. At the Pashupatinath temple itself, he sprayed the congregation, and then shot the priest. When the police finally got Ramesh Sharma, the body count stood at 15, including himself.
The Pashupatinath Shivalinga was found in Mandsaur when a local washerman called Udaji dreamt that the rock on which he was washing his clothes in the Shivna river was Mahadev Himself. A temple was made and in 1966 Rajmata Vijayaraje Scindia declared it open for all bhaktas. The Shivalinga here is absolutely unique. It has eight heads, four on top and four below, each signifying different aspects of divinity. In a town intimately associated with the Guptas, it reminds one of our staggering, and now lost, sculptural wealth.
This Shivalinga is just as unique as the one in the Palani Murugan temple in Tamil Nadu, probably the state fighting the hardest against the entire might of decades of sustained anti-Hindu action.
The Palani Murugan temple is rightfully famous for its Muruga (Kartikeya) moorti, sculpted by Siddha Bhogar out of nine poisonous metals (or navapashanam) that he transformed into an amalgam with medicinal and curative properties. It was rediscovered by the Cheras &consecrated &reinstituted in the present, ancient temple. As is common practice in Hinduism, abhishekas of the Deity are regularly performed.
In 1983, just as our constable in Mandsaur was probably polishing his service weapon, members of the public petitioned the TN govt. that the idol was eroding apace and they should intervene. In 1984 and 1994, the GoTN proposed to discontinue abhishekas and daily rituals at the temple but were met with stern opposition. They restricted abhishekas and in 2002, proposed to replace the 5th CE idol with one made from *100 kilos of gold*. The HRCE minister credited seers with this brilliant idea. This finally breached the patience of the millions of simple, trusting devotees who make the pilgrimage to this ancient source of comfort. The devotees were also spooked by the moves the ASI was making in taking over the Arunachaleswarar temple at Thiruvannamalai, which were thwarted after Supreme Court litigation.
Now here’s the catch. According to the geologist on the Justice Sadasivam committee checking surface erosion, the moorti didnt seem to be absorbing abhisheka liquids or lep. Yet, the final report recommended restrictions on the number of abhishekas and established state intervention. In 2016, the Palani temple was the richest in Tamil Nadu, with an annual declared income of Rs. 33 crores and battling land grab efforts and gross neglect of cows under its care. Actually, under the care of the HRCE department of the GoTN.
Back in Mandsaur, five years ago, local newspapers started reporting of city intellectuals’ dissatisfaction with the erosion of the Pashupatinath Shivalinga. A much-awarded city archaeologist, &a Jyotishacharya, both complained that the temple management had got the Shivalinga treated with a Vajra Lepa made with inferior materials by a novice company in 2008. (A Vajra Lepaas described in the Vrihat Sanhita, is an adhesive and protective coating of several types, all largely vegetal matter, prescribed for different types of surfaces to prevent cracks and surface damage). However, archaeologists had been preparing reports on this erosion for a while. One such claimed that moisture in the Shivalinga owing to Panchamrita Abhisheka and polluted ittar, as well as the constant rubbing of the Shivalinga by bhaktas per standard practice, was leading to cracks. The report recommended that abhishekas by ordinary bhaktas should be stopped, their entry to the sanctum restricted, and a substitute (utsav) moorti put up for them to pour libation on. The Sant Samaj agreed, saying that on a consecrated moorti, only temple priests should be performing rituals of all type.
The decision of the Supreme Court on the Mahakaleshwar Swayambhu Jyotirlinga was the flashpoint for the Mandsaur Temple Management Committee. OP Srivastava, the DC and head of the Committee, informed the press that he had held a meeting of 300 folk comprising *eminent people of Mandsaur*, representatives of NGOs &the Sant Samaj, to seek consensus on how to protect the pride of Mandsaur. He intended to seek intervention of the ASI to study the Shivalinga and suggest a protective mechanism. He flashed key decisions: from Nov. 27th, devotees cant touch the Shivalinga. Panchamrita abhisheka is to be stopped and only RO water abhishekas are to be performed till 9am, bhaktas can’t touch or go near the Shivalinga and take photos inside the sanctum.
This leads to the question – is all well in the neighborhood?
The first mention of the Tulja Bhavani temple is in the Skanda Purana. Tulja (from the Sanskrit word tvarit, at once) is a divine manifestation of Nature. Her moorti here is Swayambhu and of granite. Recorded mentions of the Tulja Bhavani pilgrimage start from the times of Humayun; by the time the Marathas came to power, they had organized the pilgrimage into a worship industry. The temple attracts almost 1200 people daily, swelling up to 900,000 during the Navaratras. It is a crowded, messy space. Among its legends is the visit paid by Shivaji Maharaj where the goddess Herself appeared out of Her Moorta-Swaroop and presented the hero with Her sword, the Bhavani Talwar, which he went on to use to great effect.
However this being kaliyuga, temple administration of Sri Tulja Bhavani has been in the eye of several storms regarding blatant misappropriation and siphoning off of temple wealth. In 2008, the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti filed a PIL in the Mumbai High Court regarding these misappropriations and the Court ordered the CID to submit a report. In all, 42 temple trustees, 9 tehsildars, 14 employees and 11 IAS officers for 20 years till 2009, had embezzled 160 kilos of gold, 2000 kilos of silver, and valuables and expensive clothes amounting to Rs. 1800 crores among themselves. They had tried to change ownership of temple lands as well.
In 2009, the Tulja Bhavani Temple Management Committee stopped abhisheka of the moorti. The ASI as well as conservationists from the National Research Laboratory Lucknow, cited grave danger of erosion from continued Panchamrita abhisheka. A proposal to replace this Swayambhu moorti with a glittery, 21st century version, was mooted. The recommendations of the conservationists and archaeologists included restricting entry into the sanctum to 7 families in a day for 15 minutes, and subsequent abhishekas to be done to an utsav moorti of sorts, placed in front of the goddess. This was accompanied by a PIL filed in the courts.
Within the week, the temple town of Tuljapur (whose main source of revenue is the temple) and the bhaktas, most of whom are dirt poor and pray to the goddess with their life savings, rose in open rebellion and refused to let the restrictions be carried out. The same was dropped, like it was by the Mahakaleshwar trust, whose own trials began when the activist accused them of misappropriation of funds. The devotees of these devasthanas *know* instinctively that something is up when rules are changed arbitrarily. They are poor and powerless, often travelling great distances and expending their life savings to propitiate the god/ goddess. Their spirits are dull, their hopes dim and when they react, it usually means the powers that be have stepped with their hob-nailed boots into a realm to which they do not belong.
One of the most famous moortis in all India is the Sakshi bhaav moorti of Vithoba at Pandharpur – a youth of shyam Varna, standing with arms akimbo on a brick legendarily thrown at Him to sit on by a preoccupied Pundalik Das. The first recorded mention of a temple in that location is in the 1100s. While there is dispute about how the Deities name came about or His Bhakti tradition, everyone is united in the particular place Vithoba occupies in the Marathi canon.
In 1964, Pandharpur’s traditional Brahmin priests took the state of Maharashtra to court over the decision to stop their hereditary service. 60 years later, the Supreme Court handed defeat to the traditional priestly families, who had been accused of financial mismanagement. The new priests included women, as well as priests from different castes, and were widely and positively covered. But not everyone was happy with it. The district collector shrugged it off as opposition to progress. In 2017 the Mumbai HC ruled in the favor of a disgruntled bhakta who had filed a lawsuit for permanent appointment of an expanded Temple Management Committee as the present one had two members only.
In the midst of this litigation, work which were now slowly getting familiar with continued apace. In 2010, on the advice of the ASI, the Pandharpur Temple Samiti put an end to the 5 hour Vithoba Mahapuja, citing idol erosion due to the Panchamrita abhisheka. This was met with tremendous opposition. Next, the Samiti proposed that utsav moortis be made for this purpose. The first one made of pancha-dhatu didn’t even look like the Deity, and a subsequent one of granite incited even greater furore. Conservation work had begun in 1988, then 2005, and each time, contrary to the Vajra Lepa prescribed in the Vrihat Sanhita, epoxy resin was used to coat the moorti. This was marketed to bhaktas as the original Vajra Lepa! Reports describe how indentations were sealed in with epoxy, yet the erosion scare was used to restrict Mahapuja hours and restrict bhakta entry in the sanctum. Then murmurs began that the plinth, and Vithobas feet, were being eroded by the constant forehead touching of bhaktas. To stave off that fracturing, temple management called in the ASI and the Deccan College Archaeology department, who proposed a *Vajra Lepa* of silicones to be injected within the idol. They said this would work, because they had just finished doing it to the Mahalakshmi in Kolhapur.
The Mahalakshmi Temple in Kolhapur is a Shakti Peetha, which means the presence and power of the mother goddess is specially and particularly felt here. In this distinctly Chalukyan-era abode resides the patron deity of Maharashtra, in a moorti 2 feet wide and 9 inches tall made of basalt and possibly with bits of silica or diamond powder mixed in, remnants of an earlier Vajra Lepa (of which one was recorded to have been done in 1955). Minus all the gaudy accoutrements of faith, She stands wide eyed and a little forlorn, shorn of context in what would have been a quiet healing space but is now a virtual industry.
For twenty years, priests resisted the ASIs conservation proposals for the moorti. In 2002, they filed a lawsuit to stop the Vajra Lepa Committee appointed by temple management from tampering the moorti. A year prior to that, LED lights were installed to supposedly delay the erosion process due to heat. After the Court appointed a mediator and forced the Committee and the priests to sit together and agree to a chemical process, it was carried out under the supervision of the ASI. There were dissatisfied murmurs of the abhisheka being contaminated by runoff but the ASI, which kept the coating process secretive and let bhaktas worship an utsav moorti in the meantime, completed their work in 2015. Once the work was done, the District Collector (and head of the Committee) said, the decision to provide coating to the idol was pending for a long time. The Samiti has more than Rs 47 crore in its bank accounts. It will be utilized for conservation and preservation of idol. There were Rs. 47 crores saved up and now, after the ASI and the Court’s intervention, they were up for grabs for conservation approved and carried out among these three entities.
The Kolhapur Mahalakshmi is lucky in a sense. The Parvati moorti at Trimbakeshwar was authorised by the ASI to be removed and replaced. This substitute couldnt be installed for many days, owing to *internal differences*. Worried priests and villagers threatened to do it themselves and management had to release a press statement stating a deadline. Earlier, the Trimbakeshwar Trust had bypassed the priests insisting on no entry to women, by banning entry to all devotees altogether. None but the head priest could enter the sanctum and touching the Shivalinga was expressly forbidden. The priests and some locals intended to challenge the order in court, thus repeating the cycle of judicial intervention in spiritual tradition.
Now for a quick recap and then, questions.
There is a civil society member, usually female, usually from an NGO, or a group of local intellectuals (or environment groups if the temple keeps animals or is near a river), or a powerful and moneyed devotee, who are unhappy with the way a temple is being managed. They file a lawsuit and ensure that they bring in a moorti – erosion angle. This at once brings in the spiritual and cultural traditions of the temple under the ambit of the judgement. Enter the Courts, usually the Supreme Court, who then appoint the ASI (and sometimes also the Geological Survey of India) as experts who will inspect the moorti and suggest remedies. The remedies almost always involve getting bhaktas away from the moorti (dont touch, film, pour libation) or replacing the moorti altogether or doing away with some form of established devotional tradition. All the while, local media maintains a steady drumbeat of articles, forming an opinion of the case in the public and enabling the authorities to act.
You casually run a google search on idol theft in Bihar, you are inundated with links. The most famous case was of course the Jamui Mahavira theft, where the 900 years old black statue, under the protective care of the ASI, was stolen and – after appeals made to the CM by everyone from the Home Minister down – was found abandoned in a field. On record, 175 moortis have been stolen in Bihar in the past four years either after killing the pujari, or at gunpoint, or simply by dint of infirm pujari & indifferent bhaktas leading to largely unmanned locations. In most cases, stolen moortis haven’t been found. Simple village folk enraged by the theft of the Ram Janki moortis from a century old temple in Anandipatti a few weeks ago, jammed the state highway but to no avail. Names of places roll off like water off a ducks back – TIkamgarh, Ghanshyampur, Vazirganj, Chitrakoot, Agra, Baksar, Kullu, Narnaul, Urai, Jabalpur, Udaipur – there is virtually no temple in north Indias villages and rurban centres where ancient moortis arent under severe attack. For sums as low as 5-6000, moortis worth crores in intrinsic value and far, far more in notional value, are sold off to suspicious elements across the country. Temples fall into disuse, land is grabbed, and tradition is lost. Primary research shows that Indian temple antiquities do incredible business abroad.
The notorious Subhash Kapoor sold a 900-year-old bronze Nataraja for $5M and a 1,100 year-old Shiva sculpture in Australia. The Parrot Lady, a 900-year-old Khajuraho sculpture, was returned to the PM by Canada. Its value was $10M.Moortis that are stolen from a temple where pooja is still being performed, have enchanting back stories. These are like catnip to worshippers, honed over time by pujaris eager to increase footfall, and are similarly catnip to collectors and aesthetes. Many involve local variations of India’s major Gods and Goddesses, since in a katheotheistic religion like ours, avatars have seeded the entire land with their presence and blessings. Sita stopped here, Shiva pushed his toe into the ground and trapped an arrogant Ravana there… Sri Lakshmi was annoyed with her husband for marrying another, descended to earth and her servants quickly built a mandap to shelter her, where she stands, wide eyed and slightly forlorn. It’s documented that she’s been here for 1300 years at least, still sulking at her divine Spouse, but not forgetting her dharma to devotees as the goddess of prosperity and wealth. What would such a moorti fetch in this market? What would a Swayambhu moorti fetch, one which has been manifest by itself? What would a moort-Swaroop fetch, in which a powerful god still resides, blessing, curing, healing His bhaktas..? Would anyone know if and when the switch is made when the bhakta is restricted from entering the sanctum? Would anyone suspect or supersede *expert restorer/ evaluator/ archaeologist* opinion, whether the moorti being rescued through coating, is this, or that, or the other? And frankly, who can you trust with the management of a temple, if not the priests who are accused of looting wealth by locals of that same city among whom these priests move and live?
A few weeks ago, reports revealed the Tamizhnadu government’s HRCE department, manned largely by non-believers, using its hobnailed boots on terrified locals, forcing them to bring in their village temple moortis for safekeeping in HRCEs ICON Centres. Here, the antique moortis were substituted, and the actual deities shipped off to satisfy the lust for more Kanjeevaram sarees, or a political party ticket or just because Hindu divinities had stopped to matter. Did the constable in Mandsaur see something similar happening already, when he stopped at the tea shop and shot the trader who sold substitute moortis?
While Hindus keep fighting over petty optics, this template is being repeated all across the country.
There is no cohesive response from either Hindu society or Sadhu-Sant Samaj. The priests are largely out of touch with how narrative plays out once it hits prime time and goes beyond local factors that they still could control. Popular opinion in the upwardly mobile Hindu middle class is shifting towards environmental causes and away from ostentation at temples. If a judicial decision brings about a tiny personal catharsis, they swing for it.
Devotee activists stopped animal sacrifice in Kamakhya and the Hassan Puradamma temples. In the latter, the GoKtkas Muzrai Department swiftly installed a hundi, &began appointing its own priests, after Court ordersto take control of the temple back from the old priestly family. An archaeologist filed a case for erosion of the Shirdi Sai idol through Panchamrita abhisheka; the Temple Committee is considering installing an utsav Moorti (for want of a better word); the Trust itself wanted to focus on getting a gold throne for the marble idol, which the devotees vehemently shot down. In Sesai, M.P., the famous black moorti of Shantinath was found to be eroded by jalabhisheka and a chemical coating was applied. The scientist supervising this task said it was to last 100 years, whereas not one co contracted by Hindu temples agrees to a timeframe of more than 10 years.
Looking at the template again, it is clear that the current governance and management structures of Hindu temples are not working. The priestly structure run by shastras and the administrative structure run by the state are failing and falling in their greed to appropriate the significant wealth donated to temples. Media, the courts and activists, abetted by archaeologists as the voice of science and reason, have seen this and are working towards setting up a third structure. Every power base in this country has to have wealth and there is no source more regular and reliable than temple wealth.
And then, there is the spiritual side of things. When non Hindus are not making temple moortis for Prana-Prathishta, they are found inside the temple sanctum, painting, installing lights or maintenance systems, sometimes even maintaining infrastructure of the temple. They are also found selling devotional souvenirs in shops outside many Hindu temples. Any effort to re-route visitor traffic to bypass them results in a Court-enabled stand-off, such as in Vaishno Devi.
When the moorti is coated with epoxy or silica compounds, the divinity residing within it is slowly killed off. While devotees (and in some cases, the priests themselves) believe the Vajra Lepa to be as prescribed in the Vrihat Sanhita, it turns out to be just a user-friendly marketing term for actual chemicals. In every single case of a chemical coating or Vajra Lepa done earlier, the priests have bitterly complained of the contract being given by temple management to irresponsible and ignorant companies.
At this point, I cannot stress enough, the need to come up with a consensus around a management structure that will elevate every single of our ancient temples. His management structure has to account for management of environment and ecology around the temples, whilst ensuring that tradition is not tampered with, nor the spiritual powers of pujaris meddled with. The backdoor PIL-NGO-Judiciary-ASI-Media collaboration has made it very easy to get judicial intervention, reducing the power of tradition before the *constitution* and the priests before *people of science*.
A new management system can only be geared around the bhaktas, who put up with sub-human, hair raisingly miserable conditions in Sabarimalai to lack of water in Pandharpur to almost everything in the Chaar Dhaam Yatra, and are crushed by the hobnailed boots of the state. There is no place for exclusionary practices detrimental to Hinduism in it, like untouchability or classism through VVIP treatment. Before God, all are equal.
The gods have their way, in any case. The Dhari Devi moorti stops at the torso, and is installed on a plinth. Her moolsthan is a temple near Shrinagar, which was coming in the way of a dam to be built on the Alaknanda. In 1882, a local king had tried to shift her temple and a landslide had decimated Kedarnath. In 2013, braver men tried again. The Ministry of Environment & Forests had declared the Gaumukh-UttarKashi region environmentally sensitive and banned construction. The state government opposed the move, citing progress. And so, armed with a Supreme Court order, a motley band of archaeologists, priests and locals cut away the moorti from the plinth and relocated it at 6:30 pm. 3 hours later, habitation at Kedarnath was flattened by the worst ecological disaster in recent times, the Uttarakhand Flash Floods of 2013.