According to officials, the Badaga community selects a minor child for service at the temple and until he turns 14, he is not allowed to leave the temple and mingle with people.

The Madras High Court will soon decide if a minor can be appointed as a temple priest and kept cut off from society as per the tradition of a temple and the Badaga community in the Nilgris district of Tamil Nadu.

Acting Chief Justice Munish War Nath Bhandari and Justice P D Audikesavalu directed the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR and CE) to file a counter-affidavit in response to a PIL filed before the court where it had claimed that the minor was deprived of his education and childhood at the instance of his own parents.

D Sivan (50), a farmer and a social worker, who resides in Kotagiri in Nilgiris had filed the case complaining that a seven-year-old boy was appointed as a temple priest at the Sree Hetthai Amman Temple at Pedala, Naduhatty village in 2019. He claimed that the boy stays at the temple 24×7 and was forcefully stopped from pursuing his education for the purpose of performing pujas at the temple.

Advocate Thanga Vadhana Balakrishnan, who appeared on behalf of the petitioner, brought to the notice of the court that as per the tradition and culture of the Sree Hetthai Amman temple, the priests must not step out of the temple, maintain cleanliness of the premise, sleep only on rugs (jute sacks), cook his own food or seek help of any male member of the family. It was stated that the child has been made to sacrifice his life for the temple at the instigation of his parents. It was also claimed that the child had discontinued school on August 16 this year.

It was further claimed by the counsel that several people used to visit the temple during the festive season in December and January and offer generously and hence to avail those benefits, the parents have made the child a scapegoat.

It was noted that although the temple was taken by the HR and CE in 1994 due to its lack of administration, it is still under the control of people hailing from 19 villages comprising 3,000 families. The appointment of the priest was done by the 19 villages and HR and CE did not interfere. It was claimed that recently, the villagers had protested against HR and CE officials for attempting to take over the administration of the temple and its property.

In a counter-affidavit, K Balamurugan, the Block Education Officer (BEO), Uthagamandalam, Ooty, said since the 14th Century, the custom of selecting young boys between 5 to 14 as a priest has been followed in the Badaga community. According to tradition, the priests are once again allowed to mingle in society after they turn 14.

“Since this religious custom is followed by the entire Badaga community for a very long time, the same cannot be broken. It is a custom that the priest shall be only in the premises of the temple and shall not leave for any reason,” he said.

He said the child was admitted to the school in 2019 under the Right to Compulsory Education Act, 2005, in the first standard and was provided with all textbooks, materials, and other educational equipment free of cost. It was added that the child was provided tuition by a qualified male teacher as females are not allowed to meet the priest as per the tradition and steps are being taken to provide online education as well.

Balamurugan admitted that the child’s parents withdrew him from the school and took the transfer certificate citing inconvenience. However, he said the school authorities were closely monitoring the child and the parents and provided counselling to readmit the student. “After efforts from various persons, the minor was readmitted to the school by the parents on November 8, 2021 and from then, the minor has been given proper and regular education and also taken good care of,” the BEO added.

Further, he stated that people from around 19 villagers are maintaining the temple and neither the department nor the district administration had received any complaint from any person with respect to the appointment of a minor priest in the temple.

The BEO claimed that the petitioner knows about the custom and has seen the appointment of minor priests for many years. The challenge with respect to the appointment of the minor raises serious doubt against the bonafide attitude of the petitioner, he said.

HR and CE was directed to conduct an enquiry and file a status report by November 29.

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