Challenging Patriarchy in Religion

The Tamil Nadu state government’s announcement that women, and non-Brahmins, can apply to be temple priests signals the beginning of the end of another male stronghold.

When the pujari at the Durga temple in Nalluthevanpatti village, Madurai, fell ill and could no longer perform the ritual pujas, his only child, a daughter, Pinniyakkal stepped up. Two years later when he died in 2006, she staked her claim to be the full-time pujari, a hereditary position at that temple.

The local populace was appalled. Even though the temple deity was female, tradition dictated the pujari could only be male. So, Pinniyakkal went to court. Agreeing with her claim, Justice K. Chandru of the Madras High Court ruled: “The altars of the God must be free from gender bias.”

Some 15 years later, the DMK’s state minister of temple administration announced earlier this week that women — and non-Brahmins — can apply for positions as temple priests, provided they’ve undergone training in “agama sastra”, the manual that lays down rituals of prayer and worship. “Women must be given opportunities to participate in every sphere of life, whether spiritual or material,” Justice Chandru who retired in 2013 said to me on the phone.