At 8.45 a.m. on July 8, 1939, members of excluded communities walked into Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple and pages of history. Led by A. Vaidyanatha Iyer, an eminent Gandhian, a group of five Dalits and a Nadar entered the temple through the South Tower, signalling an end to the practice of not allowing non-caste Hindus (Dalits) and Nadars (because they were toddy tappers) into temples.
The earliest attempt to enter the Madurai temple was made by one Mooka Nadar in 1874. After the Poona Pact in 1932, the movement to eradicate untouchability gathered momentum in the country.
The Tamil Nadu Servants of Untouchables Society conducted a referendum on allowing Dalits into temples in 1932-33 in Madurai, Kancheepuram, Kumbakonam and Srirangam.In Madurai, out of 5,732 votes, 4,746 supported the entry. Its members got elected to the Madurai devasthanam committee in 1933, when the society was renamed Harijan Sevak Sangh. Vaidyanatha Iyer became its president and awareness campaigns were organised almost daily to sensitise people to the need to eradicate untouchability. The best way to demonstrate this was to allow Dalits’ entry into temples.
“Dispensation to listen”
Mahatma Gandhi, while addressing students of Setupathi Higher Secondary School on January 25, 1934, also highlighted the need for equal treatment.
The Secret File No 877 of the British government, dated March 1, 1934, says Madurai, a “stronghold of orthodoxy,” “showed a dispensation to listen to the temple entry reform preached by Gandhiji (at this time).”
On November 12, 1936, the famous ‘temple entry proclamation’ was made in neighbouring Travancore on the occasion of Chithirai Tirunaal Maharaja’s birthday. It said that every untouchable person would be able to enter all Hindu temples in his kingdom. Vaidyanatha Iyer, who was in the vanguard of temple entry movement, took a large group of Dalits from all over Tamil Nadu on a tour of Travancore temples, starting from Nagercoil, in two Sri Ramajayam buses in 1935. The intention was to remove their fear of entry into temples of caste Hindus.
The temple entry conference, held at Victoria Edward Hall on June 13, 1936, provided the final push. A temple entry propaganda committee, led by Vaidyanatha Iyer, was formed at the conference, in which Rameshwari Nehru, vice-president of All India Harijan Sevak Sangh, spoke. As a reflection of popular mood, the Madurai Municipal Council, headed by N. M. R. Subbaraman, passed a resolution favouring temple entry.
Against stiff protest and opposition from Sanathanis, led by Natesa Iyer, one-time senior advocate of Vaidyanatha Iyer, a group – comprising Dalits P. Kakkan of Thumbaipatti, Swami Muruganandam of Alampatti, Muthu of Madurai, V. S. Chinniah of Mathichiyam and V. R. Poornalingam of Virattipattu and S. S. Shanmuga Nadar, Virudhunagar municipal councillor – entered the Meenakshi temple on July 8, 1939. They were received by R. S. Naidu, Executive Officer.
Other temples follow
The same day the Alagarkoil temple was thrown open for all, followed by Koodal Alagar Temple the next day. Later, temples in Palani, Srirangam, Srivilliputtur, Thanjavur, Tirumohur, Tenkasi, Coimbatore, Salem and Karaikudi opened their doors for all Hindus.
The provincial government, led by Rajaji, an ardent supporter of the temple entry movement, later passed laws to allow free entry of Dalits into all temples.
A walk into history
On November 12, 1936, ‘temple entry proclamation’ was made in neighbouring Travancore
Temple entry conference held at Victoria Edward Hall on June 13, 1936, provided the final push
Gandhian A. Vaidyanatha Iyer led a group of six into Meenakshi Temple through South Tower
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