‘I was asked to hand over the keys and leave’

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Studied at the Shaivite archaka training institute at Annamalaiyar temple, Thiruvannamalai

Saravanan Subramanian, 24 years, Vallalar, Vellore district

ABOUT 10KM off Vellore, the district headquarters Vallalar bears the stamp of decay, and Saravanan’s neighbourhood is no exception. The one bedroom flat he shares with his father and schoolteacher mother is an untidy, crowded one – prayer books, calendars with huge photographs of temples and invitation cards to religious ceremonies jostle for space with audio cassettes of shlokas.

Belonging to the Karuneegar caste (a backward caste), Saravanan left the gurukul he was already enrolled in, in order to the join the government-run archaka training institute. His mother insisted he join the course as he could get a sorely-needed job at one of several nearby temples. A year later, Saravanan has neither a job nor a certificate of completion, though he has completed the course. Consequently, he depends on neighbourhood requests to officiate at ceremonies such as housewarmings and child namings.

With two loans to repay and a younger brother to put through college, Saravanan’s monthly earnings of Rs 1,500-2,000 are not an adequate addition to the family’s meagre earnings, especially since his father retired five years ago on health grounds. Ask Saravanan about the institute and he proudly shows you a framed photograph of his class. However, the varied caste composition of his class proved to be a point of discomfort. ”There were five dalits who continued to eat meat even while they were at the institute,” says Saravanan. “We were asked not to eat meat. Besides, priests who eat meat invite ridicule from others. Why give people an opportunity to do that?” he asks. After completing the course, has he ever faced discrimination because of his caste? Yes, he answers. He was asked to hand over the keys and leave from the small temple he was officiating at, after other priests discovered his caste. And yet, there is hope, he says. A government appointment order may make it possible for him to work under a senior priest. “But without that order,” he says, “I cannot get the job I was promised in a government temple.”