WHEN I READ the report that astrological consultation has shown that the Lord of the Guruvayur temple does not like women coming in the churidar and the responses of some distinguished ladies to it, I had a feeling that another unnecessary controversy was being created. But they help us to understand which way our society is moving.
Three Ravi Varma paintings: Goddess Saraswati, Goddess Lakshmi, a woman in mulakkacha
Before coming to devotees’ dress, let us look at the costumes of the gods and goddesses in our temples. They are not what people wear today. They must have been designed in the distant past on the basis of what people wore in those days. People’s clothes have changed, but those of gods and goddesses have remained unchanged. Tradition demands it.
The images of Goddesses Lakshmi and Saraswati in our minds are different from those of the temple goddesses. They are actually based on the paintings of Raja Ravi Varma, which became familiar to us through calendars. Ravi Varma stayed in Pune and did the paintings using locally available models. So the goddesses are dressed like the Marathi women of his time. Orthodox elements castigated him for dressing them up in the sari. Today a sari-clad goddess is no problem for the traditionalist. If Ravi Varma had stayed on in Kilimanoor and painted, Lakshmi and Saraswati might have been wearing mulakkachcha (“breast cloth”, worn by aristocratic women of Travancore in his time).
Stage, film and television serial directors have played a part in shaping the images of Lord Krishna and Lord Rama which we now cherish. In serials based on the epics, Rama and Krishna appear without upper garments while the lowly retainers in their courts wear tunics that cover the whole body. How this came about is not clear.
The universally recognized figure of Jesus Christ is the contribution of European painters. Some efforts are now on to recreate Jesus as a West Asian or even a black. Since Islam forbids the use of image, no such problems arise in the case of Prophet Mohammed.
All societies strive to retain traditions. The stronger the sense of pride in one’s tradition the greater is the desire to maintain it. As part of culture, tradition certainly deserves respect. This, however, does not mean it should be preserved without change. What we consider tradition is not something that originated with man and has come down to us without change. It has been shaped over time by changing circumstances. That is an endless process.
We must make changes in tradition if new circumstances demand it. It must be done prudently, though. The change must benefit the society. At least it should not harm it. Changes we make in the best interests of the society will become part of tradition for future generations. A society which is incapable of making the changes that circumstances demand is doomed to die.
Kerala’s feudal period was filled with extreme cruelty. Those who introduced the caste system in this part of the country did not even act honestly. The absence of the Vaisya testifies to this. The Kshatriya, too, is almost absent. Only a few rulers were given Kshatriya status. The other rulers and the men who bore arms for the rulers were retained as Sudras. All that became part of tradition. A century ago it was changed. It is foolish to imagine that those changes made everything secure and no more changes are needed. The Renaissance ideals of equality and fraternity are yet to be realized.
While Kerala left the rest of India behind in social progress, it still lags in certain areas. Temple affairs are among them. Restrictions on devotees’ dress in force in the State do not exist elsewhere. The attempt to bar the churidar from the Guruvayur temple is part of an attempt to roll back the changes that have already occurred.
The responses that have appeared in the media indicate that some women are ready to accept a ban on the churidar. They see the issue merely as one of temple tradition. Sports star P. T. Usha, movie star Navya Nair and poet O. V. Usha, who ought to be role models for the new generation, must recognize the social dimension of the issue. The wide acceptance that the churidar received among women of Kerala in the recent past has helped promote the concept of equality. The churidar gained recognition without the aid of any power centre or social reform movement. This must be seen in the context of the process of emancipation and empowerment of women.
Respect for temple traditions must not come in the way of recognizing the anti-women attitude of those who are trying to create an impression that the churidar is not fit to be allowed into a place of worship. Even those who consider the Thanthri as the final authority on temple affairs must keep in mind some historical facts. It was the Zamorin of Calicut who appointed the hereditary Thanthri of Guruvayur. The Zamorin lost his authority two centuries ago. The scandals relating to the Thanthri of the Sabarimala temple are a reminder of what happens in hereditary institutions.