In 1812 the fortunes—quite literally—of heaps of temples in southern Kerala found themselves in the hands of a man who was born in faraway Scotland. It was one of those strange ironies of colonial rule in India, for Colonel Munro had originally come to princely Travancore as the East India Company’s representative. Quickly, however, he was also elevated as minister by the ruling princess, a formula designed to give the British the power they desired while skipping actual annexation. Munro’s goal, with his split loyalties, was to balance the government’s books and ensure the company received regular tribute. And as part of his campaign to augment revenues, he took over 348 significant temples and 1,171 smaller shrines across the land, so that 62,000 gardens and 63,500 acres of cultivable land became state property overnight. Hereafter, sums were disbursed to the temples for their upkeep, but so valuable was the real estate seized that it still produced an enormous balance—an amount that could be used for other purposes, including to service political obligations to the company.

It was an act that birthed repercussions felt to this day, for some of Kerala’s celebrated shrines—including Sabarimala, for example—remain under government control, provoking persistent questions about what business precisely the state has in institutions of faith. To be fair, Munro’s action was not unilateral—temples, with unregulated funds and powerful trustees, were a political threat to the emerging modern state on the one hand, while on the other, there were complaints that revenues were being embezzled; in some instances, trustees decided to steal even the idols of their deities. In neighbouring Tamil provinces, too, the story was similar: the collector of Thanjavur, John Wallace, noted that temple custodians in his jurisdiction had piled up debt to the tune of 2 lakh (a colossal figure at the time). Like in princely Travancore, in British territories, too, the company was embroiled without delay in the business of religion. And here, too, profits followed: in 1846, after all expenses were deducted, the Madras Presidency found itself with 8 lakh in surplus from temples, a figure promptly diverted to the “general education fund", while another lakh was “expressly devoted" to a highway project between cotton-producing Tirunelveli and the port of Thoothukudi.

To be clear, as political sovereigns, the company did possess certain prerogatives where these establishments were concerned. Hindu rulers reserved the right to intervene in the affairs of shrines should the need arise, and in 18th century Madras, the Christian British often continued traditions instituted by previous powers, intervening when necessary. So, for instance, in 1789, when quarrels arose in the Thiruvallur temple and officials discovered that the Brahmins in charge “had mortgaged part of the property for their own private use"—the company saw to it that the men were made “answerable for the few things missing". Devotees also, without means to stand up to influential local trustees, approached the company, inviting the latter to proactively intervene in temple affairs. This led, in 1817, to the earliest official legislation (in Madras presidency) on the subject to ensure incomes from temple endowments were disbursed “according to real intent and will of the granter" and not frittered away by untrustworthy trustees. It was a good step in theory, though in about two decades, the company found itself involved in as many as 7,600 temples—a state of affairs it had not quite expected when it set out to uphold tradition.

As it happened, despite financial gains, this was an uncomfortable position for the company. Missionary propagandists, for instance, lambasted British officials for promoting “idolatry": by protecting temples, organizing festivals, supervising repairs, and settling disputes, the company had become primary trustee for assorted Hindu deities. As one reverend complained in 1831, “When we point out to (the Hindus) that idolatry is not the worship of God…they ask, ‘How can you say so? Who keeps our pagodas in repair?...Do you not do it yourself? If you do these things, where is the reasonableness and propriety of saying idolatry is sinful?’" In fits and starts and under growing pressure, then, the British attempted to extricate themselves from this knot. While in Travancore the Hindu ruler clung on to the temples, in Thanjavur over 2,000 shrines were returned to locals, and bigger temples were placed in the hands of committees, panchayats and sometimes “influential" individuals. This, predictably, led to its own politics, featuring caste competition, sectarian rivalries, and much confusion, made worse by flawed legal interventions through the 19th and 20th centuries.

In the end, what the colonial regime began, secular India inherited, and this peculiar mix-up of government with temples continues to this day. For the British, the issue eventually became one of several complications to negotiate in the subcontinent—from the start, the company ruled through bureaucracy and centralization, essential instruments for a foreign power in an alien land. One-size-fits-all rules were put in place despite contradictions, which, however, in independent India raise valid questions that the colonial power wasn’t earlier obliged to answer. In Sabarimala, for example, this is one of the arguments posed by critics of the recent Supreme Court judgement—that different temples have different features which cannot be guided by a single principle. Certainly, there is room for a new framework to preserve the individuality of India’s countless shrines—a new vision with an accommodative mechanism—though some overarching principles must still prevail. After all, even before the days of Colonel Munro and the British, Indian sovereigns intervened in temple affairs. Now, the Constitution is supreme, and while diversity should be respected, this paramount document must necessarily be obeyed.

Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018).

He tweets @UnamPillai