Bengaluru: The year was 1936. On 12 November, the eve of his 24th birthday, Maharaja Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma of the Hindu-majority south Kerala region of Travancore signed a proclamation ending with the text: “There should hence-forth be no restriction placed on any Hindu by birth or religion on entering and worshipping at the temples controlled by us and our government."

The groundbreaking law, known as the Temple Entry Proclamation, is widely seen as marking a new epoch in Kerala’s socio-religious history by throwing open state-owned temples for all Hindus, dismantling age-old caste discrimination in worship. Religious practices, said the proclamation, have “throughout the centuries, adapted itself to the needs of changing times."

Gandhi hailed it as, “a miracle of the modern times". C Rajagopalachari observed it as “easily the most non-violent and bloodless revolution in the history of man in recent years."

In a stark contrast, the 82nd anniversary of the historic moment this year was drowned out by the noise of political rallies seeking to ban women from entering Sabarimala, in violation of a Supreme Court order.

How did progressive Kerala come to where it is now?

Historian and writer Manu S. Pillai thinks the transformation relates to liberalization, greater disposable income and wealth pouring in from migrants, among others, giving rise to a resurgence of temple-going Hindus and the cultural changes associated with it.

“Look at the number of punarodharanams (revival) of family shrines. Where often there were small groves with simple rituals, which were abandoned for most of the 20th century, you now have families coming together to construct full-fledged temples, with great ceremonies, and neo-Sanskritic rituals. As more and more people rise above basic subsistence, there seems to be a desire to project piety, devotion, and demonstrative religiosity," Pillai, a Mint columnist, said in an email.

In turn, these temple activities have been turned into an arena of political activism by right-wing Sangh Parivar outfits, according to O. B. Roopesh of the department of humanities and social sciences at Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. In a paper, Roopesh associated the trend with the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

“They (the ruling communists) mechanically repeat the words of spiritual leaders and thinkers like Narayana Guru, Vagbhatananda, Brahmananda Sivayogi, who were critical of the dominant religious practices of that time, but they fail to reflexively engage with their thoughts to develop a new theoretical perspective in cultural practices," he wrote in a paper published in the 2017 April issue of Economic and Political Weekly.

Temples have also become money-spinners, acting as a disincentive for changes that would upset devotees, according to scholar Meera Nanda. Giving the example of Sabarimala, she says in her book The God Market, “Every year, millions of pilgrims turn out to witness the ‘divine light’ (called Makravilakku) that is actually lit by the officials of the temple, the Devaswom (temple trust) board, and the Kerala state electricity board in connivance with forest officials and the police. In 2008, the temple made 72.52 crore in the pilgrimage season."

“We have is a mix up of several factors--middle castes which still feel a sense of loss of privilege over the last 100 years, for whom this is an opportunity for reassertion; globalisation and the rise of popular (if unhistorical) religiosity; and, of course, politics to fan up the flames and try and use this for a whole other set of purposes," said Manu S Pillai.

“And don’t forget--while Kerala educated its women and set new standards of life, it also absorbed a certain kind of patriarchy, which has been deeply internalised. In fact if half the people knew what upholding “custom" would mean across the board, they might be appalled to hear that everything from the clothes they wear, to their right to even walk the streets where they now agitate would be called into question!" he added.

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