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Temples and the State in the Indian Tradition: Part V

Hindu Temple

This series was first published on Indiafacts and is being reproduced here. Read parts I, II, III and IV.

State Control of Temples During British Rule

Whenever any area came under the administration of the British, the management of the major temples was immediately taken over by the local administrative authority. After the constitution of the Board of Revenue in Madras in 1789, the management of religious institutions began to be vested under its overall scrutiny with the Collectors functioning as the local authority. In 1796, the Government at Madras decided to take over the collection and distribution of all temple revenues in the territories under British control.

A system of fixed compensatory payments was initiated for all the contributions, in the form of maniyams and merais from various localities that were traditionally collected by the temples.

By 1800, the British were in control of most of the areas that were administered for the next 150 years as the Madras Presidency, and the Board of Revenue was instructed to adopt the same procedure for taking charge of the temples and their endowments in the new areas that came under British control. This system was formalised by the Regulation VII of 1817. The ostensible purpose of the regulation was set forth in its preamble:

Considerable endowments have been granted in money, or by assignments of land or of the produce of the land by the former Governments of this country as well as by the British Government, and by individuals for the support of mosques, Hindu temples, colleges and choultries, and for other pious and beneficial purposes; and … endowments [are] in many instances appropriated, contrary to the intentions of the donors, to the personal use of the individuals in immediate charge and possession of such endowments; and… it is the duty of the government to provide that such endowments be applied according to the real intent and will of the granter.

In fact, the first such Regulation was Regulation XIX of Bengal passed in 1810; and a similar Regulation was passed in Bombay later, in 1827. The Madras regulation was stated to be “compiled from the Regulation XIX of 1810 of the Bengal Code”. It clearly vested with the Board of Revenue and the District Collectors “general superintendence of all the endowments in land or money” made “for the support of Mosques, Hindu Temples, Colleges and other public purposes, for the maintenance and repair of Bridges, Choultries or Chatrams and other public Buildings and for the custody and disposal of escheats”.

In practical terms the Board, based on the recommendations of the District Collectors, appointed and supervised the work of the temple trustees. If it was “discovered” that the temple endowments were “misused”, the collectors had the powers to “take over” the temple management. And the cost of all this “administration” was the first charge on the endowments made to the temples in each district.

The overall policy was clearly articulated in an article by the then collector of North Arcot on the Tirupati temple which appeared in the Asiatic Journal in 1831:

The whole of the revenue of the temple, from whatever source derived are under the management of and appropriated by the circar or Government. A regular establishment is entertained paid by salaries…

Passing through the Bagalu vakili or silver porch the pilgrims are admitted into a rather confined part and are introduced to the God in front of whom are two vessels, one called the Gangalam or vase, the other Kopra or large cup and into these things the votaries drop their respective offerings and making their obeisance pass through another door. At the close of the day, the guards, both peons and sepoys round these vessels are searched. Without examination of any sort offerings are thrown into bags and are sealed…after which the bag is sent down to the cutcherry below the hill Govindarauz pettai. At the end of the month, these bags are transmitted to our cutcherry… and there they are opened, sorted, valued and finally sold at auction. However during the Brahmotsavam either the collector or a subordinate must be on the spot due to the value of the offerings…

And on this duty I was bound when I wrote from Chandragiri. I have little more to add except the average revenue of the last ten years. The annual net proceed from this source is about 87,000 rupees. In 1822 collections were 142,000 and odd, but this is exclusive of expenses, wherewith 20,000 may be deducted. In 1820 or fusli 1230, the collections were 102,000.

You may perhaps start at such organised system of religious, or rather you will say profane, plunder on the part of the government…as an admirable specimen of what, with other things, should draw down vengeance of heaven on us. The fact is this: we find that the resources of the pagoda were legitimately enjoyed by the mussalman government, for services earned with blood and presence, and that at the risk of losing our trade on the coramandel coast. One of the first rewards, or rather poor payment was this revenue; and it has been paid unremittingly ever since…

It was a strange but determined piece of policy when throughout the country the pagoda lands were resumed by the company and tustik allowances were granted in their place…Now let us contemplate the result of this plan. From one end of the country to the other, the pagodas are ruined, unmaintained…The revenues of Triptty are on a gradual decline and will die in the lapse of years a natural death. Some of the most celebrated temples in the country are worse off. But there are still, alas, many more strongholds of the devil.

In 1833 the Board of Revenue instructed the Collectors to prepare a consolidated statement, in a given format, giving the total income and disbursements made for the religious institutions, for the ten year period from 1823 to 1832. The Collectors were asked to specify the net revenue of the religious institutions both from lands and other sources, separately for the temples which were under the immediate management of the Government, and for those which were managed by the temple managements. They were also required to state the fixed allowances paid by the Government.

Further they were asked to give the total revenue collected by the government, total disbursements made and the balance with the Government. These details were to be given, wherever available, separately for the Hindu temples, chatrams, mathams, waterpandals, nandavanams (flower gardens), schools, brahmadeyams and other maniyams, yeomiahs (pensions), langarkhanas etc., and mosques.

It was found that the total income received by these institutions was about Rs. 40.56 lakhs and the total disbursements were about Rs. 38.83 lakhs. The largest income and disbursement, to the tune of nearly Rs. 10 lakhs, were in Thanjavur. There was a large balance of over Rs. 1.18 lakhs in the case of North Arcot because of the “surplus” generated by Tirupati temple. The total balance amount of about Rs. 1.74 lakhs pertained to all the religious charitable institutions, those managed by the Government as well as those privately managed. It was noted that the income of the Government managed temples was about 60% of the income of all the temples, though the number of temples under Government management were only about 7600 in the entire Presidency. This shows that most of the major temples were under the direct management of the Government.

The debate on a Christian state administering heathen institutions

The above review of the total disbursements made to the temples was undertaken at the behest of the Government of India, in the context of the instructions from London that the Government should “withdraw” from the administration of Hindu religious institutions. The policy decided upon by the Board of Governors, and communicated by the by the Court of Directors in London to the Governor General on 20 February, 1833 was that:

Toleration and civil protection of [Hindu] religion must on no account be converted into patronage of what is at variance with precepts and practices of Christianity.

The new policy statement also included a declaration of “withdrawal” from the management of Hindu religious institutions:

In all matters relating to their temples, their worship, their festivals, their religious practices, their ceremonial observances, our native subjects [shall] be left entirely to themselves.

This policy was arrived at after three to four decades of heated debate in England. Starting in the 1790’s and more intensely from the first decade of the nineteenth century, the involvement of the State in the administration of Hindu temples came under vocal attacks by groups in England on the grounds that it amounted to support by Christian government of practices offensive to Christianity. The celebrated temple of Jagannatha at Puri was one of the main targets of the missionary attack.

After the British take over of Orissa in 1803, the British Government passed Regulation IV of 1806 taking over the supervision of the celebrated Jagannatha temple at Puri. Soon, there were mounting objections to the involvement of the Government with the administration of the temple. In a famous speech before the Cambridge University on July 1st, 1810, the Missionary Claudius Buchanan declared:

I resolved …to visit the chief seat of Hindoo religion, for which purpose I made a journey to the great temple of Juggernaut which is to the Hindoos what Mecca is to the Mohammadans, the stronghold and fountain-head of their idolatry…Many of the pilgrims die by the way, and their bodies remain unburied, so that the road to Juggernaut may be known, at least for fifty miles, by human bones which are stewed in the way. On the great day the idol was brought out…It had the character of crudelity and impurity. Men and women devoted themselves before the Moloch. I myself beheld the libations of human blood. I give you this record because I witnessed the fact.

In view of such propaganda, the Court of Directors of the East India Company wanted to initiate moves to dissociate the Bengal Government from the direct administration of the temple, especially from the collection of the “pilgrim tax”. But the real authority which controlled all Indian affairs, the Board of Commissioners for the affairs of India, did not concur with the proposal at this stage.

Jagannatha’s Rathayatra again figured prominently in the famous speech of William Wilberforce in the debate in the British House of Commons during June-July 1813:

A gentleman of the highest integrity, and better qualified than almost anyone else to form a correct judgement in this instance; I mean Dr. Carey, the missionary, has calculated that, taking in all the modes and forms of destruction connected with the worship at the temple of Jaggernaut in Orissa, the lives of 100,000 human beings are annually expended in the service of that single idol.

Because of the effort of the group of Evangelicals led by Wilberforce, the British Parliament resolved that Christianisation of India was the solemn duty of the British Government. This led to the unrestricted “opening” up of India to missionaries with full freedom to condemn and malign Hindu religious practices and institutions. It also led to the setting up of the Ecclesiastic Department as a part of the Government of India. There was no move however to dissociate from the administration of temples and the management of their large resources. These were in fact formalised by the various regulations such as the Madras Regulation of 1817.

Public attention in England continued to be focused on the Government’s patronage of all that is offensive in Hindu religion as evidenced by the State collecting taxes and making allowances for the running of Hindu temples and more so by the involvement and visible presence of Government officials in the Hindu festivals. Various Christian memorialists in Britain and India charged the governors and administrators of being “The Dry Nurse of Vishnu”, “The Churchwarden of Juggernaut”, etc.

The rathayatras in some of the great South Indian temples also involved a large scale involvement of the Collectors, starting from the recruitment of persons needed to pull the car to the supervision of these festivals where a large number of pilgrims gathered. For instance, it was reported in 1830 that the celebrated ratha of the Thyagarajaswami Temple at Tiruvarur, in Thanjavur District, required about 12,000 persons to draw it – the largest of the six ropes used for the purpose being 1260 feet long. In 1828, Robert Nelson, Sub-Collector at Thanjavur, wrote to the Collector Nathaniel Kinderslay attacking the “evils “ of the recruitment system and pressing for the Company’s total withdrawal from any involvement in recruitment operations. In reply, the Collector agreed that the system did entail loss of revenue to the Government and hardship to the officials. While agreeing that idolatry was undeniably an evil, and that its support should be deprecated he argued at some length that the Company could not afford to lose the goodwill of the people by withdrawing its support for these festivals. He confessed his belief that the “progress of Christianity in the East” seemed to depend upon the “permanency of British empire in India”, and that therefore “even the most zealous Christians” should be careful not to do anything “which may tend to weaken the efficacy of this apparently chosen instrument.”

It was under such pressure, both from subordinates in India and from the ruling establishment in England that the Court of Directors, in February 1833, notified the Government of India of the policy of generally withdrawing from the association Hindu ceremonies and institutions.

Still there was seemingly no change in the all round involvement of the Government in temple administration and ceremonies. This led to further protests in England and India. On February 1, 1838 the Commander-in-Chief at Madras, Sir Peregrine Maitland sent his resignation protesting against the orders from London issued the previous year that none of the customary salutes or marks of respect to “Native” festivals be discontinued at any of the Presidencies.

While Maitland’s resignation created a major sensation, there were other resignations as well in 1838, like that of Robert Nelson, the former Sub-Collector of Tanjore, who contended that he could no longer serve two masters – the East India Company, which required civil servants to “to assist and uphold idolatrous worship in India” and the Lord Jesus Christ, who instructed him to “flee from idolatry”.

The situation was serious and the President of the Board of Control, Sir John Hobhouse had to give an undertaking to the House of Commons, in early August 1838, that the Government would take urgent action. On August 8, 1838, the Court of Directors transmitted the following instruction, explicitly drafted by the Board to the Governor General (along with Maitland’s letter of resignation):

You should accomplish, with as little delay as may be practicable, the arrangements which we believe to be already in progress for abolishing the pilgrim tax, and for discontinuing the connection of the Government with the management of all funds which may be assigned for the support of the religious institutions in India. We more particularly desire that the management of all temples and other places of religious resort, together with the revenues derived therefrom, be resigned into the hands of the natives; and that the interference of the public authorities in the religious ceremonies of the people be regulated by the instructions conveyed in the 62nd paragraph of our despatch of 20th February, 1833.

It may be noted that both the despatches of 1833 and 1838 were sent under protest by the Court of Directors, as per the directives of the Board of Commissioners which was the supreme body for deciding on the policies concerning India.

Summarising the debate in England, one scholar has remarked:

The problem of the connections between of the Company with religious institutions in India became mainly a matter of dispute between home politicians and high officials of the Company in India on the one side and administrators of the East India Company on the other side. Whereas the latter justified the support of the religious institutions like the Jagannatha temple with pragmatic political arguments…the former strongly opposed these links with moral and Christian missionary arguments and condemned it as state sanction of idolatry.At the heart of this reforming enthusiasm lay the doctrines of liberalism and evangelicalism. Though radically different in origin – the one a movement of religious revival, the other a doctrine of defiant secularism – [when it came to decrying Hinduism] evangelism and liberalism had much in common.

A few years later, in 1843, the authorities in London were very angry with the Governor General of India, Lord Ellenborough, for bringing back the gates of the Somanatha temple from Ghazni to India. Strongly condemning the act of the Governor General in the British Parliament, Thomas Babbington Macaulay stated:

It is lamentable to think how long after our power was firmly established in Bengal, we grossly neglecting the first and plainest duty of the civil magistrate, suffered the practices of infanticide and Suttee to continue unchecked. We decorated the temples of the false gods. We provided the dancing girls. We gilded and painted the images to which our ignorant subjects bowed down. We repaired and embellished the car under the wheels of which crazy devotees flung themselves at every festival to be crushed to death. We sent guards of honour to escort pilgrims to the places of worship. We actually made oblations at the shrines of idols. All this was considered and still considered, by some …as profound policy. I believe that there never was so shallow, so senseless policy. We gained nothing by it. We lowered ourselves in the eyes of those whom we meant to flatter. We led them to believe that we attached no importance to the difference between Christianity and heathenism. Yet how vast the difference is! I altogether abstain from alluding to topics which belong to divines. I speak merely as a politician anxious for the morality and temporal well being of society. And, so speaking, I say that to countenance Brahminical idolatry, and to discountenance that religion which has done so much to promote justice, and mercy, and freedom, and arts, and sciences, and good government, and domestic happiness, which has struck off the chains of the slave, which has mitigated the horrors of war, which has women from servants and playthings into companions and friends, is to commit high treason against humanity and civilisation.

Gradually a better system was introduced. A great man…Lord Wellesley led the way. He prohibited the immolation of female children…In the year 1813 parliament gave new facilities to persons who were desirous to proceed to India as missionaries. Lord William Bentinck abolished the Suttee. Shortly afterwards, the Home Government sent a despatch to Calcutta…That despatch Lord Glenelg [Lord Chas Grant] wrote – I was then at the Board of Commissioners, and can attest the fact – with his own hand…That was in February, 1833. In the year 1838 another despatch was sent…Again in the year 1841, precise orders were sent out on the same subject…The orders were, distinctly and positively, that the British authorities in India shall not decorate these temples, shall not pay any military honour to these temple. Now Sir, the first charge which I bring against Lord Ellenborough is that he has been guilty of an act of gross disobedience…

He ought to have known, without any instructions from home, that it was his duty not to take part in disputes among the false religions of the East…But…he has selected as his object of his homage the very worst and most degrading of these religions and as the object of his insult the best and purest of them. The homage was paid to Lingamism. The insult was offered to Mahometanism. Lingamism is not mere idolatry, but idolatry in its most pernicious form…

The duty of our Government is as I said, to take no part in the disputes between Mohametans and idolaters. But, if our Government does take a part, there cannot be a doubt that Mohametanism is entitled to the preference. Lord Ellenborough is of a different opinion. He takes away the gates from a Mohametans mosque and solemnly offers it as a gift to a Pagan temple. Morally this is crime, politically this is blunder. No body who knows anything of the Mahometans in India can doubt that this affront to their faith will excite their fiercest indignation…Remember what happened at Vellore in 1806, and more recently in what happened at Bangalore. The mutiny at Vellore was caused by a slight shown to Mahometan turban; the mutiny of Bangalore by disrespect said to have been shown to a Mahometan place of worship. If a Governor General had been induced by his zeal for Christianity to offer any affront to a mosque held in high veneration by Mussalmans I should think that he had been guilty of indiscretion such as proved him to be unfit for his post. But, to affront a mosque of peculiar dignity, not from zeal for Christianity, but for the sake of this loathsome God of destruction, is nothing short of madness.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author. Indic Today is neither responsible nor liable for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in the article.

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