Bangalore: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Karnataka, already battling corruption scandals and dissidence, is now caught in a delicate balancing act over a bizarre practice at a famous temple. The practice, said to be 400 years old, involves people rolling over plantain leaves containing leftovers of meals consumed by Brahmins in the belief that it cures them of skin ailments.
It is called 'made snana' or 'urulu seve' (roll over ritual) and is performed during the 'Champa Sashti' festival in late November or early December at the Subramanya temple in Kukke in the coastal Dakshina Kananda district, about 350 km from Bangalore. Soon after performing the 'made snana', people head to the nearby Kumaradhara river for a bath.
The practice has created a furore in the state in the last two years, with Dalit organisations, sections of leading Kannada writers, heads of several mutts (religious institutions), civil society groups, politicians, including from the ruling BJP, calling for a ban.
However, some BJP leaders, most notably Vedavyas Srinivas Acharya, a doctor and minister handling the higher education portfolio, are opposing the ban. While those calling for a ban assert that mostly Dalits perform the ritual and the practice is "heinous", Acharya insists this is not true.
"It is a matter of belief and people from various communities, including Brahmins, undertake it to fulfil a vow to the god and the government should not interfere in such issues," Acharya has been arguing.
But several of his ministerial colleagues, such as Labour Minister B.N. Bachche Gowda and Minor Irrigation Minister Govind Karjol, are demanding a ban, saying the government cannot allow "superstitious practices" to continue.
Temple authorities and Acharya contend that no one is forced to undertake the ritual nor is it part of rituals recognised by the temple. The temple authorities have no idea of how the practice originated. This year, the Champa Sasthi festival concluded on Nov 30 and several hundred people performed the 'made snana'.
Though the ritual is practised at some temples devoted to Hindu god Subramanya in neighbouring Udupi district also, the 'made snana' at Kukke is widely known. It is believed that those who cannot go to Kukke perform it at temples in Udupi.
While last year too the practice had ignited protests, with Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati, herself a Dalit, joining the call for ban, the issue turned ugly this year.
On Nov 30, some devotees bashed up K.H. Shivaramu, leader of the Mysore-based 'forum to create awareness in backward communities', who had gone to Kukke with a small group of supporters to protest the ritual and create awareness about it. The district police arrested six persons for the attack. They are out on bail now.
The attack on Shivaramu led to a furore in many parts of the state and pressure mounted on Chief Minister D.V. Sadananda Gowda to ban the practice. But Kukke town observed a bandh (shutdown) Dec 5 against "outside interference in the temple town's affairs".
Heads of some religious institutions, such as Veerendra Heggade of Dharmasthala, another famous pilgrim centre in Dakshina Kananda, have also taken a stand against any government intervention. Heggade has termed the issue as one created by media.
Caught amidst this row, the Gowda government has asked the district authorities to report by the end of this week on whether only Dalits and people from backward communities take part in the ritual and whether there is any force to perform it. "We will take a decision once the report is received," Social Welfare Minister A. Narayanaswamy said on Tuesday.
However, opponents of the practice say no report is needed and the practice should be banned immediately, particularly because the temple comes under the government's 'Muzrai' (religious affairs) department.
The issue figured in the legislative council Wednesday with Congress and Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S) members lambasting the government for not banning the practice immediately. The government stuck to the stand that it will act only after studying the report of the district authorities.
The temple at Kukke is devoted to Subramanya. The idol of Subramanya is in the shape of a nine-headed serpent. Legend has it that Subramanya protected serpent god Vasuki who had taken shelter in a cave at Kukke from Garuda.