Let me tell you a story. There is a small village by the name Upputur somewhere in Andhra Pradesh. The Village Kaifiyat mentions the Gotra of the Karanam(Village Administrator) as Kaundinyasa but the current family holding the traditional Karaneekam is Bharadwaja. Probably, none in the village, even the family of the Karanam or the Village Zamindar remembers that change of family. The point I took this obscure fact is because the new family ensured continuum – the way village is managed, the temple endowments and everything. This is the sort of transition one would want – a seamless one with no commoner getting impacted.

But this seamless continuum is not there with temples. The way temples were managed under Hindu kings is far different from the way they were maintained by the British and the corrections which took place after India took over the temples is not enough. One would notice that there is not much change in the way temples were managed from the British Era – in fact, a look at the rules brought in for temples like Tirumala tell us the situation, rather than improving, degraded.

But, the fundamental question to be asked here is, what is the best way forward for us? There are multiple aspects of it which are being noticing, now that the issue has become mainstream. At the high level, one can see three different kinds of temple managements in India –

  1. Those which are handled by the British Government and passed over to Indian Government – like the TNHRCE
  2. Those which are managed by Princely States and are taken over by Indian Government like the Travancore Devaswom Board
  3. Those which are managed by Princely States but which are managed by Private Trusts like the Dharmarth Trust.

While we see that TNHRCE and Travancore Devaswom Board are classic examples of how a temple should not be managed, the allegations of corruption and extortion in Dharmarth Trust makes us long for better management. Though one cannot compare the situation with TNHRCE with Dharmarth Trust, neither of the models present us a picture perfect model.

Have a look at the message put by Alok Bhatt, an advisor to the Government of Uttarakhand.

9) Talking of temple loot, annual income of Sri Badrinath Ji temple last year was 25 crores and that of Sri Kedarnath Ji Temple was 15 crores. Gangotri temple managed privately by priests- per BKTC CEO- reported an income of 1-2 crore only – well I won’t Q that no until I see acc

There is merit in his stand. And on the other side, one may want to question, how does it matter. When the state is supposed to uphold Dharma and when the state is not supposed to touch even a single rupee from a temple, how does it even matter to you when the temple underquotes its revenue?

One may argue that Uttarakhand is different and it’s Dharmik – one cannot compare it with the Southern Temples. The incongruity of two stands in two different states aside, one shouldn’t forget that Travancore was as Dharmik, if not more, than Uttarakhand 75 years ago.

One cannot miss the similarity in situation in Travancore of yesterday and Uttarakhand of today. The king surrendered the temples with a good intent. Uttarakhand Government is setting up things with a good intent. Travancore was overrun by Seculars and Communists in ten years of accession. A Communist Nepal doing everything to undermine religion is next door to Uttarakhand. 75 years down the line in Kerala, we have an Endowments Minister who throws beef parties and the government not missing any opportunity to extract money from the temples. Let’s pray that Uttarakhand will not go that path, but will our prayers fructify or will they just be prayers?

This makes one go back to the fundamental question – should temples be free of government control or should they be under private management? We don’t have an answer for this and may be, we will never have. The reasons for this are primarily two.

  1. A temple is not just a building with an idol to pray. It’s a full-fledged ecosystem with endowments growing with time and the temple earning through the endowments – farmlands, commercial property etc. By separating the temple support ecosystem from a temple, we are making a temple an unprofitable venture, with personal greed dominating duty.
  2. Most of the big temples had royal patrons and served as the rallying point of the kingdoms. A percentage allocation of state budget to the temple fixed the deficit if any and allowed the temple to grow. No private individual will have pockets deep enough to do that for a temple of the scale of Srirangam or Vaishno Devi.

Though private management of Hindu Temples shouldn’t be discounted as impossible, it makes much sense for us to understand what can be done to make the situation more comfortable for Hindus while having the temples under government control.

A brief sketch of what happened during the British Era will give us some answers over this. One can start the discussion with the story of Thomas Munro becoming a devotee of Swami Raghavendra of Mantralayam. The story reads thus.

Twenty years before becoming the Governor of Madras Province, Sir Munro served as the Collector of Bellary that was ceded to the East India Company by Tipu Sultan after his defeat in the First Anglo-Mysore war. Munro undertook detailed surveys of the land in the area and fixed rents and taxes on a uniform scale. In the process of doing so, he was unable to determine the ownership of the lands that were controlled by the Mutt at Mantralaya, where Sri Raghavendra Swami’s Samadhi is located. Under the extant policy of the East India Company, where ownership was not clear, the lands were to be directly taken over by the Company. Before doing so, Sir Munro made one more attempt and was told by some people that only Sri Raghavendra Swami can provide clear answers since no one else seemed to know.

By the time Sir Munro was told about the Swami, Sri Raghavendra had been in Samadhi for nearly 130 years. Sir Munro was therefore taken aback by the conviction of the people who told him to meet Sri Raghavendra Swami for getting clarifications on land issues. However, Sir Munro decided to meet the Swami. On arriving at Mantralaya, Sir Muro removed his shoes and hat, washed, and sat in front of the Samadhi and prayed. To his great surprise and awe, Sri Raghavendra Swami appeared before Sir Munro and patiently explained to him the extent of land that belonged to the Mutt and the village. Sir Munro took notes, thanked the Swami and returned to his office.

Being the collector, he proceeded to make appropriate orders favoring the Mutt and the village in the land matter. Sir Munro’s orders were later published in the Madras Government Gazette in Chapter XI, page 213, 1820, the copies of which are available in the State Government Archives at Chennai.

While one would look at this as the power of Raghavendra, the fundamental question which everyone misses is, why is Thomas Munro in Mantralayam, first of all. The lines from the quote above –

Munro undertook detailed surveys of the land in the area and fixed rents and taxes on a uniform scale. In the process of doing so, he was unable to determine the ownership of the lands that were controlled by the Mutt at Mantralaya, where Sri Raghavendra Swami’s Samadhi is located. Under the extant policy of the East India Company, where ownership was not clear, the lands were to be directly taken over by the Company.

will give you an answer – the British did a survey of lands in India, including temple lands and decided what should be left to the temples and what should be seized by the Government. The construction of massive British Era churches close to major temples like Tiruvannamalai hint at this – those were all lands of the temple taken over by the British and put to use in the way the government “deemed fit”.

After this initial seed is laid, it’s a downward spiral in no time. Two bills were passed after surveying and deciding upon the ownership.

  1. Regulation XIX of Bengal Code, 1810 .
  2. Regulation VII of Madras Code, 1817.

Next came the Endowments Act of 1863. It allowed the British to set up trusteeship for the temples after taking it over. This allowed the temple/matham wealth to be used for secular purposes piggy banking on it’s choice of trustees and board.

Next came the amendments of 1927. Using these, the government can take over a temple – meaning, the government can acquire control of the whole wealth of the temple.

First, the lands were taken from the temples and a temple is defined as something which is just a building which survives on donations. It’s no more an ecosystem. Then came a way to siphon off temple wealth and this was followed by seizing the temple itself.

It was a complete siege. Convents and Hospitals were set up close to major temples. In 1835 came the English Education Act which discouraged native education.

In 1920, the British allowed the avowedly anti-Hindu Justice Party to form the Government in Madras Presidency. In less than a decade, we would see two momentous decisions involving temples.

  1. In 1923, Madras Hindu Religious Endowments Act was passed. Subsequently, it laid down rules to manage the temples which are already under government control and gave rules how to take over temples which are not under government control.
  2. Allegations of corruption were raised against Hathiramji Mutt and the temples under its management were taken over by the Government through the constitution of TTD Act in 1933. The Temple of Tirumala was taken over in 1933 by the Government.

An article from 1931 over the management of Tirumala Temple by Hathiramji Mutt clearly hints that mismanagement is not the case. In 1920s and 1930s, the temple had an annual income of 15 lakhs and had bought the four Taluks of Kachinad(Kanchipuram), Tiruttani, Atimanjeri and Narayanavanam.


This situation continues even today. The rump temples are currently classified according to the income they provide to the exchequer and a cap of 40% of the temple income to be spent on salary of the priest. Applying the same clause, going by the data on TNHRCE website, of the 38646 temples under TNHRCE control, 34903 have an annual income less than 10000 (monthly wages for priests will be a maximum of 333 rupees per month).


An article in Hindu clearly mentions the seriousness of the issue –

Shocking is the fact that a priest at the nearby Vilvanathar temple in Pathamadai is paid a salary of Rs. 19 per month while at the historical and ancient Kailasanathar temple in Brahmadesam, the priest is paid a salary of Rs. 215.

Narasimha Gopalan has put together data on the salary paid to priests and other temple service personnel in close to 50 ancient temples in the Ambasamudram region. He cites a couplet from Tirukural: Aa payan kunrum aruthozhilor nool marappar kaavalan kavaan Enin — If the ruler does not take care of his subjects and does not give them their fair dues, the cow count will decrease and the Brahmins whose job it is to chant and teach the Vedas will take up other jobs.

With such low salaries, most of the temples located in remote areas are manned by one person, the priest, who takes care of the temple’s upkeep besides performing puja.
The HR and CE Department is restricted by the rule that payment of salaries should not go beyond 40 per cent of the total income of the temple. In his petition, Narasimha Gopalan says that irrespective of the income of the temple, the nature and working time of rendering services by the archakas are by and large one and the same. And priests in such remote temples have to take care of all the shrines, single-handed.

Though the discussion is massively focussed on Madras Presidency, a possible solution to the temple management issue also comes from the same discussion.

  1. A resurvey of temple lands with the ownership as of 1790 and transfer of ownership of lands to the temples along with any property (like the four Taluks bought by Tirumala Temple). That will make them self sufficient, even under government control
  2. Creation of sub-endowment boards centred around major temples and designating them the task of managing smaller temples.
  3. Devolve a part of local governance to the temples including management of local affairs like roads and government schools.
  4. The assertion of the Right to Civilizational Continuity: Ensure that no new structure of a different religion will not be built within, say, 5 km radius of any existing religious structure older than 500 years.
  5. An entry criterion for a job above a certain level for every employee who is deputed to the temple/who works in Endowments Departments – a course/test over Hinduism, Dharmashastras and topics specific to that temple.

Also, true to its secular nature where every religion should be treated equally, the same rules should be extended to mosques, churches and prayer halls of other religions. The government should first take control of all the Churches and Mosques which are owned by Central Government and constitute a separate body for them. The same to be expanded to include all the mosques and churches in India at a later date. Laws similar to TNHRCE should be brought in for all religions. Not doing that will only make it look like the government is targeting one specific religion and will serve no purpose.
The below will list out the Churches and Temples owned by the Government of India

  • Indian Church Act 1927 gives the list of churches owned by the government and also the right to appropriate extra churches. In a 1965 clarification issued, Indian Government has clearly said that those churches are Government Property.
  • Enemy Property Act applied in Junagadh, Muhammadabad, Bhopal and other territories for Royal Mosques.
  • State owned mosques in Junagadh and Hyderabad and state owned churches in Goa – these provinces were conquered by India.

In effect, one would see that there are sufficient number of religious structures under both the religions which are owned by government and which the government can use to set up management bodies. Only that can give a holistic solution to the temple debate raging on in India with everyone getting equal justice.

DISCLAIMER: The author is solely responsible for the views expressed in this article. The author carries the responsibility for citing and/or licensing of images utilized within the text.