Yadukrishnan chants the Gayatri Mantra in a soft voice but it carries through the 150-year-old Siva temple in Keezhcherivalkadavu, a small hamlet in Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district. His day began at 4.30 a.m. and after a dip in the Pampa river, it is time to prepare for his priestly duties. Soon there will be a throng of devotees to attend to.
As a little boy, Yadukrishnan would collect flowers for pujas at the village temple in Chalakudy, Thrissur district, where his parents worked as farmers. He seemed to have an interest in temple rituals even as a child, recall his parents, P.K. Ravi and Leela.
When he was six, he was recruited as a helper at the temple by K.K. Anirudhan, who was the tantri (priest) there; and at 12, the boy joined the residential Sree Gurudeva Vaidika Tantra Vidyapeedhom, a religious school, run by the tantri in North Paravur, Ernakulam district.
Glory at 22
Yadukrishnan’s parents could not have known then that their son would, at 22, become the first Dalit head priest (melsanthi) to be appointed at a temple run by the State-sponsored Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB).
Yadukrishnan ranked fourth in the first examination conducted by the Devaswom Recruitment Board, established after the Kerala Legislative Assembly passed the Kerala Devaswom Recruitment Board Act in 2015 to ensure transparency in the appointment of Devaswom employees, including priests. In its first round of recruitment, the board selected 36 people from backward communities, including six Dalit priests, and Yadukrishna became the first Dalit to be appointed as priest at a TDB temple.
It was a historic day on October 8, when Yadukrishnan accompanied by his guru, Anirudhan Tantri, reached the village to assume charge at the Manappuram Siva Temple.
A throng of devotees gave the young priest a rousing reception and followed him to the temple in a ceremonial procession reciting Vanchippattu verses in praise of Krishna to drum beats. To Yadukrshnan, “performing rituals at a temple is about devotion and not a mere job.”
“A priest should be someone who is capable of leading society. Their words, deeds, and life should be a model to the rest of society. I could see these qualities in Yadukrishnan,‘’ says the 62-year-old tantri Anirudhan, who describes his student as “a studious seeker”.
Learning mantras and performing rituals need much patience and perseverance, he adds. The knowledge of Sanskrit is necessary. Yadukrishnan is pursuing a Masters in Sanskrit at a college in Kodungallur in Thrissur.
“Had I not met Anirudhan Tantri, my life would have been very different,” says Yadukrishnan, standing with folded hands. “The villagers are caring and I am happy here.”
Meanwhile, the young priest was given another grand reception recently, this time by the Hindu Aikya Vedi in North Paravur, Ernakulam, where scholars and devotees of various castes felicitated him. Says K. Prabhakaran of Hindu Aikya Vedi: “The step taken by the TDB to eliminate caste in priesthood is praiseworthy and historic.
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