It was the New Year day of the Malayalam calendar and there was a buzz in the air around gift and pooja articles shops and street vendors at the South Gate entrance to Shri Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvanthapuram. As I got off the taxi near the south gate, what caught my attention was a hapless family of four being asked to move back by the heavily armed police that included the black cats- the elite group of security force now protecting one of the richest temples in the world, boasting yet to be opened treasure chests of centuries old priceless antiques, ornaments, gem stones and what not. As I watched the family admiring the temple sight from a distance away from the entrance, I noticed the awe, wonder, admiration and pure love in the eyes of the two young girls in the family- they may have been ten and twelve are old. I saw those glittering and inquisitive eyes marvelling at the sight of the temple tower from outside and absorbing the idea of Hinduism in one of the states of India promoted as God’s own country. I thought they were trying to familiarize with the idea of India and trying to connect with Padmanabhaswamy on an emotive level.
I approached them and advised naively that they could go inside the temple if they follow the dress code of dhoti for all, including the lady and the two girls, but they told me in a dejected tone that the police advised them they are not allowed to go inside the temple as they are foreigners, although they advised the guards they believe in Hindu way of life and Padmanabhaswamy. I replied that there must be a mistake as I have seen and even taken many of my foreign friends inside the temple. My reply lit up the faces of the two young girls and as I gave them a reassuring smile, a rather heavily armed black cat approached us, and before he could lecture me, I asked him in Malayalam the reason for the family of four not being allowed to go inside the temple. My Malayalam must have done the trick as the black cat look was toned down, and the machine gun was dropped down from pointing towards me and as he became jovial, he smiled at me, as if recognising the Good Samaritan in me. The black cat told me in Malayalam “they are foreigners and instructions from the office inside is not to allow foreigners in” I started replying to him “but I am a foreigner too “, and before I could start my sentence the black cat continued and advised me to go to the public relations office inside the temple and get their permission. I turned around to the family and said “I am sorry, but this is wrong”. As I struggled to face the despondency in the eyes of the girls, and the indifference on the face of their parents, the lady street vendor selling flowers took the role of pragmatist, and advised me ‘sir they stopped foreigners going in several years ago, you mind your business sir, this may not be right but this is the way it is”. I looked around for some support to fight for the foreign family to go inside the temple in the right attire of dhoti, but all the street vendors and the black cats, though sympathetic to my position, advised me to be pragmatic and leave it, and go inside the temple and take my darsan. As the family thanked me profusely for my failed attempts, even the black cats felt sorry for me, or rather looked despondent signalling the difficulty of being good and doing the right action, and I instantly understood author Gurucharan Das’ narrative of the complex notion of dharma in his critically acclaimed book “Difficulty of Being Good”
I felt ashamed and powerless that I could not fight for dharma, one of the fundamental teachings of Krishna as he urged Arjuna to fight on in the battle of Kurukshetra. And here I am visiting the temple to take darsan of God Vishnu resting on the serpent Adhi Shesha, known as Padmanabhaswamy who took the Krishna avatar to teach dharma to the mankind.
As I went inside the temple, there was an unusually large crowd of pilgrims from North India, and I thought most of them, especially the younger ones were tourists in the temple rather than pilgrims marvelling at the architecture heritage and listening to guides they hired to explain the significance of various temple structures. As I tried to converse with Padmanabhaswamy in my own personal level, for some strange reasons I could not connect with him as I felt guilty of not doing my dharma at the temple entrance and the images of the two so called foreign girls’ devoted eyes filled my psyche. As I watched mostly out of state ladies in the temple having fun draping a dhoti around their kurta and jeans for the name sake to meet the “attire code” of the temple and many of the dhotis falling off them as they negotiated the crowd going up to the sanctum sanctorum to take darsan of the Padmanabhaswamy. Walking around the temple I suddenly remembered that this rule of “foreigners not allowed” is not universal in Indian temples or in any of the temples outside India. In Bangalore, home to a large expatiate population, the so called foreigners freely come into the temple. I remembered a so called foreign girl sitting inside the Ganesha temple in Koramangala suburb of Bangalore and chanting Gayatri Mantra, and in almost all the temples in India the so called foreigners are allowed. Didn’t Apple CEO Tim Cook offer his prayers in the Vinayaka temple in Mumbai?
As I finished my walk around the temple and when I was about to say thank you to the black cats, it struck me! Kerala is the only states where most of the temples including all the wealthy ones are under the control and management of the state government! Although Padmanabhaswamy temple is owned by the state government its management is still under the erstwhile Travancore royal family. This is the only state where politicians play the cards of “Hindus only and Foreigners not allowed” to appease their traditional vote banks.
Then again it struck me, the young family was not allowed inside the temple not because they were foreigners, it is because the colour of their skin was not Indian, and they were white Anglo Saxon people. So if Dawood Ibrahim’s family or for that matter any one from Pakistan, Bangladesh , Sri Lanka and Indian looking Indonesian and Malaysian Muslims and even Christian Maoris from New Zealand dressed in the right attire chose to visit the temple in Kerala they would simply walk in as they don’t look foreign in the eyes of the guards at the gate! The rule that is applied for entry in Padmanabhaswamy temple is that “foreigners not allowed”, but its real application is flawed and prevents Anglo Saxon white colour skin, chinese and blacks colour people entering the temple even if they declare their Hindu beliefs!
Honourable Minister, isn’t it unconstitutional and wrong that you enforce a law in Kerala state which is different to all other temples in other states of India? Isn’t it plain racism that you prevent entry on the basis of skin colour of a person?
Is there any wonder Gods own country gets less than five percent of the share of foreign tourists coming to India although it is the number one destination of Indian intra state tourists- those with Indian skin colour?