The Temple Entry Movement was a Gandhian or nationalist approach to fighting caste oppression. Vaikom Satyagraha, from 30 March 1924 to 23 November 1925, was a nonviolent agitation by the lower caste people against untouchability in the Hindu society of Travancore (modern-day Kerala). It was a movement launched against the ban on the entry of depressed castes into the temples and other such restrictions.
Vaikom Satyagraha, led by leaders such as T. K. Madhavan, K. P. Kesava, and K. Kelappan, was noted for the active support and participation offered by different communities and several activists.
As a result of the Movement, the Maharaja of Travancore issued the ‘Temple Entry Proclamation‘ in 1936, which abolished the ban on the low-caste people from entering the Hindu temples in the Princely State of Travancore.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the lower caste people in Kerala, such as Ezhavas and the untouchable caste, like Parariyas, Pulayars, and tribals, had to suffer discrimination from the upper caste community. Most temples in the princely state of Travancore had forbidden lower castes and the ‘untouchables’ not from just entering but also from walking on the surrounding roads.
Several social reformers and intellectuals, like Sree Narayan Guru, N. Kumaran Asan, and T. K. Madhavan, were fighting against these injustices in the caste-ridden society of Kerala in order to promote social equality and spiritual enlightenment.
Sree Narayan Guru led the Arravippuram Movement in 1888 in Kerala against the Brahminical domination and for the rights of depressed classes. Inspired by its success, several socio-religious reform movements took place in South India. The Temple Entry Movement was more prominent among them.
In December 1917, T. K. Madhavan, an Ezhava leader, first advanced the question of temple entry of lower caste in an editorial in the Deshabhimani newspaper. Between 1917 and 1920, the Travancore Assembly discussed the temple entrance of lower castes. In 1919, an assembly of around 5,000 Ezhavas demanded the right to enter inside all Hindu temples managed by the Government of Travancore.
Vaikom in the northern part of Travancore became the centre of agitation for temple entry. In November 1920, T. K. Madhavan walked beyond the regulatory notice boards on the road near the Vaikom Temple in the Kingdom of Travancore. He later publically announced his defiance to the Travancore administration.
On 23 September 1921, T. K. Madhavan met Mahatma Gandhi at Tirunelveli to inform him of the difficulty of Ezhavas in Kerala. Gandhi Ji offered his support for the Movement.
In 1923, the All India Congress Committee (AICC) met in Kakinada. T. K. Madhavan went along with K. P. Kesava Menon and Sardar Panikkar. At the 1923 Indian National Congress (INC) Session at Kakinada, T. K. Madhavan introduced a resolution which committed the party to work for the elimination of untouchability. This Resolution also stated that temple entry was the birthright of all Hindus. Following the Kakinada Session, the Kerala Provincial Congress Committee (KPCC) immediately took up the issue of untouchability eradication.
Considering the importance of the Kakinada Congress resolution, the KPCC held a meeting at Ernakulam on 24 January 1924 to give the initial shape and formed an Untouchability Abolition Committee (UAC). This anti-untouchability committee comprised people of various castes to fight untouchability.
K. Kelappan chaired this anti-untouchability committee, and its other members were T. K. Madhavan, T. R. Krishnaswami Iyer, K. Velayudha Menon and K. Neelakandan Namboodiripad. They decided to launch a ‘Kerala Paryatanam‘ (travel through Kerala) in February 1924 to encourage temple entry and proper usage of public roads for all Hindus, regardless of caste or creed. Madhavan also succeeded in getting the Congress support, finance and pan-India attention for the Satyagraha.
Beginnig of Vaikom Satyagraha
In February 1924, the anti-untouchability committee conducted a meeting at Vaikom, which determined that a group of Satyagrahis would defy the ban on the low castes from using temple roadways. Volunteers from various regions of Travancore arrived in Vaikom in March 1924.
The first chosen place for the initiation of the Satyagraha was the four public highways leading to the Shiva Shrine in Vaikom. Like most other great temples of Kerala, Vaikom Shiva Temple had forbidden lower castes and the untouchables not from entering the temple and walking on the surrounding roads.
The Vaikom Satyagraha was launched on 30 March 1924. The satyagrahis made the batches of three people together and entered the temple. The leading satyagrahis: namely Bahuleyan from Ezhava caste, Venniyll Govinda Panicker from Nair, and Kunjappy from Pulayan caste, attempted to walk on the Vaikom temple roads.
The Travancore police guarding the road hindered their walk and asked their caste. The policemen denied their entry as they belonged to a ‘lower caste’. But, the three men firmed on their stand. As they refused to turn back after being stopped, the Travancore police arrested them. More satyagrahis followed, repeated the same act, and got arrested by the police.
The Movement demanded the rights of the lower caste and untouchables to use roads around the Vaikom temple. However, it was temporarily stopped for two days on 5-6 April 1924, due to trying for a discussion between the Congress and the Hindu heads. After the failure of the dialogues, the leaders again started the Vaikom Satyagraha.
Participation in Vaikom Satyagraha
T. K. Madhavan and K. P. Kesava Menon were arrested on 7 April 1924, prompting more volunteers from Tamil regions to come and join this Movement.
As the jails in Travancore began to fill up with protestors, the temple authorities used cunning tactics of barricading. The satyagrahis, owing to their peaceful protest, stationed themselves outside the barricade and went on hunger strike for days.
The Vaikom Satyagraha attracted pan-India attention, and support came from far and wide. The Akali society of Punjab extended their support to this Movement and set up a kitchen to provide food to the satyagrahis.
One of the prominent leaders, Periyar E. V. Ramasamy, also participated in this Satyagraha and was the only Satyagrahi to be arrested twice. Because of participation in Vaikom Satyagraha, Periyar earned the title of Vaikom Virar (the Hero of Vaikom).
Sree Narayan Guru extended his support and co-operation to the Vaikom Satyagraha. He had given Vellore Mutt near Vaikom to set the head office for the Satyagraha. He ordered his two disciples, Kuttokoikal Velayudhan and Swami Sathyavrathan, to look after the work of Satyagraha.
Even Muslim and Christian leaders were in support of the Movement. The Christain Congress leader George Joseph also participated in the agitation. However, Gandhi Ji was not entirely happy with this, as he wanted the Movement to be an intra-Hindu affair.
Women also played an unprecedented role in the Vaikom Satyagraha, with large-scale participation of women in the Movement for the first time. Women such as Narayani Amma, Meenakshi Amma, Thirumalai Amma, and Nagammai Ammai were at the forefront of the Satyagraha, inspiring women from all over the country to join the agitation.
Resolution to allow temple entry
Mulam Thirunal, the king of Travancore, died on 7 August 1924 and was succeeded by his niece, Sethu Lakshmi Bayi.
On 1 October 1924, on the advice of Gandhi Ji, a team of forwarding caste Hindus called Savarnas, who supported the Movement, marched from Vaikom to Trivandrum to present a memorandum to the ruler of Travancore, Regent Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi.
An appealing petition, consisting of 25,000 signatures from the forward caste Hindus, was submitted to the Maharani for opening the Vaikom roads from all castes, stating that caste Hindus did not object to lower castes using the temple roads. Gandhi Ji also met with Regent Maharani.
Mannath Padmanabha Pillai, the leader of the Nair Community, led the second march to Trivandrum in 1925.
The Maharani sent a Resolution for allowing entry to the temple for everyone to the Travancore Assembly. The Resolution, introduced in the Travancore Legislative Council in October 1924, was defeated by one vote (opposed by all official members, voted in February 1925). This defeat lowered the morale of the satyagrahis.
In March 1925, Mahatma Gandhi visited Vaikom. He held discussions with all parties (the protesters, Sree Narayana Guru, the Namboodiri Brahmins, and the queen of Travancore). The police subsequently were removed on the understanding that the activists would not enter the banned roads.
The Vaikom Satyagraha settled with a compromise which allowed the entry of lower caste people to roads on three sides of the Vaikom temple. The other side of the temple remained closed to the lower caste. On 23 November 1925, the lower caste Hindus got access to the north, south, and west gates of the Vaikom temple, but the eastern road was closed from them.
Temple Entry Proclamation 1936
On 2 November 1936, Maharaja of Travancore, Chithira Thirunal, issued a Temple Entry Proclamation, which opened all government-controlled temples to all castes. The proclamation was a milestone in the history of Travancore and Kerala. After the Temple Entry Proclamation, access to the eastern road and entry into Vaikom temple was allowed to lower castes.