Temple Wealth: Thefts, trials and punishments

The accused were branded as siva-drohis and punished by confiscation of their lands and properties. The properties were certified as endowment and fell under direct ownership of the temple.
Image of a temple in Kudumiyan Malai used for representational purpose.
Image of a temple in Kudumiyan Malai used for representational purpose.

Court cases being investigated and resolved forms the third largest topic discussed in Tamil inscriptions, the first two being details on donations made to temples and notes on land demarcation. Legal topics discussed in inscriptions include civil, social and criminal cases.

Criminal cases involve disputes among individuals, disputes between villages and other criminal cases like thefts, murder, feuds, etc. Petty thefts have been addressed and resolved in local village courts. There are very few cases of such thefts being taken up to the next level. However, robberies in temples have been severely dealt with. When proven guilty, the accused were treated with harsh punishments.

This column shall discuss two temple theft incidents reported during different times at the Siva temple of Kudumiyan Malai in Pudukottai district, Tamil Nadu. The first case is from the second regnal year of Veera Pandya (1311 CE). Interestingly, the temple priests and servants have been parties in both the cases. The first is well-documented, mentioning the name of the accused, investigation officers, investigation venue and the final judgment. The local chieftains of the neighboring districts, representatives and administrative officers all met at Kangeyan Thirumandapam. The officers promised to settle the dispute by agreeing among themselves.

When the temple priests were questioned, a certain Kundran Serundivana Perumal agreed to have stolen 60 pon of gold which was later shared with the stone mason of the village. He claimed that the other priests shared the remaining gold among themselves. But when they were questioned, the priests denied the claim and the court was left with no choice but to escalate the issue to a higher level of judicial hearing.

This court functioned in a fairly larger town and involved the presence of a royal official called ‘Samantanar’ and a bench of Dharmasana Bhattar-s or interpreters of the code book. The priests who denied the accusation had to go through the fire ordeal in the presence of religious heads and devotees. The hands of Kundran Pangan, Putridamkondan, Periyan Devan and Ondrayiram Serundi were burnt—they were forced to dip their hands in an urn of hot and molten ghee. Kundran Serundi, the fifth accused, suddenly turned an approver and the others were left with no choice now.

The accused were branded as siva-drohis and punished—their lands and properties were confiscated. The properties were certified as endowment and fell under direct ownership of the temple. If anybody had taken these cultivable lands for a lease from the priests, they had to hand it over to the temple and forego their ownership until the value of the stolen property was retrieved. Those people who objected to the judgment would bear the penalty for having intervened in the legal process. In addition to this, they would also have to pay a fine to the rulers of the time.

The inscription was scribed by the temple attendant and there were witnesses too—these included representatives from villages where the properties of the guilty were located and priests from other temples. In this case, though the interpreters of the judicial code book were present during the legal proceedings, their role seems to have been almost nothing. The ordeal of turning against the accused or their subsequent acceptance of the criminal act probably unnecessitated their participation.

The second theft happened in 1616 CE. This time, a certain Kaikola Tittiyandi Silamban, who was a part of the temple service group, managed to steal and sell jewellery that adorned the Goddess of the temple. However, the temple watchman detected the theft and managed to trap the criminal. Since it was a proven case of robbery, one hand of the accused was chopped off. His service at the temple was terminated, and he was chased away from the village. The value of the stolen jewel was verified to be 10 pon. The others who were a part of the same service group were ordered to replace the lost ornament or its value in gold. When they expressed their inability to pay the fine, a certain Manikkattal, a devadasi, came forward to pay the fine and take ownership of the land held by the service group. The temple treasury accepted this offer and signed an ownership transfer deed. The land owned by the service team was sold to her for 10 pon. The information was inscribed and attested by the temple treasury officer, accountant and priests.

Interestingly, in this case, the guilty faced corporal punishment, his service was terminated and he was banished from the village. A replacement for the lost value of the jewel helped the other men in the party escape severe punishments. However, in the same temple, we see another interesting policy decision taken by the administration. The officers were forced to sell away the cattle donated to the temple as it was getting impossible to guard them against thefts. But one thing is certain—with changing eras, punishments seem to have changed too. Interpretation of code books have been held in high regard sometimes, compromised a few times and not considered at times too.

Architect and conservationist interested in Indian heritage and culture

Related Stories

No stories found.

The New Indian Express