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Kumbhabishegam row: How the old Aryan-Dravidian tussle played out in an iconic Tamil Nadu temple

Kumbhabishegam at Sri Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur: This enormously significant event was held after 23 years — and after the Madras High Court had settled an old argument over the ritual purification process only five days previously.

Written by Arun Janardhanan | Chennai |
Updated: February 6, 2020 10:48:45 am
Kumbhabishegam row: How the old Aryan-Dravidian tussle played out in an iconic Tamil Nadu temple Kumbhabishegam ceremony at the Brahadeeswarar Temple Wednesday.

Tens of thousands of people thronged Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu’s Cauvery delta to witness the kumbhabishegam (consecration) ceremony at the Sri Brahadeeswarar Temple on Wednesday morning. This enormously significant event was held after 23 years — and after the Madras High Court had settled an old argument over the ritual purification process only five days previously.

The judgment delivered on January 31 by the Madurai Bench of the court addressed the struggle for supremacy between the Sanskrit and Tamil traditions that lies at the heart of several cultural battles in the state — and which also played out in the kumbhabishegam ceremony.

Sri Brahadeeswarar Temple and kumbhabishegam ceremony

The consecration ceremony that culminated with the maha poornahuthi or the main puja at 9.20 am on Wednesday, had begun on Saturday evening. Between then and Wednesday, about a million devotees are estimated to have visited the temple. The Sri Brahadeeswarar Temple (also spelt Brihadisvara, and called Peruvudaiyar Koyil, which translates simply to ‘Big Temple’) is the most famous of the many temples in Thanjavur. The temple, one of the world’s largest and grandest, was built between 1003 AD and 1010 AD by the great Chola emperor Raja Raja I (c. 985-1014 AD).

At Wednesday’s event, holy water brought from the yaga salai — the site of the yajna in the temple compound — was poured on the gold-plated kalasam that tops the 216-foot vimanam over the sanctum sanctorum. The other idols at the temple too, were sanctified with holy water from the yaga salai.

While several special trains were run for pilgrims, the temple management ultimately cancelled the eagerly awaited classical dance performances that were supposed to be part of the event, given the anticipated challenges in managing the massive crowds. The last kumbhabishegam ceremony in 1997 was marred by a fire at the yaga salai, which triggered a stampede in which more than 40 pilgrims were killed.

According to Brahmanical tradition, every temple must be consecrated every 12 years, including repairs and renovation. The 1,000th year of the temple was celebrated in 2010, when M Karunanidhi was Chief Minister.

Kumbhabishegam row: How the old Aryan-Dravidian tussle played out in an iconic Tamil Nadu temple

Before the High Court

On Friday, the court, in a dispute over which language should be used in the slokas at the kumbhabishegam, agreed with the state government’s affidavit that the ceremony should be in both Sanskrit and Tamil.

The Thanjai Periya Koil Urimai Meetpu Kuzhu (Thanjavur Big Temple Rights Retrieval Committee), an organisation that aims to restore Tamil traditions in the Sri Brahadeeswarar Temple, had demanded that the kumbhabishegam should be held only in Tamil. They had received the backing of DMK leader M K Stalin.

However, Minister for Tamil Culture Mafoi K Pandiarajan had said: “The consecration will be performed in both Tamil and Sanskrit. After we received the request from Tamil groups, a committee has been formed on behalf of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department, they will find an amicable solution.”

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The judicial precedent

The government’s position and ultimately, the High Court’s verdict, drew from a judgment delivered by Madras High Court over a decade ago, which refused to accept that the language of prayer could only be Sanskrit. The attempt by conservative clergy “to portray as if the God can understand only Devanagari language and Tamil cannot stand on par with that language, is only stated to be rejected and it does not have any foundation based upon any scripture or religious texts”, the High Court Bench of Justices Elipe Dharma Rao and K Chandru said. (V S Sivakumar vs State Of Tamil Nadu, March 19, 2008)

In writ petitions filed by a ‘Hindu Temple Protection Committee’ and the hereditary priest of a temple in Ramnad district, the question before the court was “whether the… providing for archanas to be performed in Tamil at the request of the devotees in addition to the existing practice of reciting archanas in Sanskrit, would offend the right to profess Hindu religion guaranteed under Article 25 of the Constitution of India”. The petitioners wanted the court to restrain the government from interfering in traditional rituals in temple.

The judgment quoted from Dr S Radhakrishnan’s The Hindu View of Life: “To many, Hinduism seems to be a name without any content. Is it a museum of beliefs, a medley of rites, or a mere map, a geographical expression?’’ (p.11) Rejecting the petitions, it said: “If the petitioners’ request for a restrained order is accepted, it will only result in the Hinduism becoming mere museum of beliefs.”

The judges ruled: “There is nothing either in the Agamas (canonical texts) or in any other religious script to prohibit the chanting of Tamil manthras in the temples run under the administration of the (government’s) HR&CE (Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments) Department… “…The choice is vested with the devotees to seek for their archanas to be performed at their wishes by chanting the manthras either in Tamil or in Sanskrit… It is the devotees or bhakthas who wish that their prayers or wishes to be answered by the God…”

Kumbhabishegam row: How the old Aryan-Dravidian tussle played out in an iconic Tamil Nadu temple The consecration ceremony that culminated with the maha poornahuthi or the main puja at 9.20 am on Wednesday, had begun on Saturday evening.

Larger political battle

While Friday’s court order provided temporary closure ahead of the kumbhabishegam, the questions in the longstanding tussle involve emotive issues of faith and tradition that are unlikely to be resolved easily. In essence, the disagreement is between the Aryan tradition that claims that Sanskrit is the only language to communicate with the Gods, and that chanting mantras in Sanskrit is an essential part of the Hindu religious practice, and the Dravidian tradition that cites the ancient history of the Bhakti movement in Tamil Nadu, during which devotional Shaivite texts such as Thevaram and Thiruvasagam made Shiva a deity of the common man.

Aryan-Dravidian disputes in Tamil Nadu have traditionally pitted Tamil nationalist organisations against upper caste Hindu groups and, in recent times, Hindutva outfits.

The mainstream Tamil nationalist party Naam Thamizhar Katchi, and other Tamil and Dravidian outfits such as the Cauvery Urimai Meetpu Kuzhu, the Tamil Desiya Periyakkam, and the Hindu Veda Marumalarchi Movement were among those who raised the demand for consecration in Tamil in Thanjavur. The rival camp demanding prayers only in Sanskrit was led by Tamil Nadu Archagargal Samooga Nalasangam, which claimed to hold the flag for “existing tradition and practice”.

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