Unholy row

Print edition : October 23, 2009

Inside the Nataraja temple complex in Chidambaram-PICTURES: C. VENKATACHALAPATHY

THE Sabanayagar (Nataraja) temple in Chidambaram, where Sivas cosmic dance of the eternal bliss is frozen in metal and held in worship, is again in the eye of a storm. The reasons for the current imbroglio range from the Podhu Dikshitars opposition to the Tamil Nadu governments resolve to end their centuries-old monopoly control over the administration of the shrine to the denial of permission to recite Tamil hymns, including Thevaram and Thiruvachagam, from the Chitrambala medai, a vantage point in the sanctum.

The Dikshitars, who claim to be the direct descendants of Siva, belong to a close-knit sect with family ties. They have taken a stand that they will not compromise on the historical traditions of the denomination temple and their divine rights sanctioned by Siva himself to be its priests and administrators.

Vocal support extended by leaders and activists of the Sangh Parivar to the Dikshitars efforts to retain their total control over the temple, on the one hand, and the counter-attack by some Tamil nationalist fringe groups, on the other, have added a new dimension to the issue.

Now, another controversy is brewing in the wake of the Dikshitars opposition to conducting the Brahmotsavam of the Thillai Govindaraja Perumal (Vishnu) shrine in the same temple complex. The Chidambaram temple was one of the centres where the prolonged rivalry between Saivites and Vaishnavites in Tamil Nadu manifested itself strongly.

Historians, archaeologists, Tamil scholars, devotees, lawyers and political activists say that although there have been controversies around issues relating to the administration of the 5th century Nataraja temple and the medium of chanting for several decades, the contentious issues have reached a flashpoint now.

Matters came to a head with the Madras High Court dismissing the Dikshitars petitions against the appointment of an executive officer to bring the administration of the temple under the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment (HR&CE) Board and upholding the devotees rights to recite Tamil hymns.

Supporters of the Dikshitars allege that some political parties and fringe groups, with the backing of the atheist Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam [DMK] government, have attempted to create confusion and trouble by bringing to the fore demands such as the one to recite Tamil hymns.

Mythology and literary works shed much light on the way the Dikshitars have asserted their rights over the temple. Bhakti literary works such as Thiruthondarthogai, Thiruthondar Thiruvanthathi and Periyapuranam speak of Nandan, a Dalit farm worker and an ardent devotee of Siva belonging to the 8th century A.D. who wanted to offer worship at the temple but was denied entry. Legend has it that Siva appeared in Nandans dream and asked him to go through the ordeal by fire. Nandan entered the fire and reached the holy feet of God. Subsequently, he was hailed as one of the 63 Nayanmars of the Saivite order.

According to historians, during the reign of Kulothunga Chola-II, a Saivite, the idol of Govindaraja Perumal was dumped in the sea. When it was reinstalled later by a chieftain of the Vijayanagar empire, as many as 20 Dikshitars committed suicide as a mark of protest.

V.V. Swaminathan, former HR&CE Minister.-

According to another story, in the 10th century A.D., the Chola king Rajaraja sought the Dikshitars help to recover the palm-leaf manuscripts of Tamil hymns kept in a chamber at the temple, but they did not oblige him readily. They asked for the physical presence of the four legendary authors and Tamil savants Sambandar, Appar, Sundarar and Manickavachagar. The king outsmarted them by bringing the golden icons of the poet-saints. The Dikshitars were forced to open the chamber and the manuscripts were retrieved, the story goes.

Although several centuries have rolled by, the Dikshitars are reluctant to loosen their grip over the temple administration. Their aversion to Tamil as a medium of prayer continues, lament lovers of the Tamil language. The government had to intervene in the case of U. Arumugasamy, a devotee belonging to the most backward class and a resident of Kumudimoolai village in Cuddalore district, to help him recite Tamil hymns from the Chitrambala medai.

The Dikshitars suffered a body blow on February 2 when the High Court dismissed their writ petition challenging the appointment of an executive officer for the temple. The single judges order was upheld by a Division Bench on September 15. The court also permitted Arumugasamy to recite Tamil hymns inside the temple.

The court ruled that the Dikshitars were not entitled to protection under Article 26 of the Constitution as a religious denomination in the matter of management, administration and governance of the temple.

In its judgment on September 15, the court pointed out that both the shrines, of Nataraja and Govindaraja Perumal, have separate sanctum sanctorums, altars, temple towers and flag masts. Separate rituals and ceremonies are conducted for the deities. The order also points out that the Sabanayagar temple is one of the 108 divyadesams (holy places of Vaishnavites). Tamil savants Kulasekara Azhwar and Thirumangai Azhwar had visited this shrine, and their verses on Govindaraja Perumal have been compiled into Nalayira Divyaprabandam, it adds.

It is also history that due to certain conflicts between the Saivites and Vaishnavites, the idol of Thillai Govindaraja was removed in or about the 13th century and later during the rule of Vijayanagara kings, one of their chieftains reconstructed the Govindaraja sannidhi [sanctum sanctorum], after which [17th century] the small sannidhi in its present form came to stay and pujas are being performed by a separate sect of Vaishnavite priests, it says.

The court has also referred to historical evidence showing that development and renovation work at the temple were done by Chola, Pandya, Pallava and Vijayanagar kings in different periods.

Kumbabishekam (consecration) of the temple was performed on February 11, 1987, by the renovation committee approved by the HR&CE. Large-scale renovation works were carried out through the committee at a cost of Rs.46 lakh, out of which the government grants were Rs.20 lakh and funds diverted from other temples were Rs.6 lakh, it recalled.

The case brought to light several charges relating to mismanagement of the temple, such as loss of temple jewellery, and failure on the part of the Dikshitars to maintain proper accounts, realise the income due to the temple, and keep an account of the offerings made by devotees.

Local residents recall that the peace and tranquillity in the temple town was disturbed in the wake of the denial of permission to Arumugasamy to recite Tamil hymns in 2006. His earlier attempt in 2000 to enter the temple for this purpose did not succeed. He was allegedly beaten up by some Dikshitars then. Undeterred by the resistance, Arumugasamy petitioned the police, urging them to allow him to enter the Chitrambalam on July 15, 2006, to fulfil his wish.

As pointed out in the courts order of February 2, refusal to allow the devotee to recite Tamil hymns led to serious disputes and litigation. In 2004, the court had granted him permission to do so. In 2007, the HR&CE Commissioner issued an order permitting Arumugasamy to sing Tamil hymns inside the temple.

The State government passed an order on February 29, 2008, to enable devotees to recite Tamil hymns without paying a fee to the Dikshitars. The Dikshitars were reluctant to implement the G.O. They maintained that atheists should not interfere in spiritual affairs. They scuttled an attempt by Arumugasamy and Tamil lovers to recite the hymns on March 2. This resulted in violent incidents.

The police registered cases and arrested 12 Dikshitars and lodged Arumugasamy and 34 of his supporters in the Cuddalore jail. Arumugasamy was able to accomplish his mission only on March 6, 2008.

But the Dikshitars and their supporters are in no mood to see the reality. In order to keep the issue alive, a series of protest programmes have been launched in the town under the banner of the Chidambaram Temple Protection Committee. At these protests, the Dikshitars claim that they have been performing the temple rituals as per the Vedic system, which is different from the Agama rules adopted in several other temples in the State, and that they have been managing the affairs of the temple in full conformity with tradition.

Calling for steps to revert the administration to the Dikshitars, demands are raised that the HR&CE Board should not do anything that would amount to violating the age-old tradition, as it may hurt religious sentiments of devotees.

Arumugasamy, who has been granted full freedom now to recite Tamil hymns inside the temple.-

In an attempt to safeguard their interests, the Dikshitars met leaders of some political parties, including Jayalalithaa, general secretary of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), to whom they handed over a memorandum on February 5.

V. Chandrasekar, committee secretary, said some fringe groups with their Maoist and atheist background had been trying to gain control over the historic temple in the name of promoting Tamil. He alleged that they not only hampered societal peace, but also attempted to push devotees and the Dikshitars to a situation where they would live in perpetual fear.

He added: It is part of the conspiracy at the national level to attack Hinduism and Hindu places of worship in different parts of the country. The committee plans to organise a yagna in Chidambaram on October 24 where more than a lakh devotees would chant the panchatcharam.

G. Chandrasekhar, legal adviser to the Dikshitars, said the single judges order in the writ petition and the dismissal of the petition by the Division Bench were erroneous. The Dikshitars will file a special leave petition before the Supreme Court as they believe that there is a fair chance of success and their case is very strong on legal issues, he said. Denying that the Dikshitars were anti-Tamil, he said they regularly recited Tamil hymns from behind the Nandi idol.

V.V. Swaminathan, veteran politician and HR&CE Minister in the government headed by M.G. Ramachandran in 1985-1987, denied these claims. He charged the Dikshitars with attempting to impose Sanskrit, deny pride of place for Tamil as medium of worship, and perpetuate caste-based discrimination. One of the Dikshitars started reciting Tamil hymns in the temple only after the issue was raised by him in the Assembly in 1987, and the practice continued for seven years, he recalled. The Dikshitars charge that the Dravidian parties interfered in religious affairs was baseless, he opined.

The Sangh Parivars claims that it would retrieve the temple administration from the State government will evoke little response from the public in view of the disastrous course adopted by it in the Ayodhya issue, Swaminathan said. He appealed to the Dikshitars to respect the court orders and cooperate with the government in its efforts to improve the amenities for pilgrims.

Arumugasamy, who has been granted full freedom now to recite Tamil hymns inside the temple and receive the State governments monthly solatium of Rs.3,000, said that as an ardent devotee of Nataraja, he welcomed the court orders. He denied that he was instigated by outsiders in advancing the demand for reciting Tamil hymns.

Periodic visits by leaders and activists of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and Hindu Munnani to the temple town, the agitations started by the Chidambaram Temple Protection Committee and their tirade against the government action are likely to trigger another bout of violence and unrest, as the fringe groups, which have been lying low in the wake of the court orders, may rear their heads again and launch a counter-campaign, local residents fear.

On September 23, the VHPs international president Ashok Singhal and Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy offered worship at the temple. Singhal announced on the occasion that the VHP would soon launch a temple liberation movement across the country demanding that all temples be reverted to the respective denominations or sects.

Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy and Vishwa Hindu Parishad international president Ashok Singhal after they offered worship at the Nataraja temple on September 22.-

However, the Left parties have decided to steer clear of both the extreme positions. Town committee secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) R. Ramachandran and State Committee member B. Ibramsah said the party welcomed the governments measures to streamline the temple administration. The local unit of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) independently held a rally in 2006 in support of the recital of Tamil hymns. It dissociated itself from the verbal attacks launched by some groups against the Dikshitars on the basis of their community.

Ramachandran said a suggestion was made that the government provide financial assistance to the indigent among the Dikshitars, as the temple was their only source of livelihood and most of them lived in abject poverty. At the same time, the CPI(M) flayed the high-handedness of a group of Dikshitars, he said. The activists of the Sangh Parivar, who want to exploit the situation, have done precious little for the socio-economic uplift of the Dikshitar community, some Left leaders point out.

According to the local people, a section of Dikshitars are in the news every now and then for the wrong reasons. There have been reports that they take the law into their own hands whenever some problem arises. Citing an instance, they said a group of Dikshitars assaulted mediapersons inside the temple and snatched or damaged their cameras on January 7, 2004.

Local journalists lodged a complaint with the Chidambaram town police, naming four Dikshitars. In another incident, the Dikshitars ransacked the office of the executive officer of the temple shortly after his appointment was upheld by the High Court 12 years ago. The office signboard and furniture were smashed then, local people recalled.

In Chidambaram, there are around 300 families of Dikshitars with a total population of 1,500. The portrayal of their life by Edgar Thurston in his monumental work Castes and Tribes of Southern India (1909) appears to be relevant even today: [T]hey do not give their girls in marriage to other sections of Brahmans, and they do not allow their women to leave Chidambaram. Hence arises the proverb a Thillai girl never crosses the boundary line. The Dikshitars are priests of the temple of Nataraja at Chidambaram, where they serve in turns. Males marry very early in life, and it is very difficult to secure a girl for marriage above the age of five. The tendency to marry when very young is due to the fact that only married persons have a voice in the management of the affairs of the temple, and an individual must be married before he can get a share of the temple income. The chief sources of income are the pavadam (heaps of cooked rice piled up or spread on a board), which are offered to god. Every Dikshitar will do his best to secure clients. As a class, the Dikshitars are haughty, and refuse to acknowledge any of the Sankarachariars as their priests, because they are almost equal to the god Siva, who is one of them.

Official sources deny that the government action has deprived the Dikshitars of their role in the administration of the temple. The government was only implementing the court orders. Making the official position clear to the Dikshitars, the HR&CE Commissioner, P.R. Sampath, who visited the temple on September 21, said the temple accounts would be maintained jointly by the representative of the Dikshitars and the executive officer. The HR&CE Board would introduce the double-key system for the lockers in this temple, too.

The board has submitted a detailed proposal to the 13th Finance Commission seeking Rs.38 crore for renovating the temple. Steps are on to take an inventory of the properties of the temple, including 3,489 acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) of land of which 467 acres are under the direct control of the temple, he pointed out.

The number of devotees has not dwindled in the wake of the controversy despite apprehensions raised by some sections. This is evident from the collection of Rs.6 lakh in the past six months from the hundis installed by the HR&CE on the temple premises. This only shows that the devotees, unperturbed by the huffs and puffs of the Sangh Parivar, continue to visit the temple to experience the Chidambara Rahasyam (secret of Chidambaram), local people point out.

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