The attractive temple car (ther in Tamil) that is at the centre of the controversy, belongs to the Sri Swarnamoorthi Easwarar temple at Kandadevi, 4 km from Devakottai. The village was part of Ramnad district until 1985, when the district was trifurcated. The district itself was earlier part of a larger Madura district. Edgar Thurston, the renowned museologist and ethnographer, states in his Castes and Tribes of Southern India (1909), Vol. III; in the entry on Kallan: "Portions of the Madura and Tanjore districts are divided into areas known as nadus, a name which, as observed by Mr. Nelson, is specially applicable to Kallan tracts." (page 72) (Kallan or Kallar denotes a caste group, which is part of the Mukkulathor, now a dominant caste in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu. Maravar and Agamudaiyar are the other components of the Mukkulathor community. The Chola country of Tanjore is stated to be the original abode of the Kallars before they migrated to the Madurai region, the then Pandya kingdom. Agriculture was said to be their major occupation.) On the whole there were 37 "nadus" in the two districts, of which 14 were said to be in the Sivaganga region. ("Nadu" was a group of villages under the Chola administrative system.)
Thurston writes: "Round about Devakotta in the Sivaganga zamindari there are fourteen nadus, representatives of which meet once a year at Kandadevi, to arrange for the annual festival at the temple dedicated to Swarnamurthi Swami." That the four "nadus" [Unjanai, Semponmari, Thennilai and Eravuseri], whose so-called heads have now been asserting their "customary" rights over the pulling of the Kandadevi ther, are part of these 14 "nadus" and the four constituted a group and the `Tennilai nadu' was considered the chief "nadu", "where at caste questions must come up for settlement". Each "nadu" is headed by an Ambalakaran (president of an assembly) and the Ambalakarans took upon themselves the power to adjudicate disputes that arose among the inhabitants in the "nadu", belonging to different castes. They used to hear complaints, hold inquiries and punish the offenders. They wielded considerable powers to intervene in any kind of transaction or transfer of property among the people. No land could be alienated from one man to another without the permission of the Ambalakkarans. They were known for awarding crude punishments and collecting oppressive taxes from the people.
Although stripped of much of their powers during the British Raj and later after Independence, they are still said to hold sway over a section of the people, with money, muscle power and political support. Describing the "nadus" as states within a state, advocate Bhaktavatsalam said the so-called heads of these "nadus" had no powers to adjudicate or award punishments. The power they claimed to enjoy had no legal basis whatsoever, he said. "In areas where they hold influence, they don't allow anybody to sell land to Dalits," Bhaktavatsalam alleged.
The entire Kandadevi region and also the adjacent places in the old East Ramnad district have been known for atrocities against Dalits for over a century. Dalits have been victims of deep-rooted prejudice and untouchability, which still manifest themselves in several forms. Their resistance against oppression is also nearly a century old. The first conference of Dalits was held at Paramakudi in the district as early as in 1810. Struggles have been waged against untouchability since the 1850s. Mahatma Gandhi visited Devakottai in 1934 to condole the death of Poochi, a Dalit, in the movement against untouchability, and held discussions with Dalits and Nattars, who were opposed to Dalits wearing shirts. From the Mudukulathur riots of 1956 to the multiple murders at Unjanai in 1979, the region has seen scores of incidents in which Dalits were the victims.
Although there have been clashes of such magnitude between Dalits and Mukkulathor, there have also been several occasions when the people of these two caste groups, most of whom are poor agricultural workers, have unitedly fought against the colonial rule and also against landlordism. Hundreds of people from both the castes participated in the 1942 Quit India Movement. In the police firing at Devakottai, more than 75 persons lost their lives.
Amidst the tension over issues such as the denial of rights to Dalits at the Kandadevi festival, several Dalits said that despite such clashes the caste Hindus had not been unfriendly to them in day-to-day life. The head of the Unjanai "nadu", Rm. Ramasamy, told Frontline that for most part of the year "we have been maintaining cordial relations. We are mutually dependent. Without unity we cannot produce even a single grain".
Dalits are not unaware of the reasons for this contradiction. When A.S.A. Karuppiah, treasurer of the district unit of the Puthiya Thamizhagam, explained that in the past Dalits had been allowed to participate in pulling the temple car along with others and wondered why they should not be allowed now, a woman in the same family, Muthu, interjected: "It is very simple. In those days they had to pull the temple car along roads filled with stones and thorn and they needed you for your physical labour. Now that they have a tar road, they don't need us."