Pratap, a middle-aged Hindu believer, watched people queue up to light a candle at St Antony’s Shrine in Chennai’s Parrys Corner. When asked why he, a Hindu, is making offerings to a Christian deity, he turned philosophical: “Namma atha ellam paaka mattom, namma ellorkkum onnu sami tha” (We don’t look at all that, there is only one god).
It appears many there shared his view: the people here have faith merely in God, and it did not matter which one. Their faith in the blessings of saints and gods transcends religion. There seems to be one overarching factor, a certain selfishness born out of the conviction that this God will listen to his or her prayers.
One is reminded of the courtroom scene from Parasakthi (1952), where the character of Gunasekaran (played by lead actor Sivaji Ganesan) proclaims, “My selfishness has public concern in it! Like the fish, that consumes dirt for its hunger, and still clean up the pond!”
Also Read | Memories of Madras
Across religious sites in the city, the people of Chennai set aside their differences and believe that a particular God will aid them in their personal gain, regardless of which religion they belong to. Lighting a candle at the shrine is a tradition of people across faiths. That tradition is based on the faith that God does not discriminate merely because they belong to a particular religion.
The shrine is not the only place where people congregate regardless of their faith. The Mount Road dargah fills up on Thursdays. Built near the residence of Hazrath Syed Moosa Shah Qadri Baghdadi—a saint who had come from Baghdad in the 17th century—his burial site has now become the dargah. During his time, he was believed to have healing powers, but people still have faith in those powers.
Desikan, who had just finished his rounds around the dargah and sat down to watch others partake in this ritual, admitted he had not been here in a while. When asked why he had come, he replied, “I have come to seek his blessings for betterment in the future.” Upon being questioned about his faith, he said he is a Hindu and added, “See, there is only one god whether you call it Allah, or Perumal, after a level you will know they are all only one. Only due to some historians, they have divided it.” There seems to be a lack of concern with the labels of faith, people seem to be more focussed on what this one god can offer. Parents with ailing children often come here in the hope of better health for their children.
While the Kapaleeshwarar Temple in Mylapore does not allow non-Hindus inside, its tank used to be an important site for Muslims during Ashura (the 10th day of Muharram) as the land it was built on was donated by the Nawabs of Arcot. But it no longer is, a man who runs a dargah in Mylapore told this writer. Around 30 years ago, a temple festival coincided with Ashura, and thus this long tradition was stopped. But there seems to be no animosity between communities as a Hindu woman walks towards the dargah to offer her prayers, he uses a bunch of peacock feathers to bless her.
Also Read | March of Madras
But one ought to remember there is not necessarily an ideal of Chennai’s great secularism. Given the lack of commitment to something like that, there are times when it does not all work out well: be it the 1990 Madras riots or the intra-faith issues like caste which remain ever present in our society.
At the end of the day, the people of the city do not seem to bother with who follows what faith. Like Gunasekaran in Parasakthi, they are all acting in their self-interest which leads to a pleasant by-product of communal harmony.
V. Arjun Reddy interned with Frontline during the months of July and August 2023.