Tamil Nadu election 2021: Power of the state's temples goes far beyond religion, shapes identity

Tamilians don't just pray in temples; they see them as community spaces that reaffirm social unity

Vishal Vasanth April 02, 2021 14:05:22 IST
Tamil Nadu election 2021: Power of the state's temples goes far beyond religion, shapes identity

Representational image. Shutterstock

In early November, the Tamil Nadu BJP president, L Murugan, launched the 'Vetrivel Yatra', a tour to cover the six abodes, Arupadaiveedu, of Lord Murugan considered to be one of the native Tamil gods. The plan was based on one of the most successful templates the BJP has used, a yatra in the name of god. According to the senior brass of the BJP in Tamil Nadu, this yatra was intended to send a message that Tamil Nadu is a spiritual land and that any "insult to Lord Muruga will not be tolerated".

Pictures of L Murugan dressed in saffron holding the vel, the spear of the deity might yet be one of the most beguiling and contradictory images seen in Tamil politics, which is known for symbolism. Tamil Nadu, for long, has had a tradition of tolerance and secularism and this yatra was to have a polarising effect.

The Vetrivel Yatra ignited the fury of even the AIADMK, the BJP's ally. Through its official mouthpiece Nammadhu Amma, the party hit out on the BJP saying that Tamil Nadu is a state of peace and harmony, and that nobody will be allowed to conduct disruptive yatras.

Temples in Tamil Nadu have been places of enormous significance for at least the past 15 centuries. They have not only been places of worship, but have held significance in the social, economic and political developments of their communities. People in Tamil Nadu have gathered at temples not just to offer their prayers, but to also gather as a community and participate in rituals reaffirming social unity.

According to renowned scholar Arjun Appadurai, the Tamil temple has been regarded as a stage, ie a 'symbolic space' where social statuses are publicly displayed and sometimes challenged. That the Tamil temple is a place to cement identity can be seen in the popping-up of Murugan temples in different parts of the world, from Montreal to Mauritius to Singapore to the border town of Moreh in Manipur. There are Murugan temples in five continents now, which as a consequence, has allowed for a unity within the Tamil diaspora in these continents.

Indeed, revival of Tamil culture also coincided with the renovation and popularisation of Murugan temples across the state. Recognising this, M Karunanidhi, the late five-time chief minister and president of the DMK asserted that Murugan was the god of DMK, in the temple town of Palani in 1971. Similarly, Tamil identity has been asserted through the Mariamman temple, where different versions of the "Amman" manifestations of Kali/Durga can be found across the state. The faith in Murugan and Amman is so strong in Tamil Nadu, that for centuries, people's social, political and economical lives have revolved around the temple and their deities.

The production of a collective identity of the "Tamil" has for long been cemented by territory, particularly the six abodes, because a network of temples can be mapped, bordered and shown whereas a collective identity cannot.

Herein lie the misgivings of Hindutva in Tamil Nadu, because it does not recognise the collective identity that the Tamil temple has given to the people of this state for centuries.

The French sociologist, Pierre-Yves Troulliet, makes a significant point where he argues that Tamil temples have been central to triggering local development and settlement growth. Indeed, no south Indian town has been founded at random, but always where a myth recounts that the divine manifested itself there (generally a buried statue of a linga or a goddess). Madurai, Tiruvanamalai, Tiruchengodu, Palani are excellent examples. Even in the sprawling city of Chennai, the areas of Mylapore and Triplicane originated with the Kapaleeshwar and Parthasarthy temple as its centre. The narrative that Tamil Hindus are in danger seems to have dissonance because a significant part of the Tamil identity is to be devout.

Another strategy of the BJP has been to portray the DMK as an anti-Hindu party, attacking the DMK's long legacy of atheism and rationalism. While atheism has long been an ideology of the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK), members of the DMK have followed the Tamil tradition of being deep believers in Murugan and Amman. For decades, local party leaders have contributed to their local temple funds and organised Annadhanams, the sacred tradition of offering food to large groups of people within the temple. When I visited the homes of certain party leaders, I noticed large pooja rooms with enormous portraits of Murugan and was even once asked to wait for over an hour as a local DMK leader finished his morning pooja.

The DMK minority wings secretary the MLA of Gingee, G Masthan even contributed Rs 11,000 towards the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. He also claimed that he has attended over 320 temple festivals in the last five years. The DMK's manifesto for the upcoming election has allocated Rs 1,000 crore for the renovation and consecration of Hindu temples and has promised to allow people of all castes to become priests. All these acts are part of the shared and lived realities of these local communities, since the DMK is a cadre-based party with a deep connection to ground realities.

The DMK for long has unequivocally stated that it is not against any religion or temple, but against the idea of Brahminism, where Brahmins are superior in status by birth and others are inferior. This rationalism and secularism has allowed for the Tamil identities and Hinduism to be interpreted and re-interpreted. If Muruga and Amman were not subject to interpretation and thus to reinterpretation, they wouldn’t continue to guide the Tamil people over long centuries, something which Lord Ram and Hindutva don't seem to allow.

For Tamil Nadu, this rationalism and secularism is not a bug but a feature for continuity of its identity.

The author is an alumnus of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and an independent researcher working at the intersection of caste, politics and education. Views expressed are personal

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