Tracing the history of self-sacrifice that has been prevalent since the 8th century AD

From time immemorial, whether it is to express one's supreme love for gods, kings and lords or to express their vehement protest against an authority, people have sacrificed their lives.

The scriptures describe self-sacrifice as the noblest of all sacrifices — dedicating the body, mind and soul to God — but most martyrs killed themselves for a social cause they espoused or for the welfare of their benefactors. Among recent incidents of sacrifice was K. Muthukamar's self-immolation in 2009 against the genocide of minority Sri Lankan Tamils.

Madurai abounds in such acts of selflessness. C. Santhalingam, retired Archaeological Officer, says, “Evidence of self-sacrifice in Tamil Nadu was prevalent even in the 8th and 9th century AD.” In Mahabalipuram, the fifth ratha of Kali , also known as Kotravai, records that self-sacrifice was prevalent. That temple dates from the 8th century.

The earliest record of self-sacrifice near Madurai is found at Madapuram Kali Amman Temple. In the bas-relief sculptures belonging to 9th and 10th century, people are seen in a kneeling position. The inscription refers to two persons – Sithira Sarithan and Vallabhan — and it reads, “Thoongu thalai koduthan Sithira Sarithan” and “Thoongu thalai koduthan Vallabhan.”

In Thenkarai village near Madurai, a similar bas-relief is found opposite the Moola Natha Swamy Temple built in 946-966 AD. On the basis of the features in bas-relief, it is dated from the 10th century, adds Mr. Santhalingam. The structure shows a person slitting his own throat.

Earlier, self-sacrifices were known as ‘Nava Kandam.' People used to have their bodies chopped into nine parts and offered at the altar of Goddess Kali, Mr. Shanthalingam notes and adds that the 12th century court poet of Chola rulers Jeyamkondar refers to ‘Nava Kandam' in his renowned work ‘Kalingathu Parani.'

V. Vedachalam, senior epigraphist, says, “There existed another form of self-sacrifice called ‘Thoongu thalai notral.' When Goddess Kali fulfils the devotee's wish, he chops off his head, which would be tied to the tree.”

At Mallal near Ilayankudi, in the 11th century a soldier sacrificed his life for the welfare of his chieftain during the reign of Kulothunga Chola I (1070-1120). According to an inscription found near the Kali Temple at Mallal, a soldier prays to Kali to cure his master, who is suffering from disease. When his master is cured, the soldier sacrifices his head to Kali. This blood shedding is also known as ‘uthirapatti' and his family members were rewarded with land, says Mr. Vedachalam.

Mr. Santhalingam mentions a similar 10th century inscription at Mannarkottai near Virudhunagar. It narrates that one Velan Seezhapugalan, a resident of Surankudinattu Aathanur, sacrificed his life for the welfare of his master, Kaliyuga Kandadi Dharmachetti.

“One of the five Tamil epics, Manimegalai, authored by Tamil Buddhist poet Seethalai Saathanar, has a reference about ‘Thoongu thalai notral.' The poet describes how the temple tree of Goddess Kali is seen bent with too many heads offered as sacrifice,” adds Mr. Vedachalam.

With time, perhaps the method of dying for a cause took a different form, as at Tiruparankundram and Meenakshi Amman Temples in Madurai. In 1792, the British Army invaded Madurai and destroyed sub-shrines of Tiruparankundram temple, namely Chokkanathar Temple and Palani Andavar Temple located on the western end of the hillock. They also devastated the village.

When the army captured Asthana Mandap and tried to occupy Kalyana Mandap of the Tiruparankundram temple, six temple officials –

Sundara Pattar, Deivendra Pattar, Kutti Pattar, Chidambaram Pillai, Vizhupatharayar and Nallamani Muthu Karuppa Pillai — and members of six security divisions decided to put an end to the atrocities on the village, people and temple.

They lured a temple menial, Vairavi Kutty, son of Muthu Karuppan, to jump off the gopuram as a mark of protest against the entry of the British Army into the temple. For this self-sacrifice, the family of Kutty was rewarded with lands.

“Vairavi is a community who are always ready to sacrifice their lives for any noble cause,” says Mr. Santhalingam.

The self-sacrifice of Kutty was recorded in an inscription and laid on the pathway of the gopuram (Gopura nadai vaasal) exactly between the pillars at the temple's entrance. With frequent use of the pathway, the letters disappeared, says Mr. Santhalingam.

The details of the inscription are recorded in the monograph on Tiruparankundram authored in 1981 by C. Bose, who also worked as a curator at the Museum of Thirumalai Naicker Mahal during that time.

Mr. Bose gives an account of another such incident at the temple. In the 18th century, one Ellappa Mudali, son of Andaraaparana Mudali, fell from the gopuram to establish his right over some property. There are no proper records available about this incident.

The cynosure of Madurai, Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple, also has such an inscription at the northern wall of the East Rajagopuram.

According to the inscription, in 1710, during the regime of Vijaya Ranga Chokkanatha Naicker, a resident of Madurai sacrificed his life opposing heavy taxation on temple lands.

In another incident, a person jumped from the eastern tower to highlight poor administration of the temple.

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