The raging controversy did not die down even after Mahatma Gandhi attempted to broker peace during his visit to Devakottai on January 28, 1934

The Kandadevi temple car, which came to a grinding halt in 1998 after Dalits asserted their right to pull it, has been in the centre of controversy ever since it was rolled out with four ‘vadams’ (ropes), exclusively meant for caste Hindus, more than 200 years ago.

The raging controversy refused to die down even after Mahatma Gandhi attempted to broker peace between the ‘Nattars’ (Kallars) and Dalits during his visit to Devakottai on January 28, 1934. At his meeting with the Nattars, Mahatma Gandhi appealed to them to “do justice to the Harijans and treat them kindly as brothers.” This year’s Aani (June-July) festival of the Sri Swarnamurtheeswarar Temple, popularly known as Kandadevi temple, begins on Wednesday amid the controversy. The 10-day main festival begins with flag hoisting after the Madras High Court cleared the decks a fortnight ago.

The festival is expected to pass off peacefully as the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court had said ‘no’ to two contentious issues – pulling of the temple car and according special honours to the heads (Ambalams) of four ‘nadus.’

“We have taken all efforts to ensure that the festival is held peacefully in compliance with the High Court order,” Superintendent of Police Ashwin M. Kotnis told The Hindu. He said 120 police personnel, including a company of Tamil Nadu Special Police, had been deployed for the festival.

Dravidian leader P. R. Chandran, who has done extensive research on the issue, said the temple was built during the Nambi Pallavarayan period about 1,000 years ago and the car festival witnessed the first major law and order problem in 1875 when eight people were killed in a clash. After the British intervened, the temple car was entrusted with the Devakottai Zamin in 1895, but the ‘Nattars’ got it back a year later and resumed the festival in 1896.

“The festival was held every year since 1896, but not without clashes and controversies after cultural and societal changes started taking place,” Mr. Chandran says in his book “Porum Therum.”

From time immemorial, only the ‘Nattars’ or Ambalams of four ‘Nadus’ – Iruvaseri, Unjanai, Semponmari and Thennilai – were allowed to pull the car, while Dalits were asked to push it from behind, whenever it got stuck, he says in the book.

Alleging discrimination, Dalit Viduthalai Koottamaippu leader V. Karunanidhi said, “We oppose the recognition of the ‘Nattars’ and ‘Nadus,’ which are symbols of slavery and Dalit discrimination.”

Though Dalits took part in the temple festival and worship, they were not given a free hand in car pulling and performance of ‘mandagapadi,’ he lamented. Even now, only caste Hindus are allowed to perform ‘mandagapadis.’

Denying Dalit discrimination, M. Athmanathan, Kandadevi Nattu Ambalam (coming under Unjaini Naadu), said the ‘Nattars’ wholeheartedly accepted Dalit participation in the car festival and it was unfortunate some vested interests kicked up a row.

The temple festival has lost its sheen this year as the car festival could not be held and the ‘Nattars’ were not involved in organising the festival, he said. “The festival will regain its grandeur only if the ‘Nattars’ are involved,” he said. The ‘Nattars’ are only interested in organising the historic festival in a grand manner and never wanted to discriminate Dalits and other communities, he added.

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