In the southern districts of Tamil Nadu, why is a community’s power judged by the size of its temple for certain deities?

Long ago, when I was a college student, our village committee had an urgent meeting to discuss the demand of the priest-cum-oracle of Sudalaimadan, the presiding deity of graveyards.

“I was not able to sleep for even one moment for a minute last night. Sudalaimadan appeared before me and insisted on organising a kodai (festival),” the oracle told the village seniors.

I was taken aback - even though I'd heard a lot of similar stories of folk deities talking to their priests and implementing their demands in return for favours. But now an atheist and a member of a communist party, I could not laugh at the man. I just intervened to say, “We can have kodai next year as the village people have already spent some money for sambrokshnam of Madhusoothana Perumal temple.”

He immediately placed the key of the gate to the graveyard before the village committee, saying, “I cannot perform pooja any more. He will not allow me inside unless I promise a kodai. Let someone else perform the pooja.”

Finally everyone agreed, partly because of his insistence and partly out of fear of antagonising the powerful Sudalaimadan, who is considered the incarnation of Lord Siva. The very first hymn of Thirugnanasambandar, the youngest among the four saivaite saints, “Kaadudaliya sudalali podi poosi yen ullam kavar kalvan,” attests to this old belief.

A week after this incident, I read Thisaikali Naduvey, a short story collection penned by Jayamohan. One of the stories is Madan Motchan, written in a powerful and authentic dialect of the Kanyakumri district. It captures the relationship between Sudalaimadan and his oracle Appi even as it deals with the process of sanskritisation in the district. The story brought back memories of the incident in my village and opened my eyes to this phenomenon, whose name owes itself to a coinage by anthropologist M.N. Srinivas in his work, A Remembered Village.

At the end of the story, Sudalaimadan, appropriated by Brahmin priests from Kerala, could only squirm in his pedestal. The deity relished chicken, mutton, dry fish, washed down with fine home-distilled arrack and, above all, taking a deep puff of suruttu (cigar), but had to settle with pal payasam, a sugary concoction of milk, and aravanai, a sweet rice-based dish cooked Kerala-style. Though he felt like throwing up at the smell of ghee and milk, Madan could do nothing.

Pushed to the corner, he picked up his long sickle and try to jump on the Vedic priest, only to realise that he, now under the influence of Vedic mantras, could not move.

Jayamohan’s story encapsulates what is going in every village in the southern districts. No community has been able to immunise itself against the process of sanskritaisation.

The Vedic invasion

“There were no temples for Sudalaimadan in the past. Other female folk deities were accommodated in temples, which would resemble a house in the village. Today, we have a sanctum sanctorum for all these temples,” said Prof A.K. Perumal, who has conducted extensive research on folk deities and folk music.

In the past, lime and sand worked into a fine paste was used to make the image, sudhai, of folk deities. Abisekam, a practice of dousing the deity's form with certain liquids, was not performed as it would destroy the structure. "Now, images in granite stones have replaced old structures and the local priests pour milk, honey, curd and panchamirtham on the deities, a practice followed only in Vedic temples,” Prof. Perumal added.

A community following the sanskritisation process more intensely than the rest is that of the Nadars, known for their hard-working and enterprising nature. Kanyakumari, once part of Kerala and referred to as a lunatic asylum by Swami Vivekananda, denied the Nadars entry into temples during festivals. In fact, they couldn't even enter the streets when the temple car would be pulled.

A bamboo fencing called theru maraichan used to be temporarily erected at the entrance of every road and street leading to the main village to prevent them. The discrimination provided a fertile breeding ground for Christian missionaries to proselytise the community. However, a total-conversion was prevented by the emergence of Ayya Vaikunda Swamy, a local godman, whose later prominence owed itself to a religious assertion of the Hindu Nadars in the wake of communal riots in the 1980s.

The assertion also led to the construction of new temples for all folk deities. Sudalaimadan, who once suffered the scorching sun and muddy rain without a roof above his head and roamed around the village after midnight, now was confined to a temple and behind an iron gate.

“The religious assertion is fine. But they are once again allowing the Brahmins in the temples in the name of performing kumbabishekam and prasannam. Since Nadars are rich, the priests from the Brahmin community are cheating them in the name of these rituals,” said Captain S.P. Kutty, once a militant RSS man and now disenchanted with the BJP.

Some members of Mr. Kutty’s family, including his father and mother, converted to Christianity but he remained a Hindu even though he painfully recalled how his community was humiliated by the Namboothiris and Potris, who performed poojas in temples. The assertion inevitably helped politicians play the Hindutva card. In fact, it was people like Mr. Kutty and others who toured through villages and mobilised Nadars under the roof of Hinduism.

As writer Lakshmi Manivannan said: “The Mutharamman temple represents the institutionalised religion in Nadar settlements.” But every community in the southern districts has followed the 'Kanyakumari model'. Now, a community’s wealth and power is judged by the size of the temple for Mutharamman or Sudalaimadan in its village.