It was a process that began in the mid-1980s in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu, and it is now all-pervasive. Folk deities in innumerable temples have gradually attained the status of Vedic gods, with the metamorphosis seen in every aspect ranging from the temple structure to the performance of rituals.
Kanyakumari, Tirunelveli and Tuticorin districts have countless temples dedicated to folk deities such as Sudalaimadan, Mutharamman, Santhanamari Amman, Soodapidari Amman and their familiars. Most of them now bear a close resemblance to the traditional temples of Vedic gods, albeit without a granite structure.
Kodai, the temple festival in these temples in the past, used to begin with the performance of rural art forms such as naiyandi melam, karagam, villupattu and kaniyan koothu. Now, the festival invariably begins with vilakku pooja, associated with the Vedic tradition, and chanting of Sanskrit slogans. This process is alien to the folk tradition.
“It is not a planned process in general, but it was meticulously planned in Kanyakumari district. It is the first step towards the Sanskritisation process and resulted in the folk tradition gradually losing its core elements, especially rituals and folk art forms. It will also pave way for monoculture, instead of pluralism,” says A.K. Permual, who has done extensive research on folk tradition, deities and arts.
While retaining the folk elements wherever necessary, the Sanskritisation process has introduced vast changes in the way people worship their folk deities. Old temple structures—constructed like traditional houses—were demolished and new temples with sanctum sanctorum and a vimana over it and a gopuram at the entrance were created.
Priests from Kerala are invited to do prasnam before construction and they again visit to perform kumbhabishekam. Folk deities made of limestone and sand (suthai) have been replaced with granite idols so that abishekam can be performed in Vedic style. “There is change even in the food culture. Milk payasam and aravanai are included in the menu in addition to the traditional puttu amudhu and non-vegetarian padayal. Even blood sacrifice has been given up in many temples,” Mr. Perumal says.
Tho. Paramasivam, former head of the Tamil department of Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, says the moment the folk deity made of sand is replaced with a granite structure it will be alienated from its people.
“In folk tradition, the deity eats the regular food of the devotee. Banning of blood sacrifice is unacceptable,” says Mr. Paramasivam.
Asked what was wrong in constructing a new temple and offering new things when the devotee was economically empowered, he wonders whether economic empowerment would lead to a person becoming a vegetarian. “The relationship between the folk deity and devotee is that of a father and son,” he says.
This relationship has been effectively captured by writer Jayamohan in his short story Madan Motcham.
Expressing concern over the changes in the folk tradition, V. Umaiyorbhagan, Principal, Noorul Islam College of Arts and Science, contends that culture and civilisation cannot be adjusted for the requirement of modern times.
Caste barriers remain
But one striking aspect of Sanskritisation is that while it has established a close connection between the Hindus and their religion, it is not able to bring down caste barriers. Each caste has its own Sudalaimadan, Mutharamman and Santhana mariamman.
Mr. Umaiorubhagan says as Hinduism is not an institutionalised religion, caste has become an institution and is dictating terms. “Caste will always reduplicate itself,” says Mr. Paramasivam.