Kashi Tamil Sangamam | Forging a connect along the Ganga’s ghats

The Union government’s month-long Kashi Tamil Sangamam seeks to celebrate the bond between Varanasi and Tamil Nadu. Jagriti Chandra accompanies a batch of visitors as they visit temples, attend cultural programmes and academic sessions, and form first impressions

Updated - December 17, 2022 05:21 pm IST

Published - December 17, 2022 02:49 am IST

Participants of the Kashi Tamil Sangamam take a dip in the Ganga at the Hanuman Ghat in Varanasi.

Participants of the Kashi Tamil Sangamam take a dip in the Ganga at the Hanuman Ghat in Varanasi. | Photo Credit: V.V. Krishnan

On the banks of the river Ganga, at the Dashashwamedh Ghat in Varanasi, priests hold brightly lit lamps under glittering parasols. Yuvraj Elumalaivasan has grabbed a front-row seat on the deck of a boat to watch the famous Ganga aarti, but scores of dinghies laden with devotees obstruct his view. Yuvraj is not complaining, however — hearing prayer bells and seeing lamps glow in the distance is a heady experience. This is his first boat ride ever, on his first trip outside Tamil Nadu.

Historical links

Yuvraj, 20, is in Varanasi as part of the Union government’s 30-day Kashi Tamil Sangamam. This programme aims to celebrate the bond between Kashi (the ancient name of Varanasi) and Tamil Nadu under the framework of ‘Ek Bharat, Shreshtha Bharat’, which seeks to enhance interactions between people of different States and Union Territories. Yuvraj is one of the roughly 2,500 guests from Tamil Nadu to arrive in Uttar Pradesh in 12 batches. As part of the programme, the participants travel from Varanasi to Sarnath, Ayodhya and Prayagraj over six days. On November 16, the first groups from Tamil Nadu began to make their way to Kashi for the Sangamam, which concludes on December 19. This period was chosen for the event as it coincides with the Hindu month of Karthigai and will also enable guests from the south to finish their journey before the coldest winter spell arrives in north India.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the event on November 19, he referred to Kashi as the “cultural capital of India”. His speech was translated live in Tamil. The Kashi Tamil Sangamam presents a panoramic Hindu identity by linking the two regions as the oldest and most important centres of traditional knowledge systems. Ancient Indian philosophers from Tamil Nadu, like Ramunajacharya, travelled to Kashi to expand their spiritual learnings. The Tenkasi and Sivakasi temples in Tamil Nadu are said to be inspired by Varanasi’s Kashi Vishwanath temple after the Pandya king, Adhiveera Rama Pandiyan, went on a pilgrimage to Varanasi. In Tamil Brahmin weddings, the groom embarks on a Kashi Yatra before he is called back to marry the bride. There are also references to Kashi in Tamil texts such as Kalittokai and Thiruppugazh.

Modi also appealed to Tamil pride by calling Tamil the oldest language in the world. He released the translation of the Thirukkural in 13 languages and announced that a chair dedicated to the Tamil poet Subramania Bharati, or Bharatiyar, would be set up in Banaras Hindu University (BHU). He shared the stage with Uttar Pradesh Governor Anandiben Patel and Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, and Minister of State for Animal Husbandry L. Murugan. Composer and Rajya Sabha member Ilaiyaraja sang at the event, where the heads of nine adheenams (mutts) of Tamil Nadu were present. There was, however, no representation from the Tamil Nadu government, which the Centre claims to have invited.

At the ghats

The morning after the aarti, Yuvraj gets ready to take a dip in the chilly waters of the Ganga. Older guests offer water to the sun, blow conch shells, chant prayers and change into fresh clothes. Some smear sacred ash on their foreheads.

“It is difficult for me to describe the emotions I felt while watching the Ganga aarti last night and the beautiful view this morning,” says Yuvraj after his dip. “By sponsoring our travel and giving importance to the Tamil people, the Prime Minister is spreading Tamil culture...” His voice is drowned out by slogans of ‘Har Har Mahadev’, ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’ and ‘Narendra Modi ki jai’.

Yuvraj and his college mates belong to a group which primarily comprises yoga teachers, astrologers, priests, temple cleaners, and people who chant hymns in temples. The different batches arriving in Varanasi belong to 12 different categories: students, artisans, literature, business, teacher, heritage, entrepreneurs, professionals, temples, spirituality, rural, and culture. The Indian Institute of Technology Madras, which is providing IT support for the event, launched a website for the registration of participants. The Director of IIT Madras, Professor V. Kamakoti, says candidates above the age of 18 were selected from across Tamil Nadu. Those travelling to Varanasi for the first time were given priority. There is an equal mix of men and women, and the participants are from different castes.

The group then makes its way through narrow streets to visit other spots on their itinerary. As they approach Bharatiyar’s residence near Hanuman ghat, they break into a slogan: “Glory upon Tamil poet Bharatiyar.” Inside the house, nearly everyone starts recording videos of Bharatiyar’s grand-niece who speaks about the three years spent by the great Tamil poet in Varanasi. She says he learned languages such as Sanskrit, Hindi and Urdu during his time here. Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and Bipin Chandra Pal inspired him and influenced his sartorial style, she says, referring to his iconic white turban.

But soon enough, there are political undertones in the conversation. K.V.R. Karthik, who is wearing a t-shirt depicting Bharatiyar, gets emotional. A Brahmin and a supporter of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), he says: “People look at Bharatiyar as a Brahmin, but look at his contribution to the freedom movement. He wrote songs exhorting people to join the freedom movement, to make weapons for protecting the country. On the other hand, Periyar wanted the British to continue to rule over India, yet the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) only promotes him.”

Karthik comes from Kovilpatti in Thoothukudi district. “The Prime Minister is promoting Tamil culture, whereas the State government and the regional parties have failed to do so. They only want us to believe in the greatness of the Tamil people and create a north-south divide,” he says. Karthik claims that the Tamil Nadu government is promoting conflicts over language, but “doing little to promote the Tamil language.”

After a morning tour of the ghats, the group attends an academic session on spirituality inside the Kashi Vishwanath temple. On their first day, they had already made a trip to this temple as well to the Kalbhairav and Annapurna temples — all part of their itinerary.

An undergraduate student who was part of the delegation of the Kashi Tamil Sangamam enjoying a dip in the Ganga at the Hanuman Ghat.

An undergraduate student who was part of the delegation of the Kashi Tamil Sangamam enjoying a dip in the Ganga at the Hanuman Ghat. | Photo Credit: V.V. Krishnan

Inside the Kashi Vishwanath temple, they are told about Lord Shiva and his different manifestations. The Vice Chancellor of the Tamil Nadu Dr. MGR Medical University, Sudha Seshayyan, discusses Lord Shiva’s cosmic dance as a symbol of his omnipresence. The Working President of the Kashi Vidwat Parishad, Vashishth Tripathi, says, “Kashi is the source of all knowledge. This is the city that enhanced Adi Shankaracharya’s and Ramunajacharya’s learnings. When we talk about the confluence of Kashi and Tamil, we mean there is a similarity in their way of life as it is shaped by Sanskrit. But due to political reasons, there is a discriminatory view in different regions. These differences are to such an extent that if we support Hindi, we face stiff opposition from the other side. It is the goal of the Kashi Vidwat Parishad to resolve such confusion. An attempt has now been made.”

Planning and execution

The Kashi Tamil Sangamam was proposed by the High-Powered Committee for the Promotion of Indian Languages, or Bharatiya Bhasha Samiti, appointed by the Ministry of Education. A concept note was presented to Modi by the Chairperson of the Bharatiya Bhasha Samiti, Chamu Krishna Shastry, at the end of September. A final decision to hold the event was taken on October 20, which gave the organisers less than a month to pull it off. The website for the event says the objective of the programme is to ensure a “holistic” approach to education, as mentioned in the National Education Policy (NEP) of 2020, which includes integration of the “wealth of Indian knowledge systems”. This holistic approach, says Shastry, includes four inter-related domains — language, knowledge, art and culture. The Sangamam is a counter to the DMK’s stiff opposition to the NEP. (While the NEP promotes a three-language formula including Hindi, Tamil Nadu has a dual language policy of Tamil and English.)

Various ministries of the Government of India worked on this event. Pradhan is known to have instructed district officials and representatives from various government agencies to treat visitors from Tamil Nadu as the “Prime Minister’s personal guests”. The Prime Minister’s Office was also involved in arrangements such as earmarking 10 beds at a local medical college for any emergency. However, the organisers refused to divulge the expenditure incurred for the event.

Many participants have expressed their gratitude to Modi for giving them such “VIP treatment”. There is a red carpet rolled out on the platform and the foyer at the Varanasi railway station. Once they arrive, the participants are greeted with garlands and rose petals as chants of ‘Har Har Mahadev’ ring in the background. Through their train journey too, they say they were greeted in a similar manner at important junctions, and served with refreshments. Police personnel ensure that the participants are protected at the ghats. Personnel from the National Disaster Response Force stand alert on life boats in case of any accident. The participants are served south Indian meals and provided with warm clothing.

The cultural programme at the Kashi Tamil Sangamam.

The cultural programme at the Kashi Tamil Sangamam. | Photo Credit: V.V. Krishnan

The themes for the academic session for the participants include Bharatiyar’s Kashi connect for the literature group, Vaishnavite and Shaivite mutts and temples in the two cities for the cultural group, lectures on Shiva for those interested in spirituality, and ancient pedagogical methods and the need to use ancient storytelling forms in modern education for teachers. Those from the heritage group learn, for instance, about the Kallanai dam which runs across the Cauvery river and was built during the reign of the Chola king, Karikalan. The cultural evening includes Bharatanatyam and folk art (such as Karakaattam, Poikkal Kuthirai and Thappaattam) performances, folk music, and bhajans by musicians from Varanasi. Dignitaries at the cultural programmes or those who addressed the Tamil guests include Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, Home Minister Amit Shah, Governor of Telangana and Lieutenant Governor of Puducherry Tamilisai Soundararajan, Governor of Tamil Nadu R.N. Ravi, Tata Sons Chairman N. Chandrasekaran, and Thuglak editor S. Gurumurthy.

A Tamil Nadu academic involved in planning the academic sessions says a ‘core group’ of experts was involved in finalising the themes. A professor at BHU, which, along with IIT Madras, is the knowledge partner for the event, was assigned the task of overseeing the academic sessions. There is confusion in the faculty about the role of the university in conducting the event, says the professor: “We were initially excited about the academic sessions. But it became clear that this isn’t just an academic exercise. There is a different agenda. We have only provided the venue and logistical support.”

Meanwhile, at an exhibition, books on learning to speak, read and write Tamil are sold out, as many Hindi speakers are keen to learn the language. At the BHU’s Department of Indian Languages, there are at least 40 students enrolled for Tamil language courses. Some were drawn to the language after watching Tamil cinema. The Department has also attracted students from Tamil Nadu who are eager to learn Hindi.

The political backdrop

Shastry says, “The inter-mingling of visitors from Tamil Nadu and the locals reveals innate oneness as well as mutual affection despite language barriers. The 100-150-year-old concept of Dravidian identity is just a political narrative. There is no divisiveness in people’s hearts. There is all-pervasive oneness.” He says people from Kerala are now coming forward to talk about their commonalities with places such as Madhya Pradesh and those from Karnataka are referring to their similarities with Kashmir.

Tamil Nadu, with its anti-Hindi protests and a belief in a distinct Dravidian identity, is seen as an obstacle for the BJP’s electoral juggernaut. While the BJP has registered victories in Karnataka, it has not been able to breach the Tamil Nadu fort. Its march towards Tamil Nadu comes at a time when the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) is imploding and the DMK is struggling to shed its “anti-Hindu” image in the face of the BJP’s Hindutva push.

“The BJP is trying to rewrite the Tamil cultural narrative shaped by the Dravidian movement that rose in the 1900s and soon became a political movement. And it can’t do so without mixing it with religion. The Kashi Tamil Sangamam has parallels in the BJP’s Ram Mandir politics. And language is a sacred issue in Tamil Nadu. Since the BJP has no credentials to speak about it, it is again mixing it with religion to draw the Tamils,” says Ramu Manivannan, Professor and former head of Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of Madras.

But Yuvraj couldn’t care less about the politics. He says he has come to have fun. One of his older co-travellers breaks into an impromptu dance during the cultural evening. The performances at BHU are the group’s final programme in Varanasi before they leave for Sarnath, Ayodhya and Prayagraj.

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