Nothing encapsulates the importance of Sengol or sceptre more than the words spoken by Chera King Cheran Senguttuvan in Silapathikaram, the first Tamil epic with the common man and woman as hero and heroine. When he heard about the death of Pandiyan Nedunchezhian, the King of Madurai, Chera King Cheran Senguttuvan says, “Pandiyan offered his life and restored the uprightness of Sengol bent by the fate of injustice.”
Pandiyan fell from his throne and died after realising that he had committed an injustice by mistakenly ordering capital punishment to Kovalan, the hero and husband of Kannagi, the heroine. “Am I a king? I am a thief,” he utters before his death.
Sengol has drawn the attention of the nation after the BJP government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to keep in the new Parliament building the sceptre presented by the Thiruvavaduthurai Math to the country’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, on the eve of India’s Independence.
Sceptre, a decorated rod made of gold and studded with precious stones, is held by kings and queens as a symbol of authority and power on ceremonial occasions, particularly in Western countries. Recently, during the coronation of King Charles III of the U.K., the Archbishop of Canterbury placed a golden sceptre in his hand.
In Tamil tradition, it represented the idea of righteousness rather than an object.
In the Kanal Vari songs in Silapathikaram, Kovalan attributes the flowing of the Cauvery river in all its beauty to the uprightness of the Sengolof the Chola king.
“Sengol symbolises a just and fair governance by a king. Its converse is authoritarianism or Kodungol in Tamil. Sengol finds reference even in Tholkappiyam, the earliest treatise on Tamil grammar,” explained R. Kalaikovan, founder, Rajamanickanar Institute of Historical Research, Tiruchirappalli.
Sengol was one of the 10 constituents of a kingdom besides venkottra kudai (white umbrella), murasu (drum), kodi (flag), thanai (Army), aaru (river), malai (mountain), thar (garland), yaanai (elephant) and kuthirai (horse). Different literary works have included different things.
That Sengol is a concept is clearly explained by the chapter on Sengonmai, or the Right Sceptre, a chapter in Tirukkural. “All earth looks up to heav’n whence raindrops fall; All subjects look to king that ruleth all,” translates missionary scholar G.U. Pope. Not lance gives kings the victory, but sceptre swayed with equity, says another couplet.
As per the book ‘Sengol Vendar’ by A. Chidambaranathan Chettiar, Sengol is a virtue the kings had been particular to abide by than an object to be held. “There is a lot of evidence that supports the argument that ancient Tamil kings remained Kings of just and righteousness (Sengol) and strived to offer just and fair governance. They have taken vows to uphold them by fulfilling their duties,” he writes.
Tamil scholar D. Gnanasundaram opined that while Sengol could be a concept, the word could not be coined without the presence of a physical object. “When we use the word wheel, it is the wheel, the physical object. The idea Sengol should have emerged from the upright object. It should not be bent,” he said.
Mr. Kalaikovan said that though the word Sengol found reference in inscriptions, there is no proof that the kings always held it in their hands. “We heard about kings returning home with wealth, women, breaking venkottra kudai, murasu and other things after vanquishing a country, but not a bringing a Sengol from another country,” he said.
The idea of portraying a king with a sceptre seemed to have emerged later. Today in Tamil Nadu, politicians follow the practice of presenting a sceptre to their leaders as a mark of respect.
To justify their claims, the supporters of sceptre circulated a sculpture of Lord Siva holding a rod with a Nandi on the top resembling the one presented to Jawaharlal Nehru. But Mr. Kalaikovan said it is a Kodithandu (flagstaff) and not a Sengol.
“Sengol belonged to the period of kings. I do not think it has any role in democratic government elected by people,” he said.