Chithirai festival and ‘English’ Pandiyan

There are Tamil ballads sung in praise of Rous Peter even now 

April 14, 2022 09:29 pm | Updated 09:42 pm IST

 The ruby-studded stirrups presented to Goddess Meenakshi by Rous Peter. 

 The ruby-studded stirrups presented to Goddess Meenakshi by Rous Peter.  | Photo Credit: R. Ashok

One of the oldest cities of India referred even in the Periplus of the Erythraen Sea, written in the first century by a Greek sailor, Madurai has many splendours. One such is the ongoing Chithirai festival of the famed Meenakshi Sundareshwarar temple. Normally the festival starts with the hoisting of the temple flag during April.

The first part of the festival is dedicated to the Goddess Meenakshi and ends with her coronation that is Saivite in tradition. During the first few days, it is devoted to Kallalagar of Alagar Koil, in Vaishnava tradition and culminates in Kallallagar descending in the Vaigai in a golden horse vahana. It is believed Alagar came to witness the marriage of Meenakshi and reached the Vaigai river bank rather late after making a couple of stops on the way and heard that the wedding was over. That angered him and he returned to Alagarkoil after giving the gifts to Meenakshi and Sundareshwarar who came to receive him, but refused to enter Madurai. A re-enactment of this event happens in the Vaigai and the entire city celebrates the event.

On the fifth day of the festival the ruling deity Meenakshi is taken round seated in a horse and donning stirrups made of gold and studded with rubies and precious stones. It is said that this pair was donated to the deity by Rous Peter, the Collector of Madura (1812-18). The Madura Gazetteer, compiled by W. Francis, says, (page 259) that Rous Peter is “the best remembered of all the collectors of Madura”. There are Tamil ballads still available singing his praise.

Francis says, “He lived in princely style, was of a most bountiful disposition (both the Minakshi Temple and the Alagarkoil possess valuable jewels which he gave them) and did great things in ridding the hills round Kannivadi, Periyakulam and Bodinayakkanur of the elephants which infested them.”

When the East India Company took over the administration of Madura, it took over the control of the important temples as they found that temples were the nuclei of the social structure and appointed Thomas Bowyer Hurdis, the then Madura Collector, as in charge of the temple in 1801.

Peter, who took over as the third Collector in 1812 and the administration of the temple, became a devotee of the deity Meenakshi. He is remembered even today as he acquitted himself as the administrator of the temple with sincerity and respected the religious sentiments of people. It is said he used to go around the temple every morning riding a horse barefoot, in a sign of respect to the temple.

The legend has it (as sung in Tamil ballad) that one night, when it was raining heavily, Peter was sleeping in his house and was woken up by a little girl asking him to leave the premises, pulling him by his hand. When they were out, “He helplessly saw his house getting destructed by lightning and could no longer trace the little girl, who saved him.” It adds the girl ran away in the direction of the temple and disappeared. It is believed it was Goddess Meenakshi who appeared as the child. As Peter noticed the girl was barefooted, he seems to have donated, among other gifts, these golden stirrups to the temple.

The Gazette further says “The people nicknamed him ‘Peter Pandya. ’ He died in Madura on the 6th August 1828 and was buried in the heart of the town outside the then protestant church.” The legend adds he wanted his cemetery built facing the temple. However, this was demolished in 1874 and St. George Church was built, the design of which was by the great architect Chisolm. In 1881 the Church was consecrated.

Unfortunately, as The Gazette notes, “there are the wildest stories about his death”, like “He was charged with defalcations and when a Commissioner came down to make enquiries, he committed suicide.” Official records discount this story. It was officially recorded that “In 1819, nine years before his death, he realised that he had drawn from the treasury more than he was entitled to, and made out a memorandum, the envelope of which he marked ‘not to be opened till my death’ admitting his carelessness protesting before God his freedom from any dishonest intent, promising to mend matters and making over to the Government on his demise such part of his property as might be sufficient to make up for any deficit which should then appear.”

After his death the judge, taking over his papers officially, found that some money had been embezzled by the treasury officials, taking advantage of Peter’s casual way of administration. The officials were imprisoned.

(The author has written the history of Madurai in Tamil as Aalavai, first published in 2009)

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