Tamil Nadu

The Big Picture: The Tamil vs Sanskrit debate turns spotlight on the Thanjavur Big Temple, yet again

The kumbabishekam of the Big Temple, held after 23 years, on February 5, 2020, provided yet another opportunity for historians, scholars and political activists of different camps to engage in an intense Tamil versus Sanskrit debate.

The kumbabishekam of the Big Temple, held after 23 years, on February 5, 2020, provided yet another opportunity for historians, scholars and political activists of different camps to engage in an intense Tamil versus Sanskrit debate.   | Photo Credit: M. Moorthy

The recent consecration of the Chola-era Big Temple in Thanjavur triggered a Sanskrit versus Tamil debate. Controversy apart, experts say there are several valuable lessons, particularly to do with architectural design, that the temple offers, if only we are ready to pay heed.

Thanjavur’s Brihadeeswara temple, an outstanding symbol of the greatness of ancient Tamil civilisation, is no stranger to controversy.

Whether it is the ‘jinx’ attached to the temple or the Centre’s opposition to the transfer of the management to the State government in the 60s and 70s or the installation of Rajaraja Chola I’s statue within the temple premises or the fire and the consequent stampede in June 1997, the temple has been in the limelight all through.

This time, the kumbabishekam (consecration), held after 23 years, on February 5, provided yet another opportunity for historians, scholars and political activists of different camps to engage themselves in an intense argument over the binary — Tamil versus Sanskrit.

“I do not remember having come across any such debate when the previous kumbabishekam was held in June 1997,” recollects T.N. Ramanathan, who was the then District Collector of Thanjavur. “The latest controversy sounds new to me,” he adds.

R. Nagaswamy, a veteran archaeologist who has been studying the temple for decades, emphasises that when paal abishekam (pouring of milk) was done on the lingam in 1997, a verse of Thirugnanasambandar [in Tamil] was recited. “It is there in a video cassette being sold at the temple,” he points out.

In tune with the State’s popular political narrative, the language row is viewed as one more dimension of the larger debate — Aryan versus Dravidian. This was despite Rajaraja Chola I himself being a promoter of both Tamil and Sanskrit, which could be attested to by inscriptions available on the temple premises.

 

But, P. Maniyarasan, an advocate of the concept of Tamil nationalism, argues that just as English is dominating every field of public activity in contemporary times, Sanskrit played a similar role, even from the period of Pallavas who predated the Cholas. “We see it as a sign of imposition by external forces,” he says.

The essence of the controversy was whether the consecration should take place in Tamil or in Sanskrit. Or, in other words, it should adhere to Agama principles or the Tirumurai, a 12-volume compendium of Tamil hymns in praise of Lord Shiva. While Tamil proponents contend that the Tamil works are superior to what has been written in Sanskrit, archaeologists such as Dr. Nagaswamy and T. Sathyamurthy, former Superintending Archaeologist of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), say the issue is not quite about what is superior.

The Big Picture: The Tamil vs Sanskrit debate turns spotlight on the Thanjavur Big Temple, yet again
 

The greatness of the Tamil work was never in question. But, as far as temples in Tamil Nadu are concerned, they follow the Agama principles, which are nothing but a set of regulations about all aspects of temples — from design to construction to sculpture to rituals. And, they are in Sanskrit.

“The Agamas say that any ritual in a temple is not complete without the rendering of Tamil hymns. To render Thevaram, Rajaraja had appointed 50 persons, known as Oduvar,” says Dr. Nagaswamy. Developed around 5th century CE, the Agamas marked an improvement over earlier and heretic systems known as Pasupatha and Kalamukha.They were written in Sanskrit, explains Dr. Satyamurthy.

At court’s door

Not surprisingly, the language issue reached the doorsteps of the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court. An apprehension was expressed that the event would be held, completely ignoring Tamil. The court termed as "baseless" allegations of the petitioners that the Tamil language was being excluded. The Agama principles include the recitation of Tirumurai by Oduvars, as done earlier, and the Tamil language had been given due prominence in the rituals, the court observed.

Also, the court said the claim of the petitioners that the consecration ceremony and other allied functions of the Big Temple were performed ‘hitherto exclusively’ in Tamil was ‘without any proof or foundation worth acceptance’.

A senior official of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) department says that not just at yagasala and mahabhishekam at various shrines, Tamil verses were rendered, for the first time, even at the time of kalasa abhishekam (pouring of holy water on the apex structure of the temple’s tower).

Lessons learnt

For all the hue and cry generated in the run-up to the consecration, on D-Day (February 5), the event went off smoothly without much acrimony, thanks to a combination of factors including efforts made by the State administration.

“Super. Fantastic.” This was how L. Ganesan, senior leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a son of the soil, responded to a query on the quality and level of preparations. “The authorities had apparently gone into each and every detail concerning those who came for the festival. For example, the arrangement for car parking was novel. As soon as my vehicle was parked at a given slot, a sticker, mentioning my car number, was stuck on the car windshield. The sticker had a mark, in an inconspicuous way, that the car belonged to a VVIP,” says Mr. Ganesan.

Apparently, the State administration was guided by lessons that it learnt from two events — the 1997 consecration and the 2019 Athi Varadar festival in Kancheepuram. Twenty-three years ago, on the eve of the originally scheduled date of kumbabhishekam, a fire at the yagasala and the consequent stampede led to the death of 46 persons. The injured numbered 107. The bursting of firecrackers, which was the cause for the fire, was banned this time. Besides, unlike in the previous event when a low-profile committee was formed, a high-level team of officers, led by Chief Secretary [K. Shanmugam], was set up.

The Athi Varadar festival, which had attracted over one crore people in 45 days, had provided lessons to the administration on crowd management. Just as Mr. Shamugam made an inspection of the arrangements on Saturday last, Director General of Police J.K. Tripathy, who had overseen the arrangements both for the 2016 Mahamaham [Tamil Nadu’s equivalent to the Kumbh Mela in northern parts of the country] in Kumbakonam and the Athi Varadar festival, went there a day later. Also, the present District Collector, M. Govinda Rao, had experience with regard to religious events as he was Sub-Collector of Kumbakonam during the Mahamaham,

There were complaints that the administration took care of only VIP and VVIP devotees, “leaving in the lurch the common devotees”. But, Mr. Rao denies the charge and says that “proper zonation” was done to ensure “smooth passage” to different categories of people. The public had entry and exit points separate from those of the VIPs and VVIPs, who numbered 7,000. Options were given to the people of watching the consecration or havingdarshan of the presiding deity at the central shrine or both.

In the spotlight

The controversy over the consecration had its positive side too.

It only facilitated greater visibility to the event through the media, as otherwise this would go off like yet any other event, says P. Kangeyan, a doctor based in San Jose, California, who took time off to visit Thanjavur.

The turnout itself appears to be overwhelming, if one goes by the claim of the Collector. An estimated 6.5 lakh persons viewed the event. The Collector’s estimate has been arrived at based on the number of people who congregated at 30 view points in the temple town, apart from those who were inside the temple premises. “It is our calculation that around 10.5 lakh persons visited the temple in the five days, starting from February 1,” Mr. Rao says.

What is more interesting than the arrangements is the discussion on the number of times the temple had kumbabishekam.

Officially and even as per a group of scholars, the latest was the sixth, the previous instances being 1010, 1729, 1843, 1980 and 1997. But, disagreeing with this view, Dr Nagaswamy, relying on inscriptions on the temple, stresses that even during 17th century CE-19th century CE, there were four such events.

The focus on the Big Temple should not end with the consecration as the monument requires to be studied from different angles. Dr. Sathyamurthy, who has studied, in his own way, the structural stability of the temple, says the meteorological department and Geological Survey of India recorded, in the last 200-odd years, at least 10 earthquakes, having the magnitude of 5 and more on the Richter scale and with the southern peninsula being the epicenter.

Several Chola monuments, including the Brihadeeswara temple, had withstood them.

Pointing out how engineering features had protected the temple from external gravitational forces for over 1,000 years, he asserts that several precautions, adopted by modern architects and experts in the field of seismology for the protection of the roof and supporting structure, had been followed in respect of the superstructure of the temple too. “It is for modern architects to study the temple more deeply and learn various scientific formulae that had been employed,” the veteran archaeologist feels. Such research would be more meaningful to society than any public discourse being guided on predictable lines.

And, that would lend further fame to the Chola monument, which is, in the words of historian K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, “a masterpiece constituting the high-water mark of south Indian architecture”.

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2020 9:18:13 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/the-big-picture-the-tamil-vs-sanskrit-debate-turns-spotlight-on-the-thanjavur-big-temple-yet-again/article30773367.ece

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