The unkown side of Raja Raja, the protagonist of Ponniyin Selvan: I

Lakulisa Pasupatas, who the emperor patronised, used the cranium of the skull as a begging bowl, held a staff with a skull for a finial, smeared themselves with ash from the crematorium and wore human bones

Updated - August 01, 2022 02:27 pm IST

Published - July 28, 2022 01:36 pm IST

Jayam Ravi as Raja Raja I in Mani Ratnam’s upcoming film.

Jayam Ravi as Raja Raja I in Mani Ratnam’s upcoming film. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

With Mani Ratnam’s film Ponniyin Selvan: I scheduled for launch later this year, one hopes the audience will learn what they missed out in history lessons in school: that there are exciting and worthy heroes in the South whose lives deserve to be known. The focus of the film is the accession of the greatest Chola king, Raja Raja.

Raja Raja and his sister Kundavai are credited with converting several brick temples into the stone ones we see today. He was a generous king. The temples in Tiruvottiyur, Tirunelveli, Srirangam and Cheranmahadevi are a few temples that benefited from land grants in his time. His masterpiece is of course the Brihadeeswara temple in Thanjavur.

ALSO READ: ‘Ponniyin Selvan 2.0’: Mani Ratnam’s magnum opus is a tipping point to take the Tamil classic to different generations

But one part of his life that is not well-known and continues to be mysterious, if not spooky, is his patronage of a heterodox subsect called the Lakulisa Pasupatas in the 11th-12th centuries.

This mural at Thanjavur’s Brihadeeswara Temple shows Raja Raja — with luxurious moustache, beard and top knot — with his queens, praying to the tutelary deity of the Cholas, Nataraja, at Chidambaram.

This mural at Thanjavur’s Brihadeeswara Temple shows Raja Raja — with luxurious moustache, beard and top knot — with his queens, praying to the tutelary deity of the Cholas, Nataraja, at Chidambaram. | Photo Credit: Sunder Guruswamy

In the Rig Veda, ‘Shiva’, a word signifying the auspicious, is an epithet for Rudra, a malevolent, fierce deity who causes death and destruction and must be feared. In some verses, Rudra becomes Agni too, the god of fire, and Pasupati the god who can protect or harm animals. Vedic deities refuse to be stereotyped into the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ narratives we have embraced since colonial times.

Skulls as begging bowl, smeared with crematorium ash

Vedic texts, however, don’t seem pleased with worshippers of the sisna or phallic shape. In the Mahabharata, Bhavabhuti’s Malati-Madhava and the Puranas, we hear of groups of people who worshipped Shiva in their own, ‘unconventional’ way. They used the cranium of the skull as a begging bowl, held a staff with a skull for a finial, smeared themselves with ash from the crematorium and wore human bones. They lived in or near cremation grounds and constantly reminded the world that everything was transient, death (and therefore union with Shiva) was the only permanent thing.

At the core of Ponniyin Selvan: I
Raja Raja’s great-grandfather died in 955 CE. From then, until Raja Raja’s coronation in 985 CE, the Chola kingship was troubled. His grandfather, Arinjaya, was succeeded by his son Sundara Chola. Sundara’s son, Aditya II, was assassinated. The throne did not pass to his brother Raja Raja, but instead, went to his cousin Uttama Chola (969-985 CE).
In his reign, there are no records of the culprits being found, leading some scholars to see Uttama Chola as guilty (though this is contested). Did Raja Raja refuse kingship, and if so, what changed his mind to allow another branch to rule? What made him retain Madurantaka, Uttama’s son, to continue as a noble in his own illustrious rule? These 30 years are at the core of the film. The Udayarkudi inscription tells us that by the second year of Raja Raja’s rule, the lands of the relatives of the culprits (deemed to be guilty by association) had been confiscated. However, till date, the identity of those who assassinated Aditya remains a mystery.
The troubled succession seems to have bothered Raja Raja enough to erect a sepulchre for his grandfather asserting his own lineage to Parantaka I. Were Arinjaya’s remains kept for so long or was there already a sepulchre there? We shall never know.

By the 2nd century, one group of such people, called the Pasupatas, saw Lakulisa as its teacher. Lakulisa, born in Karyavan in Gujarat, is shown with a club and revered for having brought a corpse back to life. The Lakula ascetic imitated the terrible form of his god Rudra (Bhairava). The Lakulisa Pasupatas were well-known in Tamil Nadu especially in the Chola times. Their offshoot, the Kalamukhas, were politically powerful in Karnataka.

Around 1010, Raja Raja built the Arinchikai Eswaram temple in the Melpadi village (on the Chennai-Bengaluru highway). The temple was a pallipadai (sepulchre) for his grandfather Arinjaya (956-957 CE). This sepulchre, as was the tradition of the time, was administered by the Pasupatas. The temple was outside the administrative setup of the agamas, or ritual texts, which govern temples even today. We have no texts of the Pasupatas, except for those who spoke against them, and must therefore take their accounts with a pinch of salt. Imagine the king supporting a group like this! Their appearance would have been forbidding. Offerings in the temple were meat, alcohol, and sexual fluids.

The Choleeswara Temple built by the king in Melpadi, Tamil Nadu.

The Choleeswara Temple built by the king in Melpadi, Tamil Nadu. | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

They eschewed the conventions of purity and right and wrong and very much lived outside the pale of normal society. Yet, we hear nothing of them offending the general population or causing trouble. In fact, in the Melpadi pallipadai, there was a gift from a few villagers of 96 goats for the temple. Not only did Raja Raja support them but his son as well. Today we have three Chola temples we can surely say are pallipadai sepulchres. There is one from the Pandyas as well. We know other kings and queens had them too; either those temples are lost or do not have an inscription that identifies them as one. We don’t have a pallipadai for Raja Raja either.

Exquisitely proportioned temple

The Pasupatas declined from the 12th century, perhaps because of internal issues or because they were just too radical. The mantra marga, or the devotees of Shiva, who believed in connecting with the god through meditation and mantra, who used comparatively more docile rituals, gained control of their temples. One devotee even rather clumsily chiselled out the word ‘pallipadai’ in the Panchavan Madevieswaram temple (Kumbakonam), which is why we know it indeed was a pallipadai. Other temples just retain the word ‘Karonam’, a reminder of Lakulisa’s birthplace.

I have taken many people to the Melpadi pallipadai and have felt a palpable sense of darkness inside the small but exquisitely proportioned temple. While we focus on the eerie history of the Pasupatas and how they have completely disappeared, we also need to be reminded of Raja Raja’s openness in supporting a sect like this. For a king who dealt with his enemies or tax defaulters with ruthless suppression, he — a firm believer in the primacy of Shiva — seems to have been very tolerant of practices in the name of his favourite deity, provided they caused no difficulties to the general public.

The writer is the author of Leadership Shastra where he looks at how behaviour can be changed from a different reading of history.

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