Opinion Article

'Koayil' controversy

[TamilNet, Monday, 23 February 2009, 23:28 GMT]
The officiating Tamil priesthood of tradition has to be helped to transcend contemporary sociopolitical norms of caste identity or hierarchy. It needs to see the real roots of its culture vested with the Tamil people and should stand on the side of the masses, upholding the cause of the oppressed. In fact, it has to take a step ahead of the government in progressiveness, writes opinion columnist Ampalam on the recent events concerning Chithamparam temple, triggered off by the controversy of reciting Tamil hymns in the Golden Hall of the temple.

The Golden Hall of Dancing Siva at Chithamparam [Photo coutesy: hotelstamilnadu.com]
The Thillai shrub (Excoecaria agallocha) [Photo courtesy: Learning Support Centre, University of Hong Kong]
Thillai forest
The Thillai forest in the mangrooves of Pichchaavaram near Chithamparam [Photo courtesy: knowsnotmuch, flickr.com]
Kaaraikkaal Ammaiyaar
A Chola bronze of Kaaraikkaal Ammaiyaar, who is said to have assumed a skeletal form during her lifetime. She was a strong feminist symbol of the Tamil devotional movement.
A traditional drawing of Nanthanaar [Image courtesy: www.virtuescience.com]
The word Koayil or Koavil stands for any temple in common Tamil usage. But, in the corpus of the Tamil Saiva literature from very early times, the word specifically stood for the temple of the dancing Siva at Thillai Ampalam (Chithamparam).

While Koayil (Koa+il) means, the abode of God, Ampalam is a public hall or space.

The Sanskrit-based toponym Chithamparam (Chidambaram) means 'the perception of the Universe'. (Chidambaram > Chit+ambaram; Chit > connected to perception, mental achievements etc; Ambaram > sky)

The Sanskrit name Chithamparam by which the place and the temple are popularly identified today is of much later usage.

In early references the place was called Thillai, a name meaning a kind of mangrove vegetation (Excoecaria agallocha) or a forest of this vegetation. Even today the vegetation can be seen extensively, in the coast adjacent to the temple town of Chithamparam, at Pichchaavaram, a tourist place known for mangroves.

The location of this temple was the suburbs of the ancient city and emporium Kaavirippoom-paddinam or Pukaar of the Changkam times.

It is quite probable that a very early strain of Pasupada Saivism, which was rather 'Agamic' than 'Vedic', established a centre at today's Chithamparam in the ancient times.

The Pasupada Saivism was known for its aborigine substratum that evolved into an elite school of religion through synthesis.

The origins of the priesthood of the Thillai temple, known as Thillai Moovaayiravar (the Three Thousand of Thillai) have to be understood in this background. In other words, to what extent this early priesthood, unique to Tamil-Saiva tradition, belongs to Vedic Brahminhood is a matter for research.

The earliest available literature on the temple, dateable to 5th century CE, are works of Thirumoolar and Kaaraikkaal-Ammai, and both of them are in Tamil language.

While Thirumoolar, having identifiable inclinations to a synthesis of Pasupada Saivism and Tamil philosophical substratum, explains the symbol of the 'dance in the hall' as mind's perception of the functioning of the Universe, Kaaraikkal Ammai's works are considered to be the earliest of the Tamil-Saiva devotional movement.

In fact it was Kaaraikkaal Ammai, the lady-saint, who first uses the term Koayil, exclusively to Thillai Ampalam in the Saiva literature.

* * *

Almost around this time, i.e., prior to 6th century CE, the priesthood of the temple got into a controversy.

It is the story of the Tamil saint Thirunaa'laippoavaar or Nanthanaar of the Paraiyar community, who wanted to worship the dance of Siva in the temple. The priests allowed this saint of 'untouchable' social status only after he walked through a fire made for 'purification'. The saint didn't return from the temple.

The saint became a very powerful symbol in the socio-religious history of Tamils.

Later saints of Theavaaram hymns adored him and the devotion of similar saints of lower echelons of the society. The Tamil religious movement put devotion above Vedic elitism and ritualism. It made religion everybody's property. The movement coming from both Saiva and Vaishnava streams inspired the entire sub-continent in the subsequent centuries to come.

The elite priesthood of the Tamil country that based itself on Sanskrit canons, and the popular devotional movement that used the medium of Tamil, compromised and synthesized each other.

The priesthood of Tamil Nadu, impelled by reformers inside and outside of its social stratum, accepted saints like Nanthanaar, made images for them and started worshipping them inside the temples.

On the other hand, Chuntharamoorththi Naayanaar, a saint of the devotional genre lived in the 8th century CE and one of the authors of the Theavaaram hymns, placed the priesthood of the Chithamparam temple to the foremost of the Saiva devotees.

The saint, who himself hailed from a priestly family (Sivaachchaariyaar) of Agamic (not Vedic) substratum, peculiar to Tamil Nadu, composed his famous verse listing the 63 Saiva saints (individual and collective), beginning from 'Thillai-vaazh Antha'nar' (the righteous preceptors of Thillai).

Note that neither the word Brahmin, nor the present Sanskritized identity Theedchithar (Deekshita, meaning consecrated or initiated) displayed by the priests of the Chitamparam temple today, were used for their identity in the past. The original terms of reference in Tamil, such as Moovaayiravar and Antha'nar are of different etymology and significance.

However, the discourse of compromise and synthesis itself had a long history and is still an ongoing process.

* * *

Raja Raja Cholan
A Chola painting at Thagnchaavoor (Tanjavur) temple considered to be showing the emperor Raja Raja I and a preceptor. The emperor was a staunch devotee of the dancing Siva of Chithamparam. [Image courtesy: Frontline]
The thousand-pillared hall at Chithamparam temple, a venue for the coronation of the Chola emperors [Photo courtesy: A Hundred Autumns to Live: An Introduction to Hindu Traditions by Vasudha Narayanan]
In the times of the Chola emperor Raja Raja I (985-1014 CE), there was an effort to compile the Tamil Saiva devotional literature dating from 5th century CE. Similar effort was made for the Vaishnava Tamil literature too in the same time.

The priesthood of Thillai didn't cooperate with the venture and refused to handover the manuscripts stored in the temple, insisting that the authors of the hymns, who lived centuries ago, should come in person to open the storeroom. The emperor had to intervene to sort out the matter diplomatically by bringing in the sculptures of the authors of the hymns. Yet, according to legend, only a part of the manuscripts were salvaged as the bulk of them was found perished beyond recovery.

Even the powerful emperor had to opt for diplomacy in this particular matter as the bondage between the Chola monarchy and the temple was close-knit to the extent that the coronations of the emperors took place in this temple.

The Tamil Vaishnava tradition sorted out the matter of the 'language of religion', when Ramanuja, the preceptor of Sri Vaishnava school and today's Aiyangkaar identity of priesthood, decreed that the Tamil devotional corpus should be kept on par with the Vedas for any meaningfulness of their religion. In 12th century CE he conferred the status of Aiyangkaar priesthood even to the so-called untouchables.

In contrast, the orthodoxy of the Thillai priesthood was such that it even ostracized one of its own priests (Umaapathi Sivaachchaariyaar) for his views of spiritualism based on Tamil texts. But he became one of the founders of Saiva Siddhaantha, a school of philosophy as well as religion based on Tamil texts that arose as a culmination of the devotional movement.

The feudal degeneration at the onset of Colonialism, and the subsequent rise of neo-Brahmanism based on the Orientalism of Colonialism, brought in new dimensions to an old process, evoking new responses too, generally in the Tamil society.

Nanthanaar, filmed in 1935. Ms. K.P. Sundarambal in the male character of Nanthanaar and Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer as the Brahmin landlord finally respecting the devotion of Nanthanaar. [Photo courtesy: The Hindu]
M.M. Dhandapani Desikar as Nanthanaar, filmed in 1942 [Photo courtesy: The Hindu]
Nanthanaar had to be rediscovered in the 19th century.

Gopala Krishna Bharathy's Nanthan Chariththira Keerththanai (musical compositions of the story of Nanthanaar) was a grand hit when staged as a play in the 19th century so that even the French governor of Kaaraikkaal was attracted towards it and came forward to publish it.

It is said that even Arumuga Navalar, who used to be sceptical of the genuineness of anything other than the traditional hymns, himself was captivated by the compositions of Nanthan Charithira Keerthanai and gifted 10 rupees to Gopala Krishna Bharathy in l870s.

The theme of Nanthanaar was handled by many of the modern creative writers, including the literary genius Puthumaippiththan (Puthiya Nanthan 1934).

The story was filmed five times: twice as silent movies, in 1923 and 1930, and thrice as Tamil talkies in 1933, 1935 and in 1942.

However, sociopolitical realities in Tamil Nadu didn't help much for the Tamil priesthood of the age-old institutions of cultural identity to rise up to the occasion in identifying themselves with the spiritual need and temporal aspirations of the oppressed masses.

The result was the degeneration of some of the powerful centers of cultural identity.

* * *

Eezham Tamils had a long connection with the temple at Chithamparam.

The temple is the most sacred one to the mainstream Hinduism of Eezham Tamils, i.e., the followers of the Chaiva Chiththaantha School based on Tamil texts.

An early record available is a copper plate of a king of Jaffna who visited the temple and caused the charity of establishing a mutt (Iraasaakka'l Thampiraan Madam) at Chithamparam.

There was always a colony of Eezham Tamils in Chithamparam right from the times of those who migrated to escape the religious persecution of the Portuguese. Gnaanappirakaasar Mutt was one such established in the times of the Portuguese by an ascetic who came from Thirunelveali, Jaffna.

Cosmic dance
A Chola bronze showing the cosmic dance of Siva, now in the Musee Guimet. Taken as a symbol of the Universe, the image is half male and half female, depicted in this sculpture through the ear ornaments. The image in the Chithamparam temple is the earliest and the forerunner of the dancing images of Siva. [Photo courtesy: Vasudha Narayan, A Hundred Autumns to Live: An Introduction to Hindu Traditions]
Arumuga Navalar
Aa'rumuka Naavalar (Arumuga Navalar, 1822 - 1879). No photograph of him was taken during his lifetime. The picture shown above is imaginary.
Some of the villages in Jaffna have their own mutts in Chithamparam (Kaaraitheevu, Vara'ni, Ka'l'liyangkaadu, Maathakal, Kokkuvil). Eezham Tamils caused charities such as schools, mutts, lands, endowments etc in Chithamparam and in turn enacted such charities in the name of the temple in various parts of the island of Sri Lanka.

In fact, it was the immortal work 'The Dance of Siva' by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, a son of Eezham Tamil lineage that for the first time brought the concept and universal philosophy behind the Chithamparam temple to international limelight.

Today the dancing Siva and the temple at Chithamparam is universally admired not merely as expressions of Tamil culture but as encapsulation of the whole essence of Hinduism.

However, in recent times one may notice the institution of this temple losing its spiritual, emotional and cultural hold even on Eezham Tamils who have now started opting for various other cults.

The charities of Eezham Tamils meant for the temple in the island of Sri Lanka and in Chithamparam are lost, degenerating and are not cared for. Except the Pu'n'niya Naachchi mutt run by Jaffna Saiva Paripaalana Sabai, all the other mutts are in dilapidated conditions.

Even Arumuga Navalar's charities including an educational institution, which he wanted to function like a university in mid 19th century, teaching Economics, Political Science, Commerce, Agriculture etc, are not run by Eezham Tamils for decades now and are placed with the management of Kun'rakkudi Mutt of Tamil Nadu.

Something went wrong somewhere in the hold the institution of the Chithamparam temple was evoking in the minds of the Eezham Tamils. It seems that it is only the Bharata Natyam students of the diaspora nowadays care for the symbol of the dancing Siva.

* * *

The recent controversy about the temple first sparked off on the issue of permitting the singing of Tamil hymns on the platform of the Golden Hall where common devotees can also assemble. But the priests didn't want to permit it.

A member of the Thillai-vaazh Antha'nar (Theedchithar) of the Chithamparam temple. [Photo courtesy: Dovid100, flickr.com]
They always made the traditional singers of Tamil hymns to stand below the platform and sing. Inside the sanctum the deity is worshipped only in Sanskrit. This is in contrast to Sri Vaishnava temples where the priests themselves recite Tamil hymns inside the sanctum.

In fact the Tamil Nadu government recently enacted a law for the singing of Tamil hymns in the temples and instructed the Chithamparam temple to abide by it conceding due status to it.

But the Theedchithars resisted to it citing that the temple is a private property of them traditionally run by a body called 'Pothu' and the government can't instruct on any practice in the temple.

In the 19th century a controversy over the priests permitting the singing of some contemporary Tamil verses in place of the traditional hymns and some mismanagements of the temple made Arumuga Navalar to confront the Theedchithars. The resultant enmity is said to be a reason for Navalar not returning to Chithamparam during the last six years of his life.

Twenty years back the Tamil Nadu government attempted to take over the temple but failed due to a court stay order. Its Administrative Officer was functioning from outside the temple.

After the Tamil hymns incident the government moved to the court and two weeks ago the Tamil Nadu High Court upheld the government takeover.

The issue involved here is not merely a legal battle. It is of larger dimensions. Court verdicts or government takeovers resolve it only partially.

What is needed is a revolutionary change in the attitude – of the traditional Tamil priesthood and towards traditional Tamil priesthood.

Encouraging and urging structural changes to take place spontaneously inside the traditional Tamil priesthood is more positive than ostracizing.

The officiating Tamil priesthood of tradition has to be helped to transcend contemporary sociopolitical norms of caste identity or hierarchy. It needs to see the real roots of its culture vested with the Tamil people and should stand on the side of the masses, upholding the cause of the oppressed. In fact it has to take a step ahead of the government in progressiveness.

Will it happen or will the traditional Tamil priesthood degenerate?

In the 7th century CE, there was the child-saint, hailing from a priestly family yet asserting himself as Thamizh Gnaanasampanthan, who contributed to make Tamil as the language of a religious movement, fought against spiritual, social and political oppression, and in that process earned a place of dignity to the identity of today's priesthood.

Why should the traditional Tamil priesthood of today alienate itself from the masses?

* * *

The events taking place in Tamil Nadu need careful perusal by Eezham Tamils and their diaspora.

The Saiva institutions of Eezham Tamils are not actually dominated by priesthood as in the case of Tamil Nadu.

The traditional mainstream priesthood of Eezham Tamils, having an established antiquity, is the clan of Sivaachchaariyaars, who have travelled through the sociocultural processes of Eezham Tamils for centuries. Despite their profound scholarship in Sanskrit and the Agamas, they were never averse to the status of Tamil as the language of worship.

There are also the other clans of the priesthood, belonging to Eezham Tamil heritage, which take care of the folk substratum of religion and rituals related to the deceased.

A serious effort has to be made in educating and orientating these clans to serve with rationality and identity to the spiritual and cultural needs of the contemporary Eezham Tamil society in the island and in the diaspora.

We come to know that already some efforts in this regard are under way in Batticaloa, especially in inspiring folk priests and in inducting anyone who is inclined into becoming folk priests.

The writer has also seen a priest of Eezham Tamil but non-Brahmin origin, educated in Tamil, Sanskrit, English and in religious scriptures, being popularly accepted as a mainstream priest wearing a thread and officiating equally in Tamil and Sanskrit in Kuala Lumpur.

Such efforts have to be encouraged, extended and institutionalized.

The responsibility of the Eezham Tamil society and its diaspora in educating and orientating the key persons handling the emotional needs of the people is of utmost importance especially when there is no state to look after the interests of the Eezham Tamil nation.

The northern and southern sides of the Chithamparam temple complex [Photo courtesy: flickr.com]

A video documentary on the priests of Chithamparam, revealing myths and realities. [Source: Perspectives Development & Media Foundation, Courtesy: Google Video]


External Links:
The Hindu: Nandanar – 1935
The Hindu: Nandanar – 1942


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