New Respect For Old Sceptre — And It’s Apt

New Respect For Old Sceptre — And It’s Apt

by K Balakumar - Thursday, May 25, 2023 02:19 PM IST
New Respect For Old Sceptre — And It’s AptPrime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru with the Chola Sengol, and C Rajagopalachari (right).
  • How a beautiful Hindu tradition that got a pride of place on the night of 14 August 1947 was lost to the mists of time.

It is now more than evident that the Chola Sengol — the sceptre of symbolism of the ruler — from Thiruvavaduthurai Adheenam, which is a respected Hindu Shaivite mutt from near Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, played a prominent part in the Independence celebrations in New Delhi on the night of 14 August 1947, leading to the historical unfurling of the National Flag a few hours later.

That hoary Sengol will now be placed near the Speaker's seat by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the inauguration of the new Parliament building on 28 May, in a show to perpetuate a hallowed tradition that dates back to several centuries. 

But how a quaint Hindu tradition from Tamil Nadu, carried out by priests and religious heads, made it to the distant New Delhi for the first Independence-day rituals and events is in itself an interesting tale, but one that is mired in some vagueness.

According to most accounts doing the rounds now, Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of British India, is said to have asked Jawaharlal Nehru regarding how the transfer of power be done to symbolise that India has achieved its independence.

There is no clear historical account of Mountbatten seeking such a thing, but subsequent events point to such a possibility.

Nehru was not sure, and it is widely claimed now that C Rajagopalachari, the last Governor General of the country, suggested the incorporation of the ancient tradition of a high priest presenting a sceptre to the newly crowned king to convey the idea of power transition.

Rajaji apparently said that the tradition, observed during the Chola dynasty, could serve as a significant symbol of India's freedom from British rule. It is also said that Rajaji took upon himself  the responsibility of procuring a sceptre for the historic moment.

The Story Of Sengol

Sengol, which literally translates to the royal staff (stick), has been an inalienable and integral part of the regal paraphernalia of many kingdoms.

Emperors and kingdoms, when they assumed power, were presented with the sceptre by the kingdom's rajaguru. The Sengol is said to remind the king that he has the decree to rule justly and fairly.

The Sengol was also seen as the metaphor of a kingdom. The lines of Tamil poetess Avvaiyar:

 "...குடி உயரக் கோல் உயரும்

 கோல் உயரக் கோன் உயர்வான்" 

— one recalled by Modi during his visit to Tamil Nadu in February 2021 — will underscore this. There is an equally enjoyable story behind those lines that Avvaiyar is supposed to have uttered, but this may not be the occasion to go into it. 

The point is, in those pithy lines, the celebrated Tamil poetess uses (sen)gol to figuratively signify an empire itself.

Since it is a popular line in Tamil Nadu, Rajaji may have remembered and got down to source it. But why and how he zeroed in on the Thiruvavaduthurai Adheenam for the same is not clear.

I spoke to (retd) professor V Kuppuswamy, who had worked in many institutions abroad, and later retired from the Madurai Kamaraj University.

The now 85-year-old professor is well versed in the history surrounding India's Independence, and he said there are no historical treatises to specifically confirm that Rajaji was asked to procure the Sengol.

But, the professor said, there are enough supporting material to believe that the responsibility may indeed have fallen on his shoulders.

"The irrefutable fact is that the sceptre travelled from Thanjavur to New Delhi along with Mutt's chief in typical religious splendour and it got a prominent place in the solemn festivities before the midnight hour of August 15."

Rajaji's Statesmanship

I asked him how Rajaji, seen as a staunch follower of Vaishnavism, could have chosen a Shaivite religious order to carry out the task.

The professor said that Rajaji may have had his own beliefs, but he was a true statesman and understood the larger import of the occasion.

"If it were for mere surface-level religious ritualism, there are any number of auspicious pujas to fall back on. But this was the birth of a nation in a new scheme of things. The occasion needed something of intrinsic worth. The sceptre carried by the Adheenam had the right gravitas." 

The Thiruvavaduthurai Adheenam, which is believed to have been established in the fourteenth century, is a highly respected and revered religious institution and it is vested with the running of more than 75 temples in Tamil Nadu.

Professor Kuppuswamy said that it also must have needed a man of Rajaji's stature and ability to ensure that a sceptre of fitting heft was made and it was carried and delivered with the right amount of religiosity and pomp.

"Who else from Tamil Nadu, with links to New Delhi, could have pulled this off then?" the professor asked and said in history, sometimes, we have to make logical deductions when we don't have clear proof.

Anyway, there is no gainsaying the fact that the Sengol was crafted by Vummidi Bangaru Chetty, the renowned jewellers in Madras then, and the impressive and imposing sceptre measured five feet in length and features a nandi (bull) at the top — the rishaba represents Lord Shiva and also symbolises the concept of justice.

The Sengol was said to weigh more than 100 sovereigns of gold and was worth, well, Rs 15,000 at that time.

The order for making the Sengol had been placed a month before 15 August, which also makes it clear that the decision to seek out the Adheenam and sceptre was not a last-minute desperation, and was indeed a well thought idea much before.

Well Documented Historical Event

It is also well recorded that the then chief of the Thiruvavaduthurai Adheenam, Amabalavana Desiga Swamigal was unwell and hence his chosen representative Kumaraswami Thambiran Swamigal, along with Manickam Odhuvaar, left for New Delhi from Thanjavur on 10 August in a special plane arranged by the incoming government. (Odhuvaars are men who sing Thevaram and other devotional hymns and songs on Shiva at the temples).

The mutt’s nadhaswaram vidhwan, T N Rajarathinam Pillai also travelled to New Delhi to provide the holy and ceremonial accompaniment to the formal coronation.

According to current seer of the Aadheenam, 24th Gurumaha Sannithanam Sri La Sri Ambalavana Desika Paramachariya Swamigal, “Kumaraswamy Thambiran received the sceptre from Lord Mountbatten and sprinkled it with holy water. Manickam Odhuvaar chanted ‘kolaru pathigam’ hymns from Thevaram, composed by Shaivite saint Thirugnana Sambanthar, and Rajarathinam Pillai played nadaswaram.”

"As the odhuvaar recited the pathigam’s final verses, “Adiyargal Vaanil Arasalvar Aanai Namathe” (“We command that His Humbleness shall rule the Heavens’),  Kumaraswamy Thambiran handed over the sceptre to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, smeared ashes on his forehead, and garlanded him."

The accounts of historians and contemporary news publications suggest that the event was indeed a memorable one and it was more than a symbolic one.

"From Tanjore in south India came two emissaries of Sri Amblavana Desigar, head of a sannyasi of Hindu ascetics. Sri Amblavana thought that Nehru, as first Indian head of a really Indian government ought, like ancient Hindu kings, to receive the golden scepter," Time magazine noted in its foreign news dispatch in August 1947.

"One of the two bore this evening of August 14 a massive silver platter, upon which was folded a strip of white silk streaked in gold, the Pitambaram, the Cloth of God. The other carried a five-foot scepter, a flask of holy water from the Tanjore river, a pouch of sacred ash and a pouch of boiled rice which had been offered at dawn at the feet of Nataraja, the Dancing God, in his temple in Madras," wrote Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins in Freedom at Midnight.

The well-known Parsi journalist Dosabhoy Framji Karaka, in his book Betrayal In India wrote:

"In the evening the priests walked ahead of these religious processions. They carried the sceptre, the holy water which they had brought with them from Tanjore, and rice. They laid their gifts at the feet of the Prime Minister. Holy ash was marked on the Pandit's forehead and the priests gave him their blessings."

It is remarkable that India chose to embrace its Independence from the British in a way that is steeped in tradition and religious rectitude.

How such an event of such significance and historical symbolism subsequently got lost to the mists of time is one of the tragedies of modern India. 

Anyway, the historical Sengol, thanks to the Narendra Modi government's decision to place it on centre-stage at the new Parliament building, is now deservedly getting new attention and esteem.

Just as well.  For, respect is a felicitous anagram of sceptre!

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