‘They Who Mount The Elephant’: Hindus In This Town In Tamil Nadu Rediscover A Socially Empowering Ritual
How the Thiruvarur temple and devotees rediscovered a ritual that furthers both social harmony and social justice.
Both Swami Vivekananda and Dr. Ambedkar agreed on a crucial point: Hindu Dharma has in it highest expression an expression of human oneness, nay oneness of all existence.
Yet, Hindu society has forgotten this and has become a house of horrors for the socially disadvantaged - particularly from 17th century onwards.
However, deeply enshrined in Hindu rituals are socially ennobling and empowering elements. Unfortunately, Hindus have forgotten or have been made to forget these aspects of their own ritual grandness.
While the colonial Protestant worldview essentialised Hinduism as almost ‘nothing but’ caste suppression and priest-craft facilitating caste suppression, many educated Hindus, including those with good intentions bought it.
This also led to delegitimise most of the rituals related to temples. In fact, Hindu temples have been special targets.
While in the north the invaders destroyed temples, in the south the temples stood proud, mostly thanks to the stiff resistance put forth by the Vijayanagar empire and its descendants. And the Marathas.
However, when the British started expanding their empire in southern India, they quickly realised that temples should be attacked in an indirect way.
So, they weakened the social bonds of people with the temples.
They made the temples look like bastions of backwardness and priestly exploitation.
The manifest negativities of social stagnation, like untouchability, helped the colonial rulers and evangelists reinforce this view.
So, the educated Indians slowly started looking down upon temple rituals.
Post-independence, the temples got further socially, functionally and financially weakened.
In Tamil Nadu, with the openly Hindu-hostile DMK coming to power, the temples barely managed to survive. The fact of the matter is the temples in Tamil Nadu are undergoing a humiliating and excruciatingly painful slow but definite death.
It is in such a situation that ‘Temple Protection Committee’ has stepped in.
The organisation realised that protecting the temples does not mean just liberating the temples legally from government control. The government can always take the temples back by changing the laws.
What is needed is the restoration of the social bonds, the linkages that connect the temple with the web of activities of the surrounding communities.
These linkages are cultural, economic, social and spiritual. With this realisation the workers of the temple protection committee started researching on the temples.
One such temple is the famous Thiruvarur temple. This is one of the most sacred of the Saivite temples. The park before the temple houses stone sculptures showing the legendary king killing his own son under the chariot wheel when a cow comes and complaints about the prince having killed her calf by accident.
When the temple protection committee members researched the history of the Thiruvarur temple, they discovered the famed ‘marriage of the elephant mounters’.
Kudavayil Balasubramaniam, a reputed scholar, in his exhaustive work on the temple, describes in an elaborate manner the tradition of honouring the Paraiar community members with the right to mount the elephant. But such a ritual was not prevalent in the temple in contemporary times nor in the memories of devotess.
They made inquiries.
Yes. Such a ritual did exist.
A couple from the Paraiar community, from a neighbouring village, do receive respects before the Lord right before the announcement of the grandest festival of the temple.
The couple is considered as the incarnation of Indra. Hence, its right to mount the elephant, the mount of Indra.
As terrestrial elephants are considered inferior to be their mount they are bestowed the honour of keeping the white ritualistic umbrella - usually given to kings.
Temple authorities had always kept this a low key affair, so that they need not spend much on this.
The usual, 'educated Indian' syndrome of devaluing the importance of Hindu rituals helped the Hindu Religious Charities and Endowment board (HRCE).
This year, that would not be so.
The Hindu temples protection committee, aided by Hindu organisations in Thiruvarur, decided to conduct the ceremony with the centrality, pomp, and prominence it deserves.
So, on 2 March 2021, Thriuvarur witnessed the event of ‘Auspicious Marriage of those who have the right to mount the elephant’; not any elephant but Iravatham of Indra himself.
The young couple, Karthikeyan-Parameswari, are from Samanthaanpalayam village. There are five families in this village who have the right for the ceremonial respect.
When the couple reaches the temple entrance, the deity Himself is brought out to greet them and accept their worship.
Then, the couple weds ceremoniously in the mandapam, in front of the deity.
The parivattam (head band of honour) is tied for the couple by the priest of the temple.
With the white umbrella—a symbol of regal power—the couple is taken in a procession in all the four inner roads of the temple along with the temple chariot.
Then the couple goes inside the temple to have darshana.
Sri Karthikeyan pointed out that this had been made a low-key affair for some decades now. But now, thanks to Hindu Temples Protection Committee, the festival is being conducted in a prominent way.
Sri. K.S.Velmayil, the state treasurer of Hindu Temples Protection Committee, stated that this will make the society realise the fact that dharma has no place for any kind of social discrimination based on birth or occupation. That God Himself comes to greet the couple shows how valuable each and every human being is in Sanatana Dharma.
Sri.K. Kannan of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has been working towards organising this event.
Talking to Swarajya he revealed how the Sangh sees such rituals as socially empowering and ennobling all sections of the society. This festival removes the notion of inferiority and superiority while inculcating the notion of universal divinity, he said.
It is easy and even historically accurate to blame colonialism for caste discrimination. It is equally right to blame the present vote-bank identity politics for nurturing the caste enmities between different communities.
But, at the end of the day, it is the entire Hindu society which has to pay a heavy price for casteism.
So, the RSS and aligned organisations have been working silently and untiringly in the ground to reverse the situation. They have studied the temple histories and tradition and have brought out the ritual and celebrations which have the innate ability to create social harmony among the various communities while assuring social justice.
Social harmony seasoned by social justice is a quality twice-blessed. Sangh achieves this by making temples the focal points.
This is simultaneously traditional and radical in achieving justice, harmony and peace in the society.
The Hindu organisations also conducted a conference in which the social and historical evolution as well as significance of the event were discussed.
The highlighting of this festival and its social significance to all Hindu communities is a great step in the Bhagirathic effort and one can only wish, with gratitude, success in their long tapas for bringing the Ganga of sanghathan to Hindu society.
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