Kalaiyarkovil Was The Epicentre Of A Great Anti-British Struggle But We’ve All Forgotten About It

by Aravindan Neelakandan - Nov 20, 2017 11:44 AM +05:30 IST
Kalaiyarkovil Was The Epicentre Of A Great Anti-British Struggle But We’ve All Forgotten About ItKalaiyarkovil gopuram: For what it stands for, alone, is the very soul of this nation. (http://sivaganga.tn.nic.in/)
Snapshot
  • Kalaiyarkovil, built and protected by the valiant Marudu brothers, has been now taken over by caste groups and political parties who have hoisted their flags on the temple gopurams and are driving their own divisive agenda.

    It is a tragedy that is compounded by the inaction of our own cultural and spiritual institutions.

"Hail the revolution,” the posters said, ‘150 years of Capital by Karl Marx and 100 years of Soviet Revolution’. The posters were adorning the teashops facing a grand temple tower in a dusty quasi-town some 62 kilometres from Madurai. The irony strikes when one remembers that the dusty village-like town was the epicentre of a great rebellion 65 years before Marx wrote his lamentation on what he perceived as the negativities of European capitalism while never caring much about the crimes of colonialism.

What is Marx doing in a place which knew revolution and the meaning of freedom in a truer sense?
What is Marx doing in a place which knew revolution and the meaning of freedom in a truer sense?

The place I stand in is Kalaiyarkovil, which was the centre of the confederacy of Poligars of South India who were fighting against the emerging British rule. The temple tower is 155 feet tall, and it is said that from that tower one can see the Madurai temple tower. In fact, that was the idea with which it was built – an emphasis on the spiritual and cultural connectivity. The brains behind such a grand renovation were the Marudu brothers – the heroes who took the mantle of rebellion against the British East India Company.

Kalaiyarkovil – the temple towers built by Marudu brothers.
Kalaiyarkovil – the temple towers built by Marudu brothers.

Folk songs speak of Marudu brothers as the ones who completed the principal temple tower so that from there the Madurai temple tower could be seen.

Who were the Marudu brothers? Hailing from a humble background, they rose to become the rulers of the principality called Sivagangai. Between the intrigues of Nawab and the British East India Company, many of the Poligars of south Tamil Nadu were finding it hard to accept the sovereignty and ascent of an alien trading company purchasing ruling rights from Arcot Nawab. Who were these Poligars?

The Poligar or ‘Pallayakarar’ system as we know existed in Tamil Nadu during the advent of British and was created in the 16th century by Viswanatha Nayak – the first Nayak ruler of Madurai. It was a decentralised setup. He had recognised 72 Poligars, who were granted suzerain on condition that they should pay tribute and render military service at call. The numbers varied from time to time. Almost 200 years down the line there were 60 and by the end of the Poligar wars it had become 46. During the early 18th century, the treacherous killing of Meenakshi, the Nayak queen of Madurai, by Chanda Saheb had incensed the Poligars. They had appealed to the Marathas. Eminent historian N S Ramaswami, in his Political History of Carnatic under the Nawabs (1984), points out that the surviving Hindu powers of South India (Mysore, Pudukkottai, Ramanathapuram and Sivagangai) invited the Marathas and "offered to bear the expenses of the campaign and to furnish troops". “The Maravar chiefs” were "said to have taken the initiative”, he concludes. That the Marathas failed to further strengthen this southern Hindu confederate was another story.

However, by the time the British started land grabbing in South India, the Poligars themselves had become disunited, playing intrigues against each other. Ambitions of petty regional expansion, mutual jealousy and fear of the British had started dividing them.

In 1772, the British under Colonel Joseph Smith and Captain Abraham Bonjour with the collaboration of Arcot Nawab attacked Kalaiyarkovil. The Poligar-king Muthuvaduka Nathar (1750-1772) was treacherously martyred and the temple was ransacked. Kalaiyarkovil became "a scene of lamentable slaughter”, British records say. Soon, with sudden aggression, the company started entering into alliances, which often secured them lavish praise and ruling rights. Pudukottai and Ramanathapuram, two important principalities, had succumbed to the British force.

Velu Nachiyar, the widowed queen of Muthuvaduka Nathar, had to flee to Dindigul with the help of Marudu brothers where she was provided protection by Hyder Ali, who was then fighting against the Arcot Nawab. Soon, the Marudu brothers, through brilliant military manoeuvres, made the return of the queen possible. An agreement was reached whereby Velu Nachiyar was permitted to govern Sivagangai; one of the Marudu brothers became the principal minister and the other army chief. In the second iteration, Sivagangai maintained friendly but cautious relations with the British. Simultaneously they supported the famous Kattabomman (1760-1799) who had started a rebellion against the British.

Muthuvaduka Nathar (1750-1772) martyred by the British in 1772.
Muthuvaduka Nathar (1750-1772) martyred by the British in 1772.

After Kattabomman was executed by the British, the centre of gravity of the war of the Poligars shifted to Sivagangai. The famous ‘Jambudvipa liberation’ proclamation by Marudu brothers made in Sri Rangam temple is a very important political document in the history of Indian freedom struggle. Living in faraway Sivagangai in South India, these rebel brothers aimed to liberate entire India from the ‘low wretches’ – the Europeans. They asked the ‘Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas, Shudras and Muslims’ to unite for the nation. Marudu brothers directly asked the "Subadars, Jemadars, Havildars, Naigs and Sepoys in the service of the low wretches and all capable of bearing arms” to "in the first instance display their bravery; that is to say wherever they find any of the low wretches destroy them”.

Why did the Marudu brothers, well-known Shiva devotees, choose the Sri Rangam temple, a Vaishnavaite temple, for their freedom declaration? There seems to be an old connection. During the invasion of the forces of Alauddin Khilji and the great temple destruction wave that swept Tamil Nadu, the deity of Sri Rangam was taken by the devotees who kept moving it from place to place to prevent it from falling into the hands of the alien invaders. One such place was Kalaiyarkovil.

Sakkottai Krishnaswami Aiyangar in his South India and Her Muhammadan Invaders (1921) writes:

The now important Saiva centre of Kalaiyar Kovil is known by the name Jyotirvanam (the forest of Jyoti trees, Cardiospermum halicacabum), because that part of the forest was famous for Jyoti trees. ... The actual Sanskrit name is given as Jyotishmatipuram, the city of the Jyotishmati trees. Jyotishmati is the name of the tree Cardiospermum halicacabum. It seems more likely therefore that Kalaiyar Kovil is the Jyotishkudi, where they found shelter and where Pillai Lokacharya breathed his last....

So when Marudu brothers used Sri Rangam temple walls to proclaim their declaration for the liberation of entire India – using the traditional name Jambudvipa they were tapping into very deep and historical memories.

In Hebrew Bible Moses is told by the burning bush: “Remove your shoes from your feet; for the place where you stand is holy”; when you feel the history of Hindustan, every inch of the land demands the same sacredness from us.
In Hebrew Bible Moses is told by the burning bush: “Remove your shoes from your feet; for the place where you stand is holy”; when you feel the history of Hindustan, every inch of the land demands the same sacredness from us.

As I stand before the great temple tower, I see a small stone pole – a royal figure standing with folded hands. Local legends persistently speak of how the British threatened to blow up the temple tower if the Marudus, who were then in hiding, did not surrender, and this forced the Marudu brothers to surrender following which they were executed along with their families. This is a persistent folk memory that prevails throughout in the remembrance of Poligar battles by the people. Similar threat-based captures were attributed to other rebel Poligars regarding the local temple towers – perhaps this is the way the people’s memory highlights the fact that the battles were not merely economic feuds but something larger and deeper.

Kalaiyarkovil temple plan: From James Welsh, <i>Military Reminiscences</i>, 1830
Kalaiyarkovil temple plan: From James Welsh, Military Reminiscences, 1830

In fact, after reclaiming Sivagangai, the Marudu brothers had undertaken the renovation of the temple tower that should have been damaged by the pillaging forces of Nawab and the company. So the temple tower had for Marudu brothers a strong significance.

Marudu brothers and all their family members were executed. J Courlay, a British writer, in 1813, wrote a book elaborately titled, Mahradu, an Indian story of the beginning of the nineteenth century, with some observations on the present state of the British Empire and chiefly on its Finance. Here, he records how before the military committee constituted tribunal of the British Company, Marudu made a last minute heroic appeal not for himself but for the lives of innocent children whom the British were going to execute:

I have defended my country against the Company and have been conquered. You may think yourselves entitled to take my life and I am ready to resign it. But what have those children done?

He then pointed to the grandsons and asked,

“They have never borne arms against you – look at them – they are not able to do so.
Inside the temple:  the great martyrs – they fought not for their <i>zamin</i> but for the freedom of entire Jambudvipa
Inside the temple: the great martyrs – they fought not for their zamin but for the freedom of entire Jambudvipa

But no such mercy was shown by the tribunal. Instead,

With the whole of his family soon after made prisoners who were, the male branches of them, regularly as they were taken, one, two, or three at time brought before this infernal tribunal, the identity of their persons established and instantly carried in front of the pickets of the detachment, and there publicly executed.

I enter the temple, where these great patriots worshiped the deity with their families.

The temple itself has great religious significance for Saivaites. It is dedicated to Shiva. The legend is that the goddess came here and did penance after the slaying of the demon and attained a golden lustre and got united with Shiva. British accounts in the late 18th and early 19th centuries speak of the impenetrable forests that surrounded the temple. Yet centuries before as early as the seventh, Thirugnana Sambandar had visited the temple and sang hymns and so did Sundarar, another Nayanmar. Kalai in Tamil means the bull. Bull is the mount of Shiva. In the hymns of Sundarar, Shiva himself is addressed as the bull. It is said, Shiva appeared to him in his dream as a bull and said to him that he resides in Thirukanaperur – the original name of Kalaiyarkovil. Skanda Purana also speaks of this temple tank as the waters in which Sri Rama took bath in order to be liberated from the sin of slaying Ravana. In 15th century, a great devotee of Murugan and the reviver of Tamil music, Arunagirinathar, also came and sang in praise of the deity.

The temple corridors were dark except for being lit by sunlight here and there. There was no proper illumination, and the smell of bat excreta filled the air.

The darkened corridors: the need for non-intrusive innovative illumination is a must for all the major ancient temples in Tamil Nadu.&nbsp;
The darkened corridors: the need for non-intrusive innovative illumination is a must for all the major ancient temples in Tamil Nadu. 

The pillar sculptures show interesting scenes. Rathi and Manmatha with their flower arrows and sugarcane bows; Krishna lifting the mountain with his flute; Shiva with his bull affectionately licking his hand; Hanuman carrying a Shivalinga – the Sthalapurana of Rameshwaram; Purusha-Mirugam – the staunch devotees of Shiva infuriated by Bheema; lions devouring elephants; majestic elephants; a frolicking girl; the list goes on…

Mindless vandalism can also be seen – not of the British or the soldiers of Nawab, but the devotees, scribbling their names and their lovers’ – what kind of depraved minds want to obscenely write their names and shame themselves in such a manner! Wherever there are electric connections and lights, the switchboards and wires have been cleverly installed to destroy the aesthetic ambience of the sculptures around them. Add to this, the devotees building new shrines to the actual plan and purpose of the temple, which are nothing but an eyesore. There is now a new ‘Navgraha’ temple – an addition that has nothing to do with Shiva temples in Tamil Nadu. A new marble-laid temple for Murugan, shows a statue of Arunagirinathar with the peacocks near him having lost their heads because the sculptured material is of questionable quality – the entire shrine shrieks of disharmony with the rest of the temple.

‘Talibans’ of cultural illiteracy: products of decades of Nehruvian and Dravidian education system.
‘Talibans’ of cultural illiteracy: products of decades of Nehruvian and Dravidian education system.
Even the goddess has not been spared; What would the Marudu brothers have done if they saw the English letters scribbled desecrating the goddess in the temple they cherished more than their own lives?
Even the goddess has not been spared; What would the Marudu brothers have done if they saw the English letters scribbled desecrating the goddess in the temple they cherished more than their own lives?
An example of mindless renovation attempt: The original old pillar shows the story of Kala-Samhara Murthy – Shiva destroying the death and saving his devotee – Markandeya. The front side of the pillar shows Yama or Kala – the personification of death. The painted pillar behind is the new ‘modern addition’, which makes the pillar sculpture on one side completely lost.
An example of mindless renovation attempt: The original old pillar shows the story of Kala-Samhara Murthy – Shiva destroying the death and saving his devotee – Markandeya. The front side of the pillar shows Yama or Kala – the personification of death. The painted pillar behind is the new ‘modern addition’, which makes the pillar sculpture on one side completely lost.
Some of the pillar sculptures in Kalaiyarkovil, each of them needs the attention which they never get.
Some of the pillar sculptures in Kalaiyarkovil, each of them needs the attention which they never get.

The temple should have been a veritable living sacred museum of historical memories – particularly for Hindus of that area. Just like Somnath, this temple had been pillaged but renovated in record time. Its pujas hampered and discontinued to be revived by the efforts of selfless devotees. Just like the matchless sacrifices of Marudu brothers, the efforts of the Chettiyars, who toiled to revive worship too need to be documented in a moving way for posterity.

It is not only the invaders, who used our temples as their dump.
It is not only the invaders, who used our temples as their dump.

The temple was occupied by the British forces two times – once in 1772 and again in 1801. It would remain closed. The Marudu brothers had displayed great religious tolerance. They had even said to have given charity to a Catholic church in a village in their province, a priest had claimed. Though the deed was given by Periya Vodaya Tevar – a British collaborator, who was placed in the throne by the company. During his coronation ceremony, he had in gratitude thrown himself at the feet of Colonel Agnew, who fought against the Marudu brothers. Periya Vodaya Tevar now gave land grants to the Catholic mission and addressed it as the ‘Temple of the Supreme Being’. But Kalaiyarkovil remained closed with no pujas. Later Chettiyar – mercantile community based zamindars of Devakottai would take the efforts to renovate and revive the temple pujas. Today the temple management is run by Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HRCE) Department as well as a trust of the Devakottai zamindars.

The Chettiyars, who revived and renovated the temple did not even have their full names written. Such humility before the divine! Their toil and contribution for the revival and continuation of pujas in Kalaiyarkovil need to be documented and handed down to the future generations.
The Chettiyars, who revived and renovated the temple did not even have their full names written. Such humility before the divine! Their toil and contribution for the revival and continuation of pujas in Kalaiyarkovil need to be documented and handed down to the future generations.

The zamindars of Devakottai were so dedicated to the temple that Shree AL. AR. RM. Arunachalam Chettiar, an heir to the zamin took sanyas and came to the Vedantha Madam at Kalaiyarkovil. So, I decided to go to the Vedanta Madam.

Vedanta Madam, which could serve as a great centre for learning and revival of Hindu dharma as well as a museum for the inspiring history of the temple, is a taluk office now.
Vedanta Madam, which could serve as a great centre for learning and revival of Hindu dharma as well as a museum for the inspiring history of the temple, is a taluk office now.
Kalaiyarkovil temple pond: according to tradition, Sri Rama as well as the elephant of Indra Iraavatham took bath here to redeem themselves. Traditional water harvesting systems optimally conserved water for irrigation. British wrecking of traditional water harvesting systems was one of the factors contributing to the ‘Victorian Holocaust’ of 1877.
Kalaiyarkovil temple pond: according to tradition, Sri Rama as well as the elephant of Indra Iraavatham took bath here to redeem themselves. Traditional water harvesting systems optimally conserved water for irrigation. British wrecking of traditional water harvesting systems was one of the factors contributing to the ‘Victorian Holocaust’ of 1877.

As one walks to the madam, one can see the big temple tank that rivals the temple tank of Madurai Mariamman theppakulam. The water management system, through traditional structures, is a science that Hindus developed and employed with such efficiency, goodness knows how many famines were thwarted. The British wrecked the system so mindlessly. The trampling of the traditional irrigation system and associated social institutions was one of the reasons for the 1877 great famine – a holocaust that wiped out more than 5 million Hindus. A proper study of Poligar socio-economic administration and the services they rendered in terms of irrigation and food security still awaits scholars but our academia is caught in the cobweb of the tunnel vision of seeing Poligars as mere warlords and British as civilising influence.

Vedanta Madam: One can imagine the students studying the great classical works on Indian darshanas and discussing them in these halls – perhaps a lost dream or a future possibility!
Vedanta Madam: One can imagine the students studying the great classical works on Indian darshanas and discussing them in these halls – perhaps a lost dream or a future possibility!

Vedanta Madam is an imposing old building that combines both the traditional, local architectural features with the colonial elements. During the early 20th century, the madam should have been a place of great learning. It could have become one. Unfortunately, today it serves as the taluk office. Its magnificent rooms are closed. There is no library nor anyone to even explain the history or contribution. The social stagnation that plagues the Hindu society is visible. If one wants to know why India, though a free sovereign state, is still an enslaved nation needs only to look at the Vedanta Madam in Kalaiyarkovil. One can almost imagine Hindu students studying their varied schools of darshanas and having dialogue with the discoveries of modern science in these scenic corridors and rooms. But all we see around us are government employees in the lazy environment that only a government office of socialist persuasion can create.

The Samadhi temple in Vedanta Madam
The Samadhi temple in Vedanta Madam

This Vedanta Madam could have become a centre of learning and dissemination of Vedanta to the youths in and around. It could have housed an exhibition about the temple, the valiant history of the rulers and the citizens, their struggles, the spiritual legacy and the cultural identity of the people. There could have been memorabilia of Marudu brothers, of the famous rajagopuram, copies of Sri Rangam declaration – the kind of wealth such endeavour could have generated – they are all lost to the dilapidated machinery of socialist secular state that is in a way worse than the British eating into vitals of our being – for the protection of which the Marudu brothers gave their everything.

A ruined Chataram: Chatarams were used by Marudu brothers to reorganise society and revive the temple town. British facilitated systematic stagnation and decay of Indic social institutions. In post-Independent India, general Hindu apathy and governmental interference as well as hostile attitude continue this colonial ‘legacy’.
A ruined Chataram: Chatarams were used by Marudu brothers to reorganise society and revive the temple town. British facilitated systematic stagnation and decay of Indic social institutions. In post-Independent India, general Hindu apathy and governmental interference as well as hostile attitude continue this colonial ‘legacy’.
Flags of political parties hoisted around the temple.
Flags of political parties hoisted around the temple.

As I come out I see posters claiming the heritage of Marudu brothers by Tamil separatists. Marudu brothers were remarkable visionaries of Indian nationalism. They instinctively felt the oneness of the Indian nation. Caste groups, political parties with divisive agenda claiming the legacy of these great patriots is a tragedy. It is a tragedy compounded by the inaction of our own cultural and spiritual institutions.

Kalaiyarkovil gopuram: For what it stands for, alone, is the very soul of this nation.
Kalaiyarkovil gopuram: For what it stands for, alone, is the very soul of this nation.

On my way back, as I see through the bus window, it looks as if the fluttering flags of political parties are taller than the gopuram. But I know, that in reality, the gopuram dwarfs all these ephemeral political parties and what it signifies alone, eternally, is the symbol, strength and the very life of this nation.

This article is part of Swarajya’s series on Indic heritage. If you liked this article and would like us to do more such ones, consider being a sponsor - you can contribute as little as Rs 2,999. Read more here.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

Get Swarajya in your inbox everyday. Subscribe here.
Tags: 

An Appeal...

Dear Reader,

As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.

Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.

We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.

Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.

Become A Patron
Become A Subscriber
Comments ↓
Get Swarajya in your inbox everyday. Subscribe here.
Advertisement

Latest Articles

    Artboard 4Created with Sketch.