Tamil Nadu

Jayalalithaa Was The First Tamil Nadu CM In Dravidian Era To Wear Hindu Religion On Her Sleeve

K Balakumar

May 30, 2024, 08:55 PM | Updated 08:55 PM IST

Former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. Photo credit: GettyImages
Former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. Photo credit: GettyImages

She broke the enforced Dravidian taboo on political leaders talking openly about their Hinduness or visiting temples.

As the country awaits the verdict of the long-drawn election with unsuppressed excitement, the political scene in Tamil Nadu seems to have moved to the next stage already. 

The BJP, which is now pushing its way to be the rival to the DMK, is trying to elbow about its former ally, the AIADMK.

Making the possible opening gambit for the 2026 Assembly election in the State, TN BJP's State president K Annamalai has declaimed that the former AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa was a Hindutva leader. 

Quite evidently, the statement was intended politically provocative, and the AIADMK has, however, taken the bait. 

Its leaders are now involved in a war of words with the TN BJP. 

Now, whether Jayalalithaa was a Hindutva person, and what really constitutes Hindutva person, are matters filled with polemical possibilities. 

You can read about that debate here where my colleague S Rajesh has collated four events from her political life and chief ministership for you to decide if she was in fact a Hindutva leader or not.

But what can be beyond discussion is Jayalalithaa was the first Chief Minister in the Dravidian era (since 1967) to openly flaunt her Hinduness and was never coy about visiting temples. She never hid her Hindu religious beliefs, which is very significant in a State where even top actors, with political ambitions, were ridiculed mercilessly for visiting temples or if they were sporting outwardly recognisable Hindu religious symbols (like vibhuthi or kumkum).

The sad predicament of Sivaji Ganesan after his visit to Tirupati

The reference here is to the fate that befell on the thespian Sivaji Ganesan. 

The hapless man was mocked and driven out of the DMK for so much as visiting the temple in Tirupati. 

The temple trip itself, which is said to have first happened in 1953, was said to be in some sort of atonement for acting in movies like Parasakthi (1952), in which the godless Dravidian ideals were sought to be hammered home. There were also other reasons trotted out for the temple visit.

Whatever be the reason, the fact that he went to the temple became front-page news in Tamil newspapers and kicked up a storm in the Dravidian circles. 

Sivaji was called 'Tirupathi Ganesa', and relentlessly trolled through posters and public meetings—'Tirupati Ganesa Govinda'. 

After these deplorable events, Sivaji, who was till then a top name in the DMK, began to be given a short shrift by the high command (Anna, Karunanidhi). 

Sivaji reportedly went to Tirupathi with director Bhim Singh after a particularly harrowing time for him (Sivaji) in the party in 1957. Upon his return, with Daily Thanthi going to town with the news, all hell broke loose, and eventually Sivaji walked out of the party as an emotionally broken man.

Many theories and urban legends floated as to who was responsible for the attacks on Sivaji's Hinduness. There were some who believed that it was MGR who was the mastermind. Mind you, he had formally joined the DMK only in 1952 whereas Sivaji was part of the DMK from 1949 (and earlier with the DK since 1944). He was considered the more senior in the party. But MGR backroom shenanigans pushed him out is one school of thought.

Some others claimed that the duo of Kannadasn and EVK Sampath (EVKS Elangovan's father), who had some scores to settle with Sivaji plotted his downfall. 

Of course, Karunanidhi, who was a past master in such backroom manoeuvres, was also allegedly involved. 

Interestingly, Karunanidhi himself, much later himself blamed MGR for what Sivaji had to endure. In a signed article in Murasoli in 1987, Karunanidhi claimed that "MGR kindled the clique that opposed Sivaji's visit to Tirupati. "Opposing propaganda was strengthened to the level that instead of Sivaji Ganesan, he was called as Tirupathi Ganesan. Due to this, Sivaji had to quit the party."

But what did  Sivaji think of all the events? 

Well, the late actor, in a memoir (2007) published after his death, was quoted as saying with reference to the lurid words against him, "the wives and daughters of the men who instigated the writing of these words, now perform ‘angapradakshanam’. The implicit pointer was to Karunanidhi (the usage "wives and daughters'' was the giveaway.)

MGR was coy about his religious beliefs 

Indeed Karunanidhi's family went to temples, albeit in a hush-hush manner as it was decidedly against the Dravidian credo. Karunanidhi of course projected himself to be an atheist, but took repeated potshots at Hinduism alone. 

The case of MGR was different. He was, by many accounts, a practising Hindu. But he was reluctant to do it openly. 

As an actor, his films were filled with songs and references to gods. But they were never explicitly from the Hindu pantheon (the Tamil words that were often found in his songs were 'kadavul' and 'deivam', both generic references to the divine superpower).

And when he became the Chief Minister, he did visit Hindu temples, mostly on the sly or in a low-key way. He was a staunch devotee of Goddess Mookambika and did contribute a lot to the eponymous temple in Kollur. A leader not flaunting his religious beliefs can actually be a good secular example. But MGR's reluctance stemmed from the fact that visiting temples would dilute his Dravidian ‘cred’. Hinduism and temples alone were proscribed in the Dravidian universe. 

It is into this world that Jayalalithaa's arrival brought a sea change. 

When she became the chief minister for the first time in 1991, the first thing that went out of the window was the false show of not visiting temples. 

She openly paid obeisance at various temples. Of course, in 1992, she and her confidante's presence at the Masi Mahamaham event at Kumbakonam led to a massive stampede and 47 innocent people were crushed to death. 

Jaya remained to true to her beliefs

Jayalalithaa, it was well known, would not begin her poll campaigns before worshipping the presiding deity at Srirangam. Before going out on any important mission, her convoy would slow down in front of a temple at Kotturpuram in Chennai, while she prayed to the deities. 

She also sanctioned money for free annadanams at nearly 500 temples in the state, a happy event that continues till date. 

For temple elephants, Jayalalithaa decreed annual holidays at special camps organised by the government. 

These were all significant in the political history of the State, and marked a major shift in its political history. 

Now, Ministers visiting Hindu temples is no longer an occasion to ridicule. Jayalalithaa, in that sense, changed the narrative around Hinduness in the State. 

Jayalalithaa once declared: "Faith is essential to achieve success in life. Miracles can happen if one has faith. Without faith, one cannot succeed in life." 

She believed in her faith till her last breath. 

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