For non-Indian readers (or non-Tamil readers for that matter), I hope the explanations of unfamiliar terms (or the links provided) are sufficient for a basic understanding.
The Brihadishwara Temple in the south Indian city of Thanjavur is one of India’s most impressive. Built in the 11th century during the reign of the Cholas and dedicated to Lord Shiva, its 66-meter-tall granite gopuram (tower) and the smaller gopurams in its precincts make for a striking view. The temple is an hour’s drive from the village of Thuvakudi, where I was an college student in the late nineties. But I was completely averse to history and religion then, and not once did I visit. What’s more I did not even know that Thanjavur had this famous attraction that drew visitors from far.
A year after college, while a graduate student in the United States -- and now more interested in history -- I saw the temple mentioned in an essay about Marco Polo in the National Geographic magazine. The medieval Italian traveler had apparently visited the Brihadishwara and been impressed – it had been one stop on his grand, continent-spanning itinerary.
I managed to see the temple for the first time in July this year. The day I visited coincided with pradosham, a fortnightly event in the lunar calendar that marks a legend about Shiva. The story goes thus: Once, the devas and asuras (crudely, gods and demons) attempted to churn the ocean of milk using Vaasuki, a serpent, to extract divine nectar. But the effort went awry and Vaasuki’s poison contaminated the ocean. Shiva took it upon himself to consume the poison, which accumulated in his throat and turned it blue – that is why he is called Neelakantan, the blue-throated one.
Pradosham commemorates Shiva’s selfless act. A pradosham that falls on Saturday is called sani pradosham and is even more auspicious. For Saivites (worshippers of Shiva) this is a special day. I come from the Saivite tradition; my father observes the occasion without fail, and so did my paternal grandfather. This usually means a temple visit late in the afternoon during sani pradosham. For that is the time all gods and celestial beings congregate to revere Shiva. To be present is to be guaranteed divine goodwill.
The Brihadishwara was teeming with worshippers when I arrived. It was 5:30 pm; sani pradosham was well underway. I was struck by the singular beige color of the gopurams – no other temples I know have that color. A continuous throng of people stretched from the main entrance well into the interior, up to the raised pavilion where a massive statue of Nandi, Shiva’s bull – the second largest in India, hewn from a single block of stone – was being bathed in milk and water in the prescribed manner. Even from where I was, a quarter of a kilometer away, I could see gallons of fluid splashing off the body of Nandi. It was a surreal sight.
There were perhaps two or three thousand people – that’s a modest estimate – packed within the temple precincts. A high wall, also beige colored, ran along the perimeter and gave the place the feel of a fortress. The densest concentration was around the Nandi pavilion. It was so crowded that I found it impossible to make my way to the main gopuram, the sanctum sanctorum of which houses Shiva. But it seemed – at least from where I was – that cynosure of all was Nandi and not Shiva. In the first picture above you see the main gopuram in background, but notice that people are facing away from it. They are actually looking at Nandi being garlanded by a priest perched on an elevated platform (second picture).
I left at 6:30 along with most other worshippers. Outside, with large numbers of people milling onto the traffic-clogged street, I had difficulty navigating my way and finding an auto. When I did find one, the driver, visibly frustrated with the jam caused by the temple crowd, said: “People are saturated with faith these days!”
The remark suggested this was not always the case. Indeed, the elders I talked to only confirmed the fact: the religiosity on display that day had not existed during their time, twenty or thirty years ago.
What had changed? The explanation might lie in the societal changes brought about by the politics of Tamil Nadu.
In the early and mid 1900s, the upper caste Brahmins made up only 3 percent of the state's population, but they were dominant: they held all key administrative positions and controlled temples. But their hegemony and supremacist outlook irked an increasingly influential group of Tamil middle castes. The allegation was that Brahmins were “agents” of the Aryan, Hindi-speaking north bent on imposing their version of Hinduism on Dravidians of the south. From the Dravidian viewpoint, the primacy of Tamil and Tamil culture – which date back millennia – had to be reestablished and safeguarded. The movement was all about Tamil distinctness and Brahmin-bashing; later, leaders such as Annadurai infused it with an energetic grassroots populism. By the 1960s, the Dravidians had political power, which diminished the control of the Brahmins and gave upward mobility in the next decades to the middle and low castes who come under the OBC (other backward castes) designation (this does not include Dalits of Tamil Nadu -- known also as Adi Dravidars -- whose long due empowerment still remains a major issue in the state).
That upward mobility has in turn contributed to a growing religiosity. This is somewhat paradoxical, since the ideological roots of the Dravidian movement are atheist. The movement's founder, the firebrand atheist EV Ramaswamy Naicker, known more popularly as Periyar, was a smasher of Hindu idols. And the state’s current chief minister, the 85-year old Karunanidhi -- one of the movement's veterans -- is avowedly anti-Hindu. But godlessness as an ideology never ran deep among the masses. As Vaasanthi writes in Cut-Outs, Caste and Cine-Stars, the “people of Tamil Nadu…never took Periyar’s atheism very seriously. They took just what they wanted. They realized that his focus was more on demolishing the Brahmin’s hegemony over society and politics than demolishing the gods.”
Today, Brahmins are a non-issue in Tamil Nadu. But the newly empowered middle castes have adopted the mores of the upper castes. A new hierarchy, with echoes of the old, has developed -- and it has been strengthened, as elsewhere in India, by caste-driven electoral politics. The late sociologist MN Srinivas calls the phenomenon Sanskritisation. Being pious and following certain customs are ways of projecting one’s elevated caste status. This has resulted in a resurgence of local gods and goddesses -- Adi Parasakthi for example. And feature stories in Tamil weeklies are often about film stars and prominent personages visiting their villages to worship their family deities.
Cultural trends are too complex to be explained away by elegant-sounding theories; and faith is too multifaceted a sentiment to be tied merely to caste or status. And yet I couldn’t help but wonder: Was Sanskritisation largely the reason for the crowds at the Brihadishwara during Sani Pradosham that day?