On Sunday, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurates the new parliament building in Delhi and receives the historic Sengol (sceptre) that was received in 1947 by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to represent the transfer of power from the British, it will signify a special outreach to the people of Tamil Nadu.
Prime Minister Modi will receive the Sengol from 24 adheenam (mutt) heads of Tamil Nadu, in a significant political message to southern India, especially Tamil Nadu. The Sengol, a historic symbol of authority is expected to be placed near the Lok Sabha Speaker’s chair in the new Parliament building.
This is not the first time the BJP is reaching out to adheenams that are Shaivite sects traditionally dedicated to Tamil forms of worship and have Tamil rituals and Tamil hymns. The Tamil Nadu BJP in the last two years has supported the demands of adheenams in Madurai and Dharmapuram that have accused the DMK government of interference or blocking their traditional practices. While the BJP-led central government has organised events like the Kashi-Tamil Sangamam to establish the cultural, historical and civilisational linkages between North and South India, the Sangh Parivar’s larger goal has been to stress on the cultural oneness of the nation centred around Tamil saints and spiritualism. For the BJP electorally too, reaching out to southern states is important to boost its prospects in the 2024 national elections.
The Prime Minister has often invoked Tamil in his speeches. Wearing a Veshti, he has spoken about his admiration for the Tamil classic Thirukkural, cited Tamil poet Subramania Bharati’s dream of a “united and strong Bharatam” as one of his biggest inspirations, and even made a three-thousand-year old Tamil quote a pivotal part of his address at the 74th session of the UN general assembly.
While the RSS, specifically in Tamil Nadu, has been working to bring Shaivite and Vaishnavite mutts under one ‘Hindu’ umbrella, for more autonomy over the temple’s finances and conducting temple festivals, it has also been looking at ways to address the debate around Hindi imposition in the state.
Sengol defined transfer of power in 1947
The Thiruvavaduthurai Adheenam, one of the oldest (almost 500 years) Shaivite mutts in the country, had commissioned the Sengol after freedom icon C Rajagopalachari suggested to Nehru the ceremonial gesture that has roots in the Sangam era and has been documented by writers during the Chola period as a symbol of the transfer of power to a new king. The golden sceptre was made by Vummidi Bangaru Chetti and Sons, jeweller and diamond merchants based in Chennai. A delegation of three senior mutt seers and one musician were flown to Delhi so they could hand over the sceptre.
Now the sceptre brought from Allahabad is in the capital’s national museum. The current seer of Thiruvavaduthurai Adheenam, Sri La Sri Ambalavana Desika Paramacharya Swamigal, has welcomed the move, saying it will be an honour to present the Sengol to the Prime Minister. This is important as the adheenams in Tamil Nadu, particularly in and around Thanjavur and Madurai, are known to have a huge number of devotees, particularly from non-upper caste backgrounds. “This is a reiteration that Tamil Nadu has always been a pious land, that has stayed committed to its traditions. The temples built here show the devotion people of this land have had. The PM understands that,” Writer and academic, and also former Kerala Public Service Commission (PSC) chairman Dr K S Radhakrishnan told NDTV.
There have been questions too.
Dravidian scholar and writer K Thirunavukkarasu said that in the ancient times, when a new king was crowned, he would be presented with a Sengol by the high priest which was then seen as a symbol of transfer of power. “The high priest would conduct the ceremony. But there can be no place for this in a democracy. Such practices only embolden Varnashrama practices (caste divisions) that we should be moving away from.”
TKS Elangovan of the ruling DMK said the Sengol reminds the recipient that he has the “aanai” (order) to rule in a just way. “But democracy is where people have the power to question whenever they want. They are the rulers. Do we have a monarch to be given the Sengol?” he questioned, speaking to NDTV.
Dr Radhakrishnan, however, said the sceptre in the parliament is a declaration of cultural unity between the North and South India. “And that is how India has always been. It is the same culture from North to South and we have been one for ages, contrary to the propaganda that some people spread. Diversity doesn’t mean differences,” he said.
“And a Sengol is given to a ruler reminding him of what his duties are, mainly to listen to his people. Democracy has been an integral part of our state craft for centuries wherein rulers listened to people. The PM has been doing that. The opposition keeps using the choicest words against him but he understands in a democracy that will happen,” he added.
Culture Secretary Govind Mohan said the Sengol after India’s independence was first kept in Anand Bhavan, in Jawaharlal Nehru’s ancestral house, after which it was sent to a museum in Allahabad. “It took us three months of research to find out where the Sengol exactly is. A museum curator in Allahabad finally identified it, and we got the makers, Vummidi Bangaru Chetti family, to confirm if it is the same.”
Official sources noted that artist Padma Subrahmanyam had first flagged news items on the Sengol which galvanised the Culture Ministry. Experts from the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA) conducted thorough research, its chairman Sachchidanand Joshi said, adding that many important, historical events that could not be recorded then are being made part of archives and official records now.
“From 2017, we picked up Tamil media reports about how minutes before independence, the Government of India had followed the sacred Sengol-vesting model of Chola kings of Tamil Nadu for transfer of power from the British to Indians. There was also singing of sacred Tamil text Thevaram to advise the leader to rule the country well,” he added.
Why honouring the Sengol is in line with BJP’s big Tamil push
Both in 2014 and 2019, Tamil Nadu voted overwhelmingly for the AIADMK and DMK, respectively. This is why the BJP is working on multiple fronts in Tamil Nadu, mainly to establish its independent identity, apart from its offensive against the DMK’s governance, and exploring what they believe is public disenchantment with Dravidian parties and a growing interest for the BJP among the “non Periyarist, non brahmin, nationalist, pious, with a strong, defiant Hindu religiosity”.
“Local gods and local customs are very important to people here. And it is also to make every Tamil proud that a part of her heritage will enrich the parliament, ” Dr Radhakrishnan said.