Priests at Parliament: The Tamil Adheenams and how they kept close to power

Caste plays a critical role in their history.

WrittenBy:Bharathy Singaravel
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A day before the inauguration of the new Parliament building on May 28, a photo of the Thiruvavaduthurai Adheenam head seated in a chartered plane on the way to New Delhi went viral. The image spawned both widespread curiosity and criticism. Why was a special plane arranged for an Adheenam head? Why was he given VVIP treatment when the President of India Droupadi Murmu was not invited to the inauguration?

These were the questions raised by many. Soon, a photo of the Adheenam heads standing beside prime minister Narenadra Modi with the sengol also grabbed attention, sparking curiosity about who the men in saffron robes are. Until the inaugural event, surely only a few outside Tamil Nadu would have heard about this particular Saivite sect. 

Historians from Tamil Nadu tell TNM that the Adheenams have repeatedly embedded themselves with power centres. They point out that within this history, one factor has played a critical role – caste. 

Who are the Adheenams? 

A religious sect which believes that Siva was a Tamil god and that the original religion of Tamil Nadu was Saivism, the Adheenams have up to 21 mutts spread across the state, each with its own head. They are widely believed to have helped in the preservation of the Tamil language, an idea that various Adheenams themselves claim to be true. The Adheenams, for example, continue to offer worship in Tamil rather than Sanskrit. The heads of the Adheenams are always from non-Brahmin castes, but it is hard to see this as an anti-caste idea. 

Across Tamil Nadu, the various Adheenam mutts are headed by powerful intermediate or forward caste groups. The Madurai Adheenams pick their heads from the forward Saiva Vellalar caste group, for example. Similarly, the Dharmapuram and the Thiruvavaduthurai Adheenams also pick their heads from the Saiva Vellalar caste.

A research paper on the Vellalar ties of the Madurai, Dharmapuram, and Thiruvavaduthurai Adheenams says, “Though related, the two terms, matam (mutt) and adheenam, are not interchangeable. In Tamil usage, matam carries a connotation of place, though the term matam is often used as an umbrella term for a wide range of religious centres and rest houses. The term adheenam designates an independent institution that has its own internal structure of authority. An adheenam also typically exercises some type of corporate authority over smaller, related centres.”

Socio-religious analyst C Rajeswari tells TNM that the Adheenams were formed after the 14th century, though the Madurai Adheenam claims to be older and that it was formed by Thirugnana Sambandar (a Tamil Saivite sage believed to have lived sometime in the 7th century).

“But most of the Adheenams were formed between the 14th to 19th centuries. Their intention is the promotion of Saivism and Tamil, particularly the former. In that respect, they have also written many texts and brought older Tamil texts into print,” Rajeswari says, adding that mutt leaders often wrote thala puranams for various temples in the state.

The purpose of thala puranams is to establish an origin story for temples, says historian and author Stalin Rajangam.

“For example, if a new Siva temple is to be built in a town, the elders of the town will approach an Adheenam to write a thala puranam that will draw on existing mythologies and establish a local connection. So some important event in the stories associated with the deity, or an avatar of the deity, will be said to have taken place in the locality where the temple is coming up,” he explains. The Adheenams are given offerings from the town for writing a thala puranam – which, as Stalin points out, offers religious credibility to the temple.

Unlike some of the Lingayat mutts in Karnataka, for example, the Adheenams in Tamil Nadu don’t often explicitly support political parties or leaders. But over the years, several Adheenam heads have been close to political parties.

The Kundrakudi Adheenam, for example, was known to be close to Periyar. Subsequent Dravidian party leaders from both the AIADMK and DMK have also had close ties to various Adheenams. Of them, the Madurai Adheenam features prominently. 

In 2010, the Madurai Adheenam’s head pontiff reportedly gifted his own ring to M Karunanidhi during the inaugural function of Arivalayam, the party headquarters. But years after this, ahead of the 2014 Parliament elections, the Madurai Adheenam head had openly promised to campaign for the AIADMK during J Jayalalithaa’s time.

It is quite routine for politicians to take blessings from Adheenams. In 2020, DMK scion Udhayanidhi Stalin met the Dharmapuram Adheenam’s head pontiff and was seen receiving his blessings. Interestingly, then chief minister and AIADMK leader Edappadi K Palanisamy also paid a visit to the Dharmapuram Adheenam and similarly took his blessings. Further, Jayalalithaa’s former aide Sasikala’s husband Nagarajan was reportedly once close to the Madurai Adheenam. 

After the DMK came to power in 2021, chief minister Stalin rolled out the Anaithu Saathiyanarum Archakar Aagalam scheme that enabled people of all castes to become priests in temples controlled by the Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments department. While the move is without doubt a progressive one, it is of interest to note that appointment orders were given in the presence of various Adheenam heads. 

But the DMK government also clashed with the Adheenams soon after. In May 2022, the Mayiladuthurai administration banned the Adheenam ritual of Pattina Pravesam – the practice of carrying a seer in a palanquin procession. The move was however later revoked.

Another interesting aspect to the DMK’s history with the Adheenams is that party founder CN Annadurai himself wrote a strongly worded criticism in 1947, after the now-infamous sengol was presented to Jawarhalal Nehru. 

The former head pontiff of the Madurai Adheenam offers a curious case. Arunagirinatha Gnanasambanda Desika Paramacharya Swamigal went from working as a crime reporter to training at the Dharmapuram Adheenam before going on to preside over the Madurai Adheenam. 

The Madurai Adheenam also courted controversy a few years ago in relation to rape-accused fugitive godman Nithyananda. In April 2012, the Adheenam head Arunagirinatha Gnanasambanda had declared that Nithyananda would be his successor.

Though Nithyananda had by then been arrested in the sex tape case and left disgraced, Arunagirinathar supported him and dismissed the allegations as conspiracies. Nithyananda was also made in charge of the Adheenam’s vast properties, which includes several temples and many acres of land. Months later, in October of that year, Arunagirinathar called a press meet and said that the decision to make Nithyananda the Adheenam head had been revoked.

Arunagirinathar did not offer any explanations other than, “You all know better.”

In 2021, when Arunagirinatha passed away, Nithyananda declared through social media that he had taken charge as the 293rd chief of the Madurai Adheenam. Subsequently, the Madurai Adheenam dismissed Nithyananda’s claims and went on to appoint Harihara Desika Gnanasambantha Paramacharya as the 293rd chief.

Brahmins, Adheenams, and the making of a Tamil Saivite identity

Folklorist AK Perumal had previously told TNM that the Adheenams ‘covertly’ opposed the Brahmanical worship of Siva during the Chola reign.

“Tamil Saivite traditions worked to undermine Brahmin hegemony, though they were covert about it instead of being directly confrontational, such as dismissing the need for Sanskrit in worship,” Perumal had said, when the Madurai Adheenam head ran into controversy after the Adheenam chief’s divisive speech at a Vishva Hindu Parishad conference last year. 

Stalin Rajangam, however, says that the Adheenams weren’t always opposed to the Brahmin priests of the Cholas. “There have been times when they were opposed to each other, but there was also constant collaboration between the Brahmin priests and Vellalar Adheenams,” he says, and points out that Brahmins often studied at the Adheenam mutts.

One such well-known Brahmin figure is U Ve Swaminatha Iyer, known for bringing many old Tamil texts into publication. Despite having studied at a non-Brahmin organisation, however, Swaminathan himself refused to take on students who were not Brahmin, says Rajeshwari.

“U Ve’s contribution with respect to the publishing of Tamil texts is massive, but he is also an example of how Tamil promotion was not a prerogative of the Adheenams as much the establishment of Saivism was. When U Ve began researching ancient Tamil literature to bring into publication, he had not heard of even the Seevagasindhamani or Manimekalai (well-known Tamil sangam texts). Why? Because these texts were written by Jains and Buddhists, which the mutts do not teach,” says Stalin.

Besides, the idea of Tamil promotion was one created during the colonial period, he says. A new generation of technologically-savvy Saivites who were close to the Adheenam mutts observed the Christian missionary culture of having a central text, the use of the printing press to disseminate information, and setting up educational institutions. Many secular non-Saivite Tamil texts were revived and published at this time, he points out. T

hese “neo-Saivites”, as Stalin describes them, replicated the formula used by Christian missionaries in order to publish and promote Saivite texts and to claim that Tamilness and Saivism are the same. It was also used to create a counter-narrative to the existence of texts such as the Silappathikaram or the Manimekalai written by Buddhists and Jains, as these texts are much older and prove the existence of both religions in Tamil Nadu.

Caste and land grants

The sengol, which was commissioned by the Thiruvavaduthurai Adheenam and presented to India’s first PM Jawaharlal Nehru ahead of independence, has been described by the union government as being based on the design of sceptres used in the Chola period.

It was this very same Chola kingdom that helped the Adheenams flourish, Stalin Rajangam tells TNM. “Two castes largely benefited from Chola rule – the Saivite Brahmin priests of the kings and the Aadheenams who were from the Saiva Vellalar community. The Adheenams were given the power of administering temples. They were given lands that continue to be in the control of the Adheenams even today.”

This can be seen in tandem with the criticism against the Chola dynasty concerning land-grabbing from Dalits and other marginalised castes, particularly in the time of the king Raja Raja Chola I who built the famed Thanjavur temple.

Speaking on this topic in 2019, K Arunan had told DT Next, “Why was land donated only to Brahmins and Vellalars? About 340 students were taught Sanskrit in Raja Raja Chaturvedi Mangalam village in present day South Arcot. [Historian] KK Pillai says it can be easily construed as to how Sanskrit was promoted during his period, but no evidence could be found for Tamil development during the Chola period. Land ownership and education was driven by the Varna system.”

The concerns about land acquisition in the Chola period, it must be noted, has come to be at odds with a Tamil nationalistic celebration of the three major kingdoms of the region: the Cholas, Pandyas, and Cheras. In this regard, Stalin further points out, “Look at the places that the lands belonging to the Adheenams are located at. These are fertile lands with good rainfall and irrigation facilities. Imagine the kind of wealth this can bring in.”

Rajeswari adds that the Adheenams not only performed the poojas in temples under the Chola administration, but they were also in control of the art forms practised in these temples. “The wealth of the Adheenams came from donations by believers. Those without any heirs would give their wealth to them. Additionally, if people had defied their parents in some way, such as by marrying outside the caste, they would be disowned and the property written off to the Adheenam administered temples,” she says.

The Vijayanagara dynasty, despite being Vaishnavites themselves, did not take away the Adheenam lands and instead allowed them to hold on to their wealth and status. When the Nayakar dynasty came to power after that, it was a Vellalar Saivite, Ariyanatha Mudhaliar, who was made steward of Madurai, Stalin recalls.

Adheenams and dance with power

It appears that over time, the Adheenams have remained close to power in one way or another. Their closeness now to the union government should then be seen through the lens of this history.

Last June, the current Madurai Adheenam head Desika Gnanasambanthan participated in a VHP conference. The conference was also attended by the head of the Kovai Kamatchi Adheenam and the Mannargudi Jeeyar, among others. “Holy temples have become the dens of politicians,” the Madurai Adheenam said at this conference. “They rob from the faithful and call it Dravida Nadu.”

Desika Gnanasambantha had opened his speech at this conference with praise for the VHP, calling them “revolutionaries.” The Madurai pontiff further went on to praise prime minister Narendra Modi. “Our students who went to Ukraine to study were saved from gunfire by him. People asked if we would ever be able to build the Ayodhya temple, we’ve done it. I will say one thing to the (state) government, you cannot survive if you lay a finger on our temples.”

At this same conference, he made several communal comments targeting Muslims and Christians. “Tamil Nadu’s culture and traditions are only in the temples. All our wealth is gone. They call themselves Dravidians and refuse to smear holy ash, or throw away the holy ash. But on Ramzan they wear kullas (skullcaps),” he had declared.

This report was republished from The News Minute as part of The News Minute-Newslaundry alliance. Read about our partnership here and become a TNM Member here.

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