War of naamams hits a new turf in TN

War of naamams hits a new turf in TN

'Practice will not create customary right'

The form “U” or “Y” is no simple disjunctive choice in the history of ‘Vaishnavism’ in South India , like coffee or tea. These forms, as shorthand for the “Thiruman” or “Naamams” (in colloquial Tamil) the Vaishnavites’ sport on their foreheads, symbolising Lord Vishnu’s feet, continues to flag a doctrinal row, at times stormier than the deep sea on which Maha Vishnu himself reclines on a serpent bed.

Yes, the “War of the Naamams””, has come to the fore again in Tamil Nadu, seemingly on a less hostile tenor this time. It is on a new turf though, since the
legal battle was first fought for over 150 years in modern times going right up to the “Privy Council”, over which “Naamams” should adorn the Elephant of the ancient Sri Varadaraja Swamy temple in Kancheepuram.

While the “U” form “Naamams” is sported by the “Vadagalai” sub-sect among the Vaishnavites, the “Y” is proudly flaunted by the “Thengalai” sub-sect, though both acknowledge their foundational doctrines and wisdom to the great “Acharya”,
Sri Ramanuja (1027-1137 AD), who systematised the “Vishistadwaita (Qualified Monism)” system of Indian Philosophy.

Ramanuja himself, an untiring syncretistic thinker who sought to harmonise diverse streams of Indian thought from “Adwaita” to the grand hymnology of the Tamil mystical “Alwars”, credited with the 4,000 songs of the “Divyaprabhandam” (popularly known as the Tamil Vedas) that heralded the ‘Bhakthi’ tradition in the South, made “Hinduism” more sagacious and boldly began to undermine the caste system from within.

But historically, after Ramanuja, some minor doctrinal interpretative differences rose among some of his most ardent disciples. It also acquired a Sanskrit-Tamil standoffish tone, leading to a sub-sectarian divide between the “Vadagalais” (Northern School) who were more articulate in Sanskrit, and the “Thengalais” (southern school) rooted in Tamil mysticism.

While the ‘Vadagalai-Thengalai’ tussle was most visible over which “Naamams” should adorn the deities, ‘mandapams’, towers, elephants, etc., in Vishnu shrines, the latest ‘Naamams war’ was fought not in Kancheepuram, but in the 1000-year-old Goddess ‘Sri Aandal Temple’ at Srivilliputtur down South, dedicated to one of the greatest poetess-disciples of the Lord. The unfolding of this tale mirrors a tradition-versus- modernity dilemma. K Veera Raghava Thathachariyar, a ‘Vadagalai’,  was aggrieved by the temple authorities disallowing a religious practice, claimed to be in vogue from his forefathers’ times, at his “mandapam” outside the Sri Aandal shrine.

Veera, who returned from a stint in a defence establishment, rebuilt the dilapidated “mandapam” in the mid-1980s’ and was keen to revive the “custom” of receiving the Aandal deity there whose inner walls was smeared with “Vadagalai Naamams”. That turned out to be the bone of contention.

Goddess “Aandal” stopping by at his “mandapam” was not only a matter of immense religious zeal for Veera, but also a matter of honour. So much so, during the 1987 “Margazhi” festival, when the deity was not brought by the temple authorities to the “mandapam”, despite his readiness to pay the requisite fee for it, Veera protested that abruptly stopping the custom merely because a structure outside the temple had “Vadgalai Naamam” was “illegal action”. As a retired defence official, Veera also felt “he was humiliated”.

That was the trigger point for the long-drawn legal battle. As fate would have it, during its course in the lower courts, Veera died in January 2001 and an interlocutory application was filed to bring in his legal representatives on record, including his wife, two brothers and a sister as per trial court’s order.

Veera had adduced arguments  like denying that the “Vadagalai Naamams” in it was his post-retirement embellishment, and that he was not claiming “any right” inside the temple precincts.

However, the Sri Aandal temple authorities countered that from time immemorial the shrine was governed by the “Thengalai” tradition of temple worship. In a landmark and scholarly 55-page judgment, Justice K Chandru of the High Court,  ruled that Veera’s original suit itself was not maintainable.

Quoting extensively from various High Court and Supreme Court judgments,  Chandru said the “law on the subject is very clear.” Such issues regarding customary rights, or even rituals or ceremonies held outside the temple “cannot be decided by a civil court”, in view of the non-maintainability of the suit under Section 9 of the Civil Procedure Code, and und­er the Tamil Nadu HR and CE Act’s provisions itself.

“Merely because the plaintiffs have pleaded about past practice, that will not create a customary right in favour of the plaintiffs,” the judge ruled. “An unbroken practice may some times lead to an established custom, but all customs will not become part of established rituals and ceremonies attached to the temple and its festivities.”

In this case, the “Sri Aandal” temple was indisputably governed by ‘Thengalai’ traditions. Veera’s right to worship the deity inside the temple was not curbed, and nor did the plaintiff establish any “custom to even move the authority under the TN HR and CE Act,” the judge said.  So, at least for now, it is truce in the inimitable ‘War of the Namams’.

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