Atheism may have been among the founding principles of the Dravidian movement, but it has no place in Tamil Nadu’s governance days, be it the AIADMK or the DMK ruling the state.
On July 12, the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR & CE) department, which controls most of the temples in Tamil Nadu, announced that it would take special efforts in 27 temples of Goddess Amman across the state to celebrate the Tamil month of Aadi (July 17 – August 16).
It added that the department, along with Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation, would facilitate day tours throughout the month to popular Amman temples in major districts such as Chennai, Trichy, Madurai, Thanjavur and Perambalur. The tour package is priced at Rs 900 per head including travel and food expenses.
Though Aadi is considered a religiously significant month, the celebrations around it are mostly cultural. What has surprised many is the MK Stalin government’s move to support the temples to organise the celebrations. What is even more surprising is that the official social media accounts of the HR&CE department have published flashcards describing Aadi Perukku, a festival celebrated on the 18th day of Aadi, as a religious celebration, particularly of Hindus.
This year, Aadi Perukku falls on August 3 (Wednesday). The flashcard recounts the mythology behind the festival thus: River Cauvery was the daughter of Lord Kubera, the God of Wealth. Hence, she became very vain. To teach her a lesson, saint poet Agathiya locked her in a kamandal, or a water pot. Lord Vinayak then took the form of a crow and helped Cauvery by releasing her from the pot.
The ethos behind the festival
“The particular flashcard portrays Aadi Perukku as a Hindu festival and Cauvery as a mythological river like Saraswathi,” poet and cultural writer R Karikalan told The Federal. “It is a fact that the ancient Tamils had five types of geographical ecosystems like Kurinji (hills), Mullai (forest), Marudham (agricultural land), Neidhal (coastal) and Paalai (desert). Each land has its own festivals which were later called by different names like Diwali, Karthigai lamp festival, etc.”
“Those ancient festivals are also associated with puranas like the Mahabharatha. In a similar sense, Aadi Perukku, which is essentially a celebration of rivers and water resources, has started to be associated with the puranas,” he added.
Aadi Perukku is also called Pathinettaam Perukku (‘18th rising’). It is celebrated on the 18th day of Aadi, the significance being that 18 different communities — Parathavar, Kosar, Aaviyar, Oviyar, Aayar, Velir, Aandaar, Villore, Maravar, Mazhavar, Kongar, Kuravar, Malaiyar, Kudavar, Puliyar, Pulaiyar, Kadambar and Kalvar — used to celebrate the rise of water levels in water bodies that helped them in their respective occupations, such as farming and pottery.
“The ancient text Pattinapaalai clearly mentions that Cauvery has its origins in Coorg. Such mentions can also be seen in other Sangam texts like Puranaanooru, Pathupattu and Silapathikaram. Ignoring these, the HR&CE department has chosen a mythological story from Manimekalai, one of the five epics in Tamil,” Karikalan said.
He added that it is true that in Aadi, devotees throng Amman temples. But Amman is basically a small folk deity. She has very little to do with Hinduism. It is wrong to compare her with ‘mainstream’ deities like Durga or Vinayak, he observed.
“On the river banks of Tamil Nadu, folk deities, Shaivism, Buddhism and Jainism bloomed and not the right-wing kind of Hinduism. The HR&CE’s act is condemnable,” Karikalan said.
‘A balancing act’
The moves of HR&CE have not only surprised the believers but also the Dravidian ideology supporters. At a time when the DMK government is engaged in promoting the Dravidian model, one section of supporters feel that such overt support for temples represents a deviation from the DMK’s fundamentals as an atheist party.
However, another section of followers says the party’s just practising inclusive politics.
Talking to The Federal, VMS Subagunarajan, a Dravidian ideologue and one of the authors of the recently released book Rule of the Commoner: DMK and Formations of the Political in Tamil Nadu, 1949-1967, said the department’s move is a “balancing act”.
“Linking Aadi Perukku with puranas is definitely wrong. But there is no fault in the government’s intention of promoting temple-related activities. At a time when the BJP is continuously criticising the DMK as an anti-Hindu party, these kinds of initiatives are essential to prove that the party is non-partisan to any religion,” he said.
The HR&CE department, however, stuck to a safer line. It said that since Aadi Perukku was not celebrated for the last two years owing to the COVID pandemic, this year it has made special arrangements for the celebrations.
The Mani Ratnam connection
With the Tamil film Ponniyin Selvan by Mani Ratnam ready for theatrical release on September 30, there is a renewed interest in celebrating Aadi celebrations like Aadi Pooram and Aadi Perukku. On that note, the film crew released its first single from the film, Ponni nadhi paakkanumey on the occasion of Aadi Pooram (July 31).
Interestingly, the very first chapter of the novel Ponniyin Selvan, based on which the film has been made, opens with the Aadi Perukku festival. It was on that day that Vanthiya Thevan, the lead character, enters Thanjavur from Kanchipuram.
The author Kalki has given a detailed description about how Aadi Perukku was celebrated in ancient times.
What Kalki wrote
“On the 18th day of the month of Aadi, in the early hours of the evening, a young warrior, mounted on a horse, was riding down the banks of this ocean-like Veera Narayana Lake. He belonged to the Vaanar clan which is famous in the history of the gallant Tamils.
“Vallavarayan Vandiya Devan was his name. Having travelled a long distance and being worn and weary, his horse was walking along rather slowly. The young cavalier did not seem concerned about this. The sprawling reservoir had so enchanted his heart!
“It was common for rivers of the Chozha Kingdom to run with flood waters touching both banks during the Aadi month festival of Padhinettam Perukku. The lakes fed by these rivers would also be filled to capacity, with waves jostling and colliding upon their embankments. Waters from the river called North Cauvery by the devout, but commonly known as Kollidam, rushed into the Veera Narayana Lake, through the Vadavaru stream and made it a turbulent sea…” (Translation by Indra Neelameggham)
He then tells the way Aadi Perukku was celebrated:
“Crowds of people from nearby villages, dragging their carts covered with canopies of sandal-coloured, supple coconut-leaves, were coming there. Men, women, children and even several elderly folks, all wearing new clothes and vividly dressed in various ways had come over. Bunches of fragrant flowers, such as the hearts of country cactus, chrysanthemum, jasmine, gardenia, champaka and iruvatchi decorated the braids of women…
“Several had come with families, bringing stewed rice and fancy picnic foods. Some stood by the water’s edge and ate their picnic rice-dishes from platters of plantain-flower petals. Others, more brave, had ventured further into the water to cross over to the bank of the Vadavaru. Some children threw the platters from which they had eaten into the floodgates and clapped their hands with laughter to see the petals float through the gates to be rushed onto the canals.
“Some mischievous young men plucked the flowers off the heads of their loved ones and threw them into the water, merely to see them being cast upon the shore. Vallavarayan Vandiya Devan stood there watching all this for a while. He listened with an eager ear when some of the girls with pleasant voices sang. They sang traditional boat-songs and flood-songs as well as folk songs like Kummi and Sindhu…”.