9 Sep, 2010, 01.42

AM IST, Sangeetha Kandavel & V Balasubramanian,ET Bureau

Iconoclast Periyar's heir now temple patron

CHENNAI: Tamil Nadu’s Dravidian movement, built on the foundation of
atheism and rationalism, is beginning to shake at its roots with
founding member and chief minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi lavishing
funds on temple renovation in a way not seen in at least a century.

The movement — reformist for the untouchables and ruinous for the
Brahmins — has come a full circle from the days of breaking idols of
Hindu deities, especially the ubiquitous Ganpathy, to spending
hundreds of crores renovating temples and encouraging its members to
participate in them.

Karunanidhi, 87, is the last of the atheist politicians left of the
Dravidian crop who have ruled the state for 33 of the last 43 years.
His predecessors, the late friend-turned-rival MG Ramachandran, and J
Jayalalithaa, discarded the ‘rationalist’ plank decades ago.

This Friday will mark the Kumbabishekam, or the consecration, of the
centuries-old Sri Lakshmi Narasimha Swamy Temple in Sholinghur, about
100 kilometres north west of Chennai. Mr Karunanidhi has deputed
colleagues to supervise the work.

“Till date we have spent Rs 420 crore on temple renovation and this is
a clear evidence to show the amount of interest that Kalaignar has
shown in promoting temples in the state,” says KR Periakaruppan,
minister for Hindu religious and charitable endowments.

Spending on temple renovation, praying or even cozying up to religious
leaders is hardly surprising for anyone in a country where prime
ministers and presidents often disturb the silent prayers of the
common man with their presence at prominent temples. But when Mr
Karunanidhi, a self-proclaimed atheist who has been living next door
to a Krishna temple for decades, attends to temple renovation, it is
an irony.

This change of heart can be attributed to several factors. A strategy
to get votes as people throng temples and religious gurus to seek
solace in a fast-paced material life. Or, a genuine desire on the part
of someone in the evening of his life and worried about his legacy to
connect with God.

“Spending money on temple renovation would not help the DMK government
fetch any votes,” says Cho Ramaswamy, political commentator and editor
of Tamil magazine Thuglaq.

Part of the change can be attributed to the state’s political
landscape, which has transformed beyond recognition. The Congress is
no longer the dominant party, many of the Dravida movement’s cherished
goals, such as higher reservation for backward castes, have been met,
and the beneficiaries have not only become prosperous, but have also
started courting God and religion in a big way.

Also, to be fair, the Dravida movement never tried to project itself
as a comprehensive atheist party. While the anti-Brahmin rhetoric was
strong, it took care to ensure that it did not hurt the religious
beliefs and traditions of many of the state’s people, including their
myriad gods and goddesses. So, while Karunanidhi would take time out
and attack the Ramayana, he never spoke ill of Murugan, who was
recognised and promoted as a ‘Tamil god’.

Since Karunanidhi’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam returned to power in May
2006, it has spent around Rs 420 crore on temple renovations. This is
a near threefold jump over Rs 147 crore spent in the five-year rule of
rival All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, or AIADMK, led by
believer J Jayalalithaa. There are 38,481 temples, mutts and trusts
under state control.

Karunanidhi, Jayalalithaa and Ramachandran have their roots in the
Dravidian Movement. The seeds of the movement were sown in 1925 when
EV Ramasamy Naicker, known as Periyar, or the elder, walked out of the
Indian National Congress convention after the then Brahmin-dominated
party refused to consider a resolution seeking proportional

Periyar’s reasons for seeking change were strong. In 1914, of the of
the 650 graduates in then Madras Province, 452 were from the Brahmin
community. Of the 15 elected for the All India Congress Committee, 14
were Brahmins.

Periyar led the Self-Respect and the Anti-Hindi movements of the
aristocrats-led Justice Party formed to further the non-Brahmin
interests in the four southern states. The party was renamed Dravidar
Kazhagam in 1944 with rationalism and atheism as its main planks and
Karunanidhi and his mentor CN Annadurai among the top leadership.

“The assets of a temple — land, buildings, jewelry, utensils, cash —
should be used for the welfare of the people,” said its first
manifesto, quoted in the book A History of the Dravidian Movement by
another founding member, VR Neduncheziyan.

Karunanidhi is not only devoting his energies to temples, but also to
refurbishing their dilapidated cars, which are used during festivals
and vital for the rural economy.

“The main purpose of this is to promote temple tourism and portray
Tamil Nadu as a temple tourist destination,” says Periakaruppan. “By
doing such renovation works, local economic activity also gets a
boost. The areas surrounding the temple area also grow and get to do
good business.”

The state government, which has the famous Srivilliputtur temple tower
as its emblem, has ordered the repairing of 225 temple cars at an
estimated cost of Rs 10.84 crore. Of the 960 wooden cars, some 16 have
been rebuilt for Rs 83.85 lakh.

“We have now started identifying temples which are 1,000 years old and
renovating it,” says N Thirumagal, joint commissioner of the Hindu
religious board. Government grants have been raised more than 200
times in the last two decades to Rs 9.75 crore from Rs 45 lakh a year
in 1998-99.

The DMK, which gained huge popularity in its early years by
discrediting religious heads and priests through street protests and
film dialogues, has been getting closer to them, though for the
economic uplift of the poor.

Karunanidhi, known as Kalaignar to followers, rubbed shoulders with
Satya Sai Baba of Puttaparti a few years ago, when the latter donated
funds to build irrigation projects in the state. He has also started
taking up yoga, ostensibly for health reasons.

Despite this marked shift in attitude, many doubt whether he is
actually turning a believer, or just playing to the gallery.

“Karunanidhi will not change himself from being an atheist,” said
Hindu Munnani leader Rama Gopalan. “His actions are to deceive
gullible people like us. Has he ever expressed his belief in God in
the open? No. He is practising yoga due to health concerns and not out
of any belief.”

Rival Ramachandran set the tone for the Dravidian leaders’ acceptance
of God nearly two decades ago. He created a stir in the early 80s when
he visited the Mookambika temple at Kollur in Karnataka. His
successor, Jayalalithaa in the AIADMK, an offshoot of the Dravida
Kazhagam like the DMK, publicly displayed her belief by visiting

In one such visit to Kumbakonam during Maha Maham, a holy day in the
Tamil calendar, a stampede led to scores of deaths. But her belief in
seeking divine intervention did not change.

Karunanidhi’s long-term associate K Veeramani, president of the
Dravida Kazhagam, who blows hot and cold on his policies, believes
that the actions may give a feeling that he is a believer now, but he
is not. “Two days ago when we celebrated Krishna Jayanthi, the CM did
not issue any statement wishing people and he has never done it for
any festival for that matter,” says Veeramani.

“This is a clear indication that he is strongly sticking to his
atheist principles.” But the funds spent on temples, “can be diverted
for better purposes like education and hospitals.”

(With inputs from S Sujatha in Coimbatore)


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