Hollowed Ground

Tamil Nadu’s Saivite history shows why Modi’s sengol bid will fail

The prime minister Narendra Modi receives the sengol from pontiffs of Saivite aadheenams—Tamil non-Brahmin Saivite religious orders. The sengol was historically associated with kingship in the Tamil country. ANI Photo
26 June, 2023

“The king holds the sengol,” CN Annadurai, who would go on to become Tamil Nadu’s first chief minister, wrote in the Tamil weekly Dravida Nadu, in August 1947. Among the presents the new prime minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, had received was the sengol, a golden sceptre historically associated with kingship in the Tamil country. It was presented to him by the Thiruvaduthurai Aadheenam, a non-Brahmin Saivite religious order in the Madras Presidency.

Annadurai castigated the aadheenam’s plain-faced attempt to curry favour with the new regime. “Who gave the sengol to the first government? The aadheenam!” he wrote. “Everyone will talk about the aadheenam who blessed, sanctioned and handed over the sengol as a seal of authority—and only then the new government started functioning! This will be the common talk not just now but in days to come as well.” A staunch leader of the atheistic Dravidian movement, Annadurai cautioned Nehru about the aadheenams. He wrote that a democracy required doing away with symbols such as a gold sceptre, which had been wrought from the immense wealth, labour and religious dominance that the aadheenams then commanded.

Almost eight decades later, a role reversal of sorts has taken place. This time, it was the government that appeared to be courting the Tamil priests. On 27 May, a day before Prime Minister Narendra Modi was to inaugurate the new parliament building, pontiffs of 21 Saivite aadheenams arrived in Delhi to deliver the sengol to him. Modi gave it pride of place, ceremoniously interring it next to the speaker’s seat. His government claimed that the sengol was a symbol of transfer of power that the British governor general, Louis Mountbatten, had handed over to the aadheenam to deliver to Nehru—allegedly on the advice of C Rajagopalachari, a Tamil Brahmin who had been chief minister of the Madras Presidency and would succeed him as governor general. Meanwhile, every legislator from Tamil Nadu, alongside various opposition parties, boycotted the inauguration because of the government’s refusal to invite the president, Draupadi Murmu.

The Modi government’s embellished version of the sengol’s symbolism and its ties to Mountbatten have since been proven dubious. But the histrionics around the sengol seem to be part of a larger attempt by the Bharatiya Janata Party to tie Tamil Nadu into its imagined Hindu Rashtra, which is culturally and historically quite alien to the southern state.