Does Thazhamon family have a better story than Cheerappanchira and Malayarayans?

Once upon a time there was a king …. Long, long ago, there lived a …. These are sound openings for fables. “The Heredity (sic) rights of Sabarimala temple was (sic) and is (sic) with Tazhamon Family from time immemorial for millenniums”. This statement can also be placed in the category if fables. Ask the Thazhamon spokesman when and how the family acquired its hereditary rights in Sabarimala, and the answer is that there is a “lack of record”. Then comes the explanation that this is the case with all the temples, families etc. You also get a counter-question: can you tell the name of your great-grandfather of 30 generations ago? Many royal families of old, in India as well as other countries like Japan, used to claim descent from the Sun or the Moon. This was done to establish not only antiquity but also Divine sanction for their hereditary title. Out of feudal loyalty, the people tacitly accepted the claim.

The solar and lunar dynasties of India have all disappeared. Japan’s imperial family, with a claimed history of 2,500 years, is still there but now it does not talk of descent from the Sun. This is because it does not need the fib of divine origin any more, the country having graduated from empire to constitutional monarchy. The only ones who still hold on to fictional accounts that originated in the tribal or feudal past are those connected with various religions. Many people who accept current scientific theories about the origin of Earth and Man and reject the myths about them still believe in God and religion. This shows that a religion does not really need fables for survival. But there are people who live by the religion and feel the need to perpetuate the fables for their own survival. The Sankara Mutts have in their possession records which list all those who headed the institutions, from Adi Sankara down to the present incumbents. The lists go back to about 500 BCE, although it is now widely accepted that Sankaracharya, who founded the institutions, lived from 788 to 820 AD. The lists cover 2,500 years because they were created when the Vedic establishment was trying to push back Sankara’s period to the Buddha’s. Some people still want to do that. (Please see my blog post at Other religions, too, contain such fabrications. The Bible, for instance, lists the names of Adam’s successors down to Noah and on to Solomon and beyond. However, few consider it a historical record. True, no one will be able to name his/her forebear of 30 generations ago. But, then, it is not necessary either – so long as he/she does not enjoy or demand any special right or privilege on the basis of descent from that person. When a controversy arose over the purification ceremony conducted at the Guruvayur temple following alleged desecration by members of Vayalar Ravi’s family, the late K. P. C. Anujan Bhattathiripad, a widely acclaimed authority on rituals and author of "Kshethraachaarangalum Vrathaanushtthaanangalum", said in a magazine article that the Chennas family has been associated with that temple as Thanthris for 6,000 years! In a letter to the editor of the periodical which published the article, I pointed out that the Chennas family’s own claim was that it obtained its rights at this temple from the Zamorin (Samoothiri) of Calicut and that 6,000 years ago neither the temple nor the Samoothiri existed. Anujan Bhattathiripad made no attempt to defend his statement. Evidently he was ready to respect facts. MAHARAJAS’ CONTROL OVER TEMPLES At the time of Independence, the Maharajas of Cochin and Travancore controlled the major temples in their states. It was Munro, a British Resident who also served as Dewan of Travancore, who brought the state’s temples under the government. Though the creation of a white officer, the department scrupulously followed the caste rules, and reserved all jobs for members of the so-called upper castes. Even though these rules are

no longer in force, these castes, which constitute a minority of the Hindu population, still hold a lion’s share of the jobs. The Maharajas of Travancore and Cochin as also the Zamorin of Calicut (the British allowed him to retain the title even after his kingdom was taken over) came to have a say in the affairs of temples in their respective areas by virtue of the political control they had over the regions. The case of Jammu and Kashmir illustrates how political power leads to control over temples. Jammu and Kashmir did not exist as a state until after the Anglo-Sikh War. The British, who defeated the Sikh ruler of Punjab, were not keen to take over the territory. They demanded Rs 15 million as war reparations. Punjab could not come up with the money. Gulab Singh, who was commander in charge of the Jammu and Kashmir area, which was part of the Sikh empire, offered to pay the money. The British took the money and made him Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir. On becoming the Maharaja in 1846, Gulab Singh created the Dharmarth Trust with himself as sole trustee. Subsequently his successors became the sole trustees. Karan Singh, who was Yuvaraj at the time of Independence, did not become Maharaja on the death of his father Hari Singh but he became the sole trustee of the Dharmarth Trust. In that capacity, he receives one-third of the revenue of the major temples including the Vaishnodevi temple in Jammu and the Amarnath cave temple nestling in the Himalayas. The Thakur families, which controlled the Vaishnodevi temple before the Maharaja’s entry, get another one-third and the Brahmin priests the remaining one-third. In the case of the Amarnath temple, too, the trustee and the priests each get one-third, the remaining one-third going to a Muslim Bakharwal (shepherd) family, whose ancestor had helped trace the cave after it had remained inaccessible for a few centuries. The J and K Assembly was informed recently that 171 temples in the state were destroyed or damaged during the past decades of militancy. The state BJP has demanded enactment of a law to protect the temples. This once again illustrates the connection between political power and temple administration. CHEERAPPANCHIRA AND SABARIMALA Until a few decades ago the Cheerappanchira family of Cherthala enjoyed the right to conduct ‘vedi vazhipadu’ at Sabarimala. The Devaswom Board abolished it and started auctioning the right in order to raise the revenue. The family challenged the decision in court, where it produced a copper plate on which was inscribed a royal decree granting it the right. The court ruled that the board had the power to make alternative arrangements. The judiciary cannot be faulted for refusing to honour the decree of a ruler who no longer exists. Its decision was in conformity with the new political realities. But the fact that this family had in its possession a document to support its claim of hereditary rights deserves to be noted.

How did the Ezhava family of Cheerappanchira acquire hereditary rights at Sabarimala through a royal decree? According to the family’s tradition, its chief had imparted training in martial arts to Ayyappa, adopted son of the Pandalam king, who was preparing to challenge the tribesmen from Tamil Nadu who had seized the Sabarimala shrine. The chief’s daughter, Poonkodi, fell in love with Ayyappa. The chief and Vavar, a Muslim, along with their men, actively participated in Ayyappa’s successful campaign against the tribesmen. Since Ayyappa did not return from the mountains, Poonkodi, accompanied by relatives, went to Sabarimala looking for him. Ayyappa, who had turned an ascetic, advised her also to lead an ascetic life. Ayyappa’s association with the Cheerappanchira family is mentioned in Kottarathil Sankunni’s Aithihyamala, which is a collection of legends which, for the most part, reinforces casteist theories. CPI State Secretary C.K. Chandrappan and the late CPI-M leader Suseela Gopalan are among the Cheerappanchira family members of our time. The Pandalam family claims descent from the Pandyans who had ruled from Madurai. To escape harassment by tribesmen they moved into Kerala. They were initially based at Ranni. They did not reach Pandalam until around 1000 AD. P.R. Rama Varma of the Pandalam family, in his “Ayyappan Charithram”, avers that Ayyappa was born in 1006. This story makes it clear that the shrine was in existence before the time of Ayyappa, the adopted son of the Pandalam family. Going by the tales propagated by the Vedic and royal establishments, there was already a temple at Sabarimala before the king of Pandalam picked up Hariharaputra whom Siva and Vishnu had abandoned in the forest. Whose shrine was it? THE MALAYARAYANS AND SABARIMALA In an affidavit filed in response to a Kerala High Court directive, the Travancore Devaswom Board recently confirmed something that was already known to and accepted by all but the incorrigibly superstitious. It said the Makara Vilakku, which flashes thrice on Ponnambalamedu on the last day of the Sabarimala festival, is lit by humans, and not of divine origin. It stated that the practice was started by tribesmen living in the area as an offering. The court decided not to open the can of worms. It steered clear of questions like how, why and when the Police, Electricity and Forest departments of the secular government of Kerala took over the ritual from the tribal population. It allowed the Devaswom Board to take over the job from the government departments. A few months earlier, former Devaswom Commissioner P.V. Nalinakshan Nair had said, in a letter to Justice (retired) R. Bhaskaran, the Court-appointed Ombudsman for the Travancore and Cochin Devaswom Boards, that in 2008 he, along with a few Devaswom officials, had visited Ponnambalamedu where the Makarajyothi was being lit.

He revealed that Makarajyothi had a history of only 45 years. He wrote, “The lighting of the Makarajyothi had originally been done by a few families of the Malayaraya tribe. Officers attached to the Kerala State Electricity Board continued the practice when the forest-dwellers were evicted in connection with the Sabarigiri hydro-electric project. The TDB and the Police Department took over the duty when the KSEB officials too left the place at a later time.'' After the court verdict of the subject, the Malayarayan community, whose members live in the area, came forward to re-claim their right to conduct the Makara Vilakku ritual on the hill. Unlike the Devaswom Board and the Thazhamon family, the Malayarayans are not endowed with the kind of resources needed to secure justice through the Indian legal system. Even if they approach the courts, they are unlikely to succeed. When the Cheerappanchira family’s copper plate was of no avail, what chance is there for a tribal community which cannot produce written evidence of any kind? SOME PERTINENT QUESTIONS TO ASK The Thazhamon family has evaded a pointed question about how and when it acquired its hereditary rights. The only authority its spokesman has cited so far in support of its claim of antiquity is the work of two British army officers engaged in survey work in Travancore in late 19th century. We can disentangle ourselves from the fables and arrive at reasonable, plausible conclusions about Sabarimala’s past by raising some pertinent questions. Who are the Malayarayans? Several websites including a governmental one provide the following information about this community: “Among the scheduled tribes, Malayarayans outclass all the other factions in socio-economical and educational aspects. Renegades and traditional Hindus following the hereditary regulations and customs are included in this group. When an evaluation in the educational and employment prospect is taken, it will be found that almost all the Government Servants and other employees are coming from this faction of scheduled tribes. Their dwelling places and surroundings are showing the bright prospect of development and they have always been showing the tendency to dissolve with the then prevailing socio-developmental programs.” The use of the tern ‘renegades’ to refer to those who are not ‘traditional Hindus’ is significant. It recognizes the presence of persons outside the Hindu fold in the community. It is not clear whether the term is used to refer to those who converted to some other religion in recent times or to those who still adhere to pre-Hindu beliefs. It may be noted that followers of the Vedic tradition have used terms like ‘renegade’ and ‘apostate’ to refer to the Buddha and his followers. In Aurobindo’s writings, the Buddha

is referred to as apostate. Why should a tribal community living in a nearby hill make an offering to the Sabarimala deity? A plausible answer is that the shrine originally belonged to the tribe, that after intruders ousted them and took over the temple, they started making offerings from the adjoining hill where they took refuge. The Electricity Department took over the hill and drove them out from there too. Its employees continued the Makara Vilakku ritual either to placate the tribe or to satisfy their own religious sentiments. It is doubtful if the Thazhamon family has a better, more credible Sabarimala story than those of the Cheerappanchira family and the Malayarayans. If it has, it must come out with it. Meanwhile let us ponder over the observations of two learned men on the Dharma Sastha of Sabarimala. Former Kerala University Dr. A. Ayyappan, who was a well known social anthropologist, said the Sastha image was that of Samantabhadra Bodhisatva, the Buddha who protects the faithful, especially those preaching the Dharma. Kesari A. Balakrishna Pillai said people of Kerala had given the name Sastha to Avalokiteswara Bodhisatva. Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang, who visited India in the seventh century, wrote that he had worshipped the statue of Avalokiteswara at a vihara in the Western Ghats. Pilgrims visited the hill shrine after fasting for a week or two, he added. (Facebook Note dated May 18, 2011)

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