Six of 19 adheenam heads presented the Sengol to Prime Minister Narendra Modi
While the historic sceptre Sengol remained the centre of attraction at the inauguration of the new parliament, it was the presence of pontiffs from 19 adheenams (mutts) of Tamil Nadu at the ceremony that drew the spotlight.
The centre that brought the adheenam heads and ooduvars (Tamil singers) in a special flight had also ensured arrangements for their everyday rituals for the last three days, apart from assuring them of support in the coming days, people familiar with the matter said.
Six of the 19 adheenam heads - Dharmapuram, Madurai, Thiruvavadthurai, Kundrakudi, Perur and Velakurichi - were specifically asked to present the Sengol to Prime Minister Narendra Modi today at the ceremony that was replete with Ganpati homam and recitation of Tamil chants and Tamil hymns.
The Sengol, a symbol of righteousness and self-rule, was then placed by PM Modi himself in the new parliament building, near the Lok Sabha Speaker's chair. Four of the six adheenams chosen to do the honours of presenting the Sengol to PM Modi were among the eight of the 19 Saivite mutts that are believed to have a history of existence of at least 400 years, or roots in ancient India.
"Many ancient adheenams have vanished due to lack of support, which is why the PM calling and honouring us is going to enthuse our followers and even scale up our religious activities," M Kartikeyan, senior advocate associated with Dharmapuram mutt, said.
He said religious activities, followers and number of temples that a certain adheenam has decides its standing in the religious context.
"The centre made it clear that not just the oldest and most popular adheenams but also the rest are given importance. Each mutt delegation was not just given separate cars and large rooms but were also allowed to bring up to seven people for assistance as some of the pontiffs are old and need help to move about," another person said.
According to some of the seers, the Sengol transfer also records a new history of sorts.
"In 1947, it was just one adheenam that gave the Sengol to PM Nehru in 1947, but now there are six that did the honours. It is a big recognition of our efforts to take Saivite traditions to people," Sathyagnana Mahadeva, chief pontiff of the Velakurichi adheenam, said.
Adheenams are essentially Shiva worshipping mutts with Tamil rituals and ways of worship.
The pontiffs had come from different parts of Tamil Nadu, and three of the mutts - Thiruvavaduthurai, Dharmapuram and Madurai - are seen as among the oldest ones.
The first two are also counted among the wealthiest, having a larger number of followers. While many of the 19 mutts that came to Delhi are led by Saiva pillai heads who come from forward caste communities, many with OBC mutt heads, such as Palani Bogar Samadhi, were also invited.
It is clear that the attempt by the centre and the BJP is also to reinvigorate the Saivite traditions of Tamil Nadu that precede even Indian philosopher Shankaracharya, who is known to have given a framework of sorts for India's monastic traditions, and counter the forces centred around DMK and Periyarist push for rationality, atheism and politics that challenges Brahminical approaches.
This is probably why upper caste mutts were made part of this event, and the focus was entirely on Saivite mutts run by other groups.
The adheenam heads and junior pontiffs who came with their aides and officials of their mutts were brought to the national capital in a special flight, and the culture ministry specifically assigned two people, one knowing Tamil to help the delegates.
The food on the flight and for the three days of their stay in a top hotel in the capital was entirely satvik, which is vegetarian food with no hint of onion, garlic or certain spices, with special consideration of their dietary restrictions and timings. There was a special caterer arranged who prepared food after consulting each adheenam's head official separately.
"For example, at the Dharmapuram adheenam, there is a puja that happens before sunset of the Lingam we have had for centuries. They made sure we landed before 4 pm so that rituals are not affected. The food that the seers here consume have to be prepared in a certain way. We are glad everything was taken care of," Mr Kartikeyan said.
Critics have pointed out problems with the move. Dravidian author Thirunavukkarasar said the attempt by evolving society was to reject symbols that reflect any form of oppression in the past. "Varnashrama dharma (caste) has to be fought inch by inch... traditions that the mutt uphold of caste discrimination and exclusivity cannot be glorified in a democracy," the author said.
But the adheenam heads have only praise for the centre's move.
In the three days they spent in Delhi, they were also taken to historic temples of the national capital before being flown back. In his speech to the seers, according to those who attended the meeting, PM Modi spoke extensively about Tamil pride and the glory of ancient Tamil civilization, and also connected it to how people from the south came to cities such as Varanasi to help out in matters of religion.
Union Ministers from Tamil Nadu, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and MoS L Murugun were also present at the meeting. At the meeting with PM Modi, the seers did not raise their problems, and the programme was apolitical, the participants said.
PM Modi, however, slammed "those who reduced the Sengol to a walking stick" and said "it took a sevak (worker) to take the Sengol out of a museum."
Dharmapuram adheenam head Masilamani Desika Gnana Sampantha Paramacharya Swamy said the Sengol installed by PM Modi is a sign of justice for all, and will bring the best for the nation.
Both Dharmapuram and Madurai in the recent past have had run-ins with the DMK government over alleged interference in their traditions and functioning, but officials said those differences have been resolved now.