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Shrines Bloom in Tamil Nadu as Subaltern Builders Seek Divine Guardians, and a Patch of Land

As the land around them gets acquired for industry, villagers in Sriperumbudur have found religion is the best way to lay claim to what they can.

A shrine built on an eri embankment in Nelur. Credit: Pushkal Shivam

A shrine built on an eri embankment in Nelur. Credit: Pushkal Shivam

Sriperumbudur (Tamil Nadu): The Tamil Nadu assembly by-elections are around the corner as my fellow field researchers from IIT-Madras and I head to Nelur* village in Sriperumbudur taluk. As we exit the Chennai-Bengaluru highway and walk past a Hindu graveyard on the edge of a major power substation in Nelur, we see a blue Tata Sumo approaching us. The car halts and its occupants lower the tinted windows to probe the purpose of our visit. Clad in a crisp white shirt and veshti, Kumar, in the driver’s seat, is busy preparing for the elections.

“This is an SC village,” he tells us. A major chunk of land in Nelur was acquired by the Power Grid Corporation of India much before Sriperumbudur came to be known for special economic zones (SEZs) and industrial parks. Surrounded by manufacturing units, warehouses, a national highway and engineering colleges, Nelur remains on the fringes of prosperity brought about by the “engines of economic growth”. Since none of the land parcels acquired for these projects fell within the village boundary, there are no jobs for them except for the housekeeping section at the engineering colleges.

A 2009 World Bank report characterised the region in these terms:

In 1990 Sriperumbudur was known mostly as the place where Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. In 2006 his widow, Sonia Gandhi, watched as Nokia’s telephone plant churned out its 20-millionth handset. The plant had begun production just earlier that year. With neither Shenzhen’s favoured administrative status nor its infrastructure, Sriperumbudur may be on its way to becoming a national, perhaps even regional, hub for electronic goods. The key is the town’s proximity to Chennai, just as Shenzhen’s proximity to Hong Kong, China, was instrumental in its growth.

The Nokia plant ground to a halt in 2014 leading to several thousand jobs being lost. Ever since, the narratives of the region have taken a much more cautionary tone.

At the centre of this growth story, however, is land. Much of the land for corporations came from the land banks that the State Industrial Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu (SIPCOT) has acquired in Spriperumbudur over several years using eminent domain instruments as well as private negotiations. A large portion of the lands acquired is constituted by poramboke land or ‘public land’. A colonial administrative category, it refers to land not taxed for revenue purposes. There are different categories of poramboke: eri (wetland), natham (village common land), meichal (grazing land), land constituting roads or other public facilities, etc.

These categories comprise multiple jurisdictional layers with their oversight vesting in different state government authorities. Additionally, in their research, Bhuvanaswari Raman, Eric Denis, Solomon Benjamin have documented the emergence of categories such as “college poramboke”, used to facilitate land for engineering colleges, a familiar feature of the landscape in Sriperumbudur. This is an important backdrop to our conversation with Kumar.

He points us to the shrines that have been built in Nelur over the last 10-15 years on poramboke land. In most cases, these shrines were built by the panchayat itself. However, these shrines are different from the traditional temples of South India in both form as well as practices. While they often aspire to the grandeur of the bigger temples of the so-called “great tradition of Hinduism”, they may take the form of a thatched structure made of mud, a more concrete structure with or without a gopuram (in some cases there is just an asbestos sheet covering them) or just senggal kal (sacred stones). The process by which these shrines materialise is highly contingent and it does not betray any set pattern. They increasingly dot our streetscapes, causing anxiety over the secular character of our public spaces.

They are also an object of derision in narratives that seek to ‘reclaim’ our roads and streets for ‘citizens’, with the blame being put on “nefarious political elements with vested interests”. As an urban political phenomenon, again linking back to land, there is little that is understood about it beyond the ‘developmental’, ‘secular’ or ‘communal’ straitjackets. A mushrooming number of temples in the context of modernisation and economic liberalisation has caught the attention of scholars – but even academic narratives are strongly imbued by binaries such as modernity-tradition, local-global, etc. They often assume significance either in tension with the official logics or as an object associated with the subaltern classes. In other words, it is important to look at these political spaces on their own terms.

A newly built shrine inside the Sriperumbudur Tank. Credit: Pushkal Shivam

A newly built shrine inside the Sriperumbudur Tank. Credit: Pushkal Shivam

Among the new temples in Nelur, Maramma’s Angalamman temple is the youngest. Built last year, it sits in a triangular arrangement with two other temples near the village pond. One is the four-year-old Angalamman temple while the other is a Shiva temple, believed to be over a thousand years old but now in ruins. The new temples built in Sriperumbudur and elsewhere seem to indicate the distance between the great gods of Hinduism such as Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva and the folk deities such as Amman, seen as a “consort of Shiva”. Maramma first lead us to the Shiva temple located right across the Angalamman temple, whose power is “balanced” by the latter.

As she narrated the history of the temple, believed to be built during the Chola era, she seemed fearful. A month earlier, the Nandi idol had fallen on a six-year-old boy, leading to his foot being amputated. Angered by the incident, people stopped worshipping the deity for a while. However, this hasn’t stopped the panchayat from mobilising resources to restore the temple, one of the panchayat’s central responsibility apart from also facilitating the land.

Maramma could not have built her temple without the panchayat’s support. It helped that the incumbent panchayat president is related to her. She would often get possessed by Amman and the furious goddess could not be contained at her house. Soon, the deity appeared in her dream and asked her to build a temple for her. She petitioned the panchayat to allow her to build the temple on poramboke land in the village. The panchayat did not only provide the land but also contributed to the temple’s construction. The stage had been set for the temple to host its first major festival. Maramma invited us to the first Mayana kollai thiruvizha (‘Looting the grave’) as she handed us a bunch of pamphlets. They were undersigned by the panchayat president.

Held on the new moon day after Shivaratri, the festival is associated with Amman’s healing powers. On the day we arrive in Nelur, similar festivals are happening at Angalamman shrines all across the region with varying intensity and grandeur, the biggest one taking place at a graveyard right outside Sriperumbudur town. The festival seeks to ensure the prosperity of the village community, addressing problems pertaining to childbirth, marriage and the harvest. It is traditionally performed among the dead in a graveyard. As one scholar put it: “The festival symbolises one of the main cultural scripts of Tamil life that the feminine energy is capable of rejuvenating, recovering, and revitalising human life beyond death and destruction.”

The festival is concerned with the mythology of Angalamman: in which Shiva severed one of the heads of Brahma and brought an end to creation. The world becomes a graveyard and Angalamman dances with Shiva to restore life. As we join the residents surrounding the temple, Maramma appears as the goddess Amman, her face painted. Possessed by Amman, she engages with the musicians whose role is central to orchestrating the festival.

The spirit possession has three intertwined tracks: quotes from the scripts are recited followed by dialogues. Gestures and expressions comprise a third track. As part of this, the musicians mock the deity who in turn mocks the musicians. “You’ve grown prosperous but there is little that you offer me,” the deity tells the villagers. The singers and the deity slip in and out of the performance, yet all of it seamlessly merges into one track.

The story as to how the festival began to be celebrated in the village goes like this. Every year on the new moon day after Shivratri, the first-born child of a family would die. Rituals would be performed at the crematorium because they were believed to have had healing powers. After some time, the deaths stopped occurring but the rituals continued. They would be performed at the crematorium with a human skeleton or a replica of it. It is possible that the practice was stopped or moved to another location because of the power grid being built adjacent to the graveyard. Today, the Mayana kollai thiruvizha doesn’t stop with Maramma encircling the heap of vegetables and distributing them to the residents as a mark of prosperity.

As part of the rituals, another person is possessed and performs the second part of the ritual, supposed to take place at a graveyard. This person is taken to the Sriperumbudur graveyard – the journey from the shrine to the graveyard being seen as a path to recovery, the one that Amman took with Shiva as she danced with him to the graveyard and restored life.

Powerplay, negotiations, re-negotiations and the quest for healing and prosperity are playing out not just in myths. Sriperumbudur, like several other regions around our cities, has come under the purview of governmental interventions that have undermined the spaces of politics. An important feature of the new institutional structure, especially with regard to land, is how they undercut local elected bodies.

In Sriperumbudur, SIPCOT has led this trend. This is crucial in the context of competing claims over surpluses from land. While agencies like SIPCOT facilitate massive surpluses for corporates and big real-estate actors, politicians such as those facilitating the construction of the shrines in Nelur lay their own claim to surpluses. Several panchayat presidents in the region double up as ‘real estate agents’. They often use their resources and networks to petition district authorities and other channels of administration for different services, for pattas (titles) for settlements on poramboke land.

According to a government order issued in 2000, no poramboke land “shall be used for any purpose other than that for which it was originally intended except with the prior approval of the Collector” (G.O. [Ms] No.317, Rural Development [C4], dated December 6, 2000). In case it is not required for the purpose originally intended, it may be used for any other “specified public purpose”, in which case the panchayat must publish the notice in the village and invite objections to its proposed use of the poramboke land. The proposal, along with any objections, must then be submitted to the district collector, who will take the final call.

However, interviews with the district administration offered a different account of how temples are built on poramboke land. According to revenue officials, no permission is usually sought from the taluk office or the collector’s office before constructing a temple on poramboke land. The district administration does not intervene unless people within the village – in which the land is located – have objections. They would intervene to clear “encroachments” but only in cases where a government project is due to come up. In fact, the officials seem to resent the role of panchayat politicians in facilitating land. One of them said, “The involvement of local politicians in building these temples is apparent. If the government wants to acquire land for projects, these politicians [cook up a story] to make sure that the land is not acquired.”

The 2000 GO also has provisions for “encroachments” on poramboke land. A penalty is levied on encroachments on poramboke land, which also acts a record of occupancy (because it makes them visible on an official register). It’s called a B-memo and is issued by the village panchayat or the government agencies under whose control the poramboke land lies. Although tehsildars are supposed to act to remove encroachments within three months of the B-memo being issued (pending appeals), it has been observed that the memo is often used as a proof of occupancy. And if continuous occupancy can be proved this way, then the land could be claimed through regularisation procedures.

Dalit families living near the eri (lakes and tanks) in Nelur have been trying to get pattas for close to 40 years now. Their kuccha houses were inspected by officials but the revenue administration is wary of granting them pattas as the land is eri poramboke (a wetland), and creating titles for eri poramboke is very complex because it involves multiple authorities and usually takes several decades.

Most of the new temples built in Nelur and elsewhere are near the eri. Many of them are located on the eri embankment. A recently built concrete road runs through the settlement that is trying to secure patta for their land. The panchayat provides the families with water and electricity. The receipts of taxes paid to the panchayat are used to secure patta as a proof of occupancy.

Lakshmi’s "highway shrine". Credit: Pushkal Shivam

Lakshmi’s “highway shrine”. Credit: Pushkal Shivam

There are two Amman temples on either side of the concrete road in the settlement. One is kuccha, just like the houses there, and is devoted to Nagathamman. The family that ‘owns’ the shrine built it over a decade ago, when one of them fell seriously ill. The illness was remedied after the shrine was built and things have been better for them ever since. They do daily-wage work at the engineering colleges that have come up on the fertile land in the village. Earlier, most of them were engaged in paddy cultivation. Ever since most of the agricultural land has now since been lost to the colleges, they now work there as housekeeping staff.

On the other side of the road, there is another temple built by the panchayat, presided over by the goddess Kanniamman. Unlike Nagathamman’s shrine, this one has a concrete structure. The panchayat conducts a thiruvizha (divine festival) in the month of Aadi and it is open to everyone in the village. However, the ‘owners’ of the Nagathamman shrine from across the road are not allowed to perform rituals at the panchayat’s temple – nor can others worship at their shrine. Access to the temples and the resources mobilised to build them are structured along caste and community lines. The networks used to seek pattas are also the ones implicated in the construction and maintenance of the shrines.

Maramma has earned the envy of others in the village for the kind of support extended to her shrine by the panchayat. The pleas of other residents, such as those who ‘own’ the Nangathamman shrine (located on the eri embankment in another part of the village), have not been heeded. The Nagathamman shrine is flooded during the monsoons; requests to the panchayat president to carry out the necessary repairs have been in vain. While he is affiliated with the DMK, the panchayat president owes allegiance to the AIADMK. And yet, for this ‘owner’, securing a patta for the land is not a concern. What matters more is the power of the deity – a shared belief that often influences what is permissible to do with land and what is not. It opens up a different register with which to understand “official logics”.

Lakshmi’s “highway shrine” in Sriperumbudur offers one such example. In what seems to be an unusual mix of deities, her hut houses Kali, Durga, Nagathamman, Shiva and Vishnu. The shrine faces the Nelur electric substation located on the other side of the Chennai-Bengaluru highway. Although she came to Sriperumbudur from Saidapet, in Chennai, Lakshmi said her grandfather used to own the land where she built the shrine, and that a village used to exist at that place. Her family had to sell the land about 30 years ago, after which she moved to Saidapet. The land has since been reclassified as public land.

When she returned to build the temple over five years ago, she petitioned the panchayat president of a nearby village for help. Her petition was turned down. She then approached the Nelur panchayat president. He agreed to support her, following which she planted a neem tree at the spot and built the hut. She survives on one meal a day, using offerings to the deity for her sustenance. It doesn’t matter whether the land is patta land or poramboke land. It is her belief that the deity will help consolidate the structure of the shrine.

She draws electricity from a line running along the highway. The officials from the substation often remove this connection but she restores it at night. She says that the electricity is for lighting along the highway, which is for the ‘public’. And her temple is also for the ‘public’. The collector and other revenue officials came to evict her. So did cops. But everyone believes in the power of the deity, she says.

*The name of the village as well as the names of residents have been changed to protect their identity.

Pushkal Shivam is a fellow at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS), Bengaluru.

  • K SHESHU BABU

    The shrines may be beautiful and art may be exquisite! But, what about the workers who constructed the temples? The Taj Mahal? As sri sri said in his ‘ history of nation’ ( Desacharitralu) in Telugu,
    ‘Nilu nadi nagarikatha lo samanyuni jeevatham ettidi?
    Taj mahalu nirmananiki rallu ettina koolilu evvaru ..?.’
    ( How is the life of a common man in the civilization of nile?
    Who were the workers that piled up rocks for constructing Taj Mahal .?
    Loose translation …)
    Let the workers, mostly subalterns, be given equal status with God’s and their abodes which were constructed with toil and blood of labourers