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Rationalism takes the back seat

In Tamil Nadu, functionaries of parties which are claimants to Periyar's rationalist movement blissfully jump on the ritualistic bandwagon, says Radha Venkatesan.

IT IS touted as the land of the revolutionary, rationalist movement. But, several decades after Tamil Nadu's reformer, E. V. Ramasamy (popularly known as Periyar), launched the historic self-respect movement and condemned irrational customs and superstitions, crude rituals continue to be performed in the State. And, at times with overt patronage from those who claim to be the inheritors of the Dravidian movement spearheaded by Periyar.

Particularly, in the last three months, the drought-battered rural regions of the State have been in the grip of an orgy of ritualistic fervour. Desperate for rain and relief, and for personal favours, villagers of Peraiyur, near Madurai, drugged some of their children, covered them in yellow cloth and lowered them into a pit dug in the ground before a temple. Moments later, they pulled out the children alive. And, an AIADMK Minister, C. Durairaj, who was a spectator to the age-old temple ritual to propitiate the gods in his Sedapatti constituency, had to step down later following a countrywide outcry.

Not far from Peraiyur, the desperate residents of a village near Kovilpatti organised a wedding of donkeys, complete with wedding invitations, bridal procession and, of course, a feast. Their belief was that the skies would open up. A few days later, there were light monsoon showers and the villagers thought their belief was reinforced.

The villagers of Thiruvizhundhur in Thanjavur district, rice bowl of the State, performed a more sensational wedding. They united a peepul tree and a neem tree in the presence of political functionaries. In western Tamil Nadu, the people of Palladam married off a cow to a bull with a buffalo, the groom's companion, in tow! All for rains, of course.

In Erumaipatti of Namakkal district, women in the nude offered prayers for rains till a couple of decades ago, but the Government has since banned the ritual.

The popular deities, Amman and Murugan (Shakti and Subramanya), have their own sets of rituals. In some temples of Coimbatore district, a priest wearing sandals embedded with spikes walks on the women lying with their faces to the ground. The belief is that married women would be blessed with children and the unmarried would get spouses. In Karamadai village, also in Coimbatore district, the temple priest makes devotees eat bananas from his mouth as a cure for illness.

On Mahasivarathri, people in several villages march to the crematorium to celebrate the `mayana kollai' ritual; they dig out bones, chew them and drink the blood of roosters and goats. A more common spectacle is that of devotees of Murugan taking out processions with "chedil kaavadi" — piercing their mouth, chest and spine with sharp, long spear-like instruments. Then, there is the `seruppadi' festival in Annathanapatti of Salem district where the devotees are beaten up with slippers and winnows and neem leaves.

Interestingly, the villagers of Vallayakulam in Srivilliputhur, make fried foods only during the seven-day village festival. They fear the village goddess will torch their houses if they had them at other times.

Rationalists would jeer, but functionaries of parties which are claimants to the legacy of Periyar's movement jump on the ritualistic bandwagon. In an annual ritual on February 14 — the AIADMK general secretary, Jayalalithaa's birthday — hordes of the party faithful, some of whom are Ministers now, sprint across a bed of red hot coal.

The more ardent devotees spread rice on the ground at famous temples and eat it with sand (`mann soru'). Members of the party's women's brigade wrap themselves in neem leaves and go around the Periyapalaythamman temple. All for the well-being of their Puratchi Thalaivi (revolutionary leader) and for her continuance as Chief Minister for long. Asks the State Social Welfare Minister, B. Valarmathi: "What is wrong with such rituals? For us, `Amma' is a goddess, who promoted platform speakers getting Rs. 50 per meeting to the level of Cabinet Minister. Should I not pray for her well-being? Also, we are not inflicting physical pain on others."

For the AIADMK enthusiasts, there is no conflict of ideologies. Their leader, the late M. G. Ramachandran, was an atheist turned ardent Mookambikai devotee.

But, for the activists of the DMK, whose leader, M. Karunanidhi, is a sworn atheist, it is a tussle between personal beliefs and the party's ideological moorings. And, in a zeal for competitive sycophancy, when the party was in power a few years ago, a DMK Minister, Anthiyur Selvaraj, "walked on fire" on the occasion of Mr. Karunanidhi's birthday. A barbaric act, chided Mr. Karunanidhi, but when the hurt party functionary protested, the leader was forced into a defensive mode.

However, in the 1971 election Mr. Karunanidhi's DMK won with a massive majority, even a month after partymen ran a virulent campaign against superstitious beliefs and broke the idols of Hindu gods.

Now with the pro-Hindutva BJP as its ally, the DMK's rationalist offensive has been blunted.

However, social researchers look at it differently. The rise in superstitious practices is directly proportionate to poverty. "Desperation and poverty are the main contributors to superstitions," says the State Women's Commission chairperson and educationist, Vasanthi Devi.

But, Periyar's Dravidar Kazhagam continues with its counter-campaign. Rituals have become a bustling business now. "And, that is why our campaign has not made much of dent," says a senior Dravidar Kazhagam leader, Poongundran.

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