Thiruvavaduthurai Math | A renowned seat of Tamil language and culture

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to place the Sengol presented by the Math to the first PM Jawaharlal Nehru in the new Parliament building has put the spotlight on the 16th-century institution, which is now a pale shadow of its past glory

June 04, 2023 02:03 am | Updated 02:03 am IST

Thiruvavaduthurai, a small laid-back town in Tamil Nadu’s Mayiladuthurai district, hogged the limelight after Prime Minister Narendra Modi placed the Sengolor sceptre presented by the head of the Thiruvavaduthurai Math to India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in the new Parliament building. The event also evoked a lot of interest in the Math, foremost among the 18 Saivite Maths, that made unparalleled contributions to the Tamil language, music and Saivite philosophy.

“The monastery used to be praised as Siva’s kingdom. The head of the Math was the king of the Saiva monks. The monks living there under his absolute rule were philosophical knights in Saiva robes. Performing Siva puja, serving the Guru and studying good religious texts were their vocation. The monks took their tasks and duties with utmost seriousness and performed them with spotless perfection and with great joy in Saiva kingdom,” writes U.V. Swaminatha Iyer, the grand old man of Tamil, in his autobiography, En Charithiram (The Story of My Life), translated into English by Kamil Zvelebil, the Czech linguist.

It was Iyer’s first impression of the Math as a student after visiting and meeting Melakaram Subramania Desikar, the head of the Math between 1869 and 1888. Iyer’s teacher Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai was a poet laureate of the Math. In fact, it is Iyer’s writings that shed light on the contributions of the Thiruvavaduthurai Math and captured the imagination of anyone interested in Tamil literature and music in the 20th century.

“If a foreigner visited the Math, he would come to the conclusion that it is a great university,” writes Iyer. A substantial part of his autobiography covers his period in the Math and its activities. Ooran Adigal, author of Saiva Adheenagal, says Swamintha Iyer is a gift of Thiruvavaduthurai Math. The Math supported Iyer after the demise of his teacher, and Melakaram Subramania Desikar took the role of the teacher for Iyer. He had learnt works such as Nannool and Yapperumkalakarikai from Subramania Desikar. Later, Iyer joined the Kumbakonam Government College as a Tamil teacher from where he was transferred to the Presidency College in Chennai. He travelled across the State in search of palm leaf manuscripts of ancient Tamil literary works and published them. His autobiography offers a window not just to the functioning of the Thiruvavaduthurai Math, but the cultural milieu of the period.

Established by Namasivaya Murthy, a Saivite saint and scholar, in the 16th century, this non-Brahmin Math had outstanding scholars in Tamil and Saivite philosophy. It is one of the richest religious institutions, owning thousands of acres of land across the State, managing over 50 temples, 69 branches of the Math and educational institutions. However, the Math could not get adequate revenue from the lands due to the enactment of The Tamil Nadu Agricultural Lands Record of Tenancy Rights Act in 1969.

The heads of the Math always maintained a distance from politics.

Patrons of musicians

The heads of the Math were also patrons of Tamil scholars and musicians. The Carnatic music world knew more about the greatness of the music of Maha Vaidhyanatha Iyer and his brother Ramasamy Sivan through the writings of Swamintha Iyer, who had described in detail their concerts held at the Math. Thiruvavaduthurai gets its name from the legend that Goddess Parvathi worshipped Lord Siva as a cow. ‘Aa’ means cow and ‘thurai’ means the riverside. The Math is on the southern banks of the river Cauvery. Thirumoolar, the Siddhar and one of the Saivaite saints and author of Thirumanthiram, attained enlightenment under a Peepal tree in Thiruvavaduthurai. Saivite minstrels Thirunavukkarasar, Thirugnanasambandar and Sundarar have sung in praise of the deity at the temple in Thiruvavaduthurai.

“The Math functioned as a university that existed in Nalanda, Takshashila and Kancheepuram. The heads of the Math acted like its chancellors and scholars like Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, its vice-chancellors,” writes Ooran Adigal.

Students keen on studying Tamil made a beeline to Thiruvavaduthurai as it had the best teachers, including Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai and Swaminatha Iyer. The heads of the Math such as Melakaram Subramania Desikar, Ambalavana Desikar and Subramania Desikar were well-versed in Tamil language, literature, grammar and Sanskrit. Another person whose name was synonymous with the Math was nagaswaram wizard T.N. Rajarathinam Pillai. It was he who played the instrument when the team from Thiruvavaduthurai presented the Sengol to Nehru. Since the head of the Math Ambalavana Desikar was not well, he deputed another monk Kumarasamy Thampiran and Mancika Oduvar (singer of Saivaite hymns) along with Rajarathinam Pillai.

“Rajarathinam was nurtured in the Thiruvavaduthurai Math and he was the adheena nagaswara vidwan (nagaswaram player of the Math). He began his musical career as a vocalist shaped to maturity by the violinist Thirukodikaval Krishna Iyer through the good offices of the then Pandarasannidhi (head) Ambalavana Desikar,” writes T. Sankaran in the journal of the Sangeet Natak Akademi. His maiden performance of nagaswaram was in the presence of Ambalavana Desikar, the 17th head of the Math. He was only 16 years of age.

Sankaran, the brother of renowned dancer Balasaraswathi, who had interviewed Rajarathinam Pillai, also recorded the event of presenting the Sengol to Jawaharlal Nehru. “Rajarathinam was sent to Delhi by the Pandarasannidhi of the Thiruvavaduthurai Math to present on his behalf a mace of solid gold Sengol (symbol of righteous administration). Rajarathinam was thrilled by this proud privilege. It was Dr. Subbarayan, who introduced him to Prime Minister Nehru, to whom Rajarathinam played the nagaswaram before handing over the mace,” says Sankaran.

‘Your Sengol, our government’

According to Ooran Adigal, while presenting the Sengol to Nehru, Kumarasamy Thampiran said: “Thanga Sengol Thangal Sengol. Thangal Sengol Engal Aatchi Chinnam. (The Golden Sceptre is your Sceptre. Your Sceptre is a symbol of our government).” Rajarathinam Pillai played during ‘India’s tryst with destiny’ on August 15. However, neither Sankaran nor Ooran Adigal makes any reference to the Sengol having been presented to Lord Mountbatten as is being claimed now.

Ooran Adigal points out that the Math plunged into debt because of its philanthropic ventures and its financial health was restored by Ambalavana Desikar, who sent the present to Nehru. When India’s first President Rajendra Prasad visited Tamil Nadu to collect Kasturba Fund, Ambalavan Desikar donated ₹35,000. The Math was also in the news in 2002 for an attempt to murder the head of the Math.

A group of employees of the Math and a junior monk were arrested in connection with the attempted murder. However, they were acquitted by the Madras High Court in 2011.

For a long time, the Math remained a pale shadow of its yesteryear. There is hardly anything today to showcase the greatness of the organisation. The house of Rajarathinam Pillai was also demolished recently. The Delhi event has brought the Math to the limelight and offered it an opportunity to ponder over its great tradition and the task ahead.

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