Shaivism and Vaishnavism, the two most popular faith systems in India, have a well-documented and long-standing history. Deep-rooted in society, Vedic deities Siva and Vishnu are the most popular Gods with individual temples in almost every village. Traditional town-planning manuals, especially those used in South India, reserved space for temples for the deities and designed settlements around them. Strict affiliation to these individual faith systems sometimes led to arguments over superiority. Some were academic debates recorded in books. On occasions, the differences sparked off tussles, disturbing harmony.
One well-documented case of faith-based differences that led to political intervention and disruption of law and order occurred in Tirumeyyam, a village near Pudukottai in Tamil Nadu. This region of Tamil Nadu is full of historic monuments dating to the 7th–9th century CE. A grand cave temple was excavated around the 8th–9th century by the Mutharaiyar chieftains in Tirumeyyam. The complex housed a shrine each for Siva and Vishnu. There was a shrine for Siva and an extension led to a colossal depiction of a reclining pose (Anantasayana) of Vishnu. The architects who planned the initial blueprint for this shrine perhaps did not anticipate the repercussions nearly five centuries later.
Though the exact origin of the dispute is lost in the pages of history, the archives give us a rough idea of the background. In the middle of the 13th century CE, the 7th year of the rule of Maravarman Sundara Pandya II (1245 CE), this region was ruled by the Hoysala kings. Commissioned by Appanna Dandanayaka, the brother-in-law of Ravidevan Dandanayaka, the army general of Vira Someshwara, several important dignitaries met to draft a permanent solution. The congress included the administrative heads of the ‘nadu’, towns and villages, religious heads, local chieftains, priests initiated in the Saiva agama, representatives from the Pandya country (the initial rulers of this region), Srivaishnavas, Saivites of Tirumeyyam, religious leaders from Piranmalai temple, a certain Narayana Srikumara Bhattan of Barathwaja gothram, and the guardians of the group of 18 settlements of this region.
The points of conflict related to the temple’s ownership and authority over tax collection. The arguments resulted in a loss of finances, even affecting the conduct of daily rituals. The meeting primarily addressed this issue and came up with a solution. The land dues were to be split in a 2:3 ratio between the Siva and Vishnu temples. On mutual acceptance, a portion of the disputed land was to be exchanged for land in another part of the same region. Canals and water bodies owned by the temple were split evenly between the two parties. A wall was to bifurcate the temple campus that housed the two shrines. Stones marked the boundary line and a wall, almost a foot in width, was built to specifications. The expense of this construction was to be borne by the parties in the same ratio, 2:3. The trees in the path of this wall were to be cut down. The respective boundaries were to be demarcated by erecting stone slabs with trishula and chakra symbols respectively. The campus on the east of the wall became a separate Vishnu temple and to the west was Siva’s. The agreement included a clause that if future desilting of tanks or excavation of the temple campus yielded buried murtis of Gods and Goddesses, they should be handed over to the denomination to which they belong.
The land outside the campus was also divided in the 2:3 ratio. So were the residences of the priests. While the denominations had their respective priests and assistants, the ‘nagaswaram’ players were common to both the deities. So the committee suggested that the individual temples must henceforth arrange for their musicians separately. Agricultural land, trees, gardens, house sites and dry land outside Tirumeyyam were to be equally shared by the two parties. To record this lengthy agreement, a few old inscriptions in grantha script (including one on classical music) were reformatted by wiping out the original etchings. Inscriptions about the properties of the Siva temple on the walls of the Vishnu temple were erased and rewritten on the walls of the former.
The resolution was deemed critical for the welfare of the settlement and hence, severe punishments were designed for those violating its provisions. Offenders were to be declared traitors to the king and country and deemed disloyal to their mothers. They were to pay penalties. Some crimes could threaten their lives too. However, four years later, an issue concerning the land gifted to meet the expense of the musicians employed by the Siva temple cropped up. A certain Tiruvengada Nambi, an arbitrator, was called to resolve the issue. This time there were no long arguments or fact-checking done to deliver justice. The arbitrator instead picked a token out of two that bore the respective symbols from the hands of Sri Krishna in the temple. This was considered a divine intervention and it favoured the Saivites of Tirumeyyam.
As we walk past these temples today, we are moved by their grandeur and artistic representation. These forgotten yet interesting stories embellish our experiences. We are familiar with some of these conflicts, and their resolutions, even today.
Architect and conservationist interested in Indian heritage and culture