It is a battle of the cats and monkeys over elephants, often pushing the other group to behave like snakes.

Of cats monkeys and elephants The internecine battles of Iyengar BrahminsImage:
news Religion Friday, June 19, 2015 - 05:30

In June 2015, a bizarre argument threatened the peace at the holy hill-temple of Tirumala. A tussle broke out between priests of two Vaishnava sects, the Vadagalai and the Thengalai. Their quarrel was over how the ‘namam’ or the forehead-marking of Lord Venketeshwara’s idol should look. The Vadagalais want a ‘U’ shaped namam as per their practice, whereas the Thengalais want it to be in the ‘Y’ shape.

Both sects belong to the Shri Vaishnava group, also referred to as the Iyengar Brahmins. It is believed that Sri Vaishnava doctrines were first expounded by Sri Lakshmi, Lord Vishnu’s consort.

This is not the first time that such a petty quibble has led the two groups to act in vicious rage. They have had a long history of getting on each other’s nerves. It is a story couched in history, philosophy and legality.

It is a battle of the cats and monkeys over elephants, often pushing the other group to behave like snakes.

The Elephant at Kanchipuram

The most fascinating story among the skirmishes between the two groups is the one fought at Kanchipuram spanning over several centuries. It was over which namam should adorn the sacred elephant at the Sri Devarajaswami temple in Kanchipuram near Chennai.

According to a Madras High Court judgment delivered in 1976 over this case, the dispute goes back all the way to the year 1792. Yes, you read that right. The two sects actually went to court over which type of namam should be painted on the elephant, and the trouble started more than 220 years ago.

The internecine battle went on for decades and reached a flashpoint in the year 1853 when the colonial government was dragged in to sort-out the issue. In the year 1854, on the basis of an investigation by the Collector, a civil judge ordered that the Thengalai style forehead-marking will adorn on the temple’s elephant.

The Vadagalais refused to comply. The fights continued between the two sects, with the Vadagalai sect refusing to obey the court’s orders. More cases and appeals were filed, and each side accused the other of either disobeying the court's orders or not following established practice.

In 1858, following a strict censure from the court, the Thengalai namam was painted on the elephant, much to the disappointment of the Vadagalais. In response, the Vadagalai trustees then paraded the elephant with a cloth on top of the Thengalai namam. That cloth had a Vadagalai namam painted on it. Thengalais complained to the court again, and a fine of Rs 50 was imposed on the Vadagalais for contempt of court. An appellate court later set aside the fine, but reaffirmed that Thengalai namam must be painted on the elephant. The last elephant of this era died in 1894.

Between 1894 and 1940, there is no clarity over whether the temple owned an elephant, and if it did then what marking was on its forehead. Not wanting to get into the issue, the Madras High Court judge simply accepted that there was no elephant owned by the temple in those years.


In 1942, things blew up again. The Maharaja of Travancore gifted an elephant to the temple on the condition that it must adorn the Vadagalai namam. Thengalais, again, went to court over it. This time however, the courts ruled in favour of the Vadagalais since the elephant was given on the specific condition that it carry their namam. Another round of litigation and counter-litigation followed. By March 1965, that elephant died, but the case went on.

The case went on because on November 17, 1965, Vadagalais got another elephant to the temple with their namam. Six days later, Thengalais went to court against it. This time, the trial court decreed that the Thengalais had the original right to paint the elephant with their namam. The case then went all the way up to the Madras High Court, which admonished the Vadagalai’s for their intolerant attitude towards the court, and ordered that the Thengalais be given the right. This was the judgment which was delivered in 1976.

It was a landmark judgment, but the quarrel expectedly did not end there. Several rounds of litigation followed. Finally in 1997, the courts came up with a startlingly simple solution to the 200-year old problem: both the sects were asked to have an elephant each adorning the respective namams. The two groups were to maintain the elephants at their own cost and an appointed caretaker at the temple would treat both the elephants equally during rituals and religious events. This practice is reportedly still being followed.

This was not the only such case. The Vadagalai and Thengalai groups of Kanchipuram have taken other religious disagreements to the altars of the Indian judicial system. There are other cases where the two groups fought over whether the idol can be paraded for public viewing on a particular auspicious day.

There have been such battles over elephants elsewhere, like the one at Yoganarsimhaswamy temple in Melkote in Karnataka.

Cat and Monkey – How should we deal with God?

The petty elephant battles notwithstanding, there are deeper theological differences between the two sects which have kept them apart for six centuries.

Though some scholars believe that the process of their spilt could have started as early as the centuries just before the birth of Christ (BC) , it was in the fourteenth century AD that the Iyengars branched into two sects, the Thengalais from South Tamil Nadu and the Vadagalais from the North. (The words ‘Thengalai’ and ‘Vadagalai’ actually refer to geographical directions).

It was mostly theological beliefs which led to the split. The Thengalais are known to believe in what some scholars have called the Cat School, and the Vadagalais follow the Monkey School.

The followers of the Cat School, which is known to have been established by two Vijayanagara royals, believe that devotees are taken care of by god like the mother cat carries the kitten. The mother picks up the cat and moves around. The school encourages passive devotion, stating that the devotee should go about with their work, and with limited devotion god will carry devotees to their goals.


The Monkey School believes that for god to answer prayers, the devotee must cling on to the god, like a baby monkey clutches to its mother. This school, believed to have been established by a priest in Tirupathi, seeks complete surrender and eternal devotion from the devotee. If you want god to bless you, you have to stick to god.

One of other crucial differences between the two sects is that the Vadagalais hold the Vedas and Sanskrit texts as their most important religious texts, whereas the Thengalais favour the Tamil texts and hymns composed by Alwars and Divya Prabandam. This blog points to the 18 differences between the two sects. Vadagalais are known to look down upon Thengalais, often stating that the latter for designed for the lower castes. Even today, some families do not accept marriage alliances between the two sects.

However, there are few differences in everyday practices or way of living. Community elders say that average members of the two communities are not known to be fanatical about their associations with the sects, and that most arguments between the sects in temple issues have undercurrents of a power-struggle.

Reference texts : ‘The Hindus’ by Wendy Doniger (only for theological explanations) and ‘The First Spring’ by Abraham Eraly (for historical facts).

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