The rivalry between the Tenkalai and Vadakalai sects of Iyengar Brahmins plunged to lower levels recently, with a fresh controversy emerging at the holy Hindu hill shrine of Venkateswara in Tirumala over how the idol should look. One of the groups has decided to move court against the other over the alleged change in the style of "Namam" or forehead-mark of the presiding deity.
According to a report in Deccan Chronicle, members of one sect intentionally changed the style of "namam" on the forehead of the idol of Lord Venkateswara. Though it is unclear as to which sect changed it, the TTD has allegedly excused the accused priest from Abhishekam duty. Priests of the Vadakalai sect wear the Tirunamam or U-shaped namam, while those of the Tenkalai sect wear it in the shape of the alphabet ‘Y’. An apparent change in practice on what adorns the sacred idol has resulted in one of the sects planning to approach a court of law against the other sect.
This is however not the first time the two groups have fought with each other. Both Vadakalai and Thenkalai are sub sects of the Sri Vaishnava Iyengar community of Hindu Brahmins and have shared a long history of disagreements and arguments. In recent times, controversies ranging from shutting doors of temples managed by the Vadakalai sect when their Thenkalai counterparts took a procession, to which sect's religious mark should be smeared on the presiding elephant in the famous Vaishnava temple in Triplicane.
Why does it matter in what shape the namam is?
When TNM tried to contact members of mutts belonging to the two sects to know further details about the ongoing controversy, it was met with this unanimous response, "only the big priests will know". Despite being able to explain in detail the 18 doctrinal differences between the two sects, there is no clarity on the difference on the religious mark.
A priest Sri U Ve Anbil Ramaswamy, the founder-President of “Swami Desika Darasana Satsangam” (SDDS) has an interesting take. He claims that it could have started off with something as frivolous as an Acharya telling followers that the base of the mark should touch the tip of the nose. Apparently, one set took it to mean the top-tip, linking the eyebrows with a U shaped curve while the other took it to mean the toe-tip, with a stroke below the U shaped curve, making it a Y shaped curve.
"Be that as it may, the practices had come to stay and stay with such disastrous consequences. This is an example of how over enthusiastic fanatics could blow up even insignificant and inconsequential distinctions to abnormal proportions," he adds. To trace its history of how the two sects came to be, in the 10th century AD, a collection of the devotional hymns and songs was organized by Nathamuni, one of the earliest Vaishnava theologians. He was followed by Yamunacharya, a famed yogi who would later accept Ramanuja as his disciple. Ramanuja would later become a renowned Hindu theologian and philosopher. Till the Ramanuja period, the two sects of Vadakai and Thenakai were non-existent.
Evolving between the time of Sri Ramanuja and that of Sri Vedanta Desika, a 13th century Hindu philosopher, the two sects split up as Vadakalai's gave more importance to the the Vedas which were in Sanskrit, while the Thenkalai's stressed the importance of the Divya Prabandams of Alwars which were in Tamil. However, this did not hinder relations between the two sects, who still respected the other's opinions. History suggests that the disagreements started during the course of time, slowly increasing during the British rule wherein the two sects tried to settle some matters in the Court system established by the British.
This gradually led to the formation of fanatics in both the sects as power and control were distributed among them. Both the sects are strong pillars of the Vaishnava school of thought and none of the 18 differences which formed the two sects can actually be proved or disproved by either of the sects till today.