Explainer: Vadakalai and Thenkalai Iyengars and the never-ending saga of disputes

"As long as this globe exists in the orbit, their differences would not be resolved," said Justice Vaidyanathan of the Madras High Court.
Explainer: Vadakalai and Thenkalai Iyengars and the never-ending saga of disputes
Explainer: Vadakalai and Thenkalai Iyengars and the never-ending saga of disputes
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The Madras High Court’s order on Thursday restraining the Devarajaswamy Devasthanam in Kanchipuram from reciting the Tamil Prabandham has brought to the fore the continuing dispute between two sects of Iyengars – the Vadakalai and the Thenkalai.

The High Court’s interim order was passed on a petition filed by KB Srinivasan, a devotee, who sought to restrain the Devarajaswamy Devasthanam from reciting the Tamil Prabandham. Tamil Prabandham is a collection of verses revered by the Thenkalai sect of Iyengars, written in Tamil.

However, the original petition was filed by AK Suresh, a devotee, who had moved the High Court seeking to allow the chanting of the Tamil Prabandham within the premises of the temple on September 21. Justice R Mahadevan had then orally ordered the original petitioner (Suresh) to go ahead with reciting the Prabandham on September 21. However, nearly a month later Srinivasan moved the High Court stating that the Tamil verse had been recited on October 18 morning and sought its direction to restrain the Kanchipuram temple from chanting the Prabandham the same evening.   

Calling out the sectarianism in the community, Justice Vaidyanathan in the interim order states, “Temple is a place of worship where anybody can pray. Unfortunately, as there is difference between Vadakalai and Thenkalai of Iyengar community, the issue is yet to attain finality. As long as this globe exists in the orbit, their differences would not be resolved. Instead terming themselves as ‘human being’, they should first know how to be ‘being human’.”

Iyengars are a sub-sect of the Hindu Brahmin community and are worshippers of Lord Vishnu. The main difference between Vadakalai and Thenkalai sects of the Iyengar community is the language in which their prayer books are written.

  • While the Vadakalai sect focuses more on Sanskrit-based traditions, the Thenkalai sect focuses on Tamil-based traditions.
  • Vadakalai Vaishnavism originally flourished around Kanchipuram, which was a popular centre for Sanskrit learning, Thenkalai Vaishnavism centred on Srirangam.
  • Vadakalai sect focused on Vedic literature which is written in Sanskrit and the Thenkalai sect stressed the importance of Divya Prabandhams, written by the 12 Alwars in Tamil.
  • The Vadakalai Iyengars’ faith stems from the Vedas and the Thenkalai sect of Vaishnavites base their rituals on verses recited in Tamil language.

In the past, the two sects have sparred over how the namam (caste-mark) on the forehead of Lord Venkateshwara’s idol in Tirumala should look like – ‘U’ shaped namam for Vadakalais and ‘Y’ shamed namam for Thenkalais. Differences have also emerged between the followers of the two sects over the interpretation of the ancient epics (Ramayana) and the ideas of soul, happiness, liberation, suffering and God.

Although this did not sour the relationship between the people of the two sects, disagreements gradually began and increased when they tried to settle the disputes in courts of law.

This is not the first time that the court has had to interfere in matters involving the two sects.

In 2010, the Madras High Court was presented with a case which involved contradictory views between the two sects. In that case, the dispute was over the day on which the ‘Bhaktha vigraha’ of Sri Manavala Mamunigal should be taken out to visit his shrine. While the Vadakalai sect stated that the idol should be taken out on the day of his birth star, ‘Moolam’ as it was being done for many years, the Thenkalai sect argued that the idol can be taken out on the day with ‘Revathy’ star. In its order, the court permitted the Thenkalai sect to take the idol out to visit his shrine on ‘Revathy’ star, while the Vadakalais were allowed to do so on ‘Moolam’.

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