Varanasi: “Count the sand of the huge Ganga – those many Indras; The only one Endless is the Ishwara!…,” proclaimed Appar, one of the three great Shaivite Tamil poets from the 7th-8th centuries.
Since Adi Shankara, there has been a steady stream of Shaivite Tamils arriving at Kashi to seek Shiva’s “unconditional bliss”. The community has now created a mini-Tamil Nadu in the heart of Kashi covering portions of the Hanuman, Kedar and Harishchandra Ghats.
The enduring draw of Shiva and Ganga for Tamil people who flock to Varanasi is deeper than religion, Carnatic music and the Tamil-Sanskrit histories. The cultural connection between Tamil Nadu and Varanasi is age-old but since Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the month-long Kashi Tamil Sangamam at Banaras Hindu University on 19 November, it has resurfaced in and revitalised public conversations in not only the mini-Tamil Nadu but many parts of the Hindu temple town.
“Lord Vishweshwar, maa Ganga and goddess Vishalakshi have been bringing Tamils to Kashi for thousands of years ever since Adi Shankaracharya came to Kashi and delivered Advaita sermons. After that, a lot of Tamil saints continued to arrive in Kashi,” says VS Subramaniam Mani, secretary of the Kashi-Tamil Sangh, who is the in-charge of the Kanchi Shankaracharya mutt, which looks after the Kanchi Kamakoti temple at Kashi’s Hanuman Ghat.
Kumaraguruparar and Tamil priests in Kashi
Perhaps the first elaborate record of a Tamil saint’s arrival at Kashi after Adi Shankaracharya is the famous “saint on the lion” story of the Shaivite ascetic Kumaraguruparar who is known to have sought land from the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh and established the Kumaraswamy Mutt here in the 1600s. The mutt still exists and manages the Kedareshwar temple at Kedar Ghat.
Swami Somaskandan, known to be a relative of the renowned Tamil poet and freedom fighter Subramanyam Bharti, writes in his book Shankarjyoti (2004) that acharyas of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peeth established by Adi Shankaracharya would move across Bharat in ancient times.
“The book mentions that in the 1600s when Kumaragururparar arrived in Kashi, he wanted to meet the badshah. He went to meet the tolerant prince Dara Shikoh and impressed him and asked him for land in Kashi for the establishment of a mutt,” Mani said.
Some accounts mention that Kumaraguruparar rode on a lion to meet the prince as a symbol of strength.
But many of these visits by Hindu Tamil saints stopped after the establishment of Muslim rule, he writes.
Shankarjyoti also notes the arrival of Tamil saints Chandrasekharendra Saraswati and Jayendra Saraswathi in 1934 and 1974. While the former was the 68th Shankaracharya of the Kashi Kamakoti Peeth, the latter was the 69th Shankaracharya and their visits led to greater exchange of ideas between saints of Kashi and Kanchi.
“Now, the connection between Kashi and Kanchi has been deepened,” Somaskandan writes, adding that several members of the Tamil community and saints now reside in Kashi, and that between 1970 and early 2000s, several temples, hospitals and schools have come up all over the country with the efforts of the Peeth.
150 temples, mutts correspond arrival of saints
The establishment of Tamil-based religious institutions in Varanasi over time has continued to be a tangible reminder of cultural exchange. Many of these mutts and temples have continued to attract Tamil pilgrims to the city and also facilitated the after-life rituals that families of deceased persons are supposed to perform.
Since the arrival of Kumaraguruparar, hundreds of temples were built by Dravidian saints and kings and mutts were established. Along with Kanchi Shankaracharya mutt (a branch of Tamil Nadu’s Kanchi Kamakoti Peeth), Sri Kasi Nattukottai Nagara Chatram was also established.
The Kedareshwar temple at the Kedar Ghat is the oldest temple renovated in Dravidian style by Kumaraguruparar who founded the Kumaraswamy mutt, which continues to look after the temple.
At present, there are around 150 temples consecrated by Dravidian saints, Mani said, adding that each Tamil family staying in Kashi has a shivalaya (shiv temple).
Shivalayas in Kashi’s Tamilian homes
One such family is of the Ayachak Rama Shastri, an ascetic believed to have left his village in the present-day Pattamadai town in Tirunelveli district and established the Bhajanmath in present-day Kashi’s Hanuman Ghat.
Shastri’s family says that seven of their generations have been residing in Kashi for the last 200 years.
“After tapasya in Amarnath, Vaishno Devi, Gangotri, Yamunotri, etc, for 12 years, our forefather Ayachak Rama Shastri arrived in Kashi. He brought 360 baanlingas (shivlingas from Narmada) and about 12-13 shaligrams (stones associated with Vishnu), which were possibly brought from our native place in Tirunelveli,” said Kalyani Shastri, a fifth-generation descendant of Rama Shastri.
Kalyani’s brother Raj Kashinath Shastri told ThePrint that Rama Shastri and his descendants Kashinath Shastri, Ramakrishna Shastri and Rajgopal Shastri wrote a collection of poems, mostly in Sanskrit and a few songs in Tamil but published in Devanagari. These songs were published by the family in the form of Shrimad Bhagwat Kirtan Mala in 1992.
Even now, the family continues to recite bhajans although the crowds have receded over the years with the younger generation not turning up due to work and time constraints.
Not only the saints but south Indian poet-musicians too have left their symbols in Kashi in the form of temples. One of them is the Chakra Lingeshwara temple located at the place of worship of renowned Carnatic musician, poet, composer and veena player Muthuswamy Dikshitar who came to Kashi with his guru about 200 years ago.
“Dikshitar who is one of the pillars of Carnatic music stayed here for some time. He prayed to Shri Chakra with his guru Chidambaranatha yogi. The temple is almost 225 years old and it was here that he was blessed by goddess Saraswati, and a veena landed on his shoulder while bathing in Ganga here and after returning to the south, he gained recognition in the Carnatic music,” said A. Kedar Mahadevan, whose family has been looking after the temple for the past 30 years.
Sanskrit and Tamil have a timeless bond
The immortal connection between the Tamil community and Kashi finds resonance in conversations with local residents–from showroom owners to taxi drivers–who can be heard using a few Tamil words.
Upon entering the Tamil mohalla at the Harishchandra Ghat, one can find a “hotel Tamil Nadu”, showrooms with names of “Tirupati Balaji” temple, Madras cafe, etc. The walls here give away a Tamil essence and several nameplates of temples and houses are written in Tamil along with Hindi.
Natraj Rao, a saree showroom owner at Harishchandra Ghat, told ThePrint that since thousands of members of the Tamil community travel to Kashi every year–either to visit Kashi Vishwanath temple or for the post-death rituals of their parents–Kashi residents use a smattering of Tamil in their daily vocabulary.
While they continue to hold their traditions dearly, Tamil community members residing in Kashi are fluent in Hindi and many of them have been and continue to be scholars at the Banaras Hindu University.
Apart from the temples and mutts, the other enduring feature is the debate about what came first: Sanskrit or Tamil. It comes up in discussions among local priests who either call Sanskrit the oldest language or don’t want to get into any controversy over the issue at all.
“Sanskrit is considered as the dev-bhasha (the language of the gods). Sanskrit is the oldest language and all other languages have been derived from it. Simply because the Vedas have been written in Sanskrit. If there is any language which is as old as Sanskrit, it is the Tamil language,” says Narayana Ghanapathi, a well-known Tamil priest residing in Kashi.
Ghanapathi added that “language is not merely about written text but spoken words too. Sanskrit existed as a spoken language of the Gods. Tamil is also a very old language and this debate is not required.”
To others, the debate is like a comparison between two soul sisters born from the same mother.
Radhakrishna Ganeshan, who retired from Kashi’s Bharat Kala Bhawan, said that Sanskrit and Tamil have a bond. “Dev-bhasha means when it was established, who created it is unknown. But the Tamil language is known to be the creation of Aagastya rishi. As far as the connection goes, there are several Sanskrit words that are used in Tamil. The literature is very close. This is another reason for the connection between Kashi and South India,” he said.
But almost nobody here is willing to wager that Tamil is older than Sanskrit.
(Edited by Prashant)