[Urbanstudy] Everyday religiosity and the politics of land

Pushkal Shivam pushkalrajsin at gmail.com
Tue Apr 4 00:39:12 CDT 2017


Dear all,

Posting this here for a wider discussion:
https://thewire.in/120686/sriperumbudur-shrines-poramboke-amman-land/#disqus_thread


Shrines Bloom in Tamil Nadu as Subaltern Builders Seek Divine Guardians,
and a Patch of Land
BY PUSHKAL SHIVAM <https://thewire.in/author/pshivam/> ON 02/04/2017
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[image: A shrine built on an eri embankment in Nelur. Credit: Pushkal
Shivam]

A shrine built on an *eri* embankment in Nelur. Credit: Pushkal Shivam

*Sriperumbudur (Tamil Nadu):* The Tamil Nadu assembly by-elections are
around the corner as my fellow field researchers from IIT-Madras and I head
to Nelur*** village in Sriperumbudur taluk. As we exit the
Chennai-Bengaluru highway and walk past a Hindu graveyard on the edge of a
major power substation in Nelur, we see a blue Tata Sumo approaching us.
The car halts and its occupants lower the tinted windows to probe the
purpose of our visit. Clad in a crisp white shirt and *veshti*, Kumar, in
the driver’s seat, is busy preparing for the elections.

“This is an SC village,” he tells us. A major chunk of land in Nelur was
acquired by the Power Grid Corporation of India much before Sriperumbudur
came to be known for special economic zones (SEZs) and industrial parks.
Surrounded by manufacturing units, warehouses, a national highway and
engineering colleges, Nelur remains on the fringes of prosperity brought
about by the “engines of economic growth”. Since none of the land parcels
acquired for these projects fell within the village boundary, there are no
jobs for them except for the housekeeping section at the engineering
colleges.

A 2009 World Bank report characterised the region in these terms:

In 1990 Sriperumbudur was known mostly as the place where Prime Minister
Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. In 2006 his widow, Sonia Gandhi, watched as
Nokia’s telephone plant churned out its 20-millionth handset. The plant had
begun production just earlier that year. With neither Shenzhen’s favoured
administrative status nor its infrastructure, Sriperumbudur may be on its
way to becoming a national, perhaps even regional, hub for electronic
goods. The key is the town’s proximity to Chennai, just as Shenzhen’s
proximity to Hong Kong, China, was instrumental in its growth.

The Nokia plant ground to a halt in 2014 leading to several thousand jobs
being lost. Ever since, the narratives of the region have taken a much more
cautionary tone.

At the centre of this growth story, however, is land. Much of the land for
corporations came from the land banks that the State Industrial Promotion
Corporation of Tamil Nadu (SIPCOT) has acquired in Spriperumbudur over
several years using eminent domain instruments as well as private
negotiations. A large portion of the lands acquired is constituted by
poramboke land or ‘public land’. A colonial administrative category, it
refers to land not taxed for revenue purposes. There are different
categories of poramboke: *eri* (wetland), *natham* (village common land),
*meichal* (grazing land), land constituting roads or other public
facilities, etc.

These categories comprise multiple jurisdictional layers with their
oversight vesting in different state government authorities. Additionally,
in their research <https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/47080786.pdf>,
Bhuvanaswari Raman, Eric Denis, Solomon Benjamin have documented the
emergence of categories such as “college poramboke”, used to facilitate
land for engineering colleges, a familiar feature of the landscape in
Sriperumbudur. This is an important backdrop to our conversation with Kumar.

He points us to the shrines that have been built in Nelur over the last
10-15 years on poramboke land. In most cases, these shrines were built by
the panchayat itself. However, these shrines are different from the
traditional temples of South India in both form as well as practices. While
they often aspire to the grandeur of the bigger temples of the so-called
“great tradition of Hinduism”, they may take the form of a thatched
structure made of mud, a more concrete structure with or without a
*gopuram* (in
some cases there is just an asbestos sheet covering them) or just *senggal
kal* (sacred stones). The process by which these shrines materialise is
highly contingent and it does not betray any set pattern. They increasingly
dot our streetscapes, causing anxiety over the secular character of our
public spaces.

They are also an object of derision in narratives that seek to ‘reclaim’
our roads and streets for ‘citizens’, with the blame being put on
“nefarious political elements with vested interests”. As an urban political
phenomenon, again linking back to land, there is little that is understood
about it beyond the ‘developmental’, ‘secular’ or ‘communal’ straitjackets.
A mushrooming number of temples in the context of modernisation and
economic liberalisation has caught the attention of scholars – but even
academic narratives are strongly imbued by binaries such as
modernity-tradition, local-global, etc. They often assume significance
either in tension with the official logics or as an object associated with
the subaltern classes. In other words, it is important to look at these
political spaces on their own terms.
[image: A newly built shrine inside the Sriperumbudur Tank. Credit: Pushkal
Shivam]

A newly built shrine inside the Sriperumbudur Tank. Credit: Pushkal Shivam

Among the new temples in Nelur, Maramma’s Angalamman temple is the
youngest. Built last year, it sits in a triangular arrangement with two
other temples near the village pond. One is the four-year-old Angalamman
temple while the other is a Shiva temple, believed to be over a thousand
years old but now in ruins. The new temples built in Sriperumbudur and
elsewhere seem to indicate the distance between the great gods of Hinduism
such as Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva and the folk deities such as Amman, seen
as a “consort of Shiva”. Maramma first lead us to the Shiva temple located
right across the Angalamman temple, whose power is “balanced” by the latter.

As she narrated the history of the temple, believed to be built during the
Chola era, she seemed fearful. A month earlier, the Nandi idol had fallen
on a six-year-old boy, leading to his foot being amputated. Angered by the
incident, people stopped worshipping the deity for a while. However, this
hasn’t stopped the panchayat from mobilising resources to restore the
temple, one of the panchayat’s central responsibility apart from also
facilitating the land.

Maramma could not have built her temple without the panchayat’s support. It
helped that the incumbent panchayat president is related to her. She would
often get possessed by Amman and the furious goddess could not be contained
at her house. Soon, the deity appeared in her dream and asked her to build
a temple for her. She petitioned the panchayat to allow her to build the
temple on poramboke land in the village. The panchayat did not only provide
the land but also contributed to the temple’s construction. The stage had
been set for the temple to host its first major festival. Maramma invited
us to the first *Mayana kollai thiruvizha* (‘Looting the grave’) as she
handed us a bunch of pamphlets. They were undersigned by the panchayat
president.

Held on the new moon day after Shivaratri, the festival is associated with
Amman’s healing powers. On the day we arrive in Nelur, similar festivals
are happening at Angalamman shrines all across the region with varying
intensity and grandeur, the biggest one taking place at a graveyard right
outside Sriperumbudur town. The festival seeks to ensure the prosperity of
the village community, addressing problems pertaining to childbirth,
marriage and the harvest. It is traditionally performed among the dead in a
graveyard. As one scholar
<http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/entertainment/events/chennai/When-graveyards-throb-with-life-and-women-power/articleshow/51447808.cms>
put
it: “The festival symbolises one of the main cultural scripts of Tamil life
that the feminine energy is capable of rejuvenating, recovering, and
revitalising human life beyond death and destruction.”

The festival is concerned with the mythology of Angalamman: in which Shiva
severed one of the heads of Brahma and brought an end to creation. The
world becomes a graveyard and Angalamman dances with Shiva to restore life.
As we join the residents surrounding the temple, Maramma appears as the
goddess Amman, her face painted. Possessed by Amman, she engages with the
musicians whose role is central to orchestrating the festival.

The spirit possession has three intertwined tracks: quotes from the scripts
are recited followed by dialogues. Gestures and expressions comprise a
third track. As part of this, the musicians mock the deity who in turn
mocks the musicians. “You’ve grown prosperous but there is little that you
offer me,” the deity tells the villagers. The singers and the deity slip in
and out of the performance, yet all of it seamlessly merges into one track.

The story as to how the festival began to be celebrated in the village goes
like this. Every year on the new moon day after Shivratri, the first-born
child of a family would die. Rituals would be performed at the crematorium
because they were believed to have had healing powers. After some time, the
deaths stopped occurring but the rituals continued. They would be performed
at the crematorium with a human skeleton or a replica of it. It is possible
that the practice was stopped or moved to another location because of the
power grid being built adjacent to the graveyard. Today, the *Mayana kollai
thiruvizha* doesn’t stop with Maramma encircling the heap of vegetables and
distributing them to the residents as a mark of prosperity.

As part of the rituals, another person is possessed and performs the second
part of the ritual, supposed to take place at a graveyard. This person is
taken to the Sriperumbudur graveyard – the journey from the shrine to the
graveyard being seen as a path to recovery, the one that Amman took with
Shiva as she danced with him to the graveyard and restored life.

Powerplay, negotiations, re-negotiations and the quest for healing and
prosperity are playing out not just in myths. Sriperumbudur, like several
other regions around our cities, has come under the purview of governmental
interventions that have undermined the spaces of politics. An important
feature of the new institutional structure, especially with regard to land,
is how they undercut local elected bodies.

In Sriperumbudur, SIPCOT has led this trend. This is crucial in the context
of competing claims over surpluses from land. While agencies like SIPCOT
facilitate massive surpluses for corporates and big real-estate actors,
politicians such as those facilitating the construction of the shrines in
Nelur lay their own claim to surpluses. Several panchayat presidents in the
region double up as ‘real estate agents’. They often use their resources
and networks to petition district authorities and other channels of
administration for different services, for *pattas* (titles) for
settlements on poramboke land.

According to a government order issued in 2000, no poramboke land “shall be
used for any purpose other than that for which it was originally intended
except with the prior approval of the Collector” (G.O. [Ms] No.317, Rural
Development [C4], dated December 6, 2000). In case it is not required for
the purpose originally intended, it may be used for any other “specified
public purpose”, in which case the panchayat must publish the notice in the
village and invite objections to its proposed use of the poramboke land.
The proposal, along with any objections, must then be submitted to the
district collector, who will take the final call.

However, interviews with the district administration offered a different
account of how temples are built on poramboke land. According to revenue
officials, no permission is usually sought from the taluk office or the
collector’s office before constructing a temple on poramboke land. The
district administration does not intervene unless people within the village
– in which the land is located – have objections. They would intervene to
clear “encroachments” but only in cases where a government project is
due to come up. In fact, the officials seem to resent the role of panchayat
politicians in facilitating land. One of them said, “The involvement of
local politicians in building these temples is apparent. If the government
wants to acquire land for projects, these politicians [cook up a story] to
make sure that the land is not acquired.”

The 2000 GO also has provisions for “encroachments” on poramboke land. A
penalty is levied on encroachments on poramboke land, which also acts a
record of occupancy (because it makes them visible on an official
register). It’s called a B-memo and is issued by the village panchayat or
the government agencies under whose control the poramboke land lies.
Although tehsildars are supposed to act to remove encroachments within
three months of the B-memo being issued (pending appeals), it has been
observed that the memo is often used as a proof of occupancy. And if
continuous occupancy can be proved this way, then the land could be claimed
through regularisation procedures.

Dalit families living near the *eri* (lakes and tanks) in Nelur have been
trying to get *pattas* for close to 40 years now. Their *kuccha* houses
were inspected by officials but the revenue administration is wary of
granting them *pattas* as the land is *eri* poramboke (a wetland), and
creating titles for *eri* poramboke is very complex because it involves
multiple authorities and usually takes several *decades*.

Most of the new temples built in Nelur and elsewhere are near the *eri*.
Many of them are located on the *eri* embankment. A recently built concrete
road runs through the settlement that is trying to secure *patta* for their
land. The panchayat provides the families with water and electricity. The
receipts of taxes paid to the panchayat are used to secure *patta* as a
proof of occupancy.
[image: Lakshmi’s "highway shrine". Credit: Pushkal Shivam]

Lakshmi’s “highway shrine”. Credit: Pushkal Shivam

There are two Amman temples on either side of the concrete road in the
settlement. One is *kuccha*, just like the houses there, and is devoted to
Nagathamman. The family that ‘owns’ the shrine built it over a decade ago,
when one of them fell seriously ill. The illness was remedied after the
shrine was built and things have been better for them ever since. They do
daily-wage work at the engineering colleges that have come up on the
fertile land in the village. Earlier, most of them were engaged in paddy
cultivation. Ever since most of the agricultural land has now since been
lost to the colleges, they now work there as housekeeping staff.

On the other side of the road, there is another temple built by the
panchayat, presided over by the goddess Kanniamman. Unlike Nagathamman’s
shrine, this one has a concrete structure. The panchayat conducts a
*thiruvizha* (divine festival) in the month of Aadi and it is open to
everyone in the village. However, the ‘owners’ of the Nagathamman shrine
from across the road are not allowed to perform rituals at the panchayat’s
temple – nor can others worship at their shrine. Access to the temples and
the resources mobilised to build them are structured along caste and
community lines. The networks used to seek *pattas* are also the ones
implicated in the construction and maintenance of the shrines.

Maramma has earned the envy of others in the village for the kind of
support extended to her shrine by the panchayat. The pleas of other
residents, such as those who ‘own’ the Nangathamman shrine (located on the
*eri* embankment in another part of the village), have not been heeded. The
Nagathamman shrine is flooded during the monsoons; requests to the
panchayat president to carry out the necessary repairs have been in vain.
While he is affiliated with the DMK, the panchayat president owes
allegiance to the AIADMK. And yet, for this ‘owner’, securing a *patta* for
the land is not a concern. What matters more is the power of the deity – a
shared belief that often influences what is permissible to do with land and
what is not. It opens up a different register with which to understand
“official logics”.

Lakshmi’s “highway shrine” in Sriperumbudur offers one such example. In
what seems to be an unusual mix of deities, her hut houses Kali, Durga,
Nagathamman, Shiva and Vishnu. The shrine faces the Nelur electric
substation located on the other side of the Chennai-Bengaluru highway.
Although she came to Sriperumbudur from Saidapet, in Chennai, Lakshmi said
her grandfather used to own the land where she built the shrine, and that a
village used to exist at that place. Her family had to sell the land about
30 years ago, after which she moved to Saidapet. The land has since
been reclassified as public land.

When she returned to build the temple over five years ago, she petitioned
the panchayat president of a nearby village for help. Her petition was
turned down. She then approached the Nelur panchayat president. He agreed
to support her, following which she planted a neem tree at the spot and
built the hut. She survives on one meal a day, using offerings to the deity
for her sustenance. It doesn’t matter whether the land is *patta* land or
poramboke land. It is her belief that the deity will help consolidate the
structure of the shrine.

She draws electricity from a line running along the highway. The officials
from the substation often remove this connection but she restores it at
night. She says that the electricity is for lighting along the highway,
which is for the ‘public’. And her temple is also for the ‘public’. The
collector and other revenue officials came to evict her. So did cops. But
everyone believes in the power of the deity, she says.

**The name of the village as well as the names of residents have been
changed to protect their identity.*

*Pushkal Shivam is a fellow at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements
(IIHS), Bengaluru.*
For a more conceptual treatment, see:
http://www.epw.in/journal/2016/4/special-articles/space-street-side-religiosity.html
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