The repeated temple chariot accidents in Tamil Nadu have created suspicion and fear in the minds of devotees as such accidents are seen as a bad omen bringing bad luck to the country. With anti-Hindu DMK at the helm, Hindus fear that more such incidents might follow due to the government’s apathy and vested interests’ deliberate ‘mistakes’. Since the beginning of the year, there have been many accidents in which chariots overturned, caught fire, and electrocuted at different places.
In Pudukkottai, the chariot of a temple believed to have been built by the Pallavas overturned on July 31. The presiding deity of Kokarneswarar temple was the family deity of the royal family of the Pudukkottai princely state. Nearly 10 people sustained severe injuries, and 1 later succumbed to the wounds. The Kokarneswarar temple is under the control of HRCE. The Executive officer of the temple was suspended following the incident.
On June 13, the chariot of Kali Devi from a temple in Mathehalli village in Dharmapuri crashed during the procession. 10 devotees near the chariot were seriously injured, and 2 lost their lives. Police said that poor maintenance could have caused the accident and the investigation report said that the chariot’s axle broke. But devotees alleged that it was the narrow road that caused the accident.
Anbarasu, a devotee who witnessed the mishap from close quarters, lamented, “I have been attending the festival since my childhood but had not seen such an incident. The chariot procession for Kaliamman temple has been followed for more than five generations in the village”. HRCE minister Sekar Babu had promised that such accidents wouldn’t repeat in the future and that concerned departments would take strict measures to prevent untoward incidents.
In April, the most gruesome incident of all, the electrocution of more than 20 people, with 11 losing their lives, happened when a temple chariot grazed a high transmission line in Thanjavur. It was solely due to the indifferent attitude of government officials. The chariot of Appar math was taken out after two years as temple festivals were suspended for the past two years owing to the pandemic. Devotees say that in these two years, the height of the road substantially increased, and the height of the chariot also increased a little due to enthusiastic decorations.
But these factors were not considered while inspecting and reviewing the procession’s route. Villagers accuse the Electricity Board of turning deaf despite multiple requests to shift the high-tension transmission lines to less frequented areas. Preventive measures like switching off the power supply and deploying volunteers who lift the power lines away using wooden poles were also not taken. Police said that even though the power supply to the low-tension lines remained suspended, the high-tension lines remained live during the procession.
There have been other incidents of chariots overturning with no losses of lives and thus neglected by MSM. The frequency of these accidents has shocked and created suspicion among devotees. These accidents are generally attributed to poor maintenance due to a 2-year gap. But it is to be noted that much larger chariots have been pulled through the streets of TN for centuries. Fortunately, no untoward incident happened during such large chariot processions as that of Thiruvarur Azhi Ther, Big temple Chithirai Ther, and Madurai Meenakshi Ther (Ther means chariot).
But the negligence and indifference due to which the accidents happened have created fear in the minds of devotees as it is seen as a bad omen. In the Thanjavur chariot accident, the government tried to absolve its responsibility saying they weren’t notified about the festival and that permission was not obtained from HRCE. Villagers have been conducting the chariot festival for nearly a century and HRCE wasn’t to be seen anywhere all these years. The fire department analysis clearly shows that the high-tension lines caused the accident. Yet one can see how HRCE wants to impose itself on such temples and maths even in the face of a tragedy.
This is suspected to be the main reason behind deliberately being negligent about arrangements protection during temple festivals. There are other valid fears, like trying to stop the tradition of pulling temple chariots, which are not unfounded considering how anti-Hindu forces want to ban even cremation and lighting deepa. There have been allegations of smuggling temple chariots to be sold in foreign countries. Once a chariot is met with an accident unless it is minor, it is abandoned, and a new one is built in its place. Such abandoned chariots are reportedly being smuggled and sold illegally.
Temple activist Rangarajan Narasimhan exposed how chariots are being abandoned intentionally to smuggle them off and corruption in the contracts for making new chariots. Times of India exposed a businessman based in Mumbai putting up part of a temple chariot for sale. He said, “Temples are very discreet when they dispose of such artifacts. They deal through their preferred agents and choose to remain anonymous”. Rangarajan Narasimhan went to court against disposing of one such chariot of the Pallikonda Perumal temple in Coimbatore. While HRCE wanted to discard the 150-year-old chariot and replace it with a new one, the court ruled the old one should be preserved and protected owing to its antiquity.
Keeping such issues in mind, the recent chariot accidents need to be thoroughly investigated, and measures should be taken to avoid them. Lest the court dictates the height and width of a chariot as it did in the Dahi Handi case, in an indirect attempt to curb the fervour with which chariot festivals are celebrated.