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Dravidian leader or Hindu saint? The politics behind Amma's burial

Shriya Mohan | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:37 IST

The Brahmin community in Tamil Nadu is up in arms. Their beloved Amma, J Jayalalithaa, was buried and not cremated, as the Brahmin tradition demands.

Hindus burn the body because they believe that the soul should depart free from all attachments to the body. The only kind of people who are buried are saints and children below three - the former because their spiritual advancement means their soul is unattached, and the latter because the soul hasn't been in the body long enough to develop attachment.

So when Jayalalithaa breathed her last on the night of 5 December, there was an important dilemma - would Amma be cremated as per the rites demanded by the religious Iyengar Brahmin identity she assumed at birth, or buried, as per the traditions of the Dravidian identity she embraced and fought for?

Dravidian politics

"Humanity always buried its dead, much before religions came into being," says Prof. Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd.

Ilaiah believes Brahmins changed this ritual to erase any history of violence they inflicted upon lower castes. "Burning a body erases fossil history and cleanses any historical evidence of crimes perpetrated," he says.

Anti-Brahminical and Dravidian experts like Ilaiah believe the correct decision was taken when it came to Amma's last rites. The political, he says, ought to come before the personal - after all, Dravidian leaders such as Periyar EV Ramasamy, CN Annadurai and MG Ramachandran (who was a shudra from Kerala) were all buried. So why should Amma be treated any differently?

It must be pointed out that India's biggest anti-Brahminical leader, Dr BR Ambedkar, was cremated. His supporters today say this was done because he had left no will behind, and his supports couldn't think in symbols.

Amma's AIADMK on the other hand, has thought through every form of political symbolism her death ceremony could connote, and made sure to play to the gallery.

How saints are buried

Mitran, a priest from Tiruvannamalai, a temple town in Tamil Nadu, says that his community of priests in Chennai believes that the party might have wanted to kill two birds with one stone, wanting Amma to be given the status of a saint in Hinduism and be buried, while also following the practice of burying a Dravidian leader.

"But Amma is not a saint. So, they found a single Iyengar priest to do some customary rituals to make it appear as though they were treating her body to be one apart from ordinary mortals," he says.

If Jayalalithaa had been a saint, her body would have been made to sit in padmasanam (the sitting posture), and bathed in milk, honey and sandalwood, before being lowered into a sack full of camphor, which would then be lowered into the ground.

"Instead, the priest at Marina Beach held a small bowl of milk and sandalwood and sprinkled it on her along with flowers. She was put into a coffin, like Christians, and lowered into the ground," Mitran says.

He adds that some of his colleagues have told him that Amma's last rites and ritual chantings had already been performed on the body at her residence before it was brought to Marina Beach.

Appeasing all supporters

Was the amalgam of religious rituals in her burial simply a huge photo-op for the AIADMK, which wanted to appear to respect the sentiments of all its supporters? And did it succeed?

"The Brahmin community is very upset. This is not the right way to send off her soul," says Mitran.

"Sasikala (Amma's aide) was appeasing the Brahmin tradition. A Brahmin priest doing a send off ritual for Jayalalithaa is a humiliation of the Dravidian tradition," says Ilaiah.

The Hindu religion believes that a body that goes uncremated prevents its soul from departing. Perhaps that is a fitting metaphor to connote that Amma's legacy will haunt Tamil Nadu for some time to come.

Edited by Shreyas Sharma

More in Catch

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Lakhs bid adieu as Jayalalithaa is laid to rest. Now, it's back to politics

Importance of being Sasikala: Will Jayalalithaa's confidante be her heir?

First published: 7 December 2016, 10:41 IST
Shriya Mohan @ShriyaMohan

An editor and writer of development stories at Catch, Shriya has 8 years of experience as a development journalist, holds a Masters degree in Public Policy from the National University of Singapore and is a two-time winner of the National Foundation for India media fellowship award. When she isn't exploring the universe with her two-year-old daughter, she chronicles public anger and shelters relevant stories that don't hang sexily on news pegs.