Maniratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan, the movie adaptation of Kalki’s Tamil novel titled the same, is all over the internet for three main reasons. In the ascending order of prominence, they are:
3: For receiving predominantly positive reviews from original novel’s fans, general audience, and film critics alike.
2: For becoming a raging hit at the box office. It is the fastest Rs 100 crore grosser in Tamil Nadu which amassed over Rs 325 crores worldwide in just a week.
1: For sparking a debate on Chola emperor Raja Raja Cholan's religious identity.
Recently, filmmaker Vetrimaaran questioned the depiction of Raja Raja Cholan as a "Hindu king." It soon lead to a controversy with some sections, especially politicians and public figures close to the Bharatiya Janata Party, calling the emperor a Hindu. Others, including actor and politician Kamal Haasan, actor-politician Karunas, filmmaker-turned-politician Seeman and Congress MP S Jothimani, called him a Shaivite Dravidian ruler.
The Quint spoke to historians to set the record straight. The common consensus was that Raja Raja Cholan was not Hindu but Shaivite. We'll explain why it is not accurate to call the Chola emperor Hindu. But first, here's a glimpse of the war of words on Raja Raja Cholan's religion.
What Did Vetrimaaran Say and Who Opposed or Supported Him?
Director Vetrimaaran said, “Art should be treated rightly. If we fail to do so, very soon we will lose out identities. They (Hindutva groups) are constantly misappropriating our identities. Like, cladding Thiruvalluvar in saffron and presenting Raja Raja Cholan as a Hindu king. Our identities are being erased.” Among several prominent personalities who supported Vetrimaaran's statement, actor-politician Kamal Haasan was the latest.
Makkal Needhi Maiam founder Kamal Haasan said that there was no Hindu religion during Raja Raja Cholan's reign. “There was Vainavam, Shivam, and Samanam, and it was the British who coined the term Hindu since they didn't know how to refer to it collectively. It is similar to how they changed Thoothukudi into Tuticorin,” he said.
On the other hand, Vetrimaaran and public figures who supported him met with push back from politicians, public figures, and right-wing linked trolls.
Reacting to the controversy, Telangana Governor and former Tamil Nadu BJP President Tamilisai Soundararajan said there was an attempt to hide the “identity of Hindu cultural icons.” Former MP and Congress leader Karan Singh said it was “absolutely ridiculous” to say that "King Rajaraja I of the Chola dynasty was not a Hindu."
BJP's H Raja said, “I am not well versed with history like Vetrimaaran, but let him point out two churches and mosques built by Raja Raja Chola. He called himself Sivapadha Sekaran. Wasn't he a Hindu then?” Political analyst Sumanth C Raman said, ”Raja Raja Chola was a Hindu King. Won't accept that as the term Hinduism didn't exist then? OK. He was a Shaivite King. Zero difference. All part of the same Sanathana Dharma.”
What Does History Actually Say?
Anyone can claim anything. Hence, let’s keep the heated exchange aside for a while and pay heed to what history has to say.
Going by history, was Raja Raja Cholan a Hindu?
Short answer: No.
Long answer: Still, No.
In order to understand why, The Quint reached out to historians to seek their expert opinions.
Richard H Davis, research professor of religion, Bard College of Annandale-on-Hudson, New York said, "I would not call Raja Raja Chola a 'Hindu.' The term was not used at that time. Nor was there an idea that there was a single religion uniting the various groups or communities that worshiped Shiva, Vishnu, the goddess, and other deities. That is a much later development, largely during the British period."
Davis further said that Raja Raja Cholan and his court promoted Shaiva religious institutions but also supported other groups, including Buddhists and Jains.
Why then is Raja Raja Cholan known for building famous Hindu temples which are frequently visited by Hindu devotees now?
Speaking about the popular Brihadishvara temple in Tanjavur that Raja Raja Cholan had built, Davis said the emperor would have thought of it as a temple for Shiva, not as a 'Hindu temple.'
"So calling him (Raja Raja Cholan) a 'Hindu' is, in my view, anachronistic. Isn't Shaivism a form of Hinduism? It would be like saying the Yamuna is the Ganges, because at Prayaga it flows into the Ganges. I see Raja Raja Chola simply as an Indian emperor, like many other rulers from many periods (Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim), who tried to unite as large a territory as possible within a single regime."Prof Richard Davis, Bard College, New York
Other historians too concurred with Davis' views and said that these are historical facts that can be proven. Professor Mahalakshmi Ramakrishnan, whose subject is ancient Indian history in Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) said, "I completely agree with what actor Kamal Haasan and director Vetrimaaran have said. Historically, the way in which religion and traditions existed were as denominations. Hinduism is a misnomer to talk about the early medieval period."
Speaking to The Quint, Professor TK Venkatasubramanian, who has a doctorate in history from Madras University said that asking whether Shaivism (of the time) was Hinduism is a "later day question."
He reiterated that one should look at Raja Raja Cholan's religious beliefs and the god he worshipped in the historic context, keeping in mind the time period he belonged to.
"Raja Raja Chola was religious and he was a worshiper of Lord Shiva. That is why he built Brihadishvara temple. Were they (Cholas) conscious they were Hindus, may be no. The term Hinduism didn't exist back then. It came into existence in the colonial period of India. But were they (Cholas) conscious about being Shaivites, yes."Prof TK Venkatasubramanian
Further addressing the controversy surrounding the identity of Raja Raja Cholan, the Professor said, "Earlier the question was what history is. But now, it has become who the history is for. That is why we have these questions on identity."
So, according to history, was Raja Raja Cholan a Hindu?
The right answer is no.
History says, it is not fair to impose modern-day identities – such as ‘Hindu’ – on Raja Raja Cholan, an emperor who ruled the Chola empire between 985 CE -1014 CE, practiced Shaivism and built the 'Peruvudaiyar Kovil' in Thanjavur (Brihadeeswarar Temple) for a 'Lingam' (Lord Shiva). At the time, Raja Raja Cholan was consciously a Shaivite, nothing more nor less.