It is TUESDAY – The Day of Ares, the Day of Mars. And therefore … a most interesting tale in relation to Lord Skanda (Subramanya).
Throughout much of the 1600s, the Dutch and Portuguese fought a protracted war over possession of various far-flung colonial possessions across the known world. One of these theaters of operations was southern India – and one particular site of conflict was the temple community of Thiruchendur in Tamil Nadu.
Thiruchendur is one of the more impressive Hindu holy sites of the state – an immense and ancient stone edifice some 47 meters high which forms a seaside man-made (or, per one local folk-belief, Divinely-artificed) mountain. It is chiefly dedicated to Lord Skanda (Subramanya / Murugan), the Son of Shiva, and one of our many formidable War Gods; the site commemorating an ancient battle between Murugan and a dire demonical foe.
A Portuguese enclave had been proximate, and in 1649 the Temple itself was attacked by the Dutch (referred to as the ‘Usilampadi’ – the ‘Wandering Caste’) – who proceeded to take the Temple for a local garrison and base of operations, fortifying it and installing cannon. And, not coincidentally, emptying the Temple’s voluminous treasury to their own dubious ends.
Attempts were made to ouster the invaders, of course, with local Hindus making frequent attacks against the occupiers – but with the Nayak rulers of the region otherwise engaged fighting back Muslim advances from the north, it would be some weeks before the Dutch felt enough pressure to choose to vacate the Mandir.
And when they did … they did as these sorts often do, and hacked out of the surfaces the most impressive elements they could find as ‘spoils of war’. In this case, in particular two impressive Murtis of the Gods Skanda (Murugan) and Shiva Nataraja. Apparently, they had taken literally the idea that these must be ‘worth their weight in gold’ (roughly two hundred pounds thereof) due to the reverence displayed toward the Murtis by local Hindus … and so erroneously presumed that they’d be easy enough to melt down and derive a similar quotient of worth therefrom.
Upon their final exit via sea, the Dutch fired cannonade at the Temple, seeking to demolish at range what they could not have held up close; although the results of their gunnery were dubious, and the temple’s redoubtable construction protected it perhaps rather miraculously from serious harm.
The Dutch made for their base in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), believing they should be safe across the ocean from any putative Hindu pursuit. In this, they had not reckoned with the evident fact that their pursuers were not solely … human.
A fierce storm began to brew up, and the Dutch panicked – fearing that their absconding with the Murtis from such a hallowed site had invoked the wrath of the beings Whose temple it was. Buffeted by waves and tossed by tempestuous torrents of wind, the decision was made to cast the Murtis over the side to the grace of the sea.
This being done, the storm began to subside and the Dutch were able to make their escape. Although that is not where the tale ends.
So the folk-history goes, several years later a devout local authority-figure by the name of Vadamalaiyappa Pillaiyyan was sent a dream that the Murtis could be found, even below the sea’s depths, by sailing out along the same route to a spot where a lime would be seen floating and Vishnu’s bird, the Kite, seen wheeling overhead.
A pious man, Pillaiyyan immediately ordered such an expedition, taking along divers and ropes so as to be able to go down and bring back up the Murtis when the spot was reached.
This was then done – and remarkably, the Murtis were recovered and able to be reinstalled at Their original home.
Now it is worth noting, perhaps, that this is not the only belief as to what happened to the Murtis of Thiruchendur. The Dutch histories are somewhat different, and instead portray the Dutch as having successfully made off with their ill-gotten spoils, with a view to ransoming them back at an exorbitant price – 100,000 Reales.
This was the price set down by the Dutchman van der Meijden when an interestingly ‘mixed’ delegation of Hindu and Muslim emissaries were sent to him to demand the Murtis’ return. This was not accepted by the Indians; and nor was a secret ‘rival’ bid by the then-Raja of Travancore, Ravi Varma VI, accepted by the Dutch.
Further negotiations ensued, with the Dutch being offered the opportunity to restore their trade relations in the Nayak realm if only they’d behave sensibly and restore that which they had illegitimately taken.
The Dutch, however, insisted upon their earlier price – as they felt it had become something of a matter of reputation. And privately, pondered whether it was ethical for them to return ‘pagan’ “Idols” which might encourage a religion to which they were ill-disposed.
Although as applies that latter consideration, as Markus Vink puts it – “These Protestant ethico-religious reservations notwithstanding, Mammon prevailed over God and Van Kittensteijn was authorised to sell the ‘stone idol and its dependencies’ for the price that could be agreed upon, along with a contract establishing a free and unlimited trade in the Madurai lands.'”
This … did not play out as the Dutch would have liked, however, as several subsequent attempts to offload the Murtis at even vastly reduced prices (roughly one quarter of what had previously been demanded, in fact), still met with no success.
And in any case, the blockages to Dutch trade of the deteriorated relations with the relevant Indian polity was all this time costing them considerably. Thus leading to what sounds to have been an increasingly tense situation amidst the Dutch themselves as to what to do about the scenario, entirely of their own making, within which they had found themselves.
Now there is, unfortunately, nothing within the Dutch East India Company’s own records to tell us what thence transpired next. The Murtis may as well have vanished from history if those were our only source.
What we can say is that about a year or two after Their last mention in Dutch records, a Murti of Subramanya is recorded as having been re-installed at Tiruchendur. Although whether it had come back as the result of having been recovered from the waves, or whether it had come back as the result of having been handed back by the Dutch, who can say.
I do suspect that if it were the latter … the voluminous ransoms demanded by the Dutch for its restitution presumably did not eventuate in practice – as such a large sum being paid for them would surely have been recorded in the Dutch’s own books.
I also note that there is something peculiar to be found in recountings of the Dutch that they had “stone” Murtis to be offered back to the Indians, in contrast to other accounts on the Indian side which appear to emphasize that the Murtis were, instead, of metallic construction. Perhaps there were multiple elements involved? Who can say.
What we can say, however, is that however it may have eventuated … the Murti of Murugan did, in fact, manage to make it home to Tiruchendur.
A perhaps slightly ’roundabout’ Victory for the War God !
Hail to Lord Skanda !
Jai Kartikeya !