Creating New Ideas of Leadership and Sacrality
South Indian historiography is marked by pronounced debate regarding roles played by temples and by rulers of “the little kingdoms” of the region. This debate has attempted to uncover the source and power of new leadership and new conceptions regarding sacrality. Nicholas Dirks has argued the centrality of “the little kingdom” in contrast to the Appadurai-Breckenridge formulation in which, in Dirks’ words, “sovereignty is essentially procured in temples, where the deity is the paradigmatic sovereign. Further, [in this model] all endowments are equal at the level at which they are dependent on particular endowments for their status within the temple.”
In Dirks’ view, the Appadurai-Breckenridge analysis puts “too much stress on the autonomy of temples and temple honors.” Rather, says Dirks, “the kinds of honors that constituted authority in the old regime were those received as shares of worship in local temples as well as those granted as emblems and titles (pirutus) by kings.” Temple ceremony or puja was “a root metaphor for political relations.” Dirks concludes that, “like religion itself, the temple was reinvented in an attempt by the colonial state to appear as the protector of all that was good and inviolable in Indian culture and life force that had pulsed through them in the old regime.”
In contrast to these characterizations, I would argue that temples and religion were not reinvented by the colonial state but were produced dialogically by the British and local individuals in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a way to redefine the sacred and to disaggregate it into all individuals. The example of Place’s relation with the Varadaraja temple in Kanchi provides evidence that a “new pulse” was being created through a new competition between local knowledges that involved persons from the area as well as the British. This invocation to create knowledge focused attention on temples, sacrality, and religion per se. Place and his local participants involved in the distribution of temple honors thus incited construction of a new kind of useful, productive religion. Indeed, the definition of what came to be Hinduism or the temple was not imposed or reinvented by the British or by the Indo-British “state.” The complicated process of redefining religion included not only activity around the temple itself but also the act of disconnecting the political from the religious and the related process of placing the monopoly of violence in the hands of the state. Given the complexity of the process, we cannot attribute these cultural products to Europeans or to the colonial state alone in a top-down fashion; we must include in that new productive process the many, many individuals from the whole subcontinent who participated.
The extent to which these dialogically produced religious and political mechanisms became important in South India has been wellarticulated recently in work by Mattison Mines and Vijayalakshmi Gourishankar. Mines and Gourishankar argue that individuality and leadership do exist in the South Asian and South Indian contexts. In their view, the South Indian “Periyār” or big man “lacks the characterizing values of liberty and equality [Louis] Dumont…associates with Western individualism, which concurs with the sense, if not the reality, of personal freedom and of individuals as equals.” Instead, leadership in South Asia refers to the “galactic” leadership idea of Stanley Tambiah, which includes “social identity marked by eminence, achieved identity associated with deliberate striving after positions that confer honor and establish a status of dominance, charisma, public recognition of the instrumental role played by unique persons in groups, and autonomy defined by responsibility for what one does.” Mines and Gourishankar note that while temporal sources of dominance such as land can be shared, temple honors cannot. The use of temple honors by these important persons, they say, explains “a great deal about the relationship between politics and religion…because they distinguish individuals [emphasis in original].”
Dirks has also argued, as Mines and Gourishankar note, that “colonial rule removed issues of [juridical] power from local political struggles, so that in a sense struggles over symbolic markers of status were all that was left to politics,” or “the hollow crown.” The evidence provided by the interaction of Place and the local population of Kanchipuram (along with the definition of individuality and leadership to which Mines and Gourishankar refer) indicates the development of a cultural formation of individuality based on the need for more and more interdependence in a new civil society. In this environment, there would not necessarily be more equality. Rather, as Stephen Mennell has written, “Interdependence does not mean equal interdependence: those who are less dependent on others than others are on them remain more [juridically] powerful. But the web of interdependence increasingly constrains all—the more powerful and the less powerful. And this has long-term effects on their feelings and behavior.” The previous relation of temporal power to religion in the distribution of temple honors was therefore put at risk by Place’s taking over the function of distributor of these honors. Place’s behavior represented a set of historical relationships that sought to reproduce traditional categories or gave them new significations relative to the new historical requirements. The significations privileged by this late eighteenth-century dialogism were selected to fill the specific need for a more interdependent and more restrained civil society.
Place, like many local persons, as well as Englishmen and other Europeans before and after him, sought to “take the role of the other” in order to innovate in this cultural realm. Place situated his actions, in granting temple honors to a large variety of individuals, at the Varadarajaswami temple in Kanchipuram on the basis of his understanding of the role of Tamil king or “Asiatic despot.” He also brought to this activity a strong sense that religion ought to make one prosperous, happy, and cooperative in a society that would run by itself. There is also much evidence that his ideas were put into operation with the assumption that exchange and obligation provided the motive forces necessary to run a political structure. We know, for instance, that when he was in the process of introducing his “new system” of tax assessment into the Jagir he was forced to employ a large number of unusual methods to attain his goal. One strategy we have already identified brought in tenants or Payirkkaris to take over as Mirasidars to cooperate with him.
This creation of special ties was repeated in hundreds of other contexts. For instance, Place obtained special rewards for his office staff in exchange for their loyalty. When the Board of Revenue resisted granting these benefits in March 1796, he wrote that though he sought the assistance of the government in punishing certain individuals such as the “artful, designing, and culpable part of the inhabitants let me not be deprived of the superior gratification of distributing rewards to the meritorious.” He also said that “with regard to my own servants [staff in the cacceri or office] I almost stand in the predicament of having professed my promise, under an expectation that they would receive their well earned reward, I have exercised a rigour over them which without it will leave an everlasting reproach upon me.” Their responsibilities, he felt, had increased enormously and they should be remunerated. Place, of course, sought to wean the tax officials away from a dependence on the Dubashes to make them more dependent on the Company. In many ways, he was seeking to create a staff that was gelded, that is, a group not subject to the pressures of a local kinship system who could then spend more effort on public service. But he also emphasized his reliance on his own staff when he told his “servants,” during the “distribution” of these monies to the amildars on 10 November 1796, that if they performed well they would continue to receive rewards from the Company in the future. The Board could well understand, then, he said, “what must be my situation, if whilst in charge of an important office, where my word should be inviolate, I were to disappoint those who have every claim to my approbation and appear to have deluded them into a dependence upon the assurances hereby given which I was neither sincere in making nor able to fulfill.” Equally, Place could argue that this investment by the Company produced loyal servants who could be relied on to work independently in the Company’s interest. By contrast, if he were forced to personally superintend his staff members, it would detract from his main assignment and the loss to the state, in fact, “might be much greater.” Essentially, Place argued that to increase revenue the government would have to pay more for its employees—for their labor and their loyalty. The Company was as dependent on these men as was Place.
To convince the government, Place referred to the service performed by his staff in increasing the tax collections in the Jagir:
Though Place succeeded in winning these rewards only for the office staff in charge of confidential documents, he still sustained his function as a distributor of royal rewards. His dependence on the loyalty of his staff and the interaction between them illustrates in many ways the processual nature of Place’s presumptions, as an individual who operated in a patrimonial or kingly environment (as opposed to one who was attached to a bureaucratic system). Place, despite his bureaucratic interest in accounting and fiscal responsibility, wanted to build a system in which he would be a king, making progresses through the district to receive petitions and give out rewards and honors in person to those of “his kingdom.” Place’s hopes for the revival of the Jagir were expressed in his desire to reward people who responded to his appeals to values that themselves were in the process of altering.
I am aware how little the necessities of Government at this Juncture admit of liberality or profusion, but with pleasure, I appeal to its candour to say how much greater they might have been, but for the opportune surplus which they received from the Jagheer, and how much they have therefore been relieved by an abundant and punctual revenue which the Jagheer was at no former period, even the most prosperous, thought capable of yielding.
The goal of ritual thus began changing to one focused more and more on usefulness and productivity. For instance, in May 1797, he requested permission to grant a reward to a person named Swami Mudali, “whose merits and assiduity in the repair of Madurantakam tank [reservoir] and several other works, I do not think have ever been equalled.” Here, it appears that Place was trying to formulate what was in fact a heteroglot conception of the past (the creation of ancient cities, waterworks, temples, roads) through a system of rewards to make people and their religion more productive and useful. Swami Mudali apparently was one of the people who responded to Place’s hopes and invocation.
Swami Mudali and hundreds of others who were a part of Place’s gift-giving and other ritual activities saw recognizable aspects of their own culture being enacted around them. Place could have no idea how he was being construed, or the extent to which previous meanings of Tamil or other local kingship came into doubt. These alterations did not emerge solely from Place’s actions, however; they resulted from a much larger process in which he played only a small part.
Therefore, like the Sankarachariyar (Mines and Gourishankar’s example), Place acted as an efficient administrator. To use the words of Mines and Gourishankar as applied to contemporary Tamil society, Place served as a “focal officeholder of a powerful organization” and was “a charismatic public leader who claims and uses a wide variety of symbols of kingship.” Like the Shankarachariyar, Place also set up special mechanisms to “fund the daily rituals of the temple and finance temple projects aimed at entertaining the public with grand and opulent displays.” But, at the same time, Place’s behavior and that of thousands of others who participated in his project put the previous meanings of the Tamil king in doubt. Although inequities remained, as the division of labor became more complex and an embedded society began to develop, people came gradually to be far more connected with one another. These increasingly powerful relationships tended to restrict the behavior of all elements of the population.
At the same time, it is problematic to relate these Tamil leaders, as Mines and Gourishankar have done, to David Shulman’s description of warrior-heroes of ancient Cangam or Sangam times, who often “achieve, in the compositions of their poets, a winning individuality conveyed by unique dramatic results.” In this development of the relationship of the individual to the sacred, we are seeking to describe a general process whose aspects are directly associated with contingent historical requirements. It is very important for us therefore not to collapse the historical dimension of the process in order to prescribe it. If we lose sight of the historical dimension, we invoke the same techniques as Place himself conjured up.
Place accomplished his tasks with the assistance of local Tamil and Sanskrit ideas about both cosmology and the presumed ethnography of the local territory. Like the Rabelaisian laughter of the marketplace, these actions came from no one in particular. Although they were aimed by individuals at particular audiences, taken together they constituted a construction independent of the specific contributions of these individuals. The actions, in turn, were immediately used and changed by their audiences to carry yet a further elaboration into the next interaction.