Prayers are being offered to the elephant-headed god who removes obstacles on the occasion of Vinayaka Chaturthi. But way back in history, a Ganesa shrine threatened to disrupt the peace.

The Varasiddhi Vinayakar Temple, probably the Chintadri Pillary shrine
The Varasiddhi Vinayakar Temple, probably the Chintadri Pillary shrine

The temple, to “Chindadry Pillary (Ganesa, the Belly God)” and located on Devaraja Mudali Street as per records, became the bone of contention between the Left and Right Hand communities, vertical divisions across the caste hierarchy. Both had members of several castes of today, barring the Brahmins who were considered neutral.

There had been tensions between the groups ever since the city was founded and in 1708, matters came to such a head that the then Governor, Thomas Pitt had, in one of the earliest instances of divide and rule, partitioned Black Town. Muthialpet was to be occupied by those of the left while Peddunaickenpet was given over to the right hand. But on 12th October 1716, the Left Hands complained to Governor Harrison that the Right Hands had performed some ceremonies before an image that they had no right to do. This was the Chindadry Pillary icon and the ceremony referred to was the loud recital of a prayer in Sanskrit, referred to in English records as the Pennagundoo Naggarum.

The dispute was referred to a committee of 20 Brahmins. While they took their time, tensions escalated with Harrison reporting on 20th December that the Left Hands had launched what would today be called an indefinite bandh – the closure of shops. the situation was compounded with a “young lad of the Left Hand Caste having done hurt to a woman of the Right Hand caste (big with child)”. A full-scale riot ensued with “cooks, water-bearers, coolies, palankeen boys, roundel men and other useful servants” arming “themselves with pikes, daggers, and long staves” and “creating an uproar.” The entire weaving community, on which the Company depended for its economy, fled the town and took shelter within Portugese San Thome.

Matters were still unsettled when Harrison left Madras on 8th January 1717. Governor Collet, a man of sterner mettle, succeeded him. On 7th February, Collet issued his diktat. Neither caste had any right to recite prayers before shrines of the other caste he decreed. The Chindadry Pillary went to the Right Hands as per this award with a further warning that if it was the cause of any further disturbance, the idol would be shifted into the Great Gentoo Pagoda (the Chenna Kesava Perumal temple).

Rather ironically, the Gentoo Pagoda shifted to near the Pillary temple. In the 1760s, it’s being where the High Court now becoming a security risk, it was reconstructed at Devaraja Mudali Street, facing the Chindadry Pillary shrine. Over time, this double shrine to Vishnu and Shiva overshadowed the Chindadry Pillary temple. It was known by its old name when HD Love wrote his Vestiges of Old Madras in 1913. There is still a Ganesha shrine there, but the deity is referred to as Varasiddhi Vinayakar. What happened to Chindadry Pillary who fomented riots?

This article appeared in The Hindu under the Hidden Histories Column on 9th September 2013

Happy Ganesh Chaturthi everyone!