Ninety kilometres south-west of Chennai, in the Kanchipuram district of Tamil Nadu, is the small temple town of Uthiramerur. It is dusty, noisy and congested here. On what was once farmland stand several educational institutions. On what is left, farmers grow sugarcane and rice. A handful of small steel and cement factories can also be seen here, There is nothing noteworthy at Uthiramerur except for three famous temples: the Sundara Varadaraja Perumal Temple dedicated to Vishnu, Subramanya Temple (Murugan) and Kailasanatha Temple (Siva). About half a kilometre away is another temple called Vaikunta Perumal Koil. There are no idols here. The sanctum sanctorum is a rectangular assembly hall (mandapa) of over 2,500 square feet. The roof stands on the four stone walls and is not supported by any pillar in between. On top of the assembly hall is the vimana, the traditional turret of temples in this region. On the walls of the assembly hall are inscriptions, in Granth and Tamil Brahmi scripts, on elections: how to hold elections to village assemblies, constitution of committees, removal of errant office bearers et cetera.
The inscriptions date back to the year 920 when Parantaka Chola ruled over vast territories of South India. Historical records describe him as a great militarist who overran the Pandya kingdom and captured its capital, Madurai. His kingdom was spread from the southernmost tip of the subcontinent to Nellore in the north. He also took great interest in the administration of his dominions, and was a reformist of sorts. People of Uthiramerur say he was advised by his ministers to set up assemblies in villages and hand over local administration to them. He agreed. The rules were inscribed in the walls of the assembly hall here. In the 11th century, Kolatunga Chola built the turret on top, so it became an assembly-hall-cum-temple. The temple was built perhaps to give religious sanction to the institution of elected village assemblies. Vaikunta Perumal Koil has been declared a heritage site and is looked after by the Archeological Survey of India.
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“On the walls of the hall are inscribed a variety of secular transactions of the village, dealing with administrative, judicial, commercial, agricultural, transportation and irrigation regulations, as administered by the then village assembly, giving a vivid picture of the efficient administration of the village society in the bygone ages,” says the ASI representative at Vaikunta Perumal Koil. According to the inscriptions, a mud pot (kudam) would be placed at an important location of the village which served as the ballot box. The voters would write the name of their desired candidate on palm leaf (Panai Olai) and drop it in the pot. Once done, the leaves would be taken out and counted — whoever got the highest number of votes became a member of village assembly. Ganesan of AIADMK, who represents Uthiramerur in the Tamil Nadu assembly, is well versed with the inscriptions. According to him, the entire village had to be present when elections were held. Only the sick and those who had gone on a pilgrimage were exempt.
According to the inscriptions, each village was divided into families, and each family could send one representative to the assembly. Specific qualifications were prescribed for those who wanted to contest: age, possession of immovable property and education. Thus, those who wanted to be elected had to be above 35 years of age and below 70. Only those who owned land that attracted tax could contest. And such owners had to own a house built on a legally-owned site to qualify for the elections. A person serving in any of the committees could not contest again for the next three terms, each term lasting a year.
The villagers even had the right to recall the elected representatives if they failed in their duty. Elected members who suffered disqualification were those who accepted bribes, misappropriated others’ property, committed incest or acted against public interest. If a member was found guilty of corruption, his next seven generations were barred from contesting elections. The inscriptions disclose how punishment and penalties on wrong doers were administered. Those who were fined for wrong deeds were called Dhushtargal (criminals). The fines were imposed by the village assembly and were to be collected within the same year. Any delay in payment of penalties would attract further penalties. Members of village assembly could not escape fines or punishment by using their powers.
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The institution of village assemblies may have crumbled with the end of the Chola kingdom in the 13th century, but the pull of the “temple of democracy” has only got stronger in modern times. T Venkataesan, a resident of Uthiramerur, says candidates from all political parties visit this temple during election time to seek blessings; so much so, Vaikunta Perumal Koil is referred to as “Election Perumal” or the god for elections. Kamala Kannan, a DMK follower and a resident of the town, points out that whichever party wins here in the elections to the state legislative assembly comes to power in Chennai. Till 1967, when K Kamaraj headed the Congress government in Tamil Nadu, Uthiramerur returned a Congress candidate. In that year, Uthiramerur elected a KM Rajagopal of DMK and CN Anna Durai came to power at the head of a DMK government. Since then, in the highly volatile electoral fortunes of the state, Uthiramerur has never sent an MLA for the Opposition benches. By watching the result here, you can tell who will rule over Tamil Nadu for the next five years.
Locals say that when late Rajiv Gandhi, the former prime minister of the country, came here while on a tour of Tamil Nadu with his wife, Sonia Gandhi, he visited this ancient temple and enquired about its history and association with electoral democracy. S Seshadri, another resident of the town who knows a little bit of English, was allowed inside to explain. To his surprise, recalls Seshadri, Sonia Gandhi interrupted and explained to her husband the significance of this place for about 10 minutes. Rajiv Gandhi, Seshadri and others insist, was inspired to strengthen the institution of Panchayati Raj only after his visit to this historical place.