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New Parliament inauguration: 75 years later, a tryst with Sengol again

Crafted in 1947, historic sceptre to take pride of place in new Parliament building

New Parliament Building

Archis Mohan New Delhi

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On Sunday, at the inauguration of the new Parliament, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi will receive a Sengol, a golden sceptre, from Tamil priests — a ceremony dating back to the Chola Empire and signifying the transfer of power from one king to another.

The government hopes the inauguration will represent Indian traditions, set a historical precedent, and reprise a similar ceremony 75 years ago when India’s first PM, Jawaharlal Nehru, accepted the same Sengol hours before his famous ‘tryst with destiny’ speech on the midnight of August 15, 1947, which represented the transfer of power from the British to self-rule by Indians.

Detailing the significance of Sunday’s ceremony, on Wednesday, Union Home Minister Amit Shah said C Rajagopalachari suggested to Nehru the Chola ritual involving the Sengol to signify the transfer of power from Viceroy Lord Mountbatten.

Shah said Nehru accepted the Sengol in the presence of Rajendra Prasad, later to be India’s first President, and others, an event recorded by newspapers, including Time magazine, but forgotten later. The Sengol lay at Prayagraj’s Allahabad Museum for the last seven decades.

Shah said the purpose of the installation was clear then and is evident even now.

A power transfer is not merely a handshake or signing of a document but must be a bridge between tradition and modernity, the home minister said. He said the new Parliament building proves the PM’s far-sightedness and is a glorious attempt to link New India with its civilisational heritage and tradition. A symbol of righteous rule, the Sengol will be installed near the Speaker’s chair, he said.

Sengol is rooted in the Tamil word ‘Semmai’, meaning righteousness. The historical staff was made of silver, coated with gold, and crowned with the sacred Nandi, with its unyielding gaze. The Nandi on top of the Sengol symbolises ‘nyaya’, or justice.

“Sengol represents the same feeling that Nehru felt on August 14, 1947,” said Shah. At the inauguration, the PM will also honour the 60,000 workers who worked on constructing the new structure.
History of ‘sengol’
  • Jawaharlal Nehru received a ‘Sengol’, the Tamil word for sceptre, on August 14, 1947, hours before his ‘tryst with destiny’ speech
  • This symbolised the transfer of power from the British to India
  • It was a Chola practice for spiritual leaders to sanctify the transfer of power by handing over the Sengol to new king
  • PM Modi will receive the Sengol, which has been at Allahabad Museum for over seven decades, at Sunday’s ceremony
  • It will be installed near the Speaker’s chair
When Mountbatten asked Nehru about the ceremony to symbolise the transfer of power, he turned to Rajaji, who, in turn, approached the Dharmic Mutt in the Tanjore district of Tamil Nadu — the Thiruvavaduthurai Aatheenam, a Shaivite sect.

The Thiruvavaduthurai Aatheenam is over 500 years old and has 50 branch monasteries across Tamil Nadu. The leader of the Aatheenam commissioned jeweller Vummidi Bangaru Chetty in Chennai to craft the Sengol (5 feet in length). Shah said that Vummidi Ethirajulu, 96, and Vummidi Sudhakar, 88, two craftsmen involved in crafting the original Sengol, would be attending Sunday’s ceremony.

At the time of the transfer of power on August 14, 1947, three men were specially flown in from Tamil Nadu: the Deputy High Priest of the Aatheenam, Nadaswaram player Rajarathinam Pillai, and the ‘Oduvar’ (singer), who came carrying the Sengol and conducted the proceedings. The priest gave the Sengol to Lord Mountbatten and took it back. The Sengol was purified with water from the Ganges and taken in a procession to Nehru’s house, where the priests handed it over to him. When the PM learned about this little-known episode of history, he ordered research and decided it should be installed in Parliament, said Shah.

In Chola rule, the handing over of the sceptre was accompanied by the rendering of a special song composed by 7th century Tamil saint Thirugnana Sambandar. A child prodigy who lived only till 16, Sambandar composed the song ‘Kolaru Pathigam’, to propitiate the malevolence of stars and planets. ‘Pathigam’ means a poem in praise of a deity. The song concludes with the words ‘Adiyaarkal vaanil arasaalvar aanai namadhe’, meaning ‘The followers (referring to the king) will rule as in the heavens, as per our order’.

To a question that alluded to much of the Opposition deciding to boycott the inauguration, objecting to the PM instead of President Droupadi Murmu inaugurating it, Shah said all political parties have been invited to the inauguration, and they will take a “call as per their wisdom”.

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First Published: May 24 2023 | 11:33 PM IST

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