THE year appears set to end on a rather sombre note for the small yet influential Chettiar community in Penang.
Over the last few months, the community has come under attack from DAP leaders and some Indian NGOs over the Thaipusam chariot procession which it has been organising for 162 years.
The attacks against them have intensified in the last 10 days after The Star carried a statement from the Chettiars on the chariot procession.
Chettiars, who are also Tamils, take great pride in their identity. Only members of the caste can go up the chariot during processions.
There is gloom among the four trustees of the Nattukotai Chettiars who manage the temple in Jalan Kebun Bunga.
Although records show that the Chettiars have been operating the silver chariot for 126 years, unofficial records reveal that they actually started with a wooden chariot 36 years earlier.
And now, their silver chariot has a “competitor” – in the form of a golden chariot which would be operated by the Penang Hindu Endowment Board, a statutory body under the purview of the Penang government, for the coming Thaipusam festival on Feb 9.
The Chettiars have a grouse in that the golden chariot will depart the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple in Queen Street 90 minutes before the silver chariot leaves the Chettiar’s Kovil Veedu building in Penang Street, located a stone’s throw away, at 6.30am.
Both chariots will use the same route all the way to the Sri Balathandayuthapani Hilltop Temple and the Nattukotai Chettiar Temple in Jalan Kebun Bunga.
Nattukotai Chettiar Temple trustee Dr A. Narayanan said the arrangement will cause chaos and confusion among devotees, besides traffic problems.
Managing trustee M. Reganathan dismissed the notion that there is no issue about two chariots hitting the road together.
“This is a religious event ... it is not about the release of a new movie or a Sunday parade,’’ he countered.
The “chariot war” has spilled into Whatsapp chat groups, news portals and social media, with supporters of both sides levelling charges against each other.
Board chairman Dr P. Ramasamy, who is Deputy Chief Minister II, is being targeted by some MIC leaders who have thrown their lot behind the Chettiars.
The DCM’s side is fighting back, accusing the Chettiars of not using funds collected during Thaipusam to aid the Indian community.
The attacks have become so vociferous that the golden chariot is being referred to as the “DAP chariot” and the other as the “BN chariot”.
The Hindus are divided as to which chariot they should follow during Thaipusam.
The festival is a major event with over 150,000 devotees coming to Penang island from all over the country.
The trustees are thus far distancing themselves from the raging controversy, saying they have never asked for support from the MIC or any other party.
Dr Narayanan said in India, golden chariots were used only within the precincts of the temple and not out on the streets.
A Tamil daily recently slammed Dr Ramasamy, accusing him of breaking the tradition of the silver chariot and interfering in religious matters.
“His action has caused a split among the Hindus and the Chettiars,” the daily charged, stating that the RM3mil spent on the golden chariot should have instead been used for the Indian community’s needs.
In response to the report, a message has been circulated on WhatsApp calling for a protest against the daily in Butterworth tomorrow.
Hitting back, Dr Ramasamy claims that the Chettiars collected “billions of ringgit” during Thaipusam from the early years, with much of the funds sent back to their ancestral homeland in Karaikudi, Tamil Nadu.
“The board is the rightful organiser of Thaipusam,’’ he says in an interview. “We introduced the golden chariot to address the long-standing grievance of Hindus who don’t want Chettiars to monopolise the procession.”
The fiery DAP leader said Tamils from the working class had organised the chariot procession before it was taken over by Chettiars.
He said when he took over as board chairman in 2010, there was only about RM3,000 in its account.
“These MIC leaders should ask their leaders why they didn’t do anything all these years as they have been helming the board for about 60 years,” he said, pointing out that the RM3mil spent on the chariot came from the board.
Dr Narayanan said it was a “total lie” that funds were being repatriated to their ancestral homeland.
“The temple has been giving out donations to the community all these years but our elders did not keep any record. We have started doing it now,” he said.
He said the split between the Chettiars and board began in June 2015 when the board wanted them to donate some money for its education fund.
“We offered them RM20,000 and promised to donate the same amount every year. But they didn’t want it and called it beggar’s money,” he said.
Indian NGO leaders in Penang are maintaining a stoic silence on the chariot controversy, but their displeasure over the introduction of a second chariot is known to many.
According to one NGO leader, they do not want to state their views openly as they feared a backlash from Dr Ramasamy.
“We have to approach him for funds since he handles Indian organisations. It is best not to be on his wrong side,” he said.
Malaysia Hindu Sangam president Datuk R. S. Mohan Shan, however, expressed disappointment that both parties did not discuss the matter with the association which is the primary body for Hindus in the country.
The chariot controversy has divided the community and spilled into politics.
The Chettiars are taking it lying down since they do not have much clout with the state government.
Come Feb 8, it would be interesting to see how the devotees react to the double chariot processions.