Thursday, March 14, 2019

Thiru Neelakudi Neelakanteswarar

Appar Praised the Lord as one who relieves the pains of the sincere devotee
Markandeya initiated a Seven Village Procession in Chitrai in a thanking gesture to the Lord for extending his life
The Thiru Neelakendaswarar temple in Thiru Neelakudi, an ancient Thevaram Sthalam, 10kms from Kumbakonam, praised by Thirunavukarasar and Thiru Gnana Sambanthar is in a state of flux. Last week, Thiruvaduthurai Atheenam that manages the temple asked the Gurukal who had served there for well over two decades to take a one month break for failing in his duty on the Maha Sivarathri night and the day after. The Gurukal’s father had performed pooja at this temple for 3 decades before his untimely death.  Currently, the temple is without a Gurukal with the Mei Kavalar managing the darshan requirements of the devotees. It is hoped that the temple administration will take the necessary steps to help the Gurukal come out of the addiction.

Legend has it that when Brahmma lost his powers after he set his eyes on Urvasi, he was directed to undertake penance here at Thiru Neelakudi. It was here that he invoked the blessings of the Lord by installing a Shiva Lingam and performing pooja. In memory of this episode, there is a mukthi mandapam inside the temple with a Lingam.
Markendaya performed pooja here invoking the blessings of the Lord to extend his life time. It was after performing pooja here that Markendaya went to Sri Vanchiyam. In a thanking gesture, it is believed that Markendaya himself organised the Sapsthana procession of the Lord from Thiru Neelakudi in Chitrai. This Utsavam is still celebrated in a grand way during the Chitrai Brahmotsavam when the Lord goes on a Kannadi Pallaku to seven villages starting with Elanthurai, Ayyavadi (Enathi Mangalam), Thiru Nageswaram, Thirubhuvanam, Thiruvidaimaruthur and Maruthuvakudi.

Sacred cow Kamadhenu created a tank and bathed here, and performed pooja to cleanse herself from the curse of Sage Vashista.

The Lord is referred to by different names including Manogyanathar, Neelakandeswarar, Kamadenu Pureeswarar, Vilvaaranyeswarar and Brahmmapureeswarar.

There are two Ambal Sannidhis next to each other – Bhakthaapeesta Prathaayini (Azhagaambigai) and Anoopa Masthani (Thava Kola Ammai- Yogic Posture).
A unique feature at this temple is that the stem from the sthala vriksham Vilva Tree comprises of five petals as against the usual three leaves referred to as ‘Pancha Vilvam’.

When Lord Shiva absorbed the poison in the Devas – Asuras battle for securing the nectar from Thiruparkadal, it was ambal who applied a sacred oil on the Lord’s head to stop the poison at his neck (Neela Kanda) and prevent it from consuming his body. To this day, one finds that when oil abhishekam takes place at this temple, one finds the Lord fully absorbing the oil in his body thus cooling himself from the heat of the poison, a special feature at this temple. Hence the Lord is also referred to as ‘Thaila Abhisheka Priyar’.

Praising the Lord of Thiru Neelakudi, Appar says that if one offers his sincere prayers and invokes the blessings of the Lord, one’s difficulties will vanish like a small floating stone in an ocean.    
Festivals
Brahmotsavam in Chitrai including procession to 7 villages in Kannadi Pallakku

The temple is open from 730am -12noon and 5pm-8pm. Contact Kalimuthu Mei Kavalar @ 96269 97271.
How to reach
By Train, one can get down at Aduthurai Railway Station (between Mayiladuthurai and Kumbakonam) and take an auto ( Rs. 50) to Thiru Neelakudi ( 3 kms from Aduthurai)

One can also reach the temple by taking the Karaikal bound bus from Kumbakonam (10 kms).

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Konerirajapuram Thiru Nallam

Lakshmi Maami – 7 Decades driven by Selfless Service in this ancient temple town
Teaching Bhajans to Residents at home, Sacred Verses to the Next Gen at the temple, initiating the young ones into the 'Right Way to Live' model with her KG school and Sumptuous Full Meals to all visitors

Confident that the old vibrancy in the agraharam will return
70 year old Lakshmi Maami has spent her entire life in this ancient Thiru Gnana Sambandhar and Thirunavukarasar praised temple town of Thiru Nallam, now Koneri Raja Puram and belongs to that last set of the ‘old generation’ who lived life in a completely different way, the 'old fashion' way if one may call that. 

It is the Amavasai day in Maasi and it has been her tradition to feed a Brahmin on this auspicious day. The young assistant priest of the Varadaraja Perumal Temple is hosted to a sumptuous meal at noon. This is not a one off event. This has been her way of life for the last six decades, offering selfless service to the residents of Thiru Nallam to whom her door is always open.

As a young school going kid in the 1950s, she would be woken up by her grandmother at 4am every morning of margazhi and bathed in chill water. Soon after lighting the lamp at home, she was directed to the Uma Maheswaran temple South of her agraharam house with her entire body shivering in almost unbearable cold to present Thiruppavai and Thiruvempavai. It was an early morning lesson that she has not forgotten all her life.

Sacrificed a career opportunity for family
Lakshmi Maami was one of the very few girls from that generation in this town who studied through till SSLC. She would walk through a muddy path and cross a small river to reach her school in Vadamattam, 3 kms South West of Thiru Nallam. She had a medical nurse course and teacher’s training course coming her way after her success in SSLC. She was also interested in music and dance. However, with her elder sister married off early and with a ‘mute’ mother, Lakshmi Maami took it upon her to take care of her sister and the early childhood of her (sister's) children and thus did not pursue her education or the musical/ dance path.

Supporting her sister and her mother also led to a rather delayed marriage. Compared to her elder sister, who was married off before she had turned 15, Lakshmi Maami married at 21 ( very late for girls from the Thiru Nallam Agraharam), to a man, 17 years older!!! As was the norm in those days, she nodded to the voice of the father and to the elders in the agraharam.

Harikatha, Bhajans and Thiruvachakam
Her father in law KN Devaraja Bhagavathar (popularly referred to as Aiyan Kutty) was a renowned Harikatha exponent of Thiru Nallam.and presented legendary tales, alongside Thiruvayaru Annanswamy Bhagavathar and Embar Vijayaraghavachariar, to large audiences during festive occasions at Travancore,  Thiruvaduthurai and Senkalipuram, among many other sacred locations.  His was the most sought after Harikatha during the 10 days of the Brahmotsavam at Thiru Nallam. 
As contrasted with his father, Narayanaswamy, Lakshmi Maami's husband followed the Bhajans path to devotion and presented in temples including during the Rama Navami Utsavam at the Varadaraja Perumal Temple in Koneri Raja Puram. Unfortunately, here too, she was pushed to the side as her husband did not approve of her to sit in his Bhajan class. 

From the corner of the kitchern, Lakshmi gave an ear and grasped a lot of insights from her husband’s bhajan classes that he took at his agraharam home, a learning that she is currently passing on into the residents of Thiru Nallam through her classes on sampradaya bhajans.  Each day of Margazhi, she joins her students in the early morning Bhajans around the streets of Thiru Nallam. To encourage them into participation, she rewards the regular attendees with prizes at the end of Margazhi. 
Also, a bright kid that she was at school and having missed out on higher education, Lakshmi took it upon her to run a ‘KG’ school from her home teaching the young kids the basics of life, thus laying a strong foundation. They would help render simple services such as cleaning the back yard and drawing kolam in the morning. For a dozen years, she ran this school before letting it pass to another school. 

As has been the case all her life, she took this as well in her life and moved on into the next phase of her knowledge initiation. Remembering the learning from her childhood days of the verses of the Saint Poets, Lakshmi Maami has over the last 15 years been initiating the teachings of the  Saint Poets into the minds of the young kids of Thiru Nallam, 30 of them are currently learning the sacred verses from her at the Uma Maheswarar temple.  

A Vibrant Agraharam
She remembers the vibrant agraharam that this once was in her childhood in the 1950s. 220 traditional families, mostly followers of Saama Vedas, lived in the 5 streets of Thiru Nallam. They dedicated their lives in the service of Lord Uma Maheswarar. Festivals were grand at that time with the Vaikasi Brahmotsavam being the grandest. The Silver Rishabha Vahanam attracted the largest crowd. The Lord was always led by devotional Vedic Chants during these processions. Several thousands of devotees and Bhagavathas from all the surrounding villages too came in to participate in the Brahmotsavam festivities. It was a unified festival with the villagers coming together to ensure that the entire festival is managed smoothly.  
Full Time Archakas and Paricharakas
There were two full time archakas and two paricharakas, who were all given independent houses in the agraharam to reside. The father of Sivanesan Sivachariar (now in Mayiladuthurai) served in the temple for several decades. Six kaalam pooja took place till late in the 2nd half of the previous century. The archakas who had large families were given paddy from the yield. The salary was less but they rarely complained for they lived a simple life and within their means. The trustees of the temple and the residents of Thiru Nallam helped the archakas lead a reasonable life by ensuring that their families were taken care of, both financially and otherwise.

Missing Jewelry and a bold statement
The temple managed by the trustees in those decades found a way to run these festivals in a grand way with beautiful flower decorations and the Lord decked with ancient Jewels for each of the Vahana processions. Prasadam like Pongal  and Sundal too were made in large quantities in those decades.

The Jewels, comprising of over 3 kgs of gold, which Lakshmi Maami has been a witness in many a street procession of the Lord in the 1950s and 60s are now missing from the temple. She has turned a witness in the court about the sudden disappearance of the jewelry from the temple cabinet.  

Subsequent to the HR & CE taking over the temple in the 1980s, the prasadam quantity has dropped drastically to a very minimal level now. There is just a single priest for the entire temple and a 'Mei Kaavalar' manages the temple and darshan a lot of the time.

A selfless service driven life
Lakshmi Maami has lived a very simple life right from her school days. Ever ready to feed a hungry soul and always at the forefront to teach the right way of life to the young kids, Lakshmi has been a sweet spot in the agraharam of Koneri Raja Puram over the last six decades. 

During the Rama Navami Utsavam at the Varadaraja Perumal Koil, she feeds close to 50 devotees morning and evening each day of the utsavam. She also takes it upon her to feed all the visiting devotees during the big utsavams of Thiru Nallam ( there are no restaurants anywhere close to Thiru Nallam).

For those with ill health, she does pooja invoking the blessings of  Lord Vaidhya Nathar at the North East end of the temple. Devotees in scores have come back to inform her about the recovery of the sick, another endorsement that presenting prayers with pure devotion will reach the Lord's ears.

The selfless person that she has been all her life found support from the Periyava of Kanchi Mutt who directed her to accompany the huge contingent of devotees making it to Kashmir for the annual Sankara Jayanthi celebrations to ensure that everything is undertaken the traditional way during the trip.
The Tambura of her father in law used for his renowned Harikatha presentations is still a much cherished possession in her house though many of the other musical instruments of his has moved away from her grasp.  

The vibrant agraharam is now down to just around 30 families, comprising almost entirely of senior citizens. However, the real good news is that many of the young kids who had a strong foundation in her school have now graduated and are now in well paying jobs around the world including in the IT industry in the US. Credit to her devotional way of life and her teachings, these students now in their 20s and 30s have not forgotten their learning from their childhood days and constantly call her thanking her for her early initiation . They also enquire about her financial needs promising to support her in every way. 

They are keen to buy back their ancestral property which their forefathers had sold in the 60s and 70s, when financial insecurity loomed large and rent from the leased lands suddenly found difficult to come by.  She is hoping that not so far into the distant future the agraharam will come to be vibrant once again like it was in the 1950s and that the Brahmotsavam that was revived a couple of years ago after a 40 year break will be restored to its glory days again.

A first sign was seen on Monday night when several thousands stayed through the night to witness the four kaalam abhishekam on Maha Sivarathri, the biggest crowd for many decades. It was a night when Lakshmi Maami did not sleep for well over 30 hours, for she was presenting the story of Sivarathri, batch after batch, to the devotees who congregated at the temple from all the villages in the region. A fighter that she has been all her life, she also ensured that the temple remained open till the final set of devotees had darshan on Tuesday morning.

It  is unlikely we will see one like Lakshmi Maami again.

Koneri Raja Puram is about 15 kms East of Kumbakonam off the Karaikkal Highway.

A story on the temple follows....

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Srirangam Temple Maniyakaarar Sridhar

'Maniyakaarar' has his task cut out in these challenging times facing the wrath of some unhappy side every day

Starting his Temple Service at the age of 13, Sripatham Sridhar now dons the role of Temple Maniyakaarar in charge of the timely conduct of the Utsavams and the daily activities at the Ranganathaswamy Temple

If True Service to Lord is placed above everything else, any issue can be resolved amicably but Service to Lord is the ultimate duty has often been forgotten - Maniyakaarar Sridhar
Managing Utsavams and keeping up time, amidst strong conflicting views is one of the most challenging tasks at the Ranganathaswamy temple in Srirangam. Utsavam days involve a cycle that is onerous for each of the service personnel. With devotee crowd increasing manifold in recent years, one of the major issues that the authorities have had to deal with has been the decision on closing the door at the Ariya Bhattaal Vaasal and consequently the darshan of the Moolavar Lord Ranganatha to enable the Utsava deity Namperumal to be decorated for the day’s procession. In recent years, it has been a struggle to manage tens of thousands of devotees who have lined up for a darshan of the Moolavar Lord.

The cooks at the Madapalli have their task cut out for they have to be on their toes for presentation at short notice of Thaligai for the Lord at different points of the day. The personnel, who have to mount the Lord on the Vahana of the day, the carriers of the Lord, the flower maker, the torch bearer and several others have all to be informed on their respective schedule for the day.

A Challenging Role
It is the Maniyakaarar, whose role it is to manage all of these personnel and to get them to render their service at the appropriate time so the Lord departs at the scheduled time. In decades gone by, especially till the 1990s, with broadly only the local residents taking part in the utsavams, the task of the Maniyakaarar was lot more straight forward. However, in recent decades, more so in the last 5 years or so, it has dramatically changed with the devotee crowd swelling much beyond anyone’s imagination, leaving even the locals stumped. He has to now carry different sets of people along to ensure the smooth conduct of the activities at the temple.

Historically, Srirangam has been renowned for the prompt conduct of the utsavams in terms of the departure of the Lord for purapadu and his return.  Given the long queues -  in December 2018 during the Era Pathu utsavam the queue extended to the West Uthira Veethi- the role of the time keeper has assumed added significance.  Between the various aspects in a temple – Devotees’ Darshan, Thaligai for the Lord at the traditional pre fixed time, the start of the purapadu, the return of the Lord to his abode at the scheduled time, it is the Maniam who has to manage the schedule and the time. Almost every day of the utsavam, it is likely that he incurs the wrath of some side that feels undone by.

Joins as Sripatham, Takes up the role of Maniam
In this most challenging phase in the history of the Srirangam temple, R Sridhar has donned this important and often controversial role of the Maniyakaarar at the Ranganathaswamy temple in Srirangam. When he was assigned this task about 5 years ago, it was also the first time in many years that the temple moved away from outsourcing this service to an external person to keeping it within the ‘department’. For well over a decade, the outsourced Maniyakaarar Chellamani was the most prominent face at the Srirangam temple for he was at the forefront of every activity. It was a significant move at that time for over the decades the auctioning of the Maniyakaarar’s appointment had almost topped Rs. 50 Lakhs and that was seen as yet another important source of revenue for the temple.
125 years of Service at the Temple
A long time resident of Keezha Chitrai Veethi, Sridhar, who will be touching 60 next year, has been performing service at the Srirangam temple right from his school days.  His grandfather Thirumalai Iyengar performed service here in the 2nd half of the 19th century well over 100 years ago, while his father ST Rangachariar remained attached to the Udayavar Sannidhi till the age of 97, having performed aradhanam and other services for over seven decades.
                          ST Rangachariar
Sridhar’s uncle Sadagopachariar, besides being a Sanskrit scholar, was a Harikatha exponent and presented kalakshepam including on Saivism.  Once in Kanchipuram, he presented the story of Kannappa Nayanar that even received endorsement from Annankarachariyar. He also presented a through the night kalakshepam at the Vanamamalai Mutt. Rangachariar, who accompanied Sadagopachariar on these trips, found this to be a great inspiration and it were these that helped him acquire knowledge of the granthas and scriptures.

Begins Service at 13
Rangachariar was one of the six heads of Nalayira Divya Prabhandham Adyapaka Ghosti, referred to in those days as ‘Saadhu Sri Vaishnavas’. He was an integral part of the Prabhandham Ghosti for several decades at the temple. He was also one of the trust members of the Ramanuja Sannidhi. By the time he was 13, Sridhar had begun his service at the temple. Even as a young boy, he would carry the Theertha Kudam each day and support the madapalli including sweeping the sannidhis but his greatest satisfaction came from the Sripatham service, of carrying the Lord and Azhvaar on his shoulder. 

It was in that early phase that his father stressed the importance of gaining knowledge by simply watching others perform. Thus, a young Sridhar would just stand by the Lord and watch the presentation of Seva Kalam while at the same time watching the postures of the Sripatham personnel. By the time, he graduated he had gained fair knowledge of the everyday processes at the temple as well as during utsavam times.
In those days, the service personnel were presented rice every day for their service. Finance was tight and a challenge all through Sridhar’s childhood but his father managed the expenses well by inculcating the habit of living within their means.

Sridhar also performed service at the Muthal Azhvaar Sannidhi. The then trustee Singam Iyengar would pay him a princely Rs. 40 per day for his service in those days.  Having graduated in commerce, Sridhar also managed the accounts of the provisions store of Singam Iyengar for which he was paid an additional Rs. 400 per month.  For a decade, in the 1990s, Sridhar worked at Dalmia Cements in different roles. But that was not something he enjoyed much, for his mind was set on returning to the temple to continue his full time service to the Lord.

Apppointed as Sri Patham 
At the turn of the century, the then Maniyakaarar Chellamani, one of the most popular time keepers that the temple has seen, spotted his administrative talent and asked him to work with him as his assistant.  In 2003, at the age of 43, he was given the official posting of Sripatham. A decade and a half later, he dons multiple hats at the temple – while continuing to hold the post of a Sripatham, in recent years he has held the additional post of full time Maniam at the temple after the temple decided to do away with the outsourcing of the role. He also continues to serve at the Nam Azhvaar Sannidhi. He has also held the administrative post at the Jeer Mutt in a temporary engagement till the appointment of the new Jeer.
Sridhar understands his role and the challenges fully well. Not a day passes without a conflicting view on how the sequence and schedule of events should unfold. Sridhar has always had a strong and confident view on the administrative aspects. Despite all the historical disputes, he says that the service personnel came together in unity especially in festival times. While there were disputes in those times as well when I was a young boy, those were sorted out amicably. What we are witnessing today is beyond measure. There is a general lack of understanding of the processes and issues. Without an in-depth Knowledge of the processes and the challenges that one faces everyday, people raise issues leading to an ego battle.

He bemoans the fact that a lot of the personnel have forgotten the service mindset that they were originally at the temple for “A lot of patience is required to handle such huge crowds and to balance the day between ‘Devotee Darshan’ and ‘Utsavam Schedule’. However, instinctive reaction is the order of the day and that has led to many conflicts. Because of a lack of mutual understanding between different conflicting sides, issues, that could easily be sorted out amicably, look bigger than they actually are. If true service to Lord is placed above everything else, each of these issues can be resolved but Service to Lord is the ultimate duty has often been forgotten.”

Sridhar has had a richly fulfilling life of serving the Lord each day of the year. Every day he incurs the wrath of one side on issues that has not worked favourably for that side. For long, he has also been seen as the ‘department’s man’ carrying out the directions of the HR & CE. But he is largely unmindful of that for his mind is set on performing his duty of service to Lord. He is grateful that he has been blessed with a service mind from a young age and that has superseded everything else.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Thiru Meiyam Divya Desam

Original Inhabitants left the Vibrant Agraharam in the 1970s in search of Corporate Jobs
Brahmotsavam came to a halt for a couple of decades before its revival last decade 
While many of the Divya Desams in the Chozha and Pandya regions have seen a revival in the last two decades, the rock cut cave temple of Sathya Murthy Perumal in Thiru Meiyam (Thiru Mayam) has remained largely ignored with most of the devotees giving the temple a miss in recent times. Locationally, it has remained a Divya Desam away from a cluster making it challenging for the devotees. The priests too went away from the temple in the 2nd half of the 20th century seeking greener pastures leaving the temple in the dark.

Referred to as Sathiya Giri and Sathiya Kshetram, Thiru Meiyam Divya Desam is surrounded by a huge fort. The rock cut cave temple temple dates back to the 7th Century AD. On the wall just above the deity one finds images of Brahmma and several Devas. Adiseshan is believed to be protecting this place. The story goes that when the Asuras tried to kidnap the Lord, Adiseshan let open poisonous air to kill the asuras. As a reference to this incident, one can see Adiseshan being depicted in the same form here at this temple- letting out poisonous air- a unique feature at this Divya Desam.
It is 8am on a weekday morning. The temple has just opened. The priest, without a tuft, has just finished the vishroopam aradhanam. There are just a couple of devotees for the morning sevai. The sannidhis of the Lord in the sleeping posture and the one next to him of Sathya Murthy Perumal in a standing posture are soon locked as the priest awaits the next set of devotees. This was typically the scenario in many Divya Desams in the 1970s and 80s. This scenario still prevails at Thiru Meiyam. It is rare to see such a quiet Divya Desam in the times when there is a devotional wave sweeping all temples in Tamil Nadu.

Service for 7 decades
The forefathers of 70 year old Krishnamurthy Bhattar had been performing service at the temple for the last 100 years.  His father Jagannathan Bhattar belonged to Neikunam village just under 10kms from Thiru Meiyam. He entered temple service at the age of 20 in 1934 and performed kainkaryam at the sannidhi and madapalli for almost 70 years before his death about 2 decades ago. His father and three other relatives shared the 30 day kainkaryam equally (7 ½ days each).   
A Vibrant Agaraharam till the late 1960s
During his school days in the 1960s, there were 20 Brahmin families in the agraharam.  The Brahmotsavam in Vaikasi was grand with Vahana procession on each day. Aadi pooram was also a popular festival at the temple. Big crowd gathered at the temple on Vaikunta Ekadasi day from all the nearby villages and the temple would be open from 4am till almost mid night on the occasion. Pagal Pathu Utsavam too was a big festival at this temple. During Margazhi, Thiruppavai was recited every morning. ‘Kattalai’ was there for every utsavam till the 1960s. Historically, on the Chitra Pournami day, Sathiya Moorthy Perumal was taken out on a 40 mile procession to Kadaya Kudi.

Jagannathan Bhattar used to get Rs. 10 a day as thattu kaasu during the week long service every month. His official monthly salary was Rs.40.  Six decades later, Krishnamurthy Bhattar now gets Rs. 1000 as his monthly salary!!! It was the help of his uncle that he was able to complete his school and college education. He had not seen a 100 rupees note throughout his educational phase. There was also no electricity all through his schooling days and the young Krishnamurthy Bhattar studied under the hurricane light. 
Residents leave the town
By the early 1970s, things had worsened at the temple. The traditional residents of the agraharam began leaving the town, one by one after selling their lands in the new political regime. The popular Chariot festival was stopped in 1973. For three decades, festivals were put on the backburner. Krishnamurthy Bhattar’s uncles moved to different locations mostly to work in corporates with Varadaraja Bhattar settling down at Uthamar Koil where he has been performing service for several decades.

Financial insecurity loomed large in the 1970s and Krishnamurthy Bhattar went away from Thiru Meiyam for almost three decades into the corporate world to return only at the start of this century. During this period, the Brahmotsavam had come to a halt. Devotees too dwindled in the 1980s and 90s and the priests went through a tough time. 
The Brahmotsavam is back now as are the donors for the big utsavams. But the devotees are missing and it is generally a quiet time for the priests through the year. Krishnamurthy Bhattar resides in an decades old house and he comes back to the temple to open the sannidhis whenever an outstation devotee visits to complete their count of a Divya Desam.

Thiru Meiyam is located about 20kms from Pudukottai on the Karaikudi/Tirupattur highway. Passenger trains running daily on the Trichy - Rameswaram route stop at Thiru Mayam.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Srirangam Maasi Theppam

West Adayavalanjan’s day out in the year
A 9 hour outing of Lord Namperumal on Friday evening culminates in a once in a year trip through the Adayavalanjan street of Srirangam
                        
The Ranganathaswamy temple in Srirangam sees four major utsavams with Vahana processions in the first four months of the calendar year. The Utsava deity Namperumal goes around the Uthira Veethi during the first two, in Thai and Maasi, while he makes his way around the Chitrai Veethi in Panguni and Chitrai. For the only time in the year, Lord Namperumal provides darshan to devotees on the outer street of West Adayavalanjan, following the Theppam and the morning after on the 9th and 10th days of the Maasi Utsavam.

For the procession on Friday (Feb 15) evening to the Theppam, Sri and Bhoo Devi Thaayar were decked in a special Kondai Alankaram. For over a couple of hours, the Prabhandham Ghosti presented Siriya Thiru Madal and Periya Thiru Madal.
Theppam spurs Trade
As is the case with Theppotsavam, the entire area leading to the tank West of Melur Road saw brisk business, with street side shops that had sprung up ahead of the Theppam.

Majority had made their way back by the time the Lord made his way on to the mandapam in the middle of the tank for Ghosti and Thaligai.

Preparations ahead of the Lord’s return trip
By 9pm, the entire Northern End of West Adayavalanjan lined up with beautiful white pulli kolams with the residents showcasing their drawing skills. It was the one day in the year when Lord Namperumal makes his way through this street. Such street processions are beautifully marketed by the HR & CE these days. They have created a remunerative ‘Ubayam’ model over the last four decades. And thus one found ‘Pandals’ through the Northern side of West Adayavalanjan.

It was just after 10 pm when Lord Namperumal began his return procession from the Theppa Mandapam. The Prabhandham Ghosti, who were waiting for the Lord’s entry into West Adayavalanjan, began the recital of Thiru Mangai Azhvaar’s Thiru Kurunthaandagam as they led the Lord into the street with a slow devotional rendering.  At the tail end of the street, the Lord made his way into the first real large apartments block that had sprung up on North end of West Adayavalanjan, a couple of decades ago.  


The story on North Adayavalanjan was no different. Devotees stayed awake in large numbers to welcome the Lord into their homes. The well lit street was dotted with kolams as the Ghosti continued with their rendering of Thiru Kurunthaandagam. 
The night when Uthira Veethi procession moves into Chitrai Veethi
It was past 11pm when the Lord reached the North Tower of the temple to provide a quick five minute darshan to Ranganayaki Thaayar. The Ghosti now began the recital of Thiru Nedunthaandagam as the Lord made his way back through the Chitrai streets. The evening of the 9th day marks the Lord’s move from the Uthira Veethi procession (after the Thai and Maasi Utsavams) into Chitrai Veethi. The huge crowd that one associates with processions in Srirangam was missing and this made for a peaceful quiet darshan for those few who accompanied the Lord on this late night return trip from the Theppam.
It was past midnight when the Lord made his way into the Renga Renga Gopuram in the South. At around 00.30 hours, the ghosti completed the Satru Murai of Thiru Nedunthaandagam and Lord Namperumal finally went to rest after a long 9 hour outing.

Only a short sleep for the Lord
But this was to be only a short break for the Lord as he was up early in the morning. As compared to what he went through in the second half of the previous century, the 10th day was to be a long day out in the Sun for the Lord. The overall economic development and the marketing exercise that the HR & CE has now come to specialize in has meant that what was once a couple of hours trip to the Aasthana Theppa Mandam on this 10th morning of the Maasi Utsavam is now a tiring 7 hour procession with half a century stopovers.

50 Stopovers and a 7 hour procession in the Sun
As was the case the previous evening at the North end of West Adayavalanjan, the residents of the Southern side had marked the entire street with Kolams and Pandals. The entire street was abuzz ahead of the Lord’s trip. With the 10th day falling on a Saturday, the devotee crowd gathered in large numbers. The number of apartments that have come up in the last decade resulted in the Lord making his into most of these new apartments as part of the ‘ubayam’ exercise. 
Almost close to 50 ubayams (up from just a few a couple of decades ago) on this 10th morning also meant that it was a tiring morning for the short staffed madapalli inside the temple. They had to make (what is now called ‘athika padi’) and bring the prasadam from the temple for each of these halts leaving them furious. Athika Padi Thaligai means that in addition to the daily route of presentation to the Lord inside the temple, the staffers at the madapalli have to make food in large extra quantities and walk to the different Ubayam destinations.

However, this hugely extended trip of the Lord finds few complainants among the other service personnel for it is another day of the year when those accompanying the Lord are ‘gifted’ by the Ubayathaarars. From the residents’ point of view, it is their day out in the year when they see the Lord visiting their homes and thus the happiness is reflected in their gifting for those accompanying the Lord on the day. After well over 7 hours in the hot Sun – it is the period in the year when day was becoming hotter following the winter season - the Lord reached the aasthana mandapam near the Theppam for the Thirumanjanam.
At 730pm, Lord Namperumal left on the Bandha Kaatchi procession, the last of the Maasi Utsavam,  led by the Prabhandham Ghosti rendering Ramanuja Nootranthaathi. The utsavam concluded with ‘Padippu’ highlighting the features of the utsavam and thanking the Lord for the safe conduct of the Utsavam.

Srivanchiyam Maasi Barani Utsavam

Yama carries the Lord in celebration of a historical episode 
The historical episode of Lord Vanchinathaswamy appearing before Yama Dharma Raja at the ‘Kirthaatha Kundam’ on Maasi Barani and accepting the wish of the latter to serve as his vahana was played out at the Gandharanya Kshetram (abound with Sandalwood trees) of Srivanchiyam on Monday (Feb 11) as part of the Maasi Mahotsavam 

For centuries, this one of its kind procession in a Thevaram Sthalam of Yama himself carrying the Lord for the Theerthavari Utsavam and providing darshan to devotees around the four Mada streets has been the most sacred festival at this temple.

One of the six locations along the banks of Cauvery that have been specified as sacred and comparable to Kasi and praised by the four Saint Poets, the Vanchinathaswamy temple in Srivanchiyam was once home to a vibrant patshala with students learning and reciting the Vedas and Sastras. Appar makes a reference to Yama in his verse.
Served for over five decades with very little salary
79 year old Doraiappa Gurukal joined the temple in 1962 and served for over four decades. He remembers the years when devotees from all surrounding villages congregated on the morning of Maasi Barani “50 Brahmin families lived here in the agraharam and the Mada Streets with Vedic recital being an integral part of life here. Several hundreds of devotees lined up the streets to watch the most sacred utsavam of this old temple town. In no other temple do you have an utsavam where Yama carries the Lord. Belief is that those who bathe at the Theertham on this day and are part of the procession will be relieved from all sins.”

However, his son Swaminathan Gurukal who was a bachelor at the time of his father’s retirement could not immediately take up the services in the Vanchinathaswamy and Ambal Sannidhi. Subsequently, after his wedding too, given the internal power struggle, he has not been able to carry out the services even though there was an appointment order to that effect 3 years ago. And he has been assigned the role of managing the Yama Sannidhi.

Legendary Utsavam on Maasi Barani
The legend goes that Yama Dharma Raja, worried at adding to his own sins and incurring the wrath of many as the one being responsible for deciding the mortality and the timing of death, and depressed at having caused the untimely demise of Markandeya Rishi came to Srivanchiyam, created the Yama Kundam and undertook penance invoking the blessings of Lord Shiva.

Pleased with his prayers, the Lord provided darshan to him on the Barani day in Maasi and promised an exclusive opportunity for Yama Dharma Raja to carry him around the streets of Srivanchiyam on this day. In memory of this legendary event, every year on the 2nd day of the Maasi Mahotsavam, Vanchinatha Swamy goes on a procession with Yama as his Vahana for the Theerthavari Utsavam at the Yama Kundam. 
The Theerthavari on the second day of a 10 day Mahotsavam is another speciality (there is another Theerthavari at the end of the festival as well) and is in recognition of Yama’s penance and his noble thought of relieving the death fears of devotees from the sins of their previous births.

HR & CE official offers a pleasant surprise
It is 6am on Monday morning and unusually quiet for the most festive occasion at the temple. While the Yama Dharma Raja Sannidhi is not yet open, Kailasanatha Gurukal is all ready to begin the Abhishekam for Vanchinathaswamy in front of just a few devotees including a family that had come for a parikaram. 
Soon after, tension began to mount at the temple. The entire zone around the dwajasthambam was filled with hundreds of paddy bags handed to the temple by Lessees (of temple lands), which in itself was quite a rare occurrence at an HR & CE temple. As is the case with remote temples these days, there was a shortage of people to carry the Lord on the huge and heavy vahana. Huge quantity of Paddy was also seen on the floor right in front of the Nandhi. 

The Silver Yama Vahana was in the Vahana mandapam and had to be brought out for alankaram but paddy, seen in a huge mound, had to first be cleared. There were just four service personnel to clear this into the bags. And then there was a shortage of bags as well!!!!

It is well after 9.30 am when the HR & CE officials walk in, one by one. A heartening feature of the day was the nonstop follow up efforts of the HR & CE accountant (Ms. Ilavarasi) to get the large quantity of paddy cleared off the processional path. Later she made frenetic calls to secure the services of the Sripatham personnel in required numbers and on time.

Once the Vahana was brought out, the priests began the alankaram of the Lord and Ambal while at the Eastern entrance, Swaminathan Gurukal was seen performing the abhishekam for Yama.

The clock was ticking to 11.30 am and the flower garlands had not yet arrived. Once again, the HR& CE official made the calls to secure the huge flower garlands to decorate the Lord, Ambal and Yama Dharma Raja. Rarely has one seen a HR & CE official take such personal interest especially in a remote temple, in clearing the hurdles in a timely manner, an effort that allowed the priests to focus on the Abhisekam and Alankaram that preceded the procession. 
Swaminathan Gurukal was now engaged in the alankaram of Yama Vahana. Shortly after noon, Vanchinathaswamy and Mangalambikai mounted on to Yama, giving him the special privilege on this one day of the year, of carrying them around the four big streets of Srivanchiyam.

Theerthavari at Yama Kundam
It is almost 1pm when the priests performed the Theerthavari at the Yama Kundam South of the temple, the tank created by Yama before he began his penance at this temple invoking the blessings of Lord Shiva. Devotees present on the day also had a dip in this sacred tank that is believed to take away the fears of death in this life.

For the next hour, the Lord and Ambal provided darshan to the devotees around the Mada streets before returning to their abode at 2pm bringing to end this historical festival.

Special Status for Yama
At this temple, Yama has been accorded the leading status with a separate sannidhi at the Eastern Entrance of the temple. The practice is for the devotees, to bathe at the sacred ‘Gupta Theertham’ and have darshan of Yama Dharma Raja before they enter the sanctum of Vanchinathaswamy. Marking the celebratory occasion, Yama and Chitragupta were at their resplendent best in silver kavacham.
The temple is open between 6am-12.30pm and 4pm-8pm     

How to reach
Srivanchiyam is 6kms from Nannilam off the Nagapattinam - Nachiyar Koil Highway. From Tiruvarur, one can reach the temple via Manakkal (around 15kms).

(A Version of this story featured in The Hindu Friday Review dated Feb 13)

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Sarangapani Koil Kodukkumudi Sevai

Komalavalli Thaayar and Sarangapani Perumal provide Serthi Sevai from the HR & CE office marking the annual Thai Amavasai Kodukkumudi Utsavam!!

Theerthavari Utsavam on this day had been done away with a few decades ago, while the once Ekadasi Mandapam is now the HR & CE office at this ancient Divya Desam

No water outlet inside the office forces the Prabhandham Scholars to sit in the dirt for their Seva Kalam recital in the evening 
Every year on the occasion of Thai Amavasai, Lord Sarangapani, the utsavar deity of the Aaravamudhan Divya Desam in Thiru Kudanthai provides Serthi Darshan with Komalavalli Thaayar at the erstwhile Ekadasi Mandapam at the Eastern entrance of the temple. It is the only day in the year when Komalavalli Thaayar provides Kodukkumudi Sevai to devotees.

It is 7am on the morning of the No Moon Day in Thai. Several hundreds of devotees have lined up for the Vishroopam Sevai, a large number of a Monday morning at the Sarangapani koil.
As marketing of temples and utsavam took shape over the last two decades, authorities came up with interesting combos. This one was a pretty special one. Amavasai is one of the special occasions every month at temples. The one that comes in Thai gained prominence being one ranked sacred for Tharpanam.

Two more additional features marked this year’s Thai Amavasai making it an all time special occasion!!! It was also the Shravanam day of the month and it fell on a Monday. Hence, devotees saw this as a ‘Soma Vaara Thai Amavasai Shravanam’ occasion.

Just before 12noon, Komalavalli Thayar made her way to the ‘once upon a time’ Ekadasi mandapam, opposite the Vasantha Mandapam. Shortly after, Sarangapani Perumal too joined her. Being the Shravanam day, Vedantha Desikar too made his way to the erstwhile mandapam. 
Ekadasi Mandapam turned into HR & CE Office
With the growth in powers of the HR & CE, the Ekadasi mandapam has now been converted into an office housing the EO and the staff members of the HR & CE yet another example of how heritage structures and sacred locations inside temples have been used up by the HR & CE. It would rank as a one of a kind utsavam of a ‘Serthi Sevai’ of a Divya Desam couple at an (HR & CE) office within the temple complex.

No additional structures inside temple complex
Rule 8 and 9 of Temple Entry Authorisation Act 1947 states that no new structure can come up inside the temple complex especially at a heritage centuries old temple and that none of the mandapams can be used or converted for a purpose other than the one for which it was historically used. 

Says TR Ramesh, President, Temple Worshippers Society, who has taken on the HR & CE and filed a number of cases in the High Court against the construction of new and additional structures in ancient temples, “The construction of the temple office at the historical mandapam at the Eastern Entrance as well as the building of the toilet just next to the temple office within the complex is illegal and in gross violation of the Act. This illegal structure of the office and the toilet has to be removed, similar to how the huge toilet complex within the Srirangam Ranganathaswamy temple was removed a couple of years ago and the mandapam has to be brought to its historical state.”
                      The Big Bureaus next to the Couple

Shataari Thirumanjanam
For over thirty minutes, devotees watched the Shataari (of Lord and Thaayar) Thirumanjanam at the HR & CE office, with the sacred abhisekam water flowing out on to Vedantha Desikar who was placed on a small stool on the floor.

Alankaram with almirahs flanking the Divine Couple
What was saddening in the 2nd half of the day was the two hour Kodukkumudi alankaram for Komalavalli Thaayar performed by Narayana Bhattar and subsequently the alankaram for Lord Sarangapani with the divine couple flanked by Almirahs and tall Bureaus at the office. While one is normally accustomed to priests undertaking alankaram within the four closed screens, here what one witnessed was a sacred once in a year alankaram of Thaayar with the office almirahs as the cover!!! HR & CE staffers kept moving in and out of the office during the alankaram with the priests remaining silent spectators. 
Prabhandham Experts sitting in the wet dirt
By 5pm, the seva kalam experts arrived at the temple to present the sacred verses in front of the divine couple and the Vaishnavite acharya. With no outlet at the HR & CE office to let go the Thirumanjanam water, the remains stagnated at the entrance of the office. While the water was removed through a mopping activity, the dirt on the floor of the office combined with the Thirumanjanam water to create filth leaving very little clean space for the prabhandham experts for their recital!!!

Following the presentation of Koil Tiruvoimozhi and Desikar Prabhandham at the HR & CE office and after the devotees had had a close look at the alankaram, the Lord made his shortly after 830pm around the Potramarai Kulam.

Absence of ‘Kodukkumudi’
While historically the speciality of the day was the Kodukkumudi Sevai with the long Jadai of Komalavalli Thaayar knotted in such a way that the far end reaches out to Lord Sarangapani. Unfortunately, the old one is in a damaged condition while the new one could not be made in time for the utsavam. Hence the priests had to make do with a simple knotted style on the head and devotees missed the long curling Jadai of Komalavalli Thaayar reaching out to the Lord.

Just after 9pm, the divine couple exchanged garlands in front of the Thaayar Sannidhi bringing to end this annual Thai Amavasai utsavam that is now celebrated at the HR & CE office. 
The missing Theerthavari
Historically, it has also been the practice at the Sarangapani Koil for the Lord to make his way on the morning of Thai Amavasai for the Theerthavari Utsavam at the Cauvery. But this too has been done away with in recent decades after the entry of the HR & CE.

At the tail end of the day, there was a shortage of Sripatham Thangis to carry Vaishnavite Acharya Vedantha Desikar on the Shravanam procession inside the temple, a sad reflection of the current scenario at this ancient Divya Desam that not too long ago was vibrant with traditionalists making up the long agraharam in front of the temple.
It is hoped that, with the efforts of temple activists, in the not too distant future the Eastern Entrance will be flanked by the Ekadasi and Vasantha Mandapams and not the HR & CE Office and the Toilet Complex!!!