Sunday, February 4, 2018

Srirangam Bhoopathi Thirunaal Sapthaavaranam

A once in a Century Sapthaavaranam coinciding with Chandra Grahanam creates huge ‘agama process’ controversy at the Ranganathaswamy temple in Srirangam

In a commendable move, JC Pon Jayaraman takes a bold and an unprecedented decision of revising the entire schedule of events at the last minute in an effort to do the ‘right’ thing
Thursday January 31, 2018 marked a once in over a century event at the Ranganathaswamy temple in Srirangam. On this day, Chandra Grahanam coincided with the Sapthaavaranam of the Bhoopathi Thirunaal Utsavam in Thai.

The events as it unfolded over the week of this grand Thai Utsavam also showcased the difficulties in managing such a large and ancient temple with many different and conflicting views having to be considered before finalizing upon the sequence of events on the day. Many different factions, each with their own opinion does not make it easy for the authorities to take decisions, and yet one had to commend the JC of the temple, Pon Jayaraman, for a brave decision he took on this day dismissing the officially printed programme schedule that had been in circulation for over three quarters.

The annual calendar
For many years, the Srirangam temple has been bringing out an annual calendar that provides complete details on the days of the utsavams in the year as well as the timings of procession and other highlights of pooja on these days. This calendar of events is also posted on the website of the temple.

For this year, 2017-18, the calendar book had been launched in Panguni of 2017 i.e nine months ahead of this Bhoopathi Thirunaal utsavam. 

The page relating to January 31, 2018 clearly indicated that it was the day of the Chandira Grihanam and provides the timings of Moolavar Darshan as well as the specific timing of the Thirumanjanam, the special Sapthaavaranam Procession, one where Lord Namperumal goes around the Uthira streets listening to Ramanuja Nootranthaathi chanting without the beating of the drums.
As per this schedule, the Grahanam Thirumanjanam was to take place between 5 pm and 730 pm. And then Lord Namperumal was to leave for the Uthira Veethi Sapthaavaranam procession at 10 pm. And the flag was to be brought down at 0.30 am (Feb 1) after ‘Padippu’ thanking the Lord for the safe and successful conduct of the Utsavam.

Till the middle of this Utsavam, this had remained the schedule, until a sudden realization happened with Murali Bhattar, raising the need to have two Thirumanjanams on the day one prior to the Purapadu for Sapthaavaranam (Thirunaal ending Thirumanjanam) and then one after the flag was brought down for the Chandra Grahanam.

Murali Bhattar, well versed in the agamas and who has been here at the temple for several decades told this writer that this annual calendar (handed out to the devotees at a pre fixed price) is usually run through the Araiyars, the Uthama Nambi clan and the Bhattars before it is finalized ahead of the Tamil New Year.
When asked as to why this was not pointed out earlier, either before it went to print or during the course of the year, he conveyed his apologies to the authorities for overlooking the error in the calendar but requested the authorities to take corrective action as he had noticed it ahead of the day and to stick to what was right as per the agamas.

A revision in schedule had many other officials, bhattars and kainkaryapakas raising their eyebrows.

Japta Sampath, known for his loud and vocal voicing of opinions, registered a strong protest against the conduct of two Thirumanjanams and bringing forward the 10pm procession to 1.30pm.  Several decades experienced Raman Bhattar of Therazhundur, a man well versed in the agamas agreed with Murali Bhattar that it was appropriate to have two Thirumanjanams on the day.

The temple had to make a choice between the two options. A programme taking into account the Chandra Grahanam, had been chalked out three quarters earlier with a clear description of the events of the day and the schedule had been officially printed by the temple. 

Do they choose to stick to the popular and safe decision of the programme detailed in the calendar at the beginning of the year after the Bhattar had brought the error to their notice or do they take corrective action and go ahead with the right process for the day and acknowledge the error in the official schedule.

It was not an easy decision to take, for it seemed that on the day leading up to the Chandra Grahanam a majority wanted to stick to the schedule and were not in favour of two Thirumanjanams and a revision of procession timing.

A Commendable Decision by the JC
The man in the hot seat JC Pon Jayaraman took quite a bold and brave decision and quite an unprecedented one at that. He stuck his neck out to go with what was stated in the agamas for such a unique occurrence of a Sapthaavaranam day falling on a Chandra Grahanam.Through the day one could hear murmurs of angst against the rescheduling of the entire set of events on this day.
The 9th day Thirumanjanam after the Chariot festival ended only around mid night and the Kainkaryapakas had to be back at the temple in the morning for this additional Thirumanjanam in the morning on the 10th day of the Utsavam.

This new schedule posted on the notice board outside  the Ariya Bhattal Vaasal on the morning of the 10th day showed the first Thirumanjanam in the morning at 9 am, the procession at 1.30 pm, the flag to be brought down at 4 pm and the second ‘Grahanam’ Thirumanjanam after 5 pm with the Lord going back to the Moolavar Sannidhi at 9.15 pm.
Sitting in front of the notice board, Japta Sampath also questioned the plan to bring down of the flag at 4 pm as it was not to be done before Sunset.

As luck would have it, one that saved the day for the JC and the authorities, the first Thirumanjanam and the formalities following that were so delayed that the procession took off only at 3.45pm which meant the Lord was back at the temple only around 5pm.

Being this special 10th day of the Utsavam, the Lord made his way to the Thayar Sannidhi for Thiruvanthikaapu and then through the now open route alongside the 1000 Pillared Mandapam to the Ramanuja Sannidhi where he was greeted with Coconut Water.

And when the Ramanuja Nootranthathi Satrumurai was completed near the Garudan Sannidhi, it was close to 6pm.  Following the ‘Padippu’, the flag was brought down well after 6.30 pm (after Sunset), even though this had been planned for 4 pm as per the revised schedule saving the blushes for the authorities.

Lord Namperumal made his way out for the 2nd procession of the day after 730pm and following the 2nd Thirumanjanam, he made his way to his sanctum from the Santanu Mandapam after 11 pm bringing to end a long and controversial day at the temple.

Friday, February 2, 2018

TR Ramesh Temple Activist

A long Battle to Protect Temple Heritage and Architecture

The Man who combined with Subramaniam Swamy to secure Pothu Dikshithars' hereditary rights at the Chidambaram Temple

‘Ramesh stood by us during the dark period of the HR & CE takeover assuring us that he would fight till the very end for our just cause. In a time and age when most are looking for personal glorification, it is rare to find someone as devoted and committed, and as selfless as him in the fight against injustice at temples in Tamil Nadu’ – Chidambaram Temple’s Sivaraja Dikshithar 

It is a chilly Margazhi morning and the day of the Avathara Utsavam of Vaayilar Nayanar, the only Nayanar from Mylapore. Temple activist TR Ramesh, a former banking professional and a staunch Saivite devotee well versed in the Thevaram and other sacred verses is at the Kapaleeswarar Temple to fight the HR & CE department on the issue of the temporary music and dance stage that had been erected right in front of the Nayanar Sannidhi. He is seen frantically calling the JC of the temple enquiring about the removal of the stage with the Abhishekam just a few hours away.

In the evening, at the Pushpa Pallakku street procession, around 400 delighted devotees are seen thanking him profusely for his tireless effort in helping remove the obstructions and facilitating the proper conduct of the annual festival.

The additional constructions such as Anna Dhana Koodams, toilets and new sannidhis that have come up in many ancient temples thus destroying its heritage and architecture is one of the big battles Ramesh has been involved in with the HR & CE in the last few years.

Chidambaram Pothu Dikshithars’ case
January 6 (this year – 2018) marked the fourth anniversary of the landmark judgment and a historic victory for Pothu Dikshithars of the Chidambaram Sabanayakar temple. It was Ramesh’s first big success in his battle against the HR & CE. While the verdict was being pronounced that morning at the Supreme Court, Ramesh was at the Ayodhya Mandapam, in West Mambalam physically stalling efforts by the HR & CE to take over the Samajam and within an hour of the Supreme Court verdict, the Madras HC had provided a stay to HR & CE’s attempted takeover. It was a dual victory for Ramesh that day.

He has since successfully stopped the takeover of  5 ancient temples in TN including Lakshmi Narasimha Perumal Temple, Chromepet, Kandhaswamy Temple, Kandhakottam and Aiyyapan Temple, Kodungaiyur. 

He also stalled the construction of the Raja Gopuram at the Padalathri temple in Singaperumal Koil and is currently taking on the HR & CE against the construction of a new modern Raja Gopuram at the over 1000years old Kurupapureeswarar temple in Thiruvennainallur, near Villupuram. 
He is confident that the planned construction of the new Raja Gopuram at Thiru Vellarai Divya Desam near Srirangam too will be stopped.

The fight against HR & CE
When the judgment was pronounced against the Pothu Dikshithars in 2009, it was Ramesh’s father, an erudite Saivite Scholar that they first approached for the next action in the fight for their rights. Ramesh took up the task of putting together the entire research material including a paragraph wise rebuttal for Shri Subramanian Swamy to fight the case in the Supreme Court. His research on Chidambaram temple and the law relating to temple rights were sharpened and honed during the research period of almost 5years. 

His initial angst against the HR & CE was driven by the Hundies that came up in multiple places within the Chidambaram temple soon after the 2009 Madras High Court order handing the temple to the HR & CE. He found that this had a direct impact on the livelihood of the Dikshithars and diminished a substantial portion of the Dhakshina monies. In the name of the prasadam stall, he says they sold food that was made outside. But what really infuriated Ramesh was the notices HR & CE sent to all the Dikshithars to get them registered so they could appoint and recognize a few as Archakas, for he saw this as a plan to create division among the Dikshithar families.

That was when he started using the RTI Act to secure information about the HR & CE administered temples and found to his dismay a number of violations in the functioning of the temples. He filed over 700 applications and the information provided him with significant insights into the lack of processes and systems in the administration of the temples.

In 2015, he filed five Writ Petitions questioning the appointment and presence of Executive Officers in five of the big temples and another one challenging the appointment of HR & CE staff as Fit Persons in temples. A few months ago, he issued notices to the Commissioner relating to 17 temples where there were no orders of appointment of EOs.  It was after his writ that the department framed the rules for the appointment of EOs under the HR & CE Act for the first time in 55 years. His case on improper civil works in temples in the name of Thiruppani has now been tagged along with the Suo Moto Heritage case at the Madras High Court.

Chidambaram’s Sivaraja Dikshithar
80 year old M. N Sivaraja Dikshithar is a scholar extraordinaire and a master of Sanskrit, Tamil, English and Hindi. He has seen the highs and lows at the Chidambaram temple over the last 7 decades and is all praise for the efforts of Ramesh

 ‘Hundreds of the Pothu Dikshithar families are grateful to Ramesh for his selfless service of five years in helping us secure our historical rights. It was a terrible time for the Pothu Dikshithars after the adverse verdict in 2009 and many went into depression. It was Ramesh who stood by us during that dark period assuring us that he would fight till the very end for our just cause. In a time and age when most are looking for personal glorification, it is rare to find someone as devoted and committed, and as selfless as him in the fight against injustice at temples in Tamil Nadu.’

Dedicating his life to Protecting Ancient Temples
He understands that fighting such a large institution managing close to 40000 temples will be a very long drawn out process but is committed to fulfilling the promise given to Late Shri Dayanand Saraswathi, just a month prior to his death, that he would dedicate his entire life to protecting the heritage and architecture of ancient temples and not give up this fight unmindful of the challenges that may come his way.

Five Areas of Concern
Ramesh says he will be relentless in his pursuit of taking on the HR & CE in issues relating to the department’s interference in religious matters, non protection of temple properties and non realization of income, issues relating to auctioning of prasadam stalls and the like, diversion of temple funds to non temple purposes and the flawed process of Thiruppani including demolition of ancient sculptures and heritage in the name of renovation.

After the unsavoury incident at the Kapaleeswarar Temple in Margazhi, devotees of the temple are now  coming together to form a Temple Worshippers Forum in Mylapore to fight collectively as a group irregularities and hurdles they face with the HR & CE department. 
This Ramesh believes is a great sign in meeting his objective of getting HR & CE to act in the spirit of what the Act had really intended all those decades ago - the role of looking after the properties of the temple and realising the due income from them. He says that the fight against injustice in Temples has risen rapidly in recent years and is confident that this will soon become an avalanche and that Justice will finally prevail.

His Temple Activism successes thus far include helping secure rights for the Pothu Dikshathars of Chidambaram, stalling takeover bid of HR & CE in 5 temples, preventing arbitrary civil works in several temples, helping the Proper Conduct of the Vaayilar Nayanar Avathara Utsavam in Mylapore and forcing HR & CE to frame the rules of EO appointment for the first time. And in 2018, he is raring to go further taking the HR & CE on even more..

He is currently in the process of filing a Writ of Mandamus seeking direction that HR & CE will publish all the information, voluntarily, relating to the temples under section 4 of the RTI Act and another writ against the transfer of temple funds for non temple purposes. He is also planning to file a Writ relating to illegal presence of EOs in many temples and a Writ seeking handing over 40 temples back to original trustees.

With his complete understanding of the HR & CE Act, Ramesh is now readying himself to go the full distance in his battle against the HR & CE with the Temple Worshippers Society funding his temple activism initiatives. He has just started ‘belling the cat’ and many more across the country are now joining him in this endeavour.  Ramesh has drawn inspiration from enquiries he has been receiving from the trustees of several temples across the Southern States seeking his counsel in their fight to keep the department away from their respective temple. It is a clear sign of the increased awareness of the rights to administer temples. 

(A version of this story featured in The Hindu Friday Review today)

Monday, January 29, 2018

Mangai Madam Thiru Mangai Azhvaar Temple

A young Bhattar revives Thiru Mangai Azhvaar's historical location in Mangai Madam
The High Flying NextGen Bhattar is all set to take over the 'dynamic bhattar' tag in the Nangur region from Madhavan Bhattar of Annan Perumal Koil
Balaji Bhattar was just 20 years old when he took up Mangai Madam Veera Narasimha temple, one of the Pancha Narasimha temples of Thiru Nangur and a location where Thiru Mangai Azhvaar had performed the Thathiyeeraadhanai for 1008 Vaishnavites as per the condition laid by his beloved Kumuduvalli Nachiyar of Annan Perumal Koil.

This location was also home to the first step in the transformation of Mangai Mannan from a king to a Saint Poet. Historically, this has been a temple where Thirumangai Azhvaar makes an annual trip from Thirunagari on the No Moon Day in Thai ( This trip is now part of the 124 year old Thai 11 Garuda Sevai Utsavam and Thiru Mangai Azhvaar begins his trip from Thirunagari by visiting Thiru Kuraiyalur (2 kms from here) and Mangai Madam before making his way to Thiru Nangur.

At the time it had been in a completely dilapidated state with broken floors and falling roof.  The outer walls had been completely damaged. Nothing seemed right at this legendary location that had led Thiru Mangai Azhvaar to fulfilling his promise and to subsequently getting married to Kumudavalli. Decades of uncared existence had brought it to a stage of going into oblivion. And when the young Balaji Bhattar came back after completing his Vedic and Agama initiation from the renowned Lakshmana Dikshithar of Parthan Palli Divya Desam (, a few kms from here, he along with Thiru Koshtiyur Madhavan began the process of resurrecting the temple from ground up.

When Thiru Koshtiyur Madhavan visited the Divya Desams in Thiru Nangur in the 1990s, he was saddened to find the temple in tatters. He helped reconstruct almost the entire temple in 2000-01. In a flat period of 123 days the entire reconstruction work was completed by Madhavan and his team.
Balaji Bhattar of Mangai Madam, who had his schooling locally in Nangur had come to Mylapore, Madras as a young boy to learn the Vedas but his real initiation into the agamas came from Lakshmana Dikshithar. He then took over full charge of the temple and has in the last 17 years revived a number of the historical Utsavams including the Brahmotsavam. Indications are that there was once a big chariot and the chariot went through the four streets of Mangai Madam.

The real NextGen Bhattar in the Thiru Nangur region
He is one Bhattar in the Thiru Nangur region who is best qualified to take on the ‘dynamic bhattar’ mantle that has been held by Madhavan Bhattar of Annan Perumal Koil ( At a young age, he has grasped the model of capturing the devotee’s attention inside temple and getting them interested in temple activities.

Revival of Utsavams
Since the restoration of the temple in 2001, he has brought it back to life reviving the historical utsavams including the Brahmotsavam in Aadi. He has also revived the Pavitrotsavam and Narasimha Jayanthi Utsavams. Thirumangai Azhvaar's annual trip from Thirungari to Thiru Kuraiyalur and Mangai Madam are now grand trips.
Offers from Thiru Nangur
Balaji Bhattar is also in demand from the Thiru Nangur temples to support them in alankaram and related sacred activities at those Divya Desams especially during the big utsavams there. There hasve been feelers sent to him to check his interest on shifting into one of the Divya Desams in Thiru Nangur into a full fledged role. 

But Mangai Madam has always been something close to Balaji Bhattar's heart for he has been there from the time he was a young boy and had seen the process of dilapidation with his own eyes through the 1990s. And it had been his presence that has helped its survival and the transformation one is seeing currently in the activities at the temple. 

At the moment, his mind is all focused on Lord Veera Narasimha at Mangai Madam and to make this  temple an integral part of a devotee's Nangur Divya Desam trip.  Already there are devotees making their way to the temple from distant corners of the world.

In a matter of a decade and a half, Balaji Bhattar has showcased to the archaka community at large that with commitment and devotion to the Lord, one can succeed even from the remotest part of the state and that the future is not so bleak for the Bhattars if the starting point of their Kainkaryam is devotion to the Lord. 

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Srirangam Bhoopathi Thirunal Garuda Sevai

Lord Namperumal provided a Grand darshan on the New Golden Garuda Vahana at Veereswaram while the devotees’ hands went up in Unison with the Smart Phone to shoot his picture!!!

The Garuda Vahana was still being anointed with Gold at 5pm inside the Ranganatha temple, the authorities then did a photo shoot with the new Vahana delaying the start of the procession at Veereswaram by 45 minutes.

Garuda then watched helplessly as the Lord passed by defunct Indian Styled Toilets on Uthira Streets 
It was the fourth day of the over 500 years old Thai Bhoopathi Thirunaal Utsavam at the Ranganathaswamy temple in Srirangam. And the day of the recital of Thirumazhisai Azhvaar’s Naanmugan Thiruvanthathi.

நான்முகனை நாராயணன் படைத்தான்
நான்முகனும் தான் முகமாய்
சங்கரனை தான் படைத்தான்

யான் முகமாய் அந்தாதி மேலிட்டு
அறிவித்தேன் ஆழ் பொருளை
சிந்தாமல் கொள்மின் நீர் தேர்ந்து

At least 2000 devotees gathered at 530pm on Thursday (Jan 25) evening at the Garuda Sevai Asthana Mandapam in Veereswaram near Amma Mandapam on the banks of Cauvery 30 minutes ahead of the Bhoopathi Thirunaal Garuda Sevai Purapadu of Lord Namperumal.

Timing of the Procession – A Distinguishing feature at Srirangam
Historically, a distinguishing feature at the Ranganathaswamy Divya Desam has been the perfect timing of the processions of Lord Namperumal. While the devotees started gathering in at Veereswaram to pick their favourite spot to have first darshan of the Lord atop his vehicle Garuda, few knew that the Lord’s vehicle was still being constructed inside the Ranganatha temple.

Focus on Constant New Additions
HR & CE has heavily cashed in, over the last decade, on the donor’s craze to contribute. There had already been many new Golden Vahana contributions in 2017. And it was time for another Golden Garuda this time for the Bhoopathi Thirunaal. However, this turned out to be a last day exercise, leaving devotees wondering if the devotees were wooed late into the utsavam!!!

Two hours to the scheduled start of the procession at Veereswaram, the Lord’s vehicle had just begun to be anointed with the Golden Kavacham as this writer stood next to the Garuda Mandapam near the Ariya Bhattal Vaasal at the Ranganathaswamy temple wondering as to why the vehicle had not reached Veereswaram at this hour. The alankaram of both the Lord atop the Garuda Vahana as well as the Garuda himself usually takes close to an hour and the screen closes (for devotee darshan) by 5pm on the evening of the Garuda Sevai.

But here the Vehicle Lord was surrounded by multiple workers nailing the screws on the new addition of Gold closely watched and monitored by the time keeper Manian who had a worried look on his face as time was ticking by and it was likely that the procession would not start on time.

Lord’s faith in Garuda
பதிப்பகைஞற்க்கு ஆற்றாது பாய் திரை நீர் பாழி
மதித்து அடைந்த வாழ் அரவம்
தன்னை மதித்து
அவன் தன் வல் ஆகத்து ஏற்றிய
மா மேனி மாயவனை
அல்லாது ஒன்று ஏத்தாது  என் நா - திருமழிசை ஆழவார் 
Namperumal had reached Veereswaram earlier in the day after his morning procession on the 'Prabhai’ around the Uthira Streets of Srirangam. Those devotees who gathered in large numbers after 5pm continued to have darshan of Lord Namperumal that it should have been time to close to the screen for the Garuda Sevai alankaram. But the Vehicle of the Lord had not arrived at Veereswaram even by 5.30pm.

First the authorities and Then the Devotees with the Photo Shoot!!!
While the devotees were thus waiting at Veereswaram, it was time for the authorities and the ever smiling- never to miss a 'photo opp' Sundar Bhattar to do a photo shoot at the Ranganatha Temple with the new Golden Garuda Vahanam. And just close to the scheduled time of the purapadu, the small sized Golden Garuda arrived by a tractor at Veereswaram!!! 
Several hundreds of devotees had lined up on both side of the Mambazha Salai just before 6pm in the hope of having darshan in the next few minutes. Over the next half hour, there were murmurs from the several decades old traditionalists of Srirangam who had watched this utsavam from way back in the 1950s. They recalled as to how timing was one thing that Lord Namperumal never missed and that the devotees could always arrive to have darshan at the scheduled time. They bemoaned this tradition that Namperumal never likes a delay too was being tinkered with.

When an official who has been involved at the temple for well over three decades was asked as to how even the basic work on the new Garuda was still going on after 4pm inside the Ranganatha temple said that ‘such questions should not be asked and that one would have to just wait it out’!!! A typical response of the changing times at the temple!!
If this was a sign of the changing times and the ‘donor funding’ driven functioning under the HR & CE, at 645pm one got a taste of the new wave of devotion.

As the screen opened and Lord Namperumal made a grand entry out of the Veereswaram Mandapam led by the Ghee lit lamps, one was delighted to see the hands of the devotees rising in Unison in the hundreds. It seemed that they all remembered the verses of Thirumazhisai Azhvaar.

In his praise of the Lord of Srirangam, Thirumazhisai Azhvaar had said that the Lord goes around looking for the true devotees and that the devotees too are constantly looking at his lotus feet for blessing.

ஆட் பார்த்து உழிதருவாய்
கண்டுகொள் என்றும் நின் தாட்பாரத்து
உழி தருவேன் தன்மையை
கேட்பார்க்கு யாரும் பொருளாய் நின்ற அரங்கனே
உன்னை விரும்புவதே விள்ளேன் மனம்

But lo, it was not the folded hands of devotion. The first action from almost the entire devotee crowd (including the ladies and the Senior Citizens) from the Veereswaram Mandapam to the Mambazha Salai was to shoot the picture of the Lord with their Smart Phones. And the Lord had to wait to see the folded hands!!!

The Truly Devotional Prabhandham Ghosti
It was almost 830pm when the Lord entered the South Uthira Street in front of the Ranga Ranga Gopuram where the Prabhandham Scholars had been waiting for a while to begin the recital of the Nanmugan Thiruvanthathi on this fourth day of the utsavam. 
Their devotion to the Lord is probably the tradition that has been least affected at this temple in the decades gone by. No cell phone chats during their recital unlike in so many other Divya Desams. They are truly focused on the Lord despite the many distractions. Their chanting style of the Prabhandham that is unique to the Ranganathaswamy temple is so full of devotion that it is difficult not to be devotionally lured.

Lord passes by the defunct open toilets on Uthira Streets
If the delay on the evening and rising hands of the cell phones were not enough of a bad sign, one was even more shocked as the Lord passed through the North Uthira and East Uthira Streets. Just a few yards away from the Lord were several open Indian Styled toilets. Some of them had been closed with Sand but several remained open and the devotees who walked along with the Lord during the procession had to evade these pavement toilets, carefully.

While so much of attention is paid to the anointment of Gold on the Garuda even as late as 5pm, an hour ahead of the scheduled time of the utsavam unmindful of the delay to the procession and the waiting devotees, the Lord is made to pass through with a number of defunct open toilets by his side.

While the authorities just showcased the UNESCO award on the grand restoration of the temple to the CM of Tamil Nadu, it is important that during the post restoration phase and as part of its ongoing initiatives, they pay attention to these details on street processions. It is not enough to just have all the vahanas embedded with Gold. One has to ensure that the Lord is handed out a grand welcome in all the streets and the presence of defunct toilets on the traditional Uthira streets is surely not a rewarding experience for the Lord.

The Historical Thai Utsavam
The Bhoopathi Thirunaal utsavam in Thai dates back to the period of the Vijayanagara King Veera Bhoopathi Udayar who in a birthday celebration began the Chariot Festival on his birthday on Punarpoosam in Thai over 500 years ago.  It is in recognition of his contribution that the festival in Thai at the Ranganathaswamy Temple in Srirangam has been named as the ‘Bhoopathi Thirunaal’ with the Utsava Deity going around the Uthira Veethi (the inner street) on each of the days on an exclusive Vahanam with the Chariot Festival on the 9th day.

Bhoopathi Udayar would not have been happy of a festival named after him with the Lord passing by open toilets on the historically traditional ‘Outer Prakaram’.

Back at the temple, for close to an hour, the prabhandham experts continued with their devotional rendering of Thirumazhisai Azhvaar’s verses standing opposite the Vahana Mandapam. And as the Lord listened to the high pitched traditional recital and having seen the great service rendered by the Sri Patham Thangis -20 of whom carried him in turns for almost close to 3 hours on the evening, he would have hoped that the HR & CE officials as well as the authorities too showed the same intent in carrying out this historical utsavam in a traditional way not allowing for such delays and ensuring the traditional streets that the Lord passes by are clean so the sanctity of the utsavam is maintained. 
PS: The Sri Patham Thangis after having seen the Lord through to the Kannadi Arai just after 10.30 pm were back the next morning at 4am for the Sesha Vahana procession around the Uthira Streets followed by a procession. One cannot but admire their devotional commitment to the Lord’s procession during these 11 days.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Thiruvali Thirunagari Divya Desam

A once vibrant Divya Desam with Prabhandham Scholars as a distinguishing feature saw a mass exodus after HR & CE captured power 

Thirumangai Azhvaar's 'Radiant' Temple Town resonated with the sounds of Conch, Chants and Dance (anklets) all the time - Till half a century ago, oil for lighting the lamp inside the temple and during Street Processions was extracted from Iluva Trees but those trees too are gone now as HR & CE shifted focus to 'Donor' Funding Methodology

Vedu Pari on the eve of Panguni Uthiram is still celebrated in a grand manner
The cluster of temples within a radius of a few kms in Nangur was praised by Thiru Mangai Azhvaar, who was born in this ‘Aali Naadan’ region with an exclusive decad in the Periya Thirumozhi. Collectively in each of these, except the ones in Thiruvali, Thiru Mangai Azhvaar refers to them as being in Nangur. He found the entire region impressive with tall groves and big mansions all around and Seers chanting the Vedas with great expertise.

Entering the region after visiting the Thaadalan temple in Sirkazhi (, Thiru Mangai Azhvaar first reached ‘Thiruvali – Thirunagari’ ( He was so impressed with the quality of life there that he dedicated three decads to the Lord.

The town resonated with the sounds of conch, chants and dance (anklets) all the time.

பாடல் இன் ஒலி சங்கின் ஓசை
பரந்து பல் பணையால் மலிந்து
எங்கும் ஆடல் ஓசை அறா
அணி ஆலி அம்மானே
 Several centuries after his description of the state of life in Thiruvali, the town seemed vibrant with Vedic and Prabhandham Chanting going into the 20th Century. Till 1950, the temple used to receive 1000 bags of paddy annually from the huge lands. This was distributed among the Kainkaryapakas who were residing in large numbers in the agraharam.

During the 19th century the temple was under the control of Edamanal Vijaya Raghava Naidu. They took care of the temple and helped the proper conduct of the festivals. In the first half of the 20th century, Keethi Pillai of Sirkazhi too managed the temple well and everything seemed to be going on track. During those 150 years from 1800, the temple had been in good shape with income accruing from the lands belonging to the temple helping run the poojas and the annual festivities in a grand manner.

Till the 1950s and 60s, the bhattars of Thiruvali Thirunagari were well respected and patronized. They were generally a contented lot and led a happy life performing daily aradhana for the lord. 4-5 bags of paddy were given to the kainkaryapakas such as the bhattars and parijarakas every month for their kainkaryam.

Lamp Oil from Ilupa Trees
Around the temple were found Ilupa Trees in big numbers. The leaves from these trees were crushed and large quantities of oil were extracted that was then used to light the lamp at the temple through the year. The oil thus extracted was also used for theevatti during the street processions of the Lord and Azhvaar reminding the then residents of the praise of Thiru Mangai Azhvaar as a location full of big trees and fragrant flowers.

When he first entered the Northern part of the Nangur region after having finished with his praise of Trivikrama at Kaazhichirama Vinnagaram, Thiru Mangai Azhvaar found Asoka Trees, Shenbagam and Jasmine flowers all around Thiruvali.

வந்து உனது அடியேன் மனம் புகுந்தாய்
புகுந்ததற்பின் வணங்கும்
என் சிந்தனைக்கு இணையாய்
 திருவே, என் ஆர் உயிரே

அம்  தளிர் அணி ஆர் அசோகின்
இளந் தளிர்கள் கலந்து
அவை எங்கும் செந்தழல் புரையும்
திருவாலி அம்மானே
He also found the region full of Serundi and Punnai trees. Valai Fish in paddy fields, male crabs resting on lotuses, bees humming sweet tones and the sharp beaked cranes caught his attention in Thiruvali. As he went around the temple town, he found lotus lakes, nectared groves, creepers and bamboo thickets.

‘புன்னையும் அன்னமும் சூழ்
புனல் ஆலி புகுவர்கொலோ’

‘புண்ணை மன்னும் செருந்தி வண்  பொழில்
வாய் அகன் பணைகள் கலந்து
எங்கும் அன்னம் மண்ணும் வயல்
அணி ஆலி அம்மானே’

மாதவன் தன் துணையா நடந்தால்
தடம் சூழ் புறவில்
போது வண்டு ஆடு செம்மல்
புனல் ஆலி புகுவர்கொலோ

The Vedic Seers of Thiruvali
Thiru Mangai Azhvaar reserves the greatest praise of Thiruvali for the Vedic Seers. Not just those he saw during his visit but the expertise of the Seers and their manner of teaching the youngsters initiating them into the Vedas led him to the view that generations of them had lived there and had passed on their knowledge to the succeeding generations. They were seen learning and teaching the chants, the sacrifices and the ritual practices.
சந்தி வேள்வி சடங்கு
நான்மறை ஓதி ஓதுவித்து
ஆதியாய் வரும் அந்தணாளர் அறா
அணி ஆலி அம்மானே

Chariot Festival and the Wide Streets of Thiruvali
தேர் ஆரும் நெடு வீதி
திருவாலி நகர் ஆளும்

Chariot festival was a feature on the annual calendar as can be seen from his reference to the wide streets of Thiruvali that allowed the Chariot of Vayalali Manavala to run.

So thrilled was he with what he experienced and saw at Thiruvali that he called it the ‘RADIANT’ City. 

 HR & CE drives out the Kainkaryapakas
 During his early childhood in the late 1950s and early 60s, Embar Rangachari, the Sthalathar of the Thiruvali Thirunagari Divya Desam remembers the agraharam as resonating with sounds of Vedic and prabhandham recital through the day. The Seva Kalam at Thiruvali was renowned in those days and a distinguishing feature. The Prabhandham scholars stood out for their style of presentation. Till the HR & CE take over there was Thatheyeeradhanam for visitors to the big utsavams including an exclusive one for the sacred Vaishnavite women.

And then the residents of Thiruvali felt the shock waves hitting them, something that they have not been able to recover from. Around 1950, the HR & CE took over the control of the temple, a move that spelt death knell for the traditionalists of Thiruvali.

Just two decades after the HR & CE takeover, basic sustenance had become difficult. Private agricultural lands held by the Kainkaryapakas were sold away following pressure from the Government policy. Almost the entire kainkaryapakas went away from the agraharam leaving behind just a couple of families at Thiruvali. A lot of them fighting for daily survival were wiped out from vaishnavite kainkaryam and for the first time in the late 1970s, one saw the Thiruvali traditionalists moving into the corporate world.

Since the takeover by the HR & CE, the nearby trees were cut resulting in loss of the oil, bemoans Embar Rangachari who spent his entire childhood and teenage years in Thirunagari in the late 50s and 60s.  Like with many other Divya Desams in Tamil Nadu, the takeover by HR & CE saw the drying up of income at the temple. 

The biggest negative swing over the last 50 years both at Thiruvali as well as at many other remote Divya Desams has been the financial maintenance and running of poojas and festivals has shifted completely to donors. 

The mandate of the HR & CE was clear – look for donors, get them to fund everything at the temple, while the income that was to accrue to the temple went elsewhere. Today the temple does not get even 50 bags of paddy annually down from the 1000 bags decades ago, though the temple continues to own 100 acres of land.

61 year old Embar Rangachari went to school, first in Thirunagari and then in Nangur. He was the first graduate in his family having gone to college at Poompuhar.  There was no electricity in his early childhood. There were no bus facilities to Nangur from anywhere. He and many other children would walk over 6kms to Nangur for their schooling. Later many students walked or cycled to Sirkazhi for their collegiate education.  There was not enough money to pay Rangachari’s college fees in the early 1970s and it was a financial struggle during those years. 
He just managed to sail through and became the first graduate in his family.  However years of financial struggle and the influence of the political class on temples in Tamil Nadu led to the migration of the original inhabitants away from Thiruvali Thirunagari as income went down dramatically in the temple.

One brother of the Embar Sthalathar family decided to hold fort at the Agraharam. Aali Naadan had a double MA and became a school teacher in Sirkazhi. He has been a resident of the agraharam for over five decades without ever moving out holding on to the Sthalathar rights and performing the duties each day at the temple without fail, ensuring the presentation of the Thiruppavai Satru Murai in the morning and Nithyaanusanthaanam in the evening. 

Establishment of Seva Trust ensures funding for the festivals and the celebration of the Brahmotsavam for Perumal in Panguni and the Avathara Utsavam for Thiru Mangai Azhvaar in Karthigai. 

A 1990s revival through Thiru Koshtiyur Madhavan
Soon after the Maha Samprokshanam at the Sowmya Narayana Perumal Divya Desam in Thiru Koshtiyur in 1992, Koshtiyur Madhavan found that a number of Divya Desams in remote locations in Tamil Nadu were lying in dilapidated state.  Four decades under the HR & CE had seen the deterioration of these ancient Divya Desam way beyond what one could have ever visualised. 

It was a period when Madhavan began visiting Divya Desams bringing along with him a group of volunteers. When he reached Thiru Nangur, he was in a state of shock for he found cobwebs all over the temple. The doors were infested with Karayaan. There were no lights inside, anywhere in these temples. There was not enough oil to light the lamps.  There was just a single Bhattar to take care of multiple temples in Nangur. 

In each of these temples, he recited the decad of pasuram relating to that temple and explained the meaning to the volunteers, as part of an educational exercise for them.

Madhavan felt energized after rendering these pasurams and felt inspired to bring these temples back to life. He came back to Madras and met with Ramachandra Wodeyar with a request. He asked for a Van to go around Divya Desams and bring back the lost glory of many of the ancient Divya Desams. He also requested him for ladders, tube lights, Vastrams cleaning powder, oil and related materials. 

With the group of around 15 volunteers, he came back to Thiru Nangur in the new van and cleaned up these temples. He installed lights in all of these temples. He organized oil to light the lamp in each of these temples. He collected provisions and presented to these temples for daily thaligai. In each of these temples, he presented Sahasranama Parayanam.

Repair Works at Thiruvali Thirunagari in the 90s
At Thiruvali Thirunagari, it was Thirukoshtiyur Madhavan who supported a phased repair work contributing over a lakh of rupees in the early 1990s that helped the Divya Desam survive a period of downturn even in simple maintenance works. If it had not been for his efforts in the early 1990s, the set of Divya Desams in Thiru Nangur might have gone into oblivion by now.

While the entire agraharam in Thirunagari was lined up with traditionalists chanting Vedas and Prabhandham in the early 1950s, one now finds just a couple of families hanging on to keep the daily poojas running.  There are even fewer in Thiruvali with the temple remaining in a largely uncared for state, unlike Thirunagari, the twin temple that is now tied together as one Divya Desam (along with Thiruvali) that has gained prominence with an agraharam, a Raja Gopuram and twin Chariots, one each for the Perumal and Thiru Mangai Azhvaar.
Like most of the other Divya Desams in Tamil Nadu, Thiru Nangur too has seen a dramatic revival in fortunes. The devotee wave that is sweeping TN temples has had a positive impact on Thiruvali Thirunagari. Over the last decade or so, the Vedu Pari Utsavam in Panguni ( has seen big devotee crowds. The Garuda Sevai on the Thai Amasvasya day in Nangur has led to the temple gaining eyeballs among the devotees. But all these may have come a generation too late.

It was once home to the best of vedic and prabhandham scholars but except for a few days in a year during the three big festive occasions, the entire agraharam and the streets around are rather quiet. 50 years of HR & CE rule has done its damage. The NextGen are now in colleges and into the corporate world away from the traditional Divya Desams in Tamil Nadu. The money is back in temples but the Kainkaryapakas are not there anymore.  There is a Sign Board of a Veda Patshala on the Mada Street but does not seem to have any inhabitants!!!

Bhattars too are seeking greener pastures
Padmanabha Bhattar, whose father had performed aradhana for a few decades at this Divya Desam, has been at the temple for the last 25 years but it has not been a greatly rewarding period financially. Like many of the descendants of the large Sthalathar family, the bhattar’s son too has joined the race for an engineering degree. And it is likely that after spending a huge amount on the college fees and related expenditure, he too will go the corporate way at the end of the course.

It might take another generation or two for the traditionalists to make a comeback into these remote temples.  Or if the corporate lure and the large cities bind them into the modern life style, the kainkaryapakas may have been lost to the remote temples for the foreseeable future.

Only time will tell.
PS: My interest in Thiruvali Thirunagari was inspired by Prabhandham Acharya Srihari Parthasarathy( who explained the intricacies of Thirumangai Azhvaar’s praise on this Divya Desam to his students a decade and a half ago