Friday, February 24, 2017

Erettai Tirupathi Transformation

From wading through the Tamaraibarani to be welcomed by Snakes and Bats to the most dramatic Divya Desam transformation - The tale of survival and the new found happiness at Erettai Tirupathi

It has been forty long years since G Seshamani Bhattar took charge of the pooja at the twin temples dedicated to Aravinda Losana and Devapiran at Erettai Tirupathi Divya Desam, the Lords of which Nam Azhvaar saw as his father and mother. For a few years prior, he had been involved with a few temples in Nava Tirupathi on an ad hoc basis. His father in law, Venkatakrishnan, had been performing pooja at Erettai Tirupathi since the 1940s at a low two digit salary. Like his father in law earlier, Seshamani Bhattar too performed pooja in the twin temples of Tholai Villi Mangalam at a miniscule salary that never crossed Rs. 70 per month. And even that he would receive only once a year quite in contrast to Nam Azhvaar's praise of Erettai Tirupathi, one that he described as a wealthy location on the Northern Banks of Tamaraibarani abound with sugarcane, paddy and lotus.

தோக்கும் பக்கம் எல்லாம் கரும்பொடு 
செந்நெல் ஓங்கு செந்தாமரை 
வாய்க்கும் தண் பொருநல் வடகரை 
வண் தொலை வில்லி மங்கலம் 


A Dark Era
Through that dark period (literally) - there was no electricity in the entire Erettai Tirupathi region), Seshamani Bhattar was welcomed every morning with the fizzing noise of the serpants and the flapping of the wings of the bats. The Erettai Tirupathi region was a dense forest inhabitated largely by poisonous snakes. The dark Sannidhi inside the temple proved a perfect abode for hundreds of bats. 

In the early part of the 20th century, there had been a few Brahmin families in the agraharam but they had to be evacuated following several floods the most severe of which struck in the first quarter.

There was not even a mud road to the temple from any of the Nava tirupathi temples. And there were no bridges as well to reach the temple crossing the Tamaraibarani River. The only option to reach the temple was to wade through the chest high water at the river, and then through the dense thicket to the temple.

After he managed to reach the temple, the plight of the Bhattar was quite miserable. With no power facilities, it was largely pitch dark in and around the sannidhi. There was hardly the required quantity of ghee to light the lamp on a regular basis. Worst still, his wait for that odd devotee always proved a futile one. 25 paise thattu kaasu per week was a luxury.

True Devotion a way of life
And yet for two decades, Seshamani Bhattar would arrive at the twin temples every morning at 11am after performing pooja at Thiru Kolur Divya Desam to perform aradhana here at the twin temples. he would then leave at 4pm so as to be in time at Thiru Kolur for the evening pooja there. This was a daily routine for him. His only companions at Erettai Tirupathi were the mammals. The only noise he heard was of the serpent's fizz once again in contrast to Nam Azhvaar's praise of the twin temples being home to Vedic Chants through the day and the presence of beautiful girls dancing their way around the temples. 

திருந்து  வேதமும் வேள்வியும்
திரு மா மகளிரும் தாம் மலிந்து 
இருந்து வாழ் பொருநல் வடகரை 
வண் தொலை வில்லி மங்கலம் 
Decades earlier, his father in law used to engage bullock cart once in a while to move around but once Seshamani Bhattar joined Erettai Tirupathi his only mode of transport was the long 6 km walk across the Tamaraibarani.

True devotion to the Lord kept them going. During that dark phase of life, Seshamani Bhattar rarely went outside of these temples in search of additional sources of income for he was committed to the Lords of Erettai Tirupathi and Thiru Kolur.

And then things turned for the worse in the early 1990s. Ravaged by floods in the Tamaraibarani, the temple had reached a state of total dilapidation. Water levels reached the feet of the Lord inside the temple. It seemed to be a helpless state for the Bhattar with nowhere to turn to. 
While on one side there was very little financial security with a low two digit monthly salary, on the other there was always the threat of physical attack by animals including the real possibility of snake bites. Encountering snakes inside the temple was a regular feature for both Venkatakrishnan Bhattar as well as Seshamani Bhattar.

Large shrubs had come up on the Vimana and the inner walls. The prakara was covered with huge bushes and no devotee could go around the sannidhi in either of the temples.

The only time the temple really lit up was on Maasi Anusham when Nam Azhvaar made his way across the Tamarai Barani for a day long stay here. That brought in groups of devotees from Azhvaar Tirunagari and around.

86 year old Appu Sadagopachari, a resident of Azhvaar Tirunagari from the pre independence days has great memories of his trips to Erettai Tirupathi ‘The water in the Tamaraibarani would flow through to the East at constant speed. I would walk across to the Southern Banks and get on to the river. We would recite slokas and reach the Northern Banks. The annual Maasi utsavam was a day of celebration at the twin temples for that was the big day of the year as the Lords at each of the temples welcomed Nam Azhvaar for the day long stay.” 

Following the floods in the early 1990s, the twin temples seemed to be on the verge of collapse.

Appu Sadagopachari vividly remembers those days. He points to the roof above the location we were chatting and with a blink of an eye folds his hands in prayer to Lord Aravinda Losana for having protected them. ‘The roof could have fallen off any time. There were pillars hanging around. Water had seeped in right to the sanctum.’

Seshamani Bhattar has tears in his eyes when he narrates his struggle in that phase of life “The temple structure itself seemed to be going down as a result of the floods and there was a real threat of one of the Divya Desams being lost to the Vaishnavite world.  The entire temple complex was stuck with dirty water and filth.’
The Transformation
And then one of the biggest transformations in Divya Desams in Tamil Nadu came about in a rather unexpected way and quite out of the blue.

Venu Srinivasan received a call in 1993 from a minister, who after having been shocked at the dilapidated state of Erettai Tirupathi was keen to revive the entire Nava Tirupathi temples. It was an important call for otherwise it could have led to the downfall of a historical temple that had been highly praised by Nam Azhvaar.

Along with other entrepreneurs and business men that included Thayagaraja and Ashok Nadar, Venu Srinivasan set about creating an infrastructure to restore all the temples to its glorious past. He roped in Ganapathi Stapathi to take a look at the structure and sought ways to restore each of the temples. It was Venu Srinivasan's first real foray into temple restoration services (previously he had been involved in restoring a temple in Arcot - Padai Veedu).

While Venu Srinivasan orchestrated the revival of all the temples there, Erettai Tirupathi was a special one for him, for Ganapathi Stapathi personally suggested that he take up the entire restoration efforts of Tholai Villi Mangalam on himself. And that’s exactly what he did.

Architectural Restoration
Each of the pillars and stones were numbered so as to not lose any of the ancient pieces of work. The outer walls were strengthened. Sky lighting was installed. Special provisions were made for ventilation that now provides light into the mandapa opposite the sanctum. As it involved restoration, the focus was on quality and not on speed and thus the entire process took almost three years, much longer than it would have taken otherwise.


More important was the revival of festivals that was to follow.

Revival of the Brahmotsavam
Nam Azhvaar had praised this Divya Desam as one that flourished with festival sounds.
குமுறும் ஓசை விழவு ஒலித் தொலை வில்லி மங்கலம் 

The annual Brahmotsavam including all the Vahana processions was revived at the twin temples of Aravinda Losana and Devapiran. One of the important deterrents previously had been the lack of access to the temple. With no power and no roads to the temple, the only option was to walk across the Tamaraibarani. Over a period of time, roads were built from each of the other Nava Tirupathi temples. Power connection became a reality. Presentation of Thaligai to the Lord both in the morning as well as in the evening was another step in the revival.  
Seshamani Bhattar who performed daily pooja in three temples for over two decades at a salary of less than Rs. 100 per month was assigned the Devapiran Sannidhi as an exclusive temple with a monthly Sambhavanai that was several multiples of what he had received over the last many years. The Bhattar’s monthly income touched four digit for the first time in 1998.

There was also a separate full time priest assigned to Aravinda Losana temple, the Northern temple at Erettai Tirupathi.

Love and care was extended to animals as well. When the temple elephant at Perungulum died, he was given a royal send off as a token of gratitude to the years of services he had rendered to Lord Mayakoothan. Not a single Bat in the twin temples of Erettai Tirupathi was killed in the transformational exercise. They were all picked up and let out in the nearby hills giving them a fresh lease of life.

More improvements followed making a visit to the entire Nava Tirupathi a reality. In decades gone by, one had to spend at least two days to visit the nine temples. Today, most devotees complete the entire Nava Tirupathi in half a day. It was during that phase post the restoration initiatives that a chart was prepared and pasted at each of the Nava Tirupathi temples providing a clear route map and the timing of each of the temples. Other amenities too were spruced up. There is now a clean public toilet complex in the region with branded urinals.

Entrepreneurial Movement
In addition to restoring the temple to its ancient glory, Venu Srinivasan felt that there had to be economic development in the village and initiated Self Help Groups to undertake activities that included converting waste product into renewable. Over the last decade or so, these SHGs have even gone on to receive national awards for village development activities.

The restoration of Nava Tirupathi temples has also served as a boost to entrepreneurs in the region for the cab services have seen a dramatic rise in their fortunes with regular weekend trips from Tirunelveli.

With his son wanting him to lead a retired life in Madras, Appu Sadagopachari had one eye on settling down in Thiruvanmiyur. But for one who had seen the worst of Erettai Tirupathi, this transformation was to be savoured and enjoyed. And when the call came from Venu Srinivasan asking him to take care of ensuring the presentation of Thaligai at Erettai Tirupathi, he just could not refuse.

An auto has been assigned to pick him up every morning from his house on the North Street of Azhvaar Tirunagari to take him to Erettai Tirupathi. Following the presentation of the Thaligai, he returns by auto for an afternoon nap at his home town.

He is thrilled at this unexpected transformation since the mid 1990s ‘No one foresaw this transformation. For those who had personally witnessed the ravages of the time, the support rendered by Venu Srinivasan was truly a God sent blessing to the residents of Nava Tirupathi. After several decades of financial turmoil and wading through the rough troughs of the nature’s fury, one now finds a lot of happiness in the faces of the Bhattars and their support staff with the new financial security and the positive vibration emerging out of the increased number of devotees.’
Seshamani Bhattar is past 60. He continues to perform pooja at Devapiran temple post his official retirement. There are enough reasons now for him to celebrate with both his sons ( Raghu and Balaji Bhattar) having chosen to stick to temple kainkaryam despite the financial plight of his father and grandfather over the 2nd half of the 20th century. The monthly Sambavanai presented by Venu Srinivasan and the increased ‘Thattu Kasu’ have provided great financial security to the sons of Seshamani Bhattar. Each (of his sons) takes care of one temple and one can sense a general sense of happiness in them while at the temple.

Earlier this week, it was a delight to find a large crowd at the annual Maasi Anusham festival at Erettai Tirupathi (http://prtraveller.blogspot.in/2017/02/erettai-tirupathi-maasi-anusham-festival.html).

Just the happy faces of the Bhattars at Erettai Tirupathi would have made this restoration a worthwhile exercise. For the devoted Seshamani Bhattar, it is finally happy times to be seeing human faces around him through the day from the previously lonely life at the temple spent alongside reptiles and mammals!!

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

A wonderful article, one of your very best.

Thank you once again.

Regards

Anonymous said...

Fantastic as usual Prabhu... This is exactly why we need the government to handover control of OUR temples to us. Hopefully that happens soon and we do a good job of taking care of our Dharma & culture.

Anonymous said...

A touching story!!