Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Thiruvallikeni Prabhandham Ghosti

Kaaval Kazhani Ananthacharya the Visionary of the renaissance of the Ghosti MA Venkatakrishnan the Architect

The NewGen skip lucrative global offers in favour of the opportunity to present the Nalayira Divya Prabhandham at the Parthasarathy Perumal Divya Desam in Thiruvallikeni 
A 27 year old Professional returned from the US in May 2014 after doing his Masters in CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) at the University of Texas. He had a great offer on hand from a top corporate in the US and the opportunity to start a long career presented itself before him. But his mind was elsewhere, several thousands of kilometers away, back at his roots in Thiruvallikeni. As a teenager, he had developed a great interest in the Nalayira Divya Prabhandham, the 4000 sacred verses of the Vaishnavite Saint Poets Azhvaars having been initiated into this by his auditor father, who himself was part of the first batch of students in the mid 1970s that led to the revival of interest in the historical verses.

His priority was clear. He wanted the recital of the sacred verses at Thiruvallikeni to be an integral part of his everyday life and thus without any second thoughts, returned to Madras letting go the alluring offer in the US. However, he encountered a unique problem when he began searching for a job here in Madras. His sole condition to the prospective employers of not wanting to be sent overseas on assignments left them stunned.

Every prospective employee would typically ask the possibility of overseas engagements but here was one who even in his very first job was stressing on his intention to stay back in the city through the year. This condition took him longer than usual to find that first job.

He is not alone among the new gen at Thiruvallikeni to lay importance on the recital of the Nalayira Divya Prabhandham. Another youngster, in his 20s, who had completed his ‘Pilot’ degree from the University of Florida, too returned to Madras with a specific intent to be part of both the Ghosti as well as the Sri Patham.

A third resident of Thiruvallikeni has just completed his MBA from the University of California Davis and is returning this fortnight also to join the Prabhandham Ghosti and Vedic Recital.

Such has been the transformation in recent times in the Ghosti at this ancient Divya Desam from the not so rosy past. While Thiruvallikeni has historically been renowned for Prabhandham Ghosti, there was a period in the 20th century when things had taken a downward turn. By the 60s and early 1970s, the size of the Prabhandham Ghosti at the Parthasarathy Perumal Divya Desam in Thiruvallikeni had dwindled driven by a variety of factors.

Across temples in Tamil Nadu, it was one of the worst phases with anti brahmincal wave sweeping the state (http://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2016/10/therazhundur-divya-desam.html). There was insecurity all around. It was a period that saw original inhabitants from several ancient Divya Desams and Thevaram Sthalams sell their historical lands and move to cities seeker greener pastures in corporate jobs(http://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2017/07/thiru-mogur-kalamegha-perumal.html). It was also a phase that saw traditionalists in the city move into private corporate positions.

Kooram Bashyam and TA Srinivasaraghavan are both into their mid 80s and have been rendering this sacred service for several decades. They have seen the Ghosti from the 1940s “In those decades, the Ghosti was not big as one sees today. It was purely honourary service and continues to be so. We present day in day out purely out of devotion for the Lord without expectations of any monetary returns.” 
Fighting it all alone-Kaaval Kazhani Ananthacharya
There was also a lot of factionalism in Thiruvallikeni in those days.  Through the tough times in the 1950s and 60s, the legendary Kaaval Kazhani Ananthacharya held the Ghosti team together fighting tooth and nail for their rights ensuring that it did not collapse in the midst of the various differences that existed at the temple in those decades. He joined the Ghosti when he was in his early 20s way back in the 1940s and served as the Secretary of the Adyapaka team for over two decades from the mid 1950s.

Ananthacharya wanted every activity within the temple to be done in a traditional way and did not compromise on any aspect be it the alankaram for the Lord or presentation of Thaligai or the conduct of the Ghosti. He did not tolerate even a minor deviation from tradition, a characteristic that did not always go well with the temple authorities.

Outside of his temple service, Anathacharya held a high post – he was a Tahsildar. But when it came to providing service to the Lord, he would be at the temple on time. He would arrive by the jeep, remove the attire of the Tahsildar and would transform himself into the role of an Adyapaka in a matter of minutes. He paid attention to the minutest of details including on posture of the Ghosti during the recital.

60 year old P Rangarajan, Sanskrit Professor, Chinmaya Vidyalaya  had seen Ananthacharya from close quarters through the late 1960s and 70s since the time he was a young boy "Kaaval Kazhani Swamy easily ranked the best among the Seva Kalam experts. I have not seen anyone as devoted as him in the presentation of Kattiyam.  Half a century later, his style of presenting the Kattiyam on occasions such as Kaithala Sevai and Thirumanjam remains firmly etched in one’s memory. His was one of the most unforgettable presentations.” 
“It was he who taught us the way to present the Arulichayal. He told me one day way back in the 1960s as to the posture when presenting the verses on street processions. From that day, I have always been with folded hands when in front of the Lord and during the Ghosti” says Rangarajan.

When Rangarajan once asked Ananthacharya to teach him the Prabhandham verses, the revered acharya politely asked the little boy to stand by his side and listen to the presentation of the Dhaniyan. And that was how he was initiated into the first set of verses “When he had a few minutes off from the temple service, he would call us and teach us a few verses sitting in the temple prakaram, such was his attachment to the Divya Prabhandham and the positive intent to share the verses with the younger generation.”

55 year old NR Srinivasan (Singan) currently a staffer at Tamil Nadu News Print too was initiated into Divya Prabhandham by Ananthacharya. He attributes the current flourishing nature of the Ghosti to the efforts of Ananthacharya in the 60s and 70s.
"He was a born disciplinarian. It was he who taught us the way of 'Experiencing God' and the manner of conduct when in front of God. A lot of us from that generation owe our learning entirely to Kaaval Kazhani Swamy.  The fact that you are seeing Ghosti in such large numbers at this Narasimha Brahmotsavam over the last ten days is entirely due to his vision of forging a strong Ghosti at this Divya Desam."

Another long time resident of Thiruvallikeni KS Soundararajan too is in his mid 50s and has been part of the Ghosti for many decades. To him Ananthacharya was a true role model “Kaval Kazhani Swamy was a role model for any new aspirant. He had a voice that stood out in the crowd. His attire when he entered for the Ghosti was immaculate. It was he who inspired the new generation on the importance of learning and presenting the sacred verses in front of the Lord.  There were many in the temple who just could not withstand the strict discipline and his stringent traditional ways but even they were stunned at his style of presenting the Kattiyam and stood speechless watching his unflinching devotion to the Lord.”

Golden Jubilee Celebrations and the Big Turning Point
Former Head of Vaishnavite Department, Madras University and author & publisher of sacred books, MA Venkatakrishnan(MAV) was still a school boy when he began interacting very closely with Ananthacharya in the late 60s and early 70s. It was Ananthacharya who initiated MAV into a major part of Nalayira Divya Prabhandham.

1973-74 marked the Golden Jubilee of the landmark Madras High Court Judgment of 1923 which had placed the rights of the Prabhandham Ghosti on the Thengalai Vaishnava Brahmins of Thiruvallikeni and the right to add members on the Adyapakas of the Prabhandham Ghosti. MAV was keen to celebrate the Golden Jubilee in a grand manner and expressed his eagerness to do so, to Ananthacharya.

A look back The Landmark Judgment of 1923
In the early decades of the 20th century, there was constant friction between the trustees of the Parthasarathy temple and the members of the Ghosti.  The trustees were elected by the local people. At one point of time, they wanted to appoint the Adyapakas as servants and this was strongly objected to by the Ghosti.  This led to an even greater friction and there was an ‘A’ Ghosti (appointed by the Trustees) and a ‘B’ Ghosti appointed by the residents.  This friction finally led to a case in the Madras High Court.  In a landmark judgment, an order was passed in 1923 placing the right of appointment of Ghosti members on the local residents of Triplicane and away from the trustees.

Following this judgment, an association was formed by the Ghosti and qualifications were laid out for becoming an Adyapaka of the Ghosti at the Thiruvallikeni Divya Desam. One had to be married, had to have a tuft and the traditional attire, should have crossed 25 years, have knowledge of at least 2000 sacred verses (and other verses relating to recital during different utsavams/occasions) and had to have been a resident of Thiruvallikeni for at least (the previous) six months.

Five decades later, when a few of the local residents filed a case citing non inclusion in the Ghosti, the Judge ordered that the right to add members of the Ghosti lay with the elderly members of the Adyapakas (7 out of the current 16 Adyapakas form the elderly members group). 

Ananthacharya hands over responsibility to MAV
Ananthacharya had been solely responsible for the development of the Ghosti leading up to that phase. He was very vocal and had fought for the rights of the Ghosti through his life time. He saw developing the team and expanding interest in the Prabhandham recital as a more important objective than any grand celebrations and used the golden jubilee milestone as an opportunity to revive interest in the Ghosti. 
Knowing the enthusiasm and the inherent networking capabilities of MAV, Ananthacharya saw the potential in MAV and placed on him the enormous responsibility of reviving the Ghosti. He suggested the idea of a Divya Prabhandham Patshala to coincide with the Golden Jubilee and asked MAV to create afresh and develop the Prabhandham members for the next generation by initiating them into the sacred verses.  However, what followed may have been even beyond Ananthacharya's wildest imagination and gave him great delight in the coming three years, before his sudden demise in  1977.

MAV’s aggressive style
MAV went about his task in an aggressive way. He was determined to get the youngsters interested in Divya Prabhandham. He put out a notice across Thiruvallikeni about the launch of the Prabhandham class and instilled in the minds of the Vaishnavite residents around the temple the importance of sending at least one member of the family. And the response was remarkable. Very soon he managed to mobilize 70 students, mostly youngsters. Never before had a class seen such great strength all at one time and it showed MAV’s networking ability even at that young age. 
And as a 20 year old, who had just completed his own initiation, MAV began training students into the sacred verses. They all sat in a small packed front room of his house to learn each day between 6am and 7am. He started with Moonram Thiruvanthathi, for that was recited frequently at the ‘Veethi Purapadu’ at the Parthasarathy Perumal Divya Desam. He encouraged the students to be part of the Ghosti during the street processions and recite these Iyarpa verses.

A Unique Model that inspired the students
MAV motivated the students with monthly tests and  each of the students competed with each other in a positive way to bag the prize for the best performers. The tests helped create sustained interest in these sacred verses.

With the experience of teaching students in those years at the Vivekananda College, MAV knew the art of generating interest among the boys in these sacred verses.

T. A Bhakti Saran, one of the students from that batch of 1974 and who continues to be part of the Ghosti to this day, remembers the inspirational role of Ananthacharya during the first 2-3 years.

"Though Kaaval Kazhani Swamy had placed the mantle of running the class on MAV, he would finish his morning service at the temple and stand at the entrance of MAV’s house and watch the performance of the boys. At the end of the class, he would appreciate the boys for the presentation. The mere presence of Kaval Kazhani Swamy was a big motivation for all of us. Having finished his service at the temple, it would have been fair of him to have gone back home but rarely did he do that. He would always stay back at MAV’s house till the end of the class and took delight in our learning. One could sense the happiness in him on seeing the big size of the class and the interest that MAV had managed to create in the young students."

The days around the two Brahmotsavams, Ramanuja Utsavam and Manavala Mamunigal Utsavam were off as was the period leading up to our annual examinations. Prabhandham class was never in conflict with the academics. 

When the elderly saw the buzz around the temple, they too joined the class and were initiated into Divya Prabhandham.  Thus the base for the revival of the Ghosti and the large numbers that one sees today in Thiruvallikeni was created in the 70s and 80s. 

Kaaval Kazhani Swamy's
sons too have followed in the footsteps of their illustrious father with active participation in the Ghosti with one of them also having foregone outstation career growth opportunities to be in Thiruvallikeni to be able to present the sacred verses on a daily basis 'Nothing is more important in my life than presenting the Arulichayal' is his view.

The 80s and 90s
Following the sudden death of Ananthacharya, C Parthasarathy took over the role of Secretary of the Adyapakas and played a key role in the development of the Ghosti for the next 20 years. It was he who roped in MAV into the Adyapaka team in the early 1990s just prior to the Samprokshanam.

There is a healthy mix now of adyapakas aged above 60 (15 out of the 16 are above 60 years), a fair size of middle aged members who had come through in the 1980s and a large contingent of youngsters who are seeing the recital of the sacred verses as an important aspect of their everyday life.

2000 Services Annually
Each day of the week, one of the 7 senior members of the Adyapaka team is bestowed the responsibility of the Prabhandham ThodakkamThere is an unwritten code that the Adyapakas should attend at least 10 days in a month. They meet at least once a year to review the year gone by and to plan for the year ahead to see if anything could be improvised. But they try not to alter anything that has been historically followed. While MAV, who has been the Secretary of the Adyapakas for almost the last two decades, has initiated improvisations once in a while, he has agreed with the larger views of the group and has always wanted it to be a consensus based Ghosti. 
The Ghosti provides 2000 services annually. On some days in the year, the Ghosti presents 7 services. The entire 4000 verses are presented in full five times a year and in a ‘shortened’ way on another five occasions. The Prabhandham team also presents the Iyarpa verses in full during the seven day utsavams such as Vasanthotsavam, Pavitrotsavam, Davana Utsavam and Theppotsavam. On the final day of the two Brahmotsavams, the Ghosti's service expands to 6 hours at a stretch reciting the entire Tiruvoimozhi as was seen yesterday.

The future
Driven by the revival in the 1970s and 80s, the sacred verses are now taught by multiple teachers, each with a set of students, and individually as well by father to the son .

It is refreshing to see kids as young as 10 years joining in large numbers in the recital of Divya Prabhandham during the street processions at the Thiruvallikeni Divya Desam. Youngsters in their 20s who have let go big overseas career opportunities are serving as an inspiration for the school boys and teenagers with their devotional rendering every day to make the recital of the sacred verses an important part of their lives. 
Despite minor differences of opinions that crop up every now and then, the Unity of the Prabhandham Ghosti has been a big differentiating factor at Thiruvallikeni. Four decades after the launch of a concerted exercise to drive residents of Thiruvallikeni into the recital of Nalayira Divya Prabhandham, the transformation seems complete. 


Anonymous said...


Very Well researched and written. Wonderful to read about their discipline and devotion to the cause.

Anonymous said...

Though I belong to Perumal Koil ( Kanchi), Tiruvalikeni has been very close to me nowadays, they are experts!

Anonymous said...

Simply Divine.

Unknown said...

Super write-up.

Anonymous said...

Definitely i salute these people here (in Triplicane).

Unknown said...

Wonderful. Well explained.Pranams

Anonymous said...

Nice to know being a resident of Tiruvallikeni.

Nirmal Pratheep said...

Wonderful adiyen

E.Rajagopalan said...

Just adiyen was not blessed to have the bhagyam of performing the kainkaryam.

Anonymous said...

Like the flow of the Prabhandham. Lovely flow in the writing...
In fact briefly I did attend MAV's class but could not pursue:-(

Anonymous said...

Hi Prabhu,

Great story. Appreciate your efforts in personally meeting goshti people of different age groups, gathering facts, taking photos- managing factions.

The flow of the story is also very interesting.


Unknown said...

The whole story precision, perfection and devotion would be incomplete without the name of Dr MS Rangachariar swamy alias Malliam Babu swamy of thiruvallikeni. He is a living legend

Anonymous said...

Wonderful writeup ☝��

Anonymous said...

Superb write-up. This kind of service requires immense faith, devotion and sacrifice in today’ s world and the article captures that spirit in a breathtaking manner

markiv said...

Thank you once again for the wonderful article.

Anonymous said...

Superb one, fantastic !!

BTW, what if a non Sri Vaishnava wanted to learn Prabhandham ??

s v sreedhara said...

I salute everyone for their efforts for keeping tradition intact. I feel I am lucky to go through above details