Friday, January 31, 2020

Thiru Vennai Nallur Kripapureeswarar

It was at this temple that Lord Kripapureeswarar asked Sundarar to praise him as the ‘MAD’ one 
80 Year Old Arthanareeswarar Gurukal has served at the temple for seven decades, a major part of which at a two digit salary

In a great devotional beginning, legendary Saint Poet Sundara Murthy Nayanar in his very first verse on Kripapureeswarar of Thiruvennainallur refers to the ‘ARULAALAA’ character of the Lord and gives one an indication of how God is compassionate to his devotees, those that offer their sincere prayers to him. When Sundarar asks Kripapureeswarar inside the Thiruvennainallur temple as to how he can praise him and if he was fit at all, the Lord asks him to praise with the very same word (mad) that he had referred to the old man at the wedding mandapa. A delighted Sundarar reaffirms that the Lord of Thiruvennainallur is indeed a MAD one for how else would he shower his blessings on this devotee who had thrown abuses at him, one who had torn the Olai document into pieces and show his compassion by preventing this devotee from being bonded into a married life.  

In his first verse, Sundarar begins with a reference to the Lord as Mad in providing arulaalaa to his devotees.
பித்தா  பிறைசூடி பெரு மானே  அருளாளா
எத்தால் மற வாதே நினைக்கின்றேன் மனத்துன்னை

வைத்தாய்  பெண்ணைத் தென்பால் 
வெண்ணை நல்லூர் அருட்டுறையுள் 
அத்தா உனக் காளாய் இனி
அல்லேன் எனல் ஆமே

Lord Shiva wanted Sundarar, his ardent devotee in Kailayam to go to the Bhoologam to sing his praise and spread devotion among the people there and spread dharmic messages. When Sundarar went to pluck flowers in the Nandavanam as part of his every day process, his eyes fell on two young women, assistants to Parvathi, who too were there to pluck flowers from the same Nandavanam. When he went back with the garland, the Lord shocked him by informing Sundarar that he granting him what currently interested his devotee (as he was attracted to the two women that day). A shocked Sundarar asked if this was a blessing or a punishment. The Lord directed Sundarar to go to Bhoologam and sing verses that would serve as great life lessons for those who sway from Godly thoughts and that he would prevent Sundarar from bondage in his life on earth. Accepting this, Sundarar asked for his thoughts to be always of Shiva when in bhoolagam.

He was born to Sadayanar and Isai Gnaniyaar in a Shivachariar family in Thiru Navalur, about 20kms South East of Thiru Vennai Nallur and 20kms West of Thiru Vathigai (http://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2019/12/thiru-vathigai-veerateswarar.html).

When Narasinga Munayarayan, the king who ruled from Sernthamangalam, on the Northern side of Kedilam, came to Thiru Navalur, he was impressed with the boy’s qualities of running a chariot at such a young age and expressed interest to bring him up in his kingdom. In the 16th year, his parents found a suitable bride for him at Puthur (near Panruti), the daughter of Sadankavi Shivachariar. 

The formalities began in right earnest with homams. The people of Thiru Navalur were delighted at having found such a beautiful girl for Sundarar. Just ahead of the important moment in his life, an elderly person with the sacred ash on his forehead, a bag on his shoulder, a rudraksham hanging on his chest, a stick in hand and sandals announced to the gathering that that the bridegroom is his slave and that he had to immediately follow his instructions. 

Angered at this direction, Sundarar hit back at the old man questioning his slavery to another human and called him Mad. The elderly man retorted that he had proof of his forefathers being slaves to him and that he too is now a slave as part of the historical agreement. When the old man presented the proof, Sundarar cut it and threw into the homam fire. Shouting out at Sundarar, the old man said that he had correctly predicted the reaction of Sundarar and thus as a proactive measure he had safeguarded the original document back home in Thiruvennainallur and called out for the society to gather there so he could show the proof.

The people of Thiru Navalur and Puthur gathered at the Thiruvennainallur. The old man read out from the original document
அருமறை நாவல் ஆதிசைவன் ஆரூரன் செய்கை
பெருமுனி வெண்ணைநல்லூர் பித்தனுக்கு யானும்
என்பால்  வருமுறை  மரபினோரும் வழித்தொண்டு
செய்ய  இவ்வோலை அருமையாய் எழுதினேன்
இதற்கு இவை என் எழுத்து

When the Panchayat asked for proof of this indeed being the signature of Sundarar’s forefathers, the people went back to Navalur and brought back the Olai Chuvadi and found that the signatures tallied and pronounced that Sundarar was indeed a slave to that old man and should now act as per his direction. When the curious people of Thiruvennainallur asked him as to he was and where he stayed for they had never seen him in the agraharam, the old man asked them to  accompany him. At the entrance of the temple he left the sandals and went inside much. When Sundarar alone accompanied him into the temple, he disappeared much to Sundarar’s shock. Sundarar once again expressed his anger with the remark ‘you stopped the wedding, you said that I am your slave and now you disappear without disclosing your identity.”

It was then that an invisible voice informed Sundarar the purpose of the event that preceded this disappearance and how Lord Kripapureeswarar had come to protect him by prevent his marriage thus helping him from bondage. The Lord said that Sundarar had served with great devotion in Kailayam and that he should now sing verses in praise of the Lord. An embarrassed Sundarar, who had called the old man Mad asked the Lord as to how he could praise him for he had only then  referred to him as MAD. The Lord asked him to start the verse with that very same word and in that same spirit. Thus Sundara Murthy Nayanar begins his praise of 10 verses on Lord Kripapureeswarar of Thiru Vennai Nallur with the same word ‘Pithan’ and refers to the Lord as ‘Arulaalaa’, one who showed compassion even on someone who had referred to him as being mad.

In his 9th verse, Sundarar says that the Lord gives relief to devotees who come here and invoke his blessings with sincere devotion.

முழுவாள் வலன் ஏந்தீ மறையோதி மங்கை பங்கா
தொழுவாரவர் துயராயின தீர்த்தல்லுன தொழிலே
செழுவார் பெண்ணைத் தென்பால்
வெண்ணை நல்லூர் அருட்டுறையுள் 
அழகா உனக்  காளாய்  இனி அல்லேன் எனலாமே

Sundarar took the Paathugai on his head and placed it in the sanctum. A special feature at this temple is that the sandals of the Lord is seen at the sanctum. 
Following this, Sundarar went to Thiru Vathigai, Chidambaram, Sirkazhi, Tiruvarur and Tiruvottiyur singing praise of the Lord ( story on this follows shortly)

The Name Thiru Vennai Nallur
When Ambigai took the form of Durga to kill Mahishasura, she remained in an angry state subsequent to the event. With butter, she created a Shiva Lingam and performed Pooja here at this place invoking the blessings of the Lord. It was here that she regained her composure. As she created the Lingam with butter, this place came to be called as Thiru ‘Vennai’ Nallur. As she regained her beautiful form, she provides darshan here as ‘Mangalambigai’. 
Periyava's Message and Seven Decades of Service 
80 year old Arthanareeswarar Gurukal has lived all his life at Thiruvennainallur. He has performing pooja at this temple for almost 70 years almost single handedly. He began service at a salary of Rs.10 and for many decades that remained his salary. There was no power in those days. It was he who lit the lamp at the Sannidhis.  During his teenage days, there was a long agraharam in the West Street with over 100 traditional families being an integral part of this historical town. But they all left the town in the 70s and 80s in search of jobs in cities and today there no traditionalists other than the Gurukal’s family in this ancient town. 
For a major part of his life, he and his family struggled to make both ends meet.  Once when he met Maha Periyava in Kanchipuram, the great Saint passed by with these words ‘Do not leave the temple’. It is only for that reason that he has continued the devotional service without any financial returns from the temple. He officially retired in 2006, though for the last 15 years he has still been active at the temple. His grandson who performs service as a temporary staff is now paid a monthly salary of Rs. 2000. It has taken over seven decades for the salary to move up from Rs. 10 to Rs. 2000.

The HRCE funded Uchi Kaalam Pooja, the morning pooja funded by Aatheenam, the evening pooja funded from the lands have all been stopped long ago. For the Artha Jaama pooja, he gets 25kgs rice once every quarter. Unmindful of these challenges, he has continued all the poojas through these decades. In those decades, the land titles clearly indicated the money to be paid to the temple and the tillers would pay on time. Over time, with the changed political scenario, he has not been able to get any revenue from the temple lands and has been left to manage the financials all by himself through the devotees.

Many devotees have experienced dramatic positive changes in their lives after his archanai and pooja at this temple. It was through one such devotee that he completed the full electrification of the temple. Through another devotee, he built an idol of Sundarar and the old man involved in the debate at the mandapam on the North Side of the Eastern Entrance. The entire flooring was converted to granite. He has done 100s of Chandi Homam at the temple.
At 80, his back and legs have become weak and he is not able to walk with ease anymore. In his lifetime, he has performed three Kumbabhisekams at this temple with the fourth one set to take place shortly. He is keen on completing the construction of the new 7 Tier Raja Gopuram that is currently under way at the Eastern Entrance and soon after its completion, he is hoping that Kripapureeswarar will bless him with a 4th Kumbabhisekam at this temple.
 
Festivals
2 day Festival for Sundarar in Aadi – The episodes from his life are enacted during these two days
10 Brahmotsavam in Panguni

The temple is open from 6am to 12noon and from 4pm to 830pm. Contact Arthanareeswarar Gurukal @ 96268 07015

How to reach
Thiruvennainallur is 20kms South West of Villupuram and 15kms West of Thiru Navalur, the birth place of Sundarar. Buses ply every half hour from Villupuram. One can get down at Arasur Cross Road and board the Cuddalore/Panruti- Thirukovilur bus to get down at Thiruvennainallur (10kms)

Friday, January 24, 2020

Murali Bhattar Srirangam Temple Chief Priest

From a hesitant archaka to the Chief Priest of the Ranganathasamy Temple in Srirangam, it’s been a devotionally eventful journey for Murali Bhattar

'No Hunger - No Money ' - Financial Insecurity loomed large in the lives of the archakas not so long ago at the Srirangam Temple

As he was completing his education in the 1960s and 70s, the message from his father and other family members was very clear. The situation at the Ranganathaswamy temple in Srirangam, as with most other Divya Desams (http://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2016/09/thenthiruperai-divya-desam.html?m=1) at that time, had turned grim and his near ones wanted him to move into service that was away from the temple. This was the case in most Divya Desams in Tamil Nadu with parents not wanting their children to undergo the financial stress that they had gone through. But destiny decided otherwise and R. Murali Bhattar came into temple service under quite unexpected circumstances and almost in a reluctant manner, unsure of what the future held for him at the temple.

His elder brother, Narasimha Bhattar, was the one performing service at the  Ranganatha temple in the 1970s but with the situation turning sour, the financial challenges increased and when a lucrative offer came from a temple in the US, he decided to make the move becoming the first priest of Srirangam to make his way to a US temple (40 years on, Narasimha Bhattar continues to serve at the US temple).

This sudden decision of his brother quite unexpectedly paved the way for the young Murali, who at that time was into menial jobs in Trichy. His father, Rangaraja Bhattar, who was held in high esteem at the temple, directed him to serve Lord Ranganatha for the rest of his life and thus began his service at the Srirangam temple that has lasted close to four decades, one that has now taken him to the top post among the archakas.

The 1950s scenario - During his father's service
His father joined the temple in the 1940s at the age of 15 and served for over five decades. It had been a very challenging period for the family in the 1950s and 60s. For a temple that is now overflowing with vastrams, the situation back then was quite grim. As a young boy, Murali Bhattar remembers the period in the 1960s at the Ranganayaki Thayar Sannidhi “The saree of Thayar was repeatedly scratched by cockroaches. There was no replacement saree available and Thayar would remain draped in the same ‘torn’ saree for a long period of time before the next saree was presented by a devotee.” 
Murali Bhattar's father was liked by all the Kainkaryapakas who referred to him as 'Anna'. Many kainkaryapakas came to his house everyday for a chat. His mother would struggle to make coffee for all the service personnel who visited his father daily for exchange of views but somehow managed to keep it going each day. 7 of them in the family slept under a single fan every night through the 60s and 70s, which was the scenario for most residents of Srirangam. With the networking ability of his father and his special ability to service high profile devotees, his father was reasonably better off (financially) than many archakas of the time.  
                       'Anna' Rangaraja Bhattar with his wife

Vedic and Agama Initiation
As a teenager, Murali Bhattar was initiated into Shukla Yajur Veda at the Sringeri Patshala, near Amma Mandapam in the early 1970s. He was also initiated into stotras at the Jaimini Sama Veda Patshala on North Chitra Street in Srirangam. Revered seniors at the Ranganathaswamy temple such as Raghava Bhattar and Krishna Bhattar along with his father Rangaraja Bhattar trained him on the Agamas.

Tennis Ball cricket in North Chitrai Street
The 1950s-70s period was marked by competitive tennis ball matches in front of Murali Bhattar's house on North Chitra Street with teenagers of Chitra Street competing with those from other streets such as Uthira Veethi and Mel Adayavalanjan. The winner of these matches took home a 'kadalai mittai' packet.

Soon after his brother left for the US, Murali Bhattar, then in his 20s, joined the temple in the early 1980s. While the overall service days totaled to just over 200 annually, the service  at the Perumal Moolavar Sannidhi was just 3-4 days every month. In the early phase of his service at the temple, there were three devotees who contributed to a majority of the Thattu Kaasu.  A tailor presented Rs. 20 in the morning, while a Chettiar contributed Rs. 10 at noon. When Bangur Dharmasala chief visited the temple, he placed Rs. 20 on the Thattu. This was shared among multiple Kainkaryapakas. There was minimal Thattu Kaasu outside of these during that phase.

Full Archanai at Moolavar Sannidhi
There was a time when archakas actually performed full fledged archanai both in the Perumal Moolavar and Thayar Sannidhi. Some of the traditional residents of Srirangam actually paid for a full year of archanai (approx Rs. 50) thus pushing the family members to visit the temple to invoke the blessings of the Lord. The archakas got a share in the archanai and this too contributed in a small way to their income.

To those in the new gen, it is almost unthinkable that there was a period in the not too distant past when the archakas of Srirangam actually waited at the entrance of the Sannidhi for devotees to come and ask for  an archanai. Today, a devotee gets just a fraction of a minute to have darshan, such has been the devotional wave that has hit the temple in the last decade or two.

Thattu Kaasu was almost nonexistent in other sannidhis at this huge temple. Many of the Sannidhis remained shut most of the time. A few kms East, at the Singa Perumal Temple, the Parijaraka would go around the town selling the prasadam to devotees to try and make some money every day. Such was the state of life for the service personnel at the temple.

New Constructions galore
In the 2nd half of the previous century, as a young boy, Murali Bhattar saw extensive new constructions coming up in many of the sannidhis in this huge temple. The new additions not only resulted in dark sannidhis but also led to violations on many other fronts.  

No Hunger No Money
Murali Bhattar remembers those decades in his life “There was neither ‘hunger’ nor money in our lives. We had got used to eating ‘Pazhaya Saatham’.  Having father the service personnel encounter huge financial challenges, there was always a fear inside us in those days that the money from the temple would just not be enough to manage a family.” His father had to sell historical properties to sustain the family finances. And financial insecurity loomed large in the lives of the archakas.

This also led him to join BHEL, Trichy in the 1980s from where he retired earlier this decade. Almost all the archakas of the period went to jobs locally as a solution to the financial challenges that they and their parents had faced. As a consequence, the next gen focused on academics. It was a phase of life when an entire generation of upcoming archakas spent time in school and collegiate education, many of whom also pursuing Masters. Both the sons of Murali Bhattar completed their Masters and went into a corporate life at the turn of the century.

Murali Bhattar also oversaw the Samprokshanam in 2001. The last decade or so has seen a big turnaround in the temple’s fortunes. From a period 60 years ago, when the archakas waited at the Sannidhi for that elusive devotee, today the overflowing devotee crowd has led to big challenges in crowd management. Interestingly though, this positive financial reversal in temples also led to the sons quitting their corporate jobs and joining the temple service recently.
Murali Bhattar flanked by Rengu Bhattar and Vasudeva Bhattar - 2001 Samprokshanam

Sri Jayanthi Utsavam - The Revival
The most delightful restoration for him as an archaka has been the transformation of the Sri Jayanthi mandapam (http://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2018/09/sripandaram-krishna-jayanthi-utsavam.html). Such was the additional construction in that zone in the previous century that even the traditional inhabitants of Srirangam had come to forget the historical importance of the place. This zone was converted into a madapalli and many service personnel ran this as a ‘business center’. The revival of the Sri Jayathi procession to its earlier grandeur to him has been most significant part of the restoration exercise. He along with most other archakas are delighted that almost all the new unwanted additions of the previous century have been brought down and the sannidhis have been restored to its historical glory.

Following the largest restoration initiative at the temple that lasted 18 months(http://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2017/11/venu-srinivasan-srirangam-temple.html), it was Murali Bhattar who anchored the grand Samprokshanam end of 2015 and with it's success also came the huge responsibility of the post of The Chief Priest of the Ranganathaswamy temple in one of the most challenging times for this ancient Divya Desam.

Unmanageable crowd vs Pooja Processes
With the huge swelling crowds topping 70000 on big festive days, his responsibility has increased manifold. He has devotionally managed to perform his duty in as sincere a way as possible straddling between accommodating the huge devotee crowd on one side and sticking to the agamas and pooja procedures on the other.

The current scenario presents a completely different challenge from the ones during the days when he joined the temple but Murali Bhattar is confident that he will be able to devotionally perform his service in the same way that his forefathers had in the centuries gone by (he has a family tree dating back 300 years of his forefathers having performed service at this temple).

From the hesitant start in the 1980s, he has come a long way to don the mantle of the Chief Priest at the Ranganathaswamy temple in Srirangam. This really has been a devotionally interesting journey for the 62 year old Murali Bhattar and it is hoped that he along with the other archakas will see the temple through the tough times.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Abhinav Mukund 100 Ranji Matches

Scorching Ranji Century in his 100th match 
Was pitched against the Best of bowlers in the Worst of Conditions in England
A case of what might have been 
                        From his Twitter Page

Way back in 2007, this (current one) is not a story I would have visualised to write at the beginning of 2020 on Abhinav Mukund.  One of my first cricket stories was on the then 17 year old Abhinav Mukund, on the brink of making his Ranji debut (http://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2007/09/cricket-pick-of-month-abhinav-mukund.html). He was all set for a top notch long test career for India as he broke domestic cricketing records sooner than most batsmen on the circuit.He has also been the TN player I have tracked and followed the most during this decade as well as the one on whom I have written the most. However, over a dozen years after that story, his has been a case of what might have been. 

This afternoon he scored a scorching century against Railways on the occasion of his 100th Ranji match with his fastest almost run a ball Ranji ton as he batted in an unusually aggressive style (his mentor from his school days S Sharath too got a century in his 100th Ranji match)

Great Start to his domestic cricketing career
By the time he was out of school, he had already scored more runs than any TN school boy in the history of TN cricket. He scored runs every time he went to bat - for his school, in age group cricket and in inter state age group matches. His basics seemed to be strong, coached day in day out by his cricketer father TS Mukund from the time he was five years old. One just could not take the bat out of his hands or the runs from the score sheet every time he went out to bat.
Former South Zone cricketer R Madhavan, a Southpaw himself, was the chairman of TN Selectors  (https://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2007/09/interview-with-r-madhavan-tn-selector.html) and he was the one who inducted the teenaged Abhinav into a strong TN Ranji squad. At that time, well over a dozen years ago, I had marked Abhinav as one who would serve India as a long standing opener for he had the inclination to bat long and his domestic success for his age was as good as anyone else's.  Had that story come true, it is unlikely I would be writing this century of Ranji matches story on Abhinav, for he should have been close to that mark in Test Cricket.

The IPL Distraction
Unfortunately, a variety of factors played against Abhinav at the most opportune phases in his career. Soon after his Ranji debut came an unwelcome distraction in the form of IPL that has been a stepping stone for many cricketers in India including his Ranji team mate (in today's match) R. Ashwin. But Abhinav was not made for IPL or T20 cricket. He sat alongside Virat Kohli on the flight to Singapore for the U19 World Cup over a decade ago. The early success of Virat in the shorter form of the game prompted Abhinav to challenge himself in that form. In those very early days in his cricketing career, his mind moved away towards showcasing himself as a successful cricketer in the shorter form as well including in the T20 version. It probably was one of the biggest mistakes he had made in his career. 
                     From his Twitter Page

I remember that day in the terrace at Chepauk when I pleaded with his father coach TS Mukund to get his interest away from T20 but it was not to be. His father- coach remarked that day that Abhinav was determined to succeed in the shorter format and that his son believed that he had it in him to make it big in T20. Unfortunately, he did not and could not. Even though he was included in the CSK squad in those early years, chances weren’t forthcoming in that strong team.

Debut in the West Indies
He continued to amass runs in Ranji cricket that soon earned him a test debut in mid 2011 when he was not yet 22. As destiny would have it, Abhinav’s debut as well as his subsequent full series came overseas in what probably was India’s toughest of the decade. While West Indies did not have a potent attack like in the past, Abhinav’s debut in the West Indies (https://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2011/05/abhinav-mukund-in-indian-test-squad-to.html?m=0) came on bouncy seaming conditions that any debutant would have found challenging. 

The toughest series of the decade
His next series in England came in almost unplayable conditions against the best bowlers in the world at that time – Anderson and Harmison were all over India in swinging conditions that were completely one sided and favourable to the bowlers. In one of the toughest conditions for an opener for a long time, Abhinav impressed with the bat with a half century that even had Sunil Gavaskar commending his style of play in that series. But the heavy defeat took a toll on the team and Abhinav unfortunately has not had too many chances since. 

Out in the last over of the day
On the come back path, almost 4 years after the English whitewash, Abhinav made his way back into the test team on the back of continued domestic success. It looked like the man was still determined to make it big in Test cricket as he looked assured in that innings against Sri Lanka batting alongside his U19 world cup captain Virat Kohli. However, here again, destiny played against him and rather unfortunately for him, after almost having seen out two sessions without a hiccup, he got out in the last over of the day for 82. Had he seen through that over, he may well have gone on to a big hundred the next morning and the selectors may have been in a quandary over dropping a centurion. That remains his last test innings to-date. 

For a man with close to 10000 runs in first class cricket, destiny played itself against Abhinav at the most crucial time in his career as he was pitched against the best bowlers in the world in the worst batting conditions. It is unlikely that any overseas opener would have succeeded in those conditions and against the rampant duo of Anderson and Harmison.

Had he debuted in India on more favourable pitches for openers, it may have been a completely different story for Abhinav. With his talent, the high concentration levels and the strong coaching foundation given by his father, he may have well amassed thousands of runs for India as a long standing opener of the decade. At important moments in his career, his Ranji and International team mate, R Ashwin had the rub of the green bowling on turning tracks in India helping build his confidence. For Abhinav, it was not to be.

On the domestic front though, there has been no one close to Abhinav this decade on the batting front. He broke most domestic batting records early on in his career, strolling to 3000, 4000 and 5000 runs on the domestic circuit before he touched 25. Early on, he made big tons and has been the rock of the TN batting through the decade. As the years passed by, he went past the records of all the batting legends of TN cricket and all this while he was still very young.

At 30, he may still have many years of domestic cricket ahead of him. If he keeps his motivation going, it is likely that Abhinav will in the coming years break all domestic batting records but for me all those years ago he was meant to break Test records, such was his penchant for scoring runs in the longer format of the game. And yet, like with so many of the TN batsmen in the era gone by, his has thus far been a case of what might have been.

Congrats Abhinav on the big milestone and the century on this momentous day.  

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

TN Ranji Cricket The Fall


No light at the end of  the TN Cricketing Highway
Flat Unconducive wickets in the first division league, Too much glamour around IPL and TNPL, Lack of focus at the grass roots level and the continuing aggressive corporate warfare have contributed to a downfall in TN cricket
Business minded cricket academies unfairly pushing their players into league and age group cricket  has also damaged cricket in the city
In 1978, TN bowled out AP for 29 and routed them - Four Decades later, Andhra is at the top of the Ranji league while TN is at the bottom
                         TNCA website

Tamil Nadu has had one of the most disastrous starts to a Ranji Season with the team firmly rooted to the bottom (17th out of 18 teams) of the table after 5 games, three of them on home soil. And really this comes as no surprise to those that have followed TN cricket this decade. It has been a long time coming, now.  It has actually been a surprise that it has taken this long to hit the bottom. It has been a decade of IPL and TNPL, the glorification of these formats has led to a loss of focus on the longer version. No great infrastructure development, big success of the IPL team and the initial hype around the TNPL have all taken the focus away from the crying need to strengthen the foundation and improving cricket at the grass roots. Almost all the cricket in the first division league in Madras are on flat wickets, except when the top teams play the bottom ones, when they go for green tops or big turners. TN U16 and U19 teams have been knocked out this year in the league phase and they have not really provided the feeder service for the Ranji team. There are no players U19 players from TN in the National squad.

TNCA League Cricket in the 2000s
In well over a decade of captaining lower division league teams in Madras, I got a sense of where cricket was headed in Tamil Nadu. The last of this was a privately run league team and I managed almost all of the expenses including taking care of the travel expenses of some of the teenaged players.

Cricket turned into a huge business for the ex-cricketers. They saw an opportunity to mint money from upcoming cricketers. As the years progressed, more and more cricket academies including some credible former cricketers approached me with interesting ‘deals’. They offered to take care of the entire expenses for the year (cricket kit, gear, food, water, balls, travel expenses etc) in exchange for opportunities for their wards in the league season. More opportunities in the league meant more money into the academy from the wards. The academies are increasingly under pressure from the parents to get their students into various teams – the first step in that process being an entry into lower division league cricket followed by inclusion in the city teams of U13 and other age group categories. And the parents are willing to pay a price for this, for they see this as an important phase in the child’s cricketing career. Cricket is no more just a sport that it was (in TN) 3-4 decades ago. It is a business. It is a lucrative career.There is a lot of money at stake.

Academies’ and one on one coaching influence on cricket
Roll on, well over a decade later, in a lower division match that I umpired in 2018, a captain known to me for three decades kept going back to a young 15 year old fast bowler despite him being thrashed all over the park. Reason – the bowler was a ward at his one–one academy in Mylapore and there was a need to promote him at all levels, even if it meant being unfair to other bowlers in the team. Wickets in the league would help the boy in the U16 selection.  While other bowlers that day went at 2 or 3 runs an over, this fast bowler bowled his full quota of 15overs giving away 90runs. He did pick up 4wickets. And with statistics playing a vital role, it would not matter that the match was lost because of over bowling the most expensive bowler of the day but those 4 wickets would up add to the tally for the year and improve his chances of a place in the state squad in the age group category At the end of the innings I overheard an innocent question from a young player to his father “Do I need to take one on one coaching to be given bowling in a match”. The father had no answer to the question.

This is not a one off incident anymore. Academies actively push their wards at all levels in cricket. Individual coaches try to push their students through the selectors. Parents are seen at the grounds all the time talking to the selectors.

The Selectors
With the Lodha Committee making a certain number of Ranji matches as a pre requisite to the choice of a state selector, opportunities have quite unexpectedly fallen on those who have not tracked or been associated with TN cricket for decades. While those with Ranji experience from the decades gone by could don the role as sincerely and in as committed a way as possible, the point remains that many of them have not really watched enough of cricket in TN for decades. Will it be fair on the players to have a state selector not watching too many of the matches that they play before the selection.Even the Senior State Selectors ( Ranji Trophy) haven’t really watched most of the matches in recent years and that hasn't instilled confidence in the minds of first division players. Is it not important to watch the players before taking a call especially when many factors other than just runs and wickets can be relevant to a junior player’s selection – the attitude of a player, the circumstance under which he scored runs and took wickets, the contribution to a winning cause and so on, which mere statistics may not reveal.

Conflict of interest – Chairman of selection committee as a Match Referree
Through this decade, Chairman of the TN State Selection Committee also donned the role of Match Referee. These roles come with power, fame and name in addition to a lot of money that’s on offer (for match referees). While there was a TN Ranji match going on in one city, the chairman of the State Selectors was a match referee in another Ranji match several 100s of kms away.

It was power and money at play at the same time. While the Chairmanship offered power and name, the role of the match referee brought in money that was really lucrative, something that would have been difficult for anyone to ignore, even if it meant a conflicting role. There was really no accountability. Should a chairman of selectors be watching his state team play or be at another ground as a match referee? These questions never seem to have been raised. Also during the decade gone by, there seemed to have been no vision chalked out in terms of where they (the selection committee) wanted to take TN cricket. For example, this decade a chairman of the Sr. State Selection committee refused to talk to the media ( including to this writer) on the pretext that he had been asked by the TNCA to not talk about TN cricketing/ selection matters to the outside public and to cricket writers. With so much at stake and a huge fan following, could the chairman of a senior state selection committee remain silent for 5 years not airing his views on the choice of the team and on the direction of TN cricket and the performance of the team. But that is what happened. The Chairman  simply followed ‘instructions’ of the TNCA and did not speak up once during his period as the chairman of the Sr. State Selection Committee. During the decade, one simply did not get a sense of the long term vision for the state team. And we are now seeing the impact of those years of ignored vision with the results in Ranji cricket

Credible Coaches
The choice of coaches too seem to have been baffling this decade. In one year, out another. The relationship between the top players and the coach has not been at its best through most of the decade. Very little seems to have been done on this front.  No one in the cricketing circles in TN has quite understood the process of the choice of coaches and their accountability. For the huge amount of fee paid to them annually, there really seems to be very little accountability. There seems to have been 'no deliverables" chalked out for the state coaches appointed at different levels.

Flat Wickets at all levels
If you look at the results of TN teams in recent years, you will find that the team has performed much better in shorter formats than the longer version, a clear indication of flat wickets in the city. Spinners who are asked to not give away runs in league cricket has been the order of the day. Hence they seem to be better at doing a containing job than in the art of wicket taking. As is well known, it is the bowlers with the wickets that win you matches in the longer format. TN has just not developed fast bowlers or spinners with the wicket taking ability. 

In the decades gone by, youngsters coming up the ranks played on different kinds of surfaces - matting wickets even in first division league, fast green tops against the best of fast bowlers in the state and many times a square turner. This helped a great deal during the foundation stage of their career. 
However, in recent times, top order players after amassing runs in the local league and age group tournaments on flat wickets have often been caught out on green tops when they play State matches in another region. In the battle for the Palayampatti shield, the top corporates have often put out 'flat' wickets playing it safe. Hence the top Ranji cricketers playing against each other in domestic first division league are not up against challenging conditions. Very rarely in recent years, has one witnessed a top contest between bat and ball among the top teams in the first division. 

It has been years since TN has produced a top class fast bowler for the long format. Aswin Crist and T Natarajan have been the only real fast bowlers in recent years. There is a dearth of fast bowlers who could win Ranji matches for you, especially in away conditions. This year, Natarajan has been at the top of wickets list for TN after 5 matches and yet not once has he been provided with favourable wickets to suit his bowling in our home matches.  Spinners for a large part have been containing bowlers more suited to the shorter formats.

Even at the U16, U19 and U23 levels, it is the same story. Tons of runs in local matches on flat batting tracks and the batsmen found out against good fast bowlers and on turning tracks in away matches in state tournaments has meant that TN has crashed out in all age group tournaments in the longer format this year.

Non Stop Cricket in Peak Summer
This year in peak summer, first division cricketers played non stop cricket through an entire month to finish the schedule of 2019-20 season. And in no time, shortly after, the new 20-21 season had begun. The three day once prestigious long format Buchi Babu Tournament has been dispensed with and made way for the T20 TNPL. Buchi Babu Tourney had for long been the stepping stone for budding youngsters wanting to play for the state.

R Ashwin - The Only real Long Format  Bowler from TN this decade
This decade, only R Ashwin has emerged as a top quality international bowler in tests from the State. There have been no other bowlers, spinner or fast bowler even on the fringe from Tamil Nadu .Of course, he came through a phase when wickets were better and gave bowlers something to work on.
  From his twitter page

As years have passed and with amount of cricket that has been played, the quality of wickets has dropped drastically in the city. No corporate in the city has a second ground of their own. While the focus has been on investment in players and the exorbitant salaries paid to teenaged cricketers these days, the corporates have missed out on improving the cricketing infrastructure in the city so much so that the top batsmen eyeing the next level do not have high quality fast paced/ big turning tracks to bat on, even in the nets. 

The Downfall of TN cricket
Academies’ influence in age group selection right from U13, the emerging role of parents in selection matters, the decades long corporate conflicts and their influence in selection, the glamour of IPL and TNPL and the lack of infra development have all contributed to the downfall of TN cricket. Look at the scenario this year – International cricketers Abhinav, Vijay, Dinesh Karthik, Vijay Shankar, R Ashwin were all part of the TN playing XI for the first match of the Ranji season. And suddenly for the next couple of matches all of them were away for a variety of reasons – personal commitments to injuries to ‘rested’. A star studded line up gave way to many debutants. And suddenly you found 5 new players coming into the playing XI right after the first match of the new season, quite a few not really suited to the longer version of the game. For a state match that included international star R Ashwin, TN played 4-5 spinners in the XI this season!!! Just last week, a U23 state player was informed of his omission through the following text message ‘You are removed for the next match’ leaving him in tears. His replacement in the team was someone who had scored less than one third of the runs of the axed player.The selection process leaves a lot to be desired

It remains no surprise that TN is languishing at the penultimate position in the Ranji Table after 5 matches and has been knocked out of age group tournaments. For long, there has been no incentive to play for the team. A player sacrificing his wicket for the team’s cause is not rewarded in TN cricket and hence you find each playing for his own self and for his own safety in the team. In a story I had written earlier on a match in Coimbatore, AP was bundled out for 29 by TN 4 decades ago  after an incisive spell by Bharath Kumar at the Forest College ground (http://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2018/03/coimbatore-cricket-grounds.html). Cricketing life has come a full circle. Today, AP tops the Ranji table while TN is down at the bottom. It is unlikely that there will be a turnaround anytime in the near future unless the coaches, selectors, the corporates and administrators at all levels come together as a group and create a conducive atmosphere for  a fair battle between bat and ball, a meritorious selection policy and an incentive for team play.

The Solution
Play top first division league matches on green tops / turners
Provide green tops and square turners at the nets for first division / State players
Announce a 5 year vision for the State Ranji squad - Build a team for the long term
Choose Coaches and Selectors with credibility and long term commitment
Ensure State Selectors watch all first division matches
Ensure age group Selectors watch school matches and league matches 
Bring transparency into the selection process
Get the hard hitting views of credible and vocal cricketers on the improvement of state cricket and go about implementing their ideas

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Madurai Junction Executive Lounge

Indian Railways launches Modern AC Executive Lounge on Platform 1 at the Madurai Junction
The Lounge has already become a big hit with passengers in the initial phase of its launch 

Over the last 5 years or so, train travellers have witnessed a dramatic and a never been seen improvement in the Indian Railways, especially in terms of convenience and amenities at the Tier 2 and Tier 3 Railway Stations in the country. In yet another public infrastructure development initiative, the Indian Railways has set up a best in class AC Executive Lounge on Platform 1 at the Madurai Junction.  This is in line with and comparable to those available at the best airports in India.

Facilities include bathing (including shower), hi speed internet browsing, breakfast and dinner, favourite TV Channels, business center, free wi-fi and a travel desk. There is a special buffet available over breakfast, lunch and dinner. Al-a-carte items are also available round the clock. The travel desk provides assistance to sightseeing trips around Madurai and offers all kinds of luxury vehicles. 

The AC executive lounge has already become a big hit with the passengers and they have lapped it up with both hands. There are at least a dozen trains that run towards Chennai and Bangalore during the peak hours in the evening. With the high quality food available on platform 1, no more would passengers need to go away looking for the right restaurant for their dinner. This AC executive lounge is ideal for both the morning entrants into Madurai, those that have an official meeting later in the morning and for those to relax for an hour or two before their departure in the night from Madurai Junction. Facilities like top quality lunch also makes it ideal for those who reach Madurai just after noon by the recently introduced Tejas Express. 

Madurai Junction was also one of the first in the Southern Railway to introduce an AC waiting lounge over a decade ago (http://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2009/04/madurai-junction-retiring-rooms.html).

The station also easily ranks among the top in terms of cleanliness of platforms and the passenger amenities. The Modi led Government has also upgraded the infrastructure in many of the railway stations across the country.

Trichy Junction(https://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2008/09/new-ac-lounge-at-tiruchirapalli.html) and  Coimbatore Junction (http://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2018/07/coimbatore-junction-retiring-rooms.html) among many other stations in the Southern Railway have upgraded the passenger amenities manifold in recent times. 

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Kattu Mannar Koil Annan Srinivasan Bhattar

The Head Priest at the Avathara Sthalam of Natha Muni and Alavanthar joined the Veera Narayana Perumal temple at a salary of Rs. 75 per month and has served with unflinching devotion for over two decades keeping the temple alive and vibrant
Annan Srinivasan Bhattar has been the head priest at Kattu Mannar Koil the Avathara Sthalam of Natha Muni for over two decades now having joined the temple in the late 1990s. As a young boy, he learnt the Pancharatra Agamas and was certified by the revered Kannan Bhattar of Therazhundur (https://prtraveller.blogspot.com/2016/10/therazhundur-divya-desam.html).  As has been the case with many historical temples in remote locations, it has been a challenging two decades for him. His grandfather Narayanan Bhattachar had performed service at the temple till 1965. His father was a Maniyakaarar at the temple. As a young school boy, he performed service at the temple through the 1980s that included carrying the Ghee torch during processions, holding the Umbrella atop the Lord and carrying the Lord on his shoulders. As described in Kulasekara Azhvaar’s Perumal Thirumozhi, the young Annan Srinivasan would hold on to the pillars watching the Veera Narayana Perumal, Natha Muni and his grandson Alavanthar during his entire school days.
Joins at Rs. 75 per month
In the early 80s, there were over 20 families in the agraharam. But by the time he was into his mid teens, most of them had left this legendary Vaishnavite location seeking greener pastures in cities. And he was in a confused state. He too did contemplate to leave following in the foot step of the seniors in this temple town. But God decided otherwise and held on to him at Kattu Mannar Koil. His uncle Sampath Bhattar had been performing service in the Sannidhi in the 80s and early 90s. In the mid 1990s, when he became unwell, Annan Srinivasan Bhattar took over and joined the temple as the Priest at the age of 17 in 1996-97. There were severe challenges when he began not the least the lack of devotee crowd and the financial returns. He joined at a salary of just Rs. 75 per month. 

10 hour service each day of the year at Rs. 3000 per month
While there were temptations to introduce innovations, he stuck to the agamas and followed that diligently. He was clear that he would not introduce any new procedural creations just to attract crowd as has happened with many other temples in the last two decades.  Despite financial challenges, he has stuck on for over decades.  His salary increased to Rs. 400 per month after a decade!!! And now after two decades, he is paid Rs. 3000 per month having to take care of the daily poojas at all the sannidhis as the only priest. His elder brother who works at the temple office supports him as and when required.

His devotional rendition of archanai is a special feature at this temple and it is unlikely that any devotee who has visited this temple would not have been moved by his service to the Lord and the acharyas.

During utsavams such as the one going on currently (Adyayana Utsavam), his  daily service over 20 days is also physically challenging having to be at the temple just after 430am for the Margazhi sevai followed later in the day by the Pagal Pathu Utsvam. During such days, his daily service at the temple extends to well over 12 hours performing aradhanam and alankaram all alone. Rarely do they get substitutes in such remote locations. In addition to the financial challenges, he has also had to encounter health issues given the long working hours at the temple.  But it is something he is devotionally committed to engage in for the rest of his life for how many would get serve at a temple that was responsible for the recovery of Nalayira Divya Prabhandham.
It was Natha Muni who was responsible for bringing back the Naalayira Divya Prabandham that had been previously lost to the world. Nathamuni, who mastered himself in Vedas at a young age, was very attached to Veera Narayana Perumal at Kattu Mannar Koil and spent most of his time performing daily poojas for the Lord here. One day, while he was performing his daily poojas, he heard a set of devotees who had come here from Thiru Narayanapuram in Melkote chanting the Aaravamuthey song (Nam Azhvaar’s Tiruvoimozhi verse praising the Lord of Kumbakonam).These devotees ended with the words ‘these 10 out of the 1000’.
ஆரா அமுதே அடியேன் உடலம்  நின்பால் அன்பாயே
நீராய்  அலைந்து கரைய உருக்குகின்ற நெடுமாலே
சீர் ஆர் செந்நெல் கவரி வீசும் செழு நீர் திரு குடந்தை

ஏர் ஆர் கோலம் திகழ கிடந்தாய் கண்டேன் எம்மானே  - Thiruvoimozhi ( 5-8-1)

 Nathamuni was drawn to these songs and asked them to sing the rest of the 990 verses. However, they knew only these 10 songs. A restless Nathamuni went to Kumbakonam, where Lord Aaravamudhan asked him to go to Thiru Kurugur where he secured the entire 4000 songs- Naalaayira Divya Prabandham and brought it back to Kattu Mannar Koil from where he began spreading the messages from these sacred verses.

உழலை என்பின் பேய்ச்சி முலையூடு 
அவலை உயிருண்டான் 
கழல்கள் அவையே சரணாக கொண்ட குருகூர் சடகோபன் 
குழலின் மலியச் சொன்ன ஓராயிரத்துள் இப்பத்தும் 

மழலை தீர வல்லார் காமர் மானேய் நோக்கியர்க்கே

Along with his nephews, Keezhaiyagath Azhvaar and Melaiagath Azhvaar (the Araiyars are descendents of these two), Nathamuni gave the Naalayira Divya Prabandham a musical (creating Raagam and Thaalam) and dance form and presenting it in a form that the world could experience and enjoy . To him goes the credit of creating the Araiyar Sevai, a visual song and dance enactment of the ‘Paasurams’ through Abhinayam. He went to Srirangam and performed the Araiyar Sevai, of the Thiruvaai Mozhi verses, with his two Nephews, and once again started the Adhyayana Utsavam at Srirangam which had been discontinued after the time of Thirumangai Azhvaar.
Nathamuni’s grandson Alavanthar was born in Kattu Mannar Koil and he travelled often to Srirangam to spread the dharmic messages of Vaishnavism. It was he who nominated Ramanuja as the ’to be’ acharya after his death. Natha Muni and Alavanthar Avathara Utsavams are celebrated in a grand way at Kattu Mannar Koil.

Despite the salary not being financially lucrative, Annan Srinivasan Bhattar feels blessed to have been born at this Avathara Sthalam of two great acharyas and to be serving the Lord every day of his life. It is the commitment of such lonely priests who stuck through with the God through dark days that has kept ancient temples such as this alive and vibrant for the devotees to now enjoy.

The temple is open from 730am-12noon and 430pm-9pm Contact Annan Srinivasan Bhattar @ 99522 76110