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 ( 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 ( 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(, 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.


Anonymous said...

Interesting Article about you by Prabhu in temple travel sport today.No hunger no money. I remember those hard days of Anna. Realistic details and the journey you have gone through to reach this stage. Very interesting.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting to read. At the same time we could understand the financial difficulties they have to undergo. Still they stuck with the temple duty. That speaks about their devotion and sincerity.

Anonymous said...

In those days acharyas cared only for the idol,(moorthy). that is why pillailokachar left tonnes of gold and precious stones and took only namperumal with it continues in many rural temples.. despite poverty
Archakas are attached to the deity

Unknown said...

This is not the case in the family of archakas alone.Adoption of western fashion is the root cause for change of all Brahmins famalies.Due to their intelligence and govt measures to make them poor and the political parties attempt to create disharmony among citizensthe society is made to rely on modern money economics and all old values have been forgotten.This is the reason for all changes.

Unknown said...

Your tough journey in life is really a lesson to the younger generation and for outsiders life of archakas is not so easy as they think
My pranams to you swami

Unknown said...

Very good article. It really took me to those days.

Dr. K. P. Sarathy said...

I remember Sri Rangaraja Bhattar often came to our house, a street behind his house, to chat with my father who had two days per year murai at the temple, about his sons education since my father was employed by the local high school. We all should remember and be grateful to Srimad Mukkur Azhagiyasinger who initiated and completed the Rajagopura nirmanam which was responsible to turn around the situation in attracting the large crowd we have today.