Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Koodal Azhagar Divya Desam

In the 1970s, the frustrated Bhattars of Koodal Azhagar Divya Desam in Madurai refused to open the Sannidhi door when a 'Single Devotee' turned up

In recent years, with overflowing crowd, only ticketed devotees are allowed inside to have a close darshan of the Lord and others are left to see the Lord from 'afar' !!!

75 year old Saathatha Vaishnava Srinivasan has been performing service at the Koodal Azhagar Divya Desam in Madurai temple for almost fifty years and is the oldest serving person at the temple having joined the temple service in 1970.  
Services of Saathathas
The Saathathas of Koodal Azhgar Koil ( have been bestowed with the responsibility of the outer door keys of the Moolavar Sannidhi. They also have a joint responsibility to bring the temple jewelry as and when required for the Lord. During processions, the Saathaatha Vaishnavas have the rights to carry the torch, a service referred to as ‘Thiru Mooga Bandham’

They also hold the rights of carrying the Kattiyam, the silver staff ahead of the Lord on processions to clear the ‘traffic’ ahead for the Lord to move smoothly through the length of the procession.

At the Moolavar Sannidhi, Saathathas have the duty of presenting the Tulasi for Archanai and the flower garland each day for the deity. The responsibility to pick up and hand over the provisions from the stores is also on them. 

For all the above services as per the 1980 order, Saathatha Srinivasan of Koodal Azhagar temple gets Rs. 40 per month!!!! And this has not been revised once in the last 40 years despite him having presented several petitions to the authorities.

A Share in the Archanai Ticket
The Saathathas have a share in the archanai ticket along with the archakas. They also have a share in alankaram fee, sahasranamam archanai as well as a share from the income for the wedding fees (wedding taking place inside the temple).

During the first decade of his service at the temple in the 1970s, he did not receive upwards of Rs. 50 per day from these different collections. During that period the archanai tickets at the temple never crossed 6000 a month including during peak in Puratasi (Saturdays) and during the Vaikunta Ekadasi period.

Historically, the Saathathas were given a 3acre 84 cent land North of Madurai in Aathalai for their services.  But rentals were never received from the land for several decades. And they just did not have enough money to fight this injustice in the courts.

Saathaatha Srinivasan currently has 15 days service every month as a Pandari. With the ‘Mirasu’ of Kanakku Pillai done away with, he also doubles up in that role at the temple for some additional income.

The scenario at the temple in the 1970s/80s
Till the 1980s, the scenario at the Koodal Azhagar temple, despite being in the heart of Madurai and very close to Meenakshi Amman Temple was so bad that the Bhattars for a large part stood outside the Sannidhi each day of the week waiting for the devotees to turn up. 
And when just a single devotee arrived, the frustrated Bhattar at the Perumal Sannidhi would redirect him to the Thayar Sannidhi and then to the Andal Sannidhi and Navagriha Sannidhi hoping that there would be a few more devotees by the time he finished these sannidhis so he could do a combined darshan for 3-4 devotees.

It is unthinkable now that there was once a period in the not so recent past when the Bhattars were so down on motivation that they were not so inclined to opening the big door that they had kept locked and providing darshan to a single devotee.

The case of more devotees coming in rarely happened. And the redirected devotee would turn up after 30 minutes to find the same bhattar standing in the same position at the outer entrance of the Perumal Sannidhi. This time the Bhattar had no option but to take him inside as the sole devotee for darshan.

And minutes later he returned to the same position at the entrance to wait out another couple of hours for the next devotee.

In those decades, the archakas and the parijarakas split their duty between the Sannidhi and the Madapalli. The archakas of the temple had Mirasu rights. But as was the trend in several other Divya Desams during the 70s and 80s, many of them went away from Temple Kainkaryam given the financial insecurity and the diminishing income. A number of the descendents moved into corporate jobs and the Kainkaryam is now carried out through their ‘relatives’.

An exclusive role for each inside the Sanctum
Four people had four different roles inside the sannidhi at the Koodal Azhagar temple. The Archaka would place the sacred Tulasi at the Lord’s feet and also perform the Thirumanjanam, Aradhanam and Alankaram. Another would break the coconut, clean and bring the sacred plate. A third one would recite the 108 names of the Lord while the Pandari was the one whose role it was to present the Tulasi to the Archaka.

How the Temple has gone down
with the rising power of the HR & CE

The Nandavanam replaced by Anna Dhanam Hall
Around the Thayar Sannidhi there was once a beautiful Nandavanam from where the flowers would be brought for the Lord and Thayar. Unfortunately the HR & CE, as seen in many temples elsewhere, has converted this into an ‘Anna Dhanam’ Hall.

There was another Nandavanam 3kms from the temple near the Madura College. Sathatha Srinivasan would go there every morning to collect flowers for the Lord. He would then knot it and present as a garland. But this too was taken away by the HR & CE. And garland services came to be handed to outside donors!!!

Sacred Well Closed
There was a historical sacred well behind the Chakkarathazhvaar Sannidhi till a few decades ago. The service personnel of the temple used to have bath there. Unfortunately this well has been closed and they now use bore connections for water!!!

Agraharam replaced by Shops and Lodges
There was a beautiful agraharam at the Eastern entrance of the temple that was home to around 20 families (bhattars and parijarakas).  This was in existence even till the 1970s. By 1980 they had begun selling their land and one now finds the once vibrant ‘Perumal Koil Agraharam’ filled with shops and lodges and many other high rise buildings right opposite the temple entrance.

Sthaneegas give way to HR & CE
Till the time the HR & CE took complete control of the temple, this one was under the control of the Sthaneegaas. Now they only hold the ‘mandapam’ rights of getting Theertham.

The Big Turnaround and Happy Bhattars
The Bhattars who a few decades ago looked out for that ‘elusive’ devotee now is at the receiving end at the other extreme. In the current scenario of the devotional wave that is sweeping the TN temples, the bhattars of Koodal Azhagar do not have a minute to relax even on week days. The Thattu Kaasu is overflowing. And added to that is the various external homams and samprokshanams that they take part in keeping them fully occupied all through the year. What a turnaround it has been in the last few years for the Bhattars and associated people in temples in the state.

Ticketed Darshan and Special access
The other system that this temple has had in place for long is that only the ticketed devotees have access to darshan of the Lord from the Artha Mandapa and the right to go around the inner prakara. The 'unticketed' free darshan devotees are restricted to have darshan only from far and without access to go around the inner prakara. Despite this month's court ruling preventing such special access to ticketed devotees, the temple continues to follow the old process leaving the unticketed devotees to have darshan only from outside.

Renovation Activity
The next Thiruppani is around the corner and has been pending for a while now.  There are court rulings in place on the steps preceding a renovation exercise ( It would be interesting to see as to how this unfolds. There have been many new additions inside the temple including the Anna Dhaana Koodam near the Thayar Sannidhi, the roof in front of the Thayar Sannidhi. There are additions elsewhere too inside the complex. The area around the Madapalli looks really dirty. The flooring in some of the sannidhis look too modern for comfort. 

One wonders if such additional constructions that have come up in recent decades will be removed and if the temple will be restored to its ancient past.

Time will tell but for now the Bhattars are having a happy time and are making up for last ground in the 60s and 70s.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Thiru Pullani Divya Desam

In the 50s and 60s, the agraharam on South Chariot Street was vibrant with devotional Prabhandham and Vedic recital being an integral part of processions 
The big financial stress in 70s and 80s,  led by the taking away of lands, saw mass exodus of the traditionalists from the agraharam
How a forward thinking initiative from an IAS officer transformed the water level in Thiru Pullani in the 1990s
The historical grandeur of Thiru Pullani, a Divya Desam on the banks of the Sethu Karai on the South East Coast of Tamil Nadu near Ramanathapuram can be seen from the two decads of praise heaped on the Lord by Thiru Mangai Azhvaar.
தன்னை விக்கிலேன் வல்வினையேன் தொழுதும் எழு

பொன்னை விக்கும் அப் பூஞ் செருந்தி மண நீழல்வாய்

என்னை நைவித்து எழில் கொண்ட அகன்ற பெருமான் இடம்

புன்னை முத்தம் பொழில் சூழ்ந்து அழகாய புல்லாணியே

Referring to the Lord as one residing by the sea shore, he says that the waves hit the shores with such thundering velocity that it looks like a galloping horse running at full speed.
கள் அவிழும் மலர்க காவியும் தூ மடல் கைதையும்
புள்ளும் அள்ளல் பழனங்களும் சூழ்ந்த புல்லாணியே

The waves wash ashore gems and precious pearls almost as if presenting it to the feet of the Lord.
விரவி முத்தம் நெடு வெண் மணல் மேல்
கொண்டு  வெண் திரை
புரவி என்னப் பதம் செய்து வந்துந்து  புல்லாணியே
All around Thiru Pullani, Thiru Mangai Azhvaar found Punnai, Serundi and Palm trees.

‘செழுந் தடம் பூஞ் சோலை சூழ்’, ‘பூஞ் செருந்தி போன் சொரியும்’,  ‘பொன்னலரும் புன்னை சூழ்’ புல்லாணி அம்மானை

Water birds were seen flocking in pairs, bees humming sweet music in the groves dripping with nectar while the birds were seen perched on the tall Palm trees.
உலவு கால் நற் கழி  ஓங்கு தன் 
பைம் பொழிலூடு இசை
புலவு கானல் களி வண்டு இனம் பாடு 

There were beautiful lakes that brimmed with water. 
இலங்கு முத்தம் பவள கொழுந்தும் 
எழில் தாமரைப்
புலங்கள் முற்றும் பொழில் சூழ்ந்த 
அழகாய புல்லாணிமேல்

The prosperity of Thiru Pullani could be visualized from the tall mansions described by him surrounding the temple.

Temple Legend
The Aathi Jagannatha Perumal temple in Thiru Pullani is one whose legend dates back to the Ramayanana. It is believed that Raama invoked the blessings of Adhi Jagannathan at this temple before he departed for Lanka. It was here that Vibheeshana, the brother of Ravana, came for refuge and surrendered to Lord Raama asking him for help and hence this is a temple said to be the most sacred for those devotees seeking ‘Absolute Surrender to Lord’. It was also here on the banks of River Sethu that Raama spread the Darbha grass and undertook a fast addressing Varuna (Sea Lord) looking to him for a solution to cross the sea.  There is a separate sannidhi for Darbha Sayana Raama at this temple.
Raama’s marks on Squirrel

The Squirrel, which on seeing the monkeys helping Lord Raama, too wanted to help out the Lord. Being small in nature, they could not carry the trees and boulders. Hence, they did something innovative. The squirrels rolled on the sand and then ran back to the Sethu Bridge and dropped off the sand that had stuck to their body. So impressed was Lord Raama that he rubbed the squirrels with warmth, a mark that remains to this day on the body of every squirrel.

Thiru Mangai Azhvaar's praise and the first half of the 20th Century

Into the 20th century, things seemed bright, at least till the 1950s. The tall trees and the huge groves around the temple as described by Thiru Mangai Azhvaar were still around. The South Chariot Street was full of traditional residents with Bhattars, Parijarakas and Prabhandham Scholars discussing devotional aspects through the day and night. It was an agraharam that had over 200 residents. Periya Nambi, the acharya of Ramanuja, was the Sthalathar and held the rights for the first theertham at the temple.

Grand Festivals
The Chariot Festival was the biggest occasion in the year. People thronged in from 25 villages to pull the Chariot around the four big streets. As per the traditional system followed in this Divya Desam, the temple presented a large fixed quantity of Puliyotharai to the people from these 25 villages. They would hand this on the day of the Chariot festival to the head of each of the villages whose responsibility it was to distribute it amongst all the villagers. On this day, over 5000 people thronged the temple lining up to pull the wooden chariot.

Food was served to all the devotees through the entire period of the Brahmotsavam. There were multiple Dharma Chatirams dating back to the period of the Rayas that offered free accommodation to the visiting devotees.
Theerthavari was another grand occasion at the temple. Devotees in thousands accompanied the Lord to the Sethu Karai with the Lord being carried on the shoulders.

40 Divya Prabhandham specialists were present for the annual Brahmotsavam and accompanied by around a hundred Vedic Scholars, their devotional chanting during the processions carried positive vibrations to the residents. The people lived in contentment and were generally seen to be happy. 

Vadakalai - Thenkalai Unity
67 year old Raghuvira Dayal who has spent his entire life in this Divya Desam was a witness to the highs and lows of this historical location. His close friendship of many decades with 64 year old Raghupathy is an indication of the Vadakalai- Thenkalai unity at this Divya Desam. 
He says that in his teenage phase, the Bhattars and Parijarakars were sincere in their devotion. The Vadakalai and Thenkalai devotees stood alongside each other during the presentation of the Nalayira Divya Prabhandham. There were at least 400 devotees listening in to the Satru Murai. Just the Theertham presentation took a full two hours to complete.

The Downward slide - Financial Stress
But with land being taken away by the government, the traditional residents found themselves fighting for survival. For a couple of decades from the 1970s, it was a grave period for the kainkaryapakas of this Divya Desam. There was a huge financial stress on them. It was the period of mass exodus away from Thiru Pullani.

For a long time in the post independent era, Pullani was left behind on the infrastructural development front. Just one long distance train passed through the nearby town of Ramanathapuram. There were no buses to Thiru Pullani. The road leading to the ancient temple town was muddy and full of sharp stones. Bullock cart was the mode of transport for most who sought to have darshan of Darbha Sayana Rama. This made it even more difficult for the devotees to come from far.

A long wait for a Devotee to turn up!!!
It was the phase when Jayaraman Bhattar joined the temple. The slide had already begun and he was not so keen to continue the Kainkaryam that his father Padmanabhan Bhattachar had performed since 1949 for he could see gloomy days ahead. While his brothers chose to go the corporate way, he finally decided to be alongside his father and began his service as a Bhattar in 1979. He is now the senior most Bhattar having been here for almost 40 years.
During those early years, there were no more than 10 devotees on any week day and the Bhattars were always waiting at the entrance of the Sannidhi for that elusive devotee. And when the devotee finally arrived, the bhattar would present the story of the divya desam with great devotion delighting the devotee, sending him into happy tears. On most days, Bhattars barely managed to get Rs.5 or 10 a day.

With no Divya Prabhandham scholars in sight and the temple in financial stress, by the end of the 1980s, the once vibrant Pagal Pathu and Era Pathu Utsavam too had to be discontinued.

All the ancient Dharma Chatirams were taken away by different authorities and are now being used for different purposes!!!

Bhattar Kainkaryam for 65 years
Fragile looking 86 year old Padmanabhan Bhattar symbolizes the devotional commitment of the Bhattars from the era, gone by. He joined the temple as an archakar before he turned 20 at a monthly salary of Rs. 15 having learned Sastras and Vaikanasa Agama for a decade prior. He performed aradhana for the Lord for almost 65 years way into his 80s till age finally caught up with him three years ago. He continues to visit the temple each day as a devotee!!! His wife Narayani performed the service of presenting Kolam at the temple for several decades and was paid Rs. 2 per month for this service.
In his early years of his service, he remembers the agraharam on the South Chariot Street comprising of a 100 families all living in great unity.  Once in a while he would get a Thattu Kaasu of 80 paise but it did not matter to him or his wife. To them, performing service to the Lord with total devotion came first!! Theirs was a big family but they lived a largely contended life. In those decades, 10 Padi thaligai was presented to the Lord each day. This has come down dramatically by almost 90% in recent times.

Revival of the Chakkarai Theertham
With the poor financial state and the overall gloomy scenario that had prevailed for a couple of decades, the temple had deteriorated by the end of the 1980s. The huge Chakkara Theertham in front of the temple bore no resemblance of a sacred tank and was seen with huge piles of mud. Bushes had grown tall and thick inside the tank. The steps of the tank lay hidden under the mud. There was stench all around. Added to this terrible state inside the tank was the one outside. There were encroachments all around the tank.

The stench was so bad that Munusami, now the president of Thiru Pullani Panchayat would close his nose while passing the tank when he went to school. Dogs that entered the tank would find their legs caught in the mud and died of stench, unable to move their legs. Around the temple tank one found encroachments all over. One could not even see the steps of the tank an indication of the debris that had engulfed the tank.
The then Collector of Madurai L Krishnan (IAS) was a staunch devotee of Aathi Jagannatha Perumal of Thiru Pullani. On one of his visits to the temple, he found the state of the tank and around to be deplorable. He was the one who initiated the restoration of the tank along with S. Muniyaswami who had just taken over as the President of the Panchayat and whose great grandfather had been the Peshkar at the temple. 

Just around this time Krishnan was transferred. Before he bid adieu to Lord Aathi Jagannathan, he told the new president of the Panchayat to pursue his idea of Rain Harvesting System, something that was unheard of at that time even elsewhere in the state.  Krishnan stressed on the importance of getting through this first stage of getting the water redirected into the tank and how in a matter of a few years, the residents would find a magical shift in the water level in the temple town.

Vijayakumar took over as the Ramnad Collector. Having heard of the suggestions of Krishnan, he called upon Munusami on his very first day of his office and asked him about his revival plans. Muniyaswami had drawn up a Rain Water Harvesting scheme that would redirect the monsoon rains from the Ponnadikal Odai (Canal) into the huge 16 feet deep tank. All of the water had previously been running into the sea through the western part of the town.
This system, that was ahead of its time, was immediately implemented and for the first time in many decades, the tank was filled with water. To the delight of the people, water level rose sharply in Thiru Pullani and by the next monsoon, all the wells were filled and there was joy all around. It was an initiative that even drew praise from the then CM J Jayalalitha.

Devotional Wave in Temples
At the turn of the century, things turned around for the temple and has now come a full cycle with a sudden wave of devotion that has caught on quite dramatically with the people. The Thiru Pullani temple now receives devotees in thousands over the weekends. On special festive occasions, the number runs into the high thousands with even the local residents not able to have darshan on those days. Money is pouring into the temple now positioned as a Parikara Sthalam.

However, Raghuvira Dayal sees a paradox in this positive turnaround ‘When I was a young boy, the temple reverberated with devotion. There was little money on offer but devotion was high with devotees staying through the 10 days of the Brahmotsavam. The traditional families later left the town for better livelihood. The descendents of the hereditary Bhattars now lay positioned in corporate jobs overseas. While the devotees are pouring in money into the temple, the Divya Prabhandham chanting has come down to single digit. And the Vedic Chanting has become almost non-existent. There are not even a 100 to accept the thaligai presented during the Brahmotsavam as against the several thousands who were fed 50 years ago on each of the ten days. Divya Prabhandham and Vedic teachers are in short supply and the students even more. Now, the devotees always seem to be in tearing hurry. While there is crowd in large numbers, they do not stay at the temple for even half a day.’

Income from Temple lands
When Government took over the temple lands, they had to make periodic payment at a fixed rate (Rs. 6 was a rate fixed for Paddy 50 years ago). There has not been a single revision of this rate in 50 years. Worst still, in the last 10 years, the temple has not received any income from these lands. However, the Ramanathapuram Samasthanam ensures that the monthly provisions to the temple and the salary to the staff are paid on the 1st of each month even though the salary to the Bhattars continues to remain at a very low figure of Rs. 1500!!!! The Samasthanam has 56 temples under their administration but not enough financial strength to compensate the bhattars suitably.

Good News for the Future
There is some good news around the corner. The original inhabitants have in recent times bought back the pieces of land they had sold decades ago. Almost two hundred traditional families have built houses South West of the temple in recent years. 

Legendary TVS Iyengar was a staunch devotee of the Lord of Thiru Pullani and he would come and stay here every year. Over a decade ago, his Grand Son Venu Srinivasan, who has been associated with rehabilitation of the society in Divya Desams in Nava Tirupathi and Thiru Kurungudi, visited the temple and adopted a nearby village.  
Developmental Initiatives in Thiru Pullani Region
Venu Srinivasan’s trust has taken up several developmental activities in Balwadi Village near Thiru Pullani thereby bringing economic prosperity to the rural communities there. In the last five years, the trust has conducted training programmes educating the villagers on several income generation opportunities. The team has also educated the people on hygienic habits to help build healthier communities around Thiru Pullani.

The percentage of anemic women has reduced from 12% to 5% over the last five years in the village. The trust has also conducted career guidance programme in school as well organized education classes for the adults with the result that the literacy rate has gone up from 78% to 98%. Interestingly, it has also resulted in the attendance in classes going up to 99% from around 80%. There have been no cases of school drop outs reported in recent years. The Balwadi Village has now become a model village for others to follow in the Thiru Pullani region.

His trust has also taken up the de-silting of Ponnamkali Kalavai and has constructed two check dams to direct the flow of rain water into the temple town thereby providing relief during drought.
There is a general sense all around Thiru Pullani that the original inhabitants would one day, very soon, come back to this temple town to revive its ancient glory, especially the grandeur of the big festivals.

The temple is open between 8am –12.20pm and 330pm-8pm

Contact : Jayaraman Bhattar 94439 20136

Friday, November 17, 2017

Venu Srinivasan Srirangam Temple Restoration

The biggest restoration exercise of the Ranganathaswamy temple in Srirangam in 200 years gets them the UNESCO award

Leader Venu Srinivasan’s Srirangam restoration exercise is a ‘Role Model’ for any large temple restoration 

The path of service to man and God is littered with stones, thorns, scorpions and other painful creatures. Our Gurus tell us that we should put our faith in Him and proceed purposefully without looking on either side, fixated only on the goal. With Swami's grace, I have tried to do so - Venu Srinivasan on the Restoration and Developmental initiatives at the Srirangam Temple
Having seen the temple from close quarters as a devotee from the mid 1970s and even more closely as a writer from the middle of last decade, it is truly befitting for the Ranganathaswamy temple in Srirangam to receive the UNESCO award for ‘Cultural Heritage Conservation’ for the temple has been truly revived to its glorious past. The grandeur of the restoration has to be seen to be believed.

This award also comes as a fitting reward for the Chairman, Board of Trustees (CBT) Venu Srinivasan in his 25th year of association with temple restoration activities that he had begun way back in 1992-93 with the Rama temple in Padai Veedu, near Vellore.  

The story goes that this inaugural project of initiating a complete transformation of Padai Veenu from ruins to a thriving village led the Collector of Tirunelveli to engage with Venu Srinivasan and initiate in him the thought of reviving Nava Tirupathi, a region that was in dire straits with a large majority of the people there living in poverty and fighting for everyday survival.

The Nava Tirupathi Call in the mid 90s
It was closer to home for Venu and this opportunity to be involved with developmental work relating to those temples excited him. But even he would not have had an inkling then of what he was to achieve in Nava Tirupathi. He had always seen that region as a set of 11 temples (including Srivaramangai – Nanguneri and Thiru Kurungudi) and not 9!!! And he got cracking on a project that now 2 decades later easily ranks as one of the biggest transformational exercises undertaken in Tamil Nadu (

That entire region now bears no resemblance to what one saw in the early 1990s – deserted, absolutely no ‘outside’ devotees, priests with no income and wearing the same dhoti through the year and there was no ‘other economy’.
While Venu set about getting the dilapidated temples back in shape, he also focused on another important aspect – the rehabilitation of the society. It is now vibrant with the villages especially in and around Erettai Tirupathi thriving with economic activity of Self Help Groups that Venu Srinivasan had kicked off. 

The Bhattars in all the temples in that region have been receiving a monthly amount for the last 20 years that Venu Srinivasan very devotionally calls ‘Sambhavanai’ giving it a very sacred feel for the performing Bhattar. Hence each month this amount is handed to the Bhattar at his Sannidhi as a ‘devotional presentation’. After the restoration of the temples in Nava Tirupathi, devotees have been thronging the region in large numbers contributing to a far better livelihood for the priests. Most of the festivals have been revived and the Brahmotsavams in each of these temples is now celebrated in a grand manner.

Venu Srinivasan takes back a big learning from the restoration exercise of Nava Tirupathi. He says that the Nava Tirupathi restoration initiative taught him a very important and fundamental principle of how temple restoration activities had to go hand in hand with social rehabilitation. 

TN CM’s mandate to Venu
For long after his involvement in Nava Tirupathi, he was focused on restoration work south of the Vaigai until one day, a few years ago he got a call that truly stunned him.  The former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Late Mrs. J Jayalalitha was on a mission to restore the Ranganathaswamy Temple in Srirangam to its ancient glory. She had heard of the outstanding work Venu Srinivasan had undertaken in Nava Tirupathi. And as he picked the call from her office, he was told that the then CM was keen to have him lead the restoration exercise at the Srirangam Temple. And the mandate to him as the Chairman of the Board of Trustees was to make this the biggest and the best restoration the temple has seen in the last 200 years.

He had a humongous task lying ahead of him. There were big challenges in Srirangam. Over the last century, far too many new constructions had come up (for a variety of reasons). Many of the sub shrines had remained locked for decades. Sacred pathways had been blocked with the growth of huge bushes. Toilets had been built in different corners of the temple.
Huge quantities of Mud, to the height of 10 feet, had gathered around the sub shrines and the base structures of these shrines had gone under.  The path way from Chakrathazhvaar Sannidhi to the Thayar Sannidhi through the Nandavanam remained closed for decades (except for Namperumal’s trip on the occasion of Panguni Uthiram and during Vasanthotsavam). The centuries old Granary on the Western side was seen in a completely dilapidated condition. Sesharayar Mandapam at the Eastern entrance, opposite the 1000 Pillar Mandapam too lay under the mud. Every sub shrine posed a unique challenge of its own.

Added to these were the human conflicts. Expert opinions with multiple views came from all corners, free and at great speed!!! And being a living structure, especially one where upwards of 40000 devotees turn up on festive days and over the weekend, one had to ensure that they were put to the least inconvenience.

He remained unfazed to one of the biggest challenging exercises he had undertaken in his life. One has to have forbearance in public places, especially in temples and if one is not prepared for bricks, mud and stones, one cannot do public service is a strong message he has had for himself ever since he began engaging in temple restoration activities.

Venu falls full length at the feet of Service Personnel!!!
There were times during this restoration process when Venu Srinivasan fell full length at the feet of opposing parties in full public view for the sake of bringing the temple back to its ancient architectural glory, such was his devotional commitment to the Lord of Srirangam. The securing of the Sri Pandaram was one such effort.

Venu Srinivasan is grateful for the restoration experience he had had at Nava Tirupathi. That came in quite handy in managing and tackling a number of the challenges he faced during this huge exercise in Srirangam. Crediting his entire team, he says it was a massive collective effort and the speed of implementation was quite unbelievable.

Architectural beauty had to be maintained and ASI norms had to be applied ‘Every bit of activity went through this filter to bring it as close to antiquity as possible’ says Venu Srinivasan.

His experience as the chief of a corporate auto major too has clearly helped in this large scale restoration of the Srirangam temple. He believes that administrative principles applicable to organizations are relevant to this as well. Principles of Quality, Management, House Keeping, Time Keeping, Punctuality, Processes and Systems were applied in every aspect of this huge exercise.

The Revival
60000 tonnes of debris was removed during this period giving one an indication of the enormity of the task that he had undertaken. 
The 40+ sub shrines are now fully functional. The historic path way to the 1000 pillar mandapam from the Thayar Sannidhi through Periya Vachan Pillai Sannidhi is now open giving the devotees a glimpse of the architectural beauty of the 1000 Pillar Mandapam. 

The steps of Sesharayar Mandapam are now visible for the first time in decades. The restoration of the granary should delight any devotee who had seen its state a few years ago. 
Anyone who had visited the Sri Pandaram over the decades would have seen it as their favourite ‘prasadam’ stall. The removal of these temporary constructions that had come up in recent times led to the revealing of the ancient architecture of this 100 pillar zone.

The most remarkable piece of restoration took place at the Southern entrance of the temple. The removal of thick mud led to the revealing of the ancient base structures of a few of the sub shrines. It has now become a popular photo zone with the Raja Gopuram in the background.

It is unlikely that anyone else, other than Venu Srinivasan, could have pulled off such a huge restoration activity in this record time of 18 months. Among others, he credits Joint Commissioner Pon Jayaraman, who anchored the initiative within the temple, for making this restoration happen so smoothly.

Having completed the restoration end of 2015, he put in place strong processes that would help in the cleanliness of the temple right through the year. One finds a lot of green inside the temple and almost no dust within the huge temple complex. It was no wonder then that within 12hours of the Vaikunta Ekadasi festival this January, there was not a drop of garbage seen anywhere inside the huge temple complex, despite the presence of a couple of lakhs of devotees on that day.

In their praise, UNESCO’s Jury consisting of 9 international conservation experts stated that the conservation of temple has revived the extensive religious complex at the core of Srirangam temple town. ‘The project has revealed the original fabric of the shrines, water bodies and landscape within the temple’s four inner enclosures, which were once obscured under layers of inappropriate modern additions and tons of debris. Employing traditional construction materials and techniques, the restoration work was carried out in an authentic manner by local craftspeople in accordance with ancient building principles and rites.’ 
To him the feedback from the devotees is the biggest blessing that he could receive for his engagement in this exercise. Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman visited the temple in February 2016, just 3 months after the completion of the restoration and was truly stunned at what she saw and how different it was back from her college days in the 1970s. She commended Venu Srinivasan for his efforts and called it a 'Great Public Service' to get such a large temple back to its ancient architectural glory. 
For all his untiring hard work, Venu Srinivasan looks back at this entire experience with a lot of humility, typical of the TVS family ‘I have been appointed as a servant of the devotees.  And I have tried to carry out my duty to the best of my ability and as sincerely as possible. Ultimate satisfaction comes from the fact that devotees have found the temple clean and neat and have gone back happy after the darshan.’

He says that the UNESCO award for the Srirangam Temple is a matter of great pride for Tamil Nadu ‘It vindicates processes that were followed in the restoration bringing it back to its old glory’.

"The path of service to man and God is littered with stones, thorns, scorpions and other painful creatures. Our Gurus tell us that we should put our faith in Him and proceed purposefully without looking on either side, fixated only on the goal. With Swami's grace, I have tried to do so" says Venu Srinivasan on the Restoration and Developmental initiatives at the Srirangam Temple

UNESCO’s Jury hoped that the temple would share the restoration lessons to encourage other heritage conservation efforts not just in India but also throughout the Asia Pacific region. And that was ultimate commendation for this truly large initiative that has now become a global role model for all other such temple restoration exercises.

( A version of the UNESCO award story featured today in The Hindu Friday Review)