Sunday, February 4, 2018

Srirangam Bhoopathi Thirunaal Sapthaavaranam

A once in a Century Sapthaavaranam coinciding with Chandra Grahanam creates huge ‘agama process’ controversy at the Ranganathaswamy temple in Srirangam

In a commendable move, JC Pon Jayaraman takes a bold and an unprecedented decision of revising the entire schedule of events at the last minute in an effort to do the ‘right’ thing
Thursday January 31, 2018 marked a once in over a century event at the Ranganathaswamy temple in Srirangam. On this day, Chandra Grahanam coincided with the Sapthaavaranam of the Bhoopathi Thirunaal Utsavam in Thai.

The events as it unfolded over the week of this grand Thai Utsavam also showcased the difficulties in managing such a large and ancient temple with many different and conflicting views having to be considered before finalizing upon the sequence of events on the day. Many different factions, each with their own opinion does not make it easy for the authorities to take decisions, and yet one had to commend the JC of the temple, Pon Jayaraman, for a brave decision he took on this day dismissing the officially printed programme schedule that had been in circulation for over three quarters.

The annual calendar
For many years, the Srirangam temple has been bringing out an annual calendar that provides complete details on the days of the utsavams in the year as well as the timings of procession and other highlights of pooja on these days. This calendar of events is also posted on the website of the temple.

For this year, 2017-18, the calendar book had been launched in Panguni of 2017 i.e nine months ahead of this Bhoopathi Thirunaal utsavam. 

The page relating to January 31, 2018 clearly indicated that it was the day of the Chandira Grihanam and provides the timings of Moolavar Darshan as well as the specific timing of the Thirumanjanam, the special Sapthaavaranam Procession, one where Lord Namperumal goes around the Uthira streets listening to Ramanuja Nootranthaathi chanting without the beating of the drums.
As per this schedule, the Grahanam Thirumanjanam was to take place between 5 pm and 730 pm. And then Lord Namperumal was to leave for the Uthira Veethi Sapthaavaranam procession at 10 pm. And the flag was to be brought down at 0.30 am (Feb 1) after ‘Padippu’ thanking the Lord for the safe and successful conduct of the Utsavam.

Till the middle of this Utsavam, this had remained the schedule, until a sudden realization happened with Murali Bhattar, raising the need to have two Thirumanjanams on the day one prior to the Purapadu for Sapthaavaranam (Thirunaal ending Thirumanjanam) and then one after the flag was brought down for the Chandra Grahanam.

Murali Bhattar, well versed in the agamas and who has been here at the temple for several decades told this writer that this annual calendar (handed out to the devotees at a pre fixed price) is usually run through the Araiyars, the Uthama Nambi clan and the Bhattars before it is finalized ahead of the Tamil New Year.
When asked as to why this was not pointed out earlier, either before it went to print or during the course of the year, he conveyed his apologies to the authorities for overlooking the error in the calendar but requested the authorities to take corrective action as he had noticed it ahead of the day and to stick to what was right as per the agamas.

A revision in schedule had many other officials, bhattars and kainkaryapakas raising their eyebrows.

Japta Sampath, known for his loud and vocal voicing of opinions, registered a strong protest against the conduct of two Thirumanjanams and bringing forward the 10pm procession to 1.30pm.  Several decades experienced Raman Bhattar of Therazhundur, a man well versed in the agamas agreed with Murali Bhattar that it was appropriate to have two Thirumanjanams on the day.

The temple had to make a choice between the two options. A programme taking into account the Chandra Grahanam, had been chalked out three quarters earlier with a clear description of the events of the day and the schedule had been officially printed by the temple. 

Do they choose to stick to the popular and safe decision of the programme detailed in the calendar at the beginning of the year after the Bhattar had brought the error to their notice or do they take corrective action and go ahead with the right process for the day and acknowledge the error in the official schedule.

It was not an easy decision to take, for it seemed that on the day leading up to the Chandra Grahanam a majority wanted to stick to the schedule and were not in favour of two Thirumanjanams and a revision of procession timing.

A Commendable Decision by the JC
The man in the hot seat JC Pon Jayaraman took quite a bold and brave decision and quite an unprecedented one at that. He stuck his neck out to go with what was stated in the agamas for such a unique occurrence of a Sapthaavaranam day falling on a Chandra Grahanam.Through the day one could hear murmurs of angst against the rescheduling of the entire set of events on this day.
The 9th day Thirumanjanam after the Chariot festival ended only around mid night and the Kainkaryapakas had to be back at the temple in the morning for this additional Thirumanjanam in the morning on the 10th day of the Utsavam.

This new schedule posted on the notice board outside  the Ariya Bhattal Vaasal on the morning of the 10th day showed the first Thirumanjanam in the morning at 9 am, the procession at 1.30 pm, the flag to be brought down at 4 pm and the second ‘Grahanam’ Thirumanjanam after 5 pm with the Lord going back to the Moolavar Sannidhi at 9.15 pm.
Sitting in front of the notice board, Japta Sampath also questioned the plan to bring down of the flag at 4 pm as it was not to be done before Sunset.

As luck would have it, one that saved the day for the JC and the authorities, the first Thirumanjanam and the formalities following that were so delayed that the procession took off only at 3.45pm which meant the Lord was back at the temple only around 5pm.

Being this special 10th day of the Utsavam, the Lord made his way to the Thayar Sannidhi for Thiruvanthikaapu and then through the now open route alongside the 1000 Pillared Mandapam to the Ramanuja Sannidhi where he was greeted with Coconut Water.

And when the Ramanuja Nootranthathi Satrumurai was completed near the Garudan Sannidhi, it was close to 6pm.  Following the ‘Padippu’, the flag was brought down well after 6.30 pm (after Sunset), even though this had been planned for 4 pm as per the revised schedule saving the blushes for the authorities.

Lord Namperumal made his way out for the 2nd procession of the day after 730pm and following the 2nd Thirumanjanam, he made his way to his sanctum from the Santanu Mandapam after 11 pm bringing to end a long and controversial day at the temple.

Friday, February 2, 2018

TR Ramesh Temple Activist

A long Battle to Protect Temple Heritage and Architecture

The Man who combined with Subramaniam Swamy to secure Pothu Dikshithars' hereditary rights at the Chidambaram Temple

‘Ramesh stood by us during the dark period of the HR & CE takeover assuring us that he would fight till the very end for our just cause. In a time and age when most are looking for personal glorification, it is rare to find someone as devoted and committed, and as selfless as him in the fight against injustice at temples in Tamil Nadu’ – Chidambaram Temple’s Sivaraja Dikshithar 

It is a chilly Margazhi morning and the day of the Avathara Utsavam of Vaayilar Nayanar, the only Nayanar from Mylapore. Temple activist TR Ramesh, a former banking professional and a staunch Saivite devotee well versed in the Thevaram and other sacred verses is at the Kapaleeswarar Temple to fight the HR & CE department on the issue of the temporary music and dance stage that had been erected right in front of the Nayanar Sannidhi. He is seen frantically calling the JC of the temple enquiring about the removal of the stage with the Abhishekam just a few hours away.

In the evening, at the Pushpa Pallakku street procession, around 400 delighted devotees are seen thanking him profusely for his tireless effort in helping remove the obstructions and facilitating the proper conduct of the annual festival.

The additional constructions such as Anna Dhana Koodams, toilets and new sannidhis that have come up in many ancient temples thus destroying its heritage and architecture is one of the big battles Ramesh has been involved in with the HR & CE in the last few years.

Chidambaram Pothu Dikshithars’ case
January 6 (this year – 2018) marked the fourth anniversary of the landmark judgment and a historic victory for Pothu Dikshithars of the Chidambaram Sabanayakar temple. It was Ramesh’s first big success in his battle against the HR & CE. While the verdict was being pronounced that morning at the Supreme Court, Ramesh was at the Ayodhya Mandapam, in West Mambalam physically stalling efforts by the HR & CE to take over the Samajam and within an hour of the Supreme Court verdict, the Madras HC had provided a stay to HR & CE’s attempted takeover. It was a dual victory for Ramesh that day.

He has since successfully stopped the takeover of  5 ancient temples in TN including Lakshmi Narasimha Perumal Temple, Chromepet, Kandhaswamy Temple, Kandhakottam and Aiyyapan Temple, Kodungaiyur. 

He also stalled the construction of the Raja Gopuram at the Padalathri temple in Singaperumal Koil and is currently taking on the HR & CE against the construction of a new modern Raja Gopuram at the over 1000years old Kurupapureeswarar temple in Thiruvennainallur, near Villupuram. 
He is confident that the planned construction of the new Raja Gopuram at Thiru Vellarai Divya Desam near Srirangam too will be stopped.

The fight against HR & CE
When the judgment was pronounced against the Pothu Dikshithars in 2009, it was Ramesh’s father, an erudite Saivite Scholar that they first approached for the next action in the fight for their rights. Ramesh took up the task of putting together the entire research material including a paragraph wise rebuttal for Shri Subramanian Swamy to fight the case in the Supreme Court. His research on Chidambaram temple and the law relating to temple rights were sharpened and honed during the research period of almost 5years. 

His initial angst against the HR & CE was driven by the Hundies that came up in multiple places within the Chidambaram temple soon after the 2009 Madras High Court order handing the temple to the HR & CE. He found that this had a direct impact on the livelihood of the Dikshithars and diminished a substantial portion of the Dhakshina monies. In the name of the prasadam stall, he says they sold food that was made outside. But what really infuriated Ramesh was the notices HR & CE sent to all the Dikshithars to get them registered so they could appoint and recognize a few as Archakas, for he saw this as a plan to create division among the Dikshithar families.

That was when he started using the RTI Act to secure information about the HR & CE administered temples and found to his dismay a number of violations in the functioning of the temples. He filed over 700 applications and the information provided him with significant insights into the lack of processes and systems in the administration of the temples.

In 2015, he filed five Writ Petitions questioning the appointment and presence of Executive Officers in five of the big temples and another one challenging the appointment of HR & CE staff as Fit Persons in temples. A few months ago, he issued notices to the Commissioner relating to 17 temples where there were no orders of appointment of EOs.  It was after his writ that the department framed the rules for the appointment of EOs under the HR & CE Act for the first time in 55 years. His case on improper civil works in temples in the name of Thiruppani has now been tagged along with the Suo Moto Heritage case at the Madras High Court.

Chidambaram’s Sivaraja Dikshithar
80 year old M. N Sivaraja Dikshithar is a scholar extraordinaire and a master of Sanskrit, Tamil, English and Hindi. He has seen the highs and lows at the Chidambaram temple over the last 7 decades and is all praise for the efforts of Ramesh

 ‘Hundreds of the Pothu Dikshithar families are grateful to Ramesh for his selfless service of five years in helping us secure our historical rights. It was a terrible time for the Pothu Dikshithars after the adverse verdict in 2009 and many went into depression. It was Ramesh who stood by us during that dark period assuring us that he would fight till the very end for our just cause. In a time and age when most are looking for personal glorification, it is rare to find someone as devoted and committed, and as selfless as him in the fight against injustice at temples in Tamil Nadu.’

Dedicating his life to Protecting Ancient Temples
He understands that fighting such a large institution managing close to 40000 temples will be a very long drawn out process but is committed to fulfilling the promise given to Late Shri Dayanand Saraswathi, just a month prior to his death, that he would dedicate his entire life to protecting the heritage and architecture of ancient temples and not give up this fight unmindful of the challenges that may come his way.

Five Areas of Concern
Ramesh says he will be relentless in his pursuit of taking on the HR & CE in issues relating to the department’s interference in religious matters, non protection of temple properties and non realization of income, issues relating to auctioning of prasadam stalls and the like, diversion of temple funds to non temple purposes and the flawed process of Thiruppani including demolition of ancient sculptures and heritage in the name of renovation.

After the unsavoury incident at the Kapaleeswarar Temple in Margazhi, devotees of the temple are now  coming together to form a Temple Worshippers Forum in Mylapore to fight collectively as a group irregularities and hurdles they face with the HR & CE department. 
This Ramesh believes is a great sign in meeting his objective of getting HR & CE to act in the spirit of what the Act had really intended all those decades ago - the role of looking after the properties of the temple and realising the due income from them. He says that the fight against injustice in Temples has risen rapidly in recent years and is confident that this will soon become an avalanche and that Justice will finally prevail.

His Temple Activism successes thus far include helping secure rights for the Pothu Dikshathars of Chidambaram, stalling takeover bid of HR & CE in 5 temples, preventing arbitrary civil works in several temples, helping the Proper Conduct of the Vaayilar Nayanar Avathara Utsavam in Mylapore and forcing HR & CE to frame the rules of EO appointment for the first time. And in 2018, he is raring to go further taking the HR & CE on even more..

He is currently in the process of filing a Writ of Mandamus seeking direction that HR & CE will publish all the information, voluntarily, relating to the temples under section 4 of the RTI Act and another writ against the transfer of temple funds for non temple purposes. He is also planning to file a Writ relating to illegal presence of EOs in many temples and a Writ seeking handing over 40 temples back to original trustees.

With his complete understanding of the HR & CE Act, Ramesh is now readying himself to go the full distance in his battle against the HR & CE with the Temple Worshippers Society funding his temple activism initiatives. He has just started ‘belling the cat’ and many more across the country are now joining him in this endeavour.  Ramesh has drawn inspiration from enquiries he has been receiving from the trustees of several temples across the Southern States seeking his counsel in their fight to keep the department away from their respective temple. It is a clear sign of the increased awareness of the rights to administer temples. 

(A version of this story featured in The Hindu Friday Review today)