Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Srirangam Kuchi Maami Perumal Sevai

76 year old Kuchi Maami wades her way through a long crowd seeking Moksham at the feet of Lord Ranganatha

'Why do you come for Darshan Everyday' - HR & CE Official

The temple opens the gate at Naazhi Kettan Vaasal just 2 minutes before the Purapadu time forcing devotees to rush all at once for 'Purapadu Thodakkam'
It is rare to see an old lady following the rules and processes with such devotion as the 76 year ‘Kuchi Maami’, who has been in Srirangam for the last two decades.  She was married off as a teenager almost six decades ago to a man in the army and had to shift base to the North East. She faced many challenges in life including when a war broke out right in the middle of her pregnancy. When her husband passed away, she decided that it was time for her to be where she always wanted to be. And she let go everything (her daughter has been a working professional in the US and her granddaughter has been in a metro city) and shifted base to Srirangam.

She has had the happiest moments of her life in these two decades having dedicated this 2nd half of her life entirely to Lord Ranganatha of Srirangam.

But in recent years it has not been a smooth ride for her at the temple. With the overall devotee crowd increasing dramatically in recent times, and more specifically with the original inhabitants making their way back to Srirangam, the temple has had to deal with this huge crowd both from within and outside. On Friday and over the weekend, the crowd swells even more making it almost impossible to manage. Add to this the number of VIPs (including a big number through the Kainkaryapakas and Sthalathars) dishing out cards and references for special and quick darshan. 

Meeting the Old Sincere Devotee
Many times this year, I ran into the lean and tall Kuchi Maami (she walks with a stick to assist her) since January.  Each time, she has revealed a fascinating aspect of her character but never has she compromised on the processes of the temple for darshan. During the Thai Brahmotsavam, she waited outside the locked gate near the Dwajasthambam, eagerly awaiting the unlocking of the gate but even as time neared the start of the Purapadu there was no sign of the high handed Superintendent.

She wailed in vain narrating the story of the times gone by, the number of ubayams she has done, the contributions she has made and how the current staffers at the gate with a few exceptions have taken power into their head and been treating devotees shabbily.

Denying Entry at Nazhi Kettan Vaasal
It so happened that on that day, the set of 25 devotees weren’t allowed inside the Naazhi Kettan Vaasal for the purapadu as the Superintendent of the day took the call. And the devotional enthusiasm and expectation of those limited number of devotees collapsed in that moment when the Superintendent took that shocking sudden decision.

Even the days that they allow entry into the Nazhi Kettan Vaasal for purapadu, they do so exactly two minutes before the start. Such is their arrogant presence at that entry point. Usually well ahead of the purapadu time, the moolavar sannidhi is closed for darshan. Hence, these devotees not numbering that many (never above 100 in the last many many years) can easily be allowed into the inner prakaram so they can position themselves for the Purapadu Thodakkam. 
In the last few years, there has never been an instance when the Superintendent at the gate has allowed the local devotees ahead of time for the purapadu. And when they finally allow ( just a couple of minutes ahead of the start), it is a mad rush of all the devotees  including the senior citizens in an eagerness to not miss the Thodakkam.

One wonders as to what they will lose if they allow the devotees 30 minutes ahead of time into inner prakaram especially when the moolavar sannidhi is closed. It is sheer ego of the power mongering superintendents who enjoy watching the devotees wait at that gate pleading him to open.

The same story at the Maasi Utsavam
It did not end there. The same story was repeated during the Maasi Theppotsavam as well. And the Kuchi Maami was there again. This time too she spoke about the times gone by and how a certain set of HR & CE staffers at this Nazhi Kettan Vaasal were so against the local devotees. I saw it all over again. This time I went up to the authorities to ask as to why the devotees were not allowed inside for the Purapadu Thodakkam. And the reply was a shocker ‘If you want, you alone may go in. Do not ask for others.’ I refused that day and remained outside asking once again the reason. The reply was even more shocking 'What is so special about going inside and having darshan at the start of the purapadu. The same Lord comes outside and he will be on the street as well. So you can darshan of him there for as much time as you want. No one will prevent you."

In that heated moment, he also asked if he could stop the entire ticket queue and get them into the free darshan queue so there is no distinction between any of them!!!

And thus the Maasi Utsavam passed.

And into Chitrai....
My tryst with Kuchi Maami seemed never ending as she was there once again at the wrong place at the right time (i.e when I was there!!!) – this time at the Chitrai Utsavam in the 2nd week of May.  This time it was for the Moolavar Darshan during the 1st half of the day. We both happened to stand in the same queue. As she stood right behind me, I suggested to her that I could try talking to the officials to see if they could allow her to bypass the long queue around the Santanu Mandapam and Gayathri Mandapam given her age and the walking stick that she held. Strong was the reply from her that left me stunned that morning.

‘I have seen this for long. Don’t try any such. They will give it back to you. I know all of them. They will not allow me. I do not want any favours from them despite my age. And she patiently walked along with me for the next half hour alongside the long queue to have darshan.’

We parted ways after the darshan but an hour later she was there sitting near the Kambathadi Anjaneyar. I went up to her to enquire as to why did not ask for special treatment both for her age as well as her being a two decades long regular at the temple. And in a long conversation with this writer she narrated the story of how life has been for her at the temple over the last two decades and how it is becoming increasing difficult and tedious for her to have darshan with the callous attitude of the HR & CE staffers at the Nazhi Kettan Vaasal and the vocal gestures made by some of the new comers at that gate.

‘All these years, I have paid the ticket at the counter and made my way through the process. There are some who show consideration (like Shri Anantharaman) for my age but there are others whose mind is always on money. It has been frustrating to repeatedly hear the same comment from those officials at the Nazhi Kettan Vaasal ‘Why do you come every day for darshan’ (She doesn’t seek favour, she does not use any special privilege, she pays for the darshan and yet she is disgusted to hear the typical comments from a few of these HR &CE officials frowning upon these daily visitors for moolavar darshan).

As young lady devotees pass by, she covers her face in  disgust ' I have never in these seven decades seen ladies wear such short dresses when coming to have darshan of the Lord. Is this the way to dress when you are visiting a temple to invoke the Lord's blessings.'

'I seek nothing from here except Moksham at the feet of Lord Ranganatha. I come here everyday with that as my only wish. For several decades, I have performed my role as a dutiful wife, a responsible mother and an adoring grandmother, got them into music and dance. What more can I do in this life. Now I visit Perumal and Thayar each day in the hope that he would grant my  wish of Moksham.'

It is not just the lack of understanding of devotees’ desire to have darshan of the Purapadu Thodakkam that is a bother. It is also the attitude of the officials including the Superintendent and the newer entrants manning the ticket counter showcasing their raw power to these devotees using rough language that is a worry as one watches in dismay the treatment meted out to the financially weak. 

The HR & CE reaction
The temple has under the current JC, Pon Jayaraman, allocated a specific hour in the day for senior citizens and locals. On a normal day, this crowd alone runs up to well over 500. Pon Jayaraman wants the devotees too to understand the view point of the temple and the challenges they face just in the same way that the devotees expect him to understand their view point.  

"It is a mammoth task to manage large local crowds running into several hundreds each day with most seeking a free and special entry for Moolavar darshan. This is even more so on purapadu days."

One can't but admire the sincerity of the JC in listening to the voice of the devotees and his prompt directions in taking corrective action but he is far away from the place of action, most of the time, and also has several more pressing issues at hand. 

While he does seem to provide repeated directions to allow entry, the important entry point is dominated by the Superintendent and his assistants who play a crucial role in allowing devotees for purapadu as well as for moolavar darshan. 

Jayaraman says that his hands are also tied by the fact that the entry point at the Gayathri Mandapam is so narrow that there is not much leeway and that at that point, everyone has to join the single line.

Despite all of these, the JC can definitely direct his staff to be more courteous to the devotees seeking darshan for purapadu and to those locals, especially in their treatment of the senior citizens. One hopes that into the future, more responsible, polite and understanding people at the Nazhi Kettan Vaasal will don the important role at that entry point and help the likes of Kuchi Maami have a more peaceful darshan.

(Kuchi Maami refused to be photographed saying that she has had enough photo shoots as the wife of the Army General)

Friday, May 4, 2018

Thiru Kudanthai Akshaya Tritiyai 12 Garuda Sevai

12 Lords provide Garuda Sevai darshan on the TSR Big Street
Historically, five of the ancient Lords followed the Garuda Sevai with a 'Cooling off' session on the banks of the Cauvery on this Hot Chitrai Day
Akshaya Tritiyai in Chitrai marks the Biggest Festive Day of the year at the TSR Big Street in Kumbakonam. The 12 Vaishnavite Lords of this ancient temple are set to congregate in a few hours at the Western End of this Popular business street.

It is 6am on the morning of Akshaya Tritiyai (April 18), a day when Ganges is believed to have emerged on earth with Garuda having played a helpful role in that (hence the tradition of Garuda Sevai on this day). At the Sarangapani temple in Thiru Kudanthai, Soundararaja Bhattar who has been in this devotional service for three decades was working on the Garuda Sevai alankaram. 

At the nearby Ramaswamy temple, Chakravarthi Bhattar had completed the grand alankaram of the handsome Lord and was awaiting the huge sets of flower garland that has been ordered from Srirangam to give the final touches to the alankaram. By 7am, Pattabhirama Bhattar had Lord Chakrapani sporting a majestic look with Garuda draped in a beautiful bright green silk vastram.

The famous TSR Big Street in Kumbakonam where the centuries old 12 Garuda Sevai utsavam unfolded later that morning wore a decorated festive look. A grand long Panthal has been erected in front of the Ahobila Mutt. By 730am, devotees had already begun to take up vantage position on both sides of the Street.

A couple of hours later one heard a loud devotional cheer from the huge crowd on the TSR Big Street signifying the entry of the first Lord of the morning. Within the next half hour, the Vaishnavite Lords of Kumbakonam had taken up their respective positions at the far West End of the Big Street.  By now the crowd had swelled to several thousands on the hot Chitrai day.

Entry of Sarangapani into the Big Street
Back at the Aravamudhan Divya Desam, Prabhandham scholars were presenting the verses of Thirumangai Azhwar on Thiru Kudanthai. 
At 9.30 am, led by Nam Azhwar, Thirumangai Azhwar and Thirumazhisai Azhwar, Lord Sarangapani made his way out of the towering Raja Gopuram.
The devotees and the shop owners welcomed Sarangapani calling out his name ‘Saranga’ in unison. He took his place alongside Chakrapani in the front row with Aathi Varaha Perumal and Raja Gopalan right behind them.

Lord Rama’s delayed arrival
As the clock ticket past 10.30am, everyone wondered on the missing link on the front row. It has been the tradition for a century for Sarangapani Perumal to be flanked by Chakrapani and Ramaswamy. While Lord Rama had been ready for departure early in the morning, a minor pay dispute at the final moment with the Sri Patham Thangis led to a delay. Finally, just after 11am, after all the other Lords had waited almost for an hour, Lord Rama took up his historical position alongside Lord Sarangapani. 
There were different kinds of Garuda Vahanas on display with each of the Bhattars exhibited his Alankaram skill sporting the Lord in different attires much to the delight of the devotees. Aathi Varaha Perumal was particularly special as he provided darshan in Varaha Avataram – a Unique Feature for the utsava deities in Vaishnavite temples always provide darshan only in human form and not in the avataram form.

82 year old G Kunchithapatham, a Chartered Accountant has witnessed the Garuda Sevai for well over seven decades.  He remembers the Garuda Sevai from the 2nd half of the 1940s “I was all of 10 years old. 
'It was a festival that everyone in the temple town looked forward to. Just a single Garuda Sevai is special. And when 12 different Lords provided Garuda Sevai darshan at one place, all of us saw it as a divine opportunity to seek their Blessings. It was with great joy that all of us gathered at the Western End of TSR Big Street to watch the 12 Lords. In those years, all the Lords used to congregate early in the morning around 7am and they used to provide darshan till around 2pm.”

The 12 Garuda Sevai Lords
Over the last century, it has been Sarangapani, Chakrapani, Ramaswamy,  Aathi Varaha Perumal, Rajagopalan (Thoppu Street), Rajagopalan (Bazaar Street), Santhanagopalan Krishnan (Malluga Chetty Street), Patabhiramar (Kamakshi Street), Navaneetha Krishnan (Mela Kottaiyur), Navaneetha Krishnan (Patrachar Street), Varadaraja Perumal (Mela Cauvery)  and Srinivasa Perumal (Pulianchery near Swami Malai – Did not make it this year) that have made it to the Garuda Sevai on the Akshaya Tritiya day.
It has historically been a festival hosted by the shop keepers of TSR Big Street. 73 year old V Kannan, a jewellery shop owner on that street has been an integral part of this festival for over 50 years ‘Devotees used to arrive very early on the morning with their family having walked all the way from the neighbouring villages to witness this grandest Garuda Sevai of Kumbakonam. Since the early 1960s, we have been presenting Panagam and Butter Milk to all the devotees who visit the Garuda Sevai.  
'This year we organized 10000 glasses. I remember as a school boy in those decades in the 1950s and 60s having watched the grand preparation on the Big Street with great interest. The ground work used to start one month ahead of the festival. The entire street used to have a huge Panthal with plantains and coconuts being part of the decoration.'

The return trip on a littered street
By noon, as is the case these days during big festivals, the entire street wore an untidy look. Unmindful of the fact the Lords were to make their return trip through this Street, food particles, cups and waste papers were littered in thousands right in the middle.

Having provided darshan to the huge devotee crowd, each of the Lords began their return journey to the respective abodes with the bare footed Sri Patham bearing the brunt of the sweltering Chitrai heat and having to evade the dirt that had now filled the entire street.

Revival of ‘Cooling off’ Trip after the Garuda Sevai
A century earlier, five of the 12 Garuda Sevai Lords used to go the banks of the Cauvery after providing darshan on TSR Big Street to cool off and as a resting exercise after spending the first half of the day in the hot Chitrai Sun. These are the five ancient Vaishnavite Lords of Kumbakonam that also make the trip for the Theerthavari Utsavam on Maasi Magam. Tents used to be set up on the banks of the river and prasadam used to be distributed late in the evening.  When financial constraints arose, the post Garuda Sevai exercise was restricted to a trip to the Rajagopalan temple on Bazaar Street and this went on for about two decades. Around 60 years ago, this too came to a halt. 
Revered Vaishnavite Scholar VS Karunakaran Swamy has now revived a part of that tradition with Lord Sarangapani making his way on a palanquin to Raja Gopalan temple after the Garuda Sevai. 

Karunakaran Swamy is hopeful of a full revival very soon ‘We have started off with the revival of Divya Desam Lord Sarangapani’s trip. We are hoping that next year Lord Chakrapani too will be able to join on this cooling trip and then sometime in the near future, Lord Ramaswamy too would be able to join like in the first half of the previous century.”

Karunakaran Swamy had also organized the renovation of the Raja Gopalan temple a few years ago including the installation of an integrated idol for Nadathur Ammal and his disciple Vedanta Desikar. During the annual Brahmotsavam in Maasi, Nadathur Ammal and Desikar go on a street procession with Lord Raja Gopalan.
An interesting feature of the new temple tower is that the life story of Nadathur Ammal has been sculpted in the front with the life story of Krishna on the back. Also, sculpted are the seven Azhwars who sang praise of Lord Aravamuthan of Thiru Kudanthai.         

After having spent the entire evening listening to a devotional rendering of Koil Tiruvoimozhi, Sarangapani returned to his abode just after 9pm bringing to end the Akshaya Tritiyai Utsavam.                                                                           
(A version of this story featured in Today's The Hindu Friday Review)