Thursday, May 16, 2019

MA Venkatakrishnan Thiruvallikeni Divya Desam

One of a kind personality in the Vaishnavite Sect
- Leader of Prabhandham Ghosti, Head of Vaishnavism Dept, Madras University, Author of 25 books with special interest in Palm Leaf Manuscripts, Editor and Publisher of a Journal for 40 years, One of the first to provide LIVE TV commentary on a Divya Desam Utsavam, Upanyasakar and a Fanatic ‘Thengalayar’ supporter 

He has just completed prsesenting the 4000 sacred verses along with prabhamdham ghosti at the two 10 day utsavams at Thiruvallikeni Divya Desam- firat the Brahmotsavam and then the Ramanuja Avathara utsavam.

Unmindful of the hot sun, the 64 year old  Dr. MA Venkatakrishnan will soon be off to the Varadaraja Perumal  divya desam in Kanchipuram to be part of the prabhandham Ghoati at the ten day Brahmotsavam there. Such is his commitment to the prabhandham ghosti as well as to protecting the rights of the Thengalayars.

He may have just as many detractors as supporters even within Thiruvallikeni but he is vocal in safeguarding the rights of the Prabhandham Ghosti. Also, he has no qualms at the general perception of him being a Thengalai Fanatic. Be as that may be, MAV, as he is fondly called, is a rare personality in the Vaishnavite community with stellar achievement over the last five decades. He has provided quite a diverse mix of services in the Vaishnavite world, one that almost none others have possessed in the decades gone by. This rather unique story of this one of a kind personality began right at birth or rather even when he was in the womb of his mother, for in a family of four brothers he turned out to be the only one with strong interests in Vaishnavism.

Leading up to his birth, his mother, Rukmini spent 48 days in the historical temple town of Thiru Narayanapuram in Melkote ( going around the Pushkarani and invoking the blessings of Lord Selva Pillai. She would then listen to the Kalakshepam of Thirumalai Iyengar and have her first meal of the day only after noon, most times well after 1pm.
It was the fruits of such a sincere penance  at Melkote ( that she was blessed with a son who through his entire life of over six decades has been associated in a strong way in promoting Vaishnavism. Even in her final days, when she found it difficult to walk, his mother (she passed away last year) would take delight in listening to her son’s explanation of the inner meaning of the Divya Prabhandham verses of the Azhvaars.

It was not for MAV to play tennis ball cricket around the streets of Thiruvallikeni in the 1950s and 60s much like the other boys his age and most of his other family members. Instead right from the time he was 6, MAV spent time going to Kalakshepams of Annankaracharya Swami along with his athai (aunt) Krishnammal. He knew no sport or any other pastime other than listening to historical stories of the Lord. Through most of his childhood, he was surrounded by idols and vahanas. Alankaram of the Lord and decoration of the vahanas were the only games he knew of. His forefathers belonged to the Mysore Pradhans and were ministers in the province. In this large family of brothers and aunts, MAV emerged as the first with such a serious intent to promote Vaishnavism. 

With his aunt taking him around to Kalakshepams, almost his entire childhood was spent under the tutelage of Annankarachariar Swami, who spotting the devotional interest asked him to get initiated into the Nalayira Divya Prabhandham. He would often throw up probing questions at the young kid in public on Divya Prabhandham verses and get Venkatakrishnan to answer. By the time he was 16 years old, Annankarachariar Swami coronated him with the title of ‘Medhavi Mani’. He would also get the young kid to present a few verses all of a sudden in front of a large audience. It was one such announcement that led MAV to present his first ever Upanyasam on the Thiruppavai verses before he had touched 20. Seeing the early interest of MAV, he initiated him into the entire process of publishing including proof reading, composing pages and printing. In 1974, when Annankarachariar Swami was to put together a detailed commentary on Tiruvoimozhi, he handed Rs. 1Lakh to MAV and asked him to manage the entire process of the publication which comprised of 6 volumes each running up to 500 pages. This gave Venkatakrishnan both the administrative capability as well as an extreme interest in publishing books on Vaishnavism.

Launches Monthly Journal at 24
Following this experience, Venkatakrishnan exchanged a number of letters expressing interest to start a monthly journal of his own to propagate Vaishnavism. Annankarachariar Swami was initially apprehensive for it was not easy to put together content every month within a certain deadline, let alone managing the process of printing and marketing the journal.
Once again, MAV’s convincing ability came to the fore and with the blessings of Annankarachariar Swami (who suggested that it be named after the Lord of Thiruvallikeni as Gitacharyan), he launched the first edition of the journal as a young 24 year old in 1978. This has now seen four decades without a break.

He had by then already provided LIVE Commentary on Doordarshan for the Kal Garuda Sevai at Nachiyar Koil.

After being initiated with the sacred verses by Goplan Iyengar of Vanamamalai Mutt, in Thiruvallikeni in the late 1960s, Venkatakrishnan began what was to be one of his closest relationships in his early life. He learnt the rest of the Prabhandham verses from Kavalkani Ananthacharya Swami ( who was the secretary of the Prabhandham Ghosti at Thiruvallikeni. If the association with Annankarachariar Swami led him into understanding the nuances of Divya Prabhandham, his association with Ananthachariar Swami gave him an entry into kainkaryam at the temple.

A Puny Sanskrit Teacher at 20 addressing 90 plus students
It was a phase he also learnt Sanskrit from Damal Srinivasan (almost four decades later, Venkatakrishnan and Perundevi (Damal Srinivasan’s daughter) .shared the stage together on Doordarshan to present LIVE commentary for the Samprokshanam at the Thiruvallikeni Divya Desam a few years ago). That initiation led him into being the only applicant for BA Sanskrit at the Vivekananda College (the rest of the students were ‘forced’ entrants). No sooner did he complete his graduation, he was offered a lecturer’s post at the college. Just past 20 and puny in stature, he was apprehensive of addressing a strong 90+ student batch of PUC. However, his professor convinced him of his inherent talent and he began teaching Sanskrit, a post that he held for a decade. This experience was to hold him in good stead during his three decade long association with the Vaishnavism Department at the Madras University.

Prabhandham Acharya
By the mid 1970s when he just in his early 20s Venkatakrishnan had already begun teaching Divya Prabhandham to young kids in Thiruvallikeni. The strength of the students numbering over 50 remains the highest to this day at Thiruvallikeni. Many of his students are now an integral part of the Ghosti.

His Magnum Opus
Listening to the Kalakshepams of Govinda Narasimhachariar Swami, who came all the way from Srirangam exclusively for MAV and having already been exposed to the publishing route, MAV began a long journey of publishing books. The Magnum Opus of his life has been the publication of an 800 page book comprising of anecdotes from the Divya Prabhandham interspersed with intricate meanings of the verses of the Saint Poets.  It has been such a hit with the readers that it has gone into 7 reprints. He was also presented the Doctorate in Literature for this effort.

Palm Leaf Manuscripts
Yet another of his differentiated interests in life was to read from Palm Leaf manuscripts. After intense efforts of searching historical literature, he came up with a Vyakyanam for the Iyarpa verses. The effort included searching and finding relevant manuscripts, physically checking each of the 700 folios, oiling and cleaning the manuscripts and reading each one with lens. It was with support from his wife  whom he married in November 1982 that he was able to successfully complete this book. The two would sit for three hours each evening from 9pm to scan through the entire manuscripts.  

MAV and Vaishnavism Dept at the Madras University
When the 125th anniversary celebrations of Madras University were to be held, advocate NC Raghavachari, who fought many of the court cases relating to the temple, sought MAV’s help in idea generation for the event. It was on MAV’s suggestion that the Vaishnavism department was launched at the University. Much to MAV’s surprise, he was asked to be part of the launch team. Thus he began his Vaishnavism teaching career alongside the then stalwarts M Narasimhachari and Raghavan, a career that extended for almost the next three decades.

Though Narasimhachari was the HOD, he was a rather quiet personality and it was MAV, the marketer who built a strong network within the University so much so that many in the University would come searching for MAV, the HOD. Such was the humility of Narasimhachari that he would let it be and would often inform the visitors that HOD Venkatakrishnan had gone out and that he would inform the HOD once he is back. This was a story that he would often narrate to an embarrassed MAV, one that would end with the remark ‘You will anyway head and steer this department one day’.

After the launch of the Vaishanvism department, MAV encouraged his wife to take up Vaishnavism and later she on went on to become a lecturer at the University. And the two worked together in the department for over two decades.

Temple Service
The late 80s and the 90s saw him move closer to temple service though it was a rather quiet time for him as a Ghosti member. 
He was keen on performing the Kattiyam service while he could anyway be part of the prabhandham recital even standing even in the last row. It was only after the successful conduct of the Samprokshanam in 1992 (that MAV anchored in terms of fund collection), that he was finally asked to join the adyapaka team. In 1999, he became the Secretary of the Adyapaka Ghosti, a post that he has now held for 20 years. It was a phase that has seen a big revival of the Ghosti, now seen in big strength at the temple.

MA Venkatakrishnan has many achievements to his credit over the last five plus decades – author of 25 books, running a monthly journal for over 480 issues, 45 years of Upanyasam, anchoring and managing the success of the Ghosti for over two decades, heading the Vaishnavism Dept at the University for a decade and more recently training the next generation of Kalakshepam scholars. He has been a prominent face in this Divya Desam that is renowned for Prabhandham recital. And it is likely that he will continue to be a motivating force for the next generation of Prabhandham experts. 

For all his push for the Thengalai rights, Venkatakrishnan had just over a decade ago tried to stitch together a solution that should have been seen as a step in the right direction. Forming a committee with representatives from all the Mutts including from Ahobila Mutt and Andavan Ashram, he tried to take the first step in resolving the long standing issues in temples through arbitration. However, the initiative was nipped in the bud with differences of opinion even at the formation stage with the result that the last decade has seen growing number of cases in courts.

Arbitration within the community may still be the way to resolving issues and MAV is hoping that someday the community will come together to discuss hard and find an amicable solution to the pending issues. If the arbitration model takes shape one day, there may be yet be a day during his lifetime when the Prabhandham Ghosti of Thengalayar and Vadakalayar will be seen together in Thiruvallikeni, Thiruvahindrapuram and Kanchipuram.

For now, though, he will be spending the next week or so on the sacred streets of Kanchipuram trying to continue the Prabhandham recital on the return trip of Varadaraja Perumal to the temple during the Brahmotsavam.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Bhattars Gurukals continue Temple Service

Priests resisted the temptation to look at greener pastures in the Corporate World and stuck to their hereditary service in temples

In November last year, this section had featured a story on the next generation priests turning their backs on the traditional services at temples, instead opting for lucrative careers in the corporate world (

This story takes a look at a few who bucked that trend and have taken a big call to dedicate their lives in service to the Lord despite not having a secure salary from the HR & CE. For all of these next generation priests, the mind is clear away from the clutter. Each of them wants to serve the Lord at the hereditary temple, where their forefathers had served for several decades.

No appointment, No Salary but dedicated to serving the Lord
In the 1980s, even one padi rice was not available at the Amaruviappan Divya Desam in Therazhundur for presentation to the Lord. It was left to the then young Vasan Bhattar to go from house to house collecting rice to present a Thaligai for the Lord each day. 
There was not even a single Veshti to wrap around the Lord bringing tears to Vasan Bhattar. Just over a decade ago, it was Brahmotsavam time. Much to the shock of Vasan Bhattar, who had served the temple for almost 25 years at that time, the power connection was cut off for non-payment of bills. Such was the state of this ancient Divya Desam in the not so distant past and the struggles the then priests had to go through in running the daily activities and in the conduct of the utsavams.

Vasan Bhattar has been performing aradhana at the Therazhundur Divya Desam since 1984. He received the HR & CE appointment only three years ago after over 30 years of service and that at a monthly salary of Rs. 280. When Vasan Bhattar was young, his father, who performed aradhana for over 8 decades, directed him to learn the agamas, prabhandham and vedas from each of the experts who resided in the town at that time. His father had wanted him to perfect the art of performing the daily rituals and only then was he allowed to enter the temple precincts such was the value placed on learning the right way.  That early learning has helped him gain recognition as one of the best bhattars in the State.

When he entered the sanctum for the first time, he was given a life time message by the then Sthalathar Varadachariar “Every time you enter the Sanctum, remember that you have been chosen among crores of people in India to perform aradhana and feed the Lord at this Divya Desam.” To this day, 35 years later, Vasan Bhattar remembers that message every time he touches the Moolavar Lord.
In his first decade at the temple, Vasan Bhattar received Rs. 1 in the Thattu every month. Despite all the challenges at the temple, he has found great satisfaction in serving the Lord each day of the year.

When his son Hari Sundar entered the teenaged phase, Vasan Bhattar called him and told him that the family has been blessed with the opportunity to perform lifelong service to the Divya Desam Lord so highly praised by Thirumangai Azhwar “No amount of financial glory can be a substitute for performing service to the Lord. And I wanted my son to consider this advice.”
Hari Sundar was a transformed boy, immediately. He quit academics and over the past decade has focused purely on temple service related education and now for the last three years on performing service to the Lord at this Divya Desam.

26 year old Hari Sundar had seen, from a very young age, the struggles of his father (Vasan Bhattar) and grandfather (Kannan Bhattar), who had served for over eight decades, in managing the temple without any support from the HR & CE. As a school boy, his mind was on taking up a bank job. All his peers in the Chozha region went through a similar phase of financial struggle. The entire mood and sentiment was to move away from a life at the temple towards a corporate career in the city.

However, when he touched 15, Hari Sundar, driven by his parents (See Box story) decided to showcase to the world that continuing the hereditary service and performing aradhana to the Lord at a Divya Desam was the way to happiness and not going after money and the luxuries of life. He quit academics and left for Srirangam to join the Velukudi Krishnan run Patshala. For a decade, he learnt the Nalayira Divya Prabhandham, Pancharatra Agama and also acquired a degree in Sanskrit.

But it was a very challenging phase for him. Constantly, he was pushed by his peers to move into corporate life and away from the traditional Vaishnavite attire. His friends gave him the shock treatment that in his current form, it would be difficult to find a bride, especially if he decided to take up service at the remote Divya Desam staying in an agraharam.

Undeterred, Hari Sundar completed his patshala education and moved to Therazhundur to join his father in temple service. There was no appointment order and no salary (there still isn’t!!) for it was the view of the HR & CE that without sufficient income from the temple, it would be difficult for them to pay the salary of the Bhattars.

It has now been three years since he has been performing full-fledged service at the temple as a Bhattar depending solely on ‘Thattu’ Kaasu. While many of his peers have moved into city life, Hari Sundar Bhattar is determined to spend his lifetime at Therazhundur performing service for the Lord unmindful of the lack of a secure monthly salary from the HR & CE. And that is a highly commendable decision taken by this young priest. And he has also found a bride who despite spending her first 20 years in Bombay has happily accepted to live the rest of her life at the remote temple town of Therazhundur.

Reviving a historical location in Mangai Madam                       
Balaji Bhattar was just 20 years old when he returned to Mangai Madam to take up service at the Veera Narasimha temple, one of the Pancha Narasimha temples around Thiru Nangur and a location where Thiru Mangai Azhwar performed the Thathiyeeraadhanai for 1008 Vaishnavites as per the condition laid by his beloved Kumuduvalli Nachiyar of Annan Perumal Koil. 

At the time, it had been in a completely dilapidated state with broken floors and falling roof.  The outer walls had been completely damaged. Nothing seemed right at this legendary location. When the young Balaji Bhattar came back after completing his Vedic and Agama, he began the process of resurrecting the temple from ground up.

After his initial schooling in Nangur, Balaji Bhattar came to Mylapore, Chennai to learn the Vedas but his real initiation into the agamas came from the renowned Lakshmana Dikshithar of Parthan Palli Divya Desam. He then took over full charge of the temple and has since revived a number of the historical Utsavams including the Brahmotsavam. At a young age, he grasped the model of capturing the devotee’s attention inside temple and getting them interested in temple activities.

His mind is all focused on making this temple an integral part of a devotee's Nangur Divya Desam trip.  Already there are devotees making their way to the temple from distant corners of the world. In a matter of a decade, Balaji Bhattar has showcased to the archaka community that with commitment and devotion to the Lord, one can succeed and find happiness even from the remotest part and that the future is not so bleak for the Bhattars if the starting point of their Kainkaryam is devotion to the Lord.

Attached to Lord Thyagaraja
33 year old G Somaskandar Sivaacharya belongs to a family that has been performing poojas at the legendary Thyagaraja temple in Tiruvarur. His grandfather performed service for over four decades while his father dedicated himself to the Lord and Ambal for over 50 years.  Belonging to hereditary service, they have stayed away from the monthly salary and are almost fully dependent on ‘Thattu Kaasu’. 
In decades gone by, they were handed a reasonable quantity of paddy for their service. But financially, things had not been rosy for the priests at the temple in the 2nd half of the previous century. By the time, Somaskandar was into his teenage years his father sent a clear message that he expected his son to continue the temple service though most of his peers at other Thevaram Sthalams were already heading towards a life in bigger cities. After learning Siva Agama, he spent 5 years at a patshala in Mayiladuthurai learning the Vedas. Right from his school days, Somaskandar has been supporting his father every day, thus gaining hands on experience of the sacred activities at the temple. After he joined full time service at the temple just around a decade ago, there have been tempting lucrative opportunities that have come his way including from overseas temples. The traditionally attired Somaskandar happily says that not once in his life has he contemplated moving away from the Tiruvarur temple and dedicates this thought to Lord Thyagaraja who he says has bound him tightly to the service at this temple .

An Engineer pursues hereditary service
35 year old R Kamala Malar Kannan Bhattar of Thiruvellarai Divya Desam is unique in this small group of next generation priests. He has an Engineering degree from Sastra University. Given the financial challenges that his ancestors experienced, he was headed the way of a city life as a teenager following in the footsteps of some of his seniors. But as he was completing his degree, his bonding and devotion towards Lord Pundareekakshan increased and he decided against the call to leave this ancient temple town. 
But it still required great devotion for him to reject an offer from a renowned bank and to take up the hereditary temple service without a salary. He has now been at the temple for a decade. While things have improved financially at the temple in terms of Thattu Kaasu, compared to the life decades ago, he feels the real financial pinch every summer when he has to pay the annual fees for his young school going kids. He does not know the financial future and may wonder once in a while as to what might have been had he taken up the Banking offer but this engineer is clear that he will spend the rest of his life at the Thiruvellarai temple in service to Lord Pundareekakshan.

The Youngest moves back to Thenthiruperai
The youngest of the lot is 20 year old Venkata Srinivasan, just out of Patshala education at Madurantakam. Hailing from Thenthiruperai Divya Desam (Nava Tirupathi), he went through a financially challenging childhood.  As a school boy, he would support Ananthu Bhattar, the lead priest at the Makara Nedung Kuzhai Kathan temple by carrying the torch during the street processions at the big utsavams. Pleased with the devotional conduct of the young boy, Ananthu Bhattar encouraged and motivated him into temple service. At the age of 10, he moved to Madurantakam to learn Yajur Veda, Pancharatra Agama, Sri Bashyam and Sanskrit.  During a period of 10 years, he also performed kainkaryam at the madapalli in the Patshala. 
The message from his Guru Annadhur Rajagopalachariar through this phase was clear “The learning should fructify into developing our Sampradayam, spreading Sanskrit and most importantly taking care of your parents at their old age. Do not succumb to financial temptations and the lures of a city life.”

In addition to the above message that has remained entrenched in his mind, he credits Ananthu Bhattar’s constant motivation over the last decade as being a key driver to return to Thenthiruperai “There was a shortage of service personnel at the temple. He secured an employment for me at the temple and asked me to dedicate my life in service to the Lord.”

Venkata Srinivasan joined Thenthiruperai in June last year as an Archaka and Paricharaka at a monthly salary of Rs. 500. He is keen to spread Sanskrit among the villagers over the next decade by educating them during his free time. His parents have been a great source of strength in supporting his decision to lead his life in temple service as against leading a life in the city.

His friends frowned on his decision to move to a remote location at such a young age and at such an unimaginably low salary instead of leveraging financially his Vedic learning. But Venkata Srinivasan has been very clear in his mind that his future lay in service to the Lord of Thenthiruperai Divya Desam. Financial challenges do not concern this youngster nor does the threat of his traditional Kudumi not finding acceptance among prospective brides. In a world that is clearly moving towards materialistic pursuits, Venkata Srinivasan has bucked the trend and taken a bold step of moving back to the ancient temple town despite knowing that this may not be financially remunerative. But Venkata Srinivasan sees richness in a lifetime service to the Lord of a Divya Desam and not the financial growth.