Saturday, February 22, 2020

Sundara Perumal Koil Papanasam Restoration

The temple is seen in a dilapidated state
No Full Time Priest, Restoration Efforts have hit a roadblock, All Utsavams have been stopped
Raja Gopuram sports a worn out look with the last renovation having taken place in 1939
The centuries old HR & CE administered Abhimana Sthalam at Sundara Perumal Koil, where Sundara Raja Perumal is seen in a handsome standing posture, has been in a discarded state for many years. Long time residents of the town who had seen Grand Utsavams in the decades gone by say that the last Samprokshanam was performed 80 years ago in 1939. 

Long Serving Priest
Sundararaja Bhattar had served at the temple as the priest for 50 years from the early 1960s. For decades, he was paid a salary of just Rs. 300 which at the time of his death in 2014 had gone up to Rs. 1200 per month. That salary too remained unpaid for several months on the grounds of lack of income from the temple. Sundararaja Bhattar served at the temple with great devotional commitment even in the decades when there was no power connection in his house and when Rs. 200 was deducted from his salary as house rent.

Once Vibrant Utsavams
In the decade that Sundararaja Bhattar joined the temple, the agraharam was vibrant. Festivals were a regular feature including Garuda Sevai on Tamil New Year’s day. 
There were also processions on the occasion of Krishna Jayanthi and on the Kanu day in Thai. 10 day Navarathri Festival too was celebrated in a grand way with Horse Vahana Procession on Vijayadasami. There was a four kalam pooja every day with sacred food presentations to the Lord that included Curd rice, Sundal and Sweet Pongal. In the outer prakara was a huge Nandavanam that was filled with different varieties of Jasmine trees. The Lord and Thayar were draped with beautiful garlands especially on festive occasions.

Current Scenario
Since the passing away of the long serving priest, the temple has seen a drastic deterioration with all the utsavams coming to a halt, with the utsava deities having been moved to ‘safe custody’ in Kumbakonam. Balalayam had been performed 7 years ago and repair works began. However, it came to an abrupt halt with only a couple of Vimanams and the outer walls being painted. The Raja Gopuram at the Eastern Entrance wears an old worn out look, having not been painted for 80 years. The Nandavanam that also had mango and coconut trees is almost non-existent now. 

With the salary being at an abysmally low level, the descendants of Sundararaja Bhattar were not keen on continuing the services at the temple. For the last seven years, Kalyanasundaram, a Saivite has been performing a onetime pooja every day initially starting off with a salary of just Rs. 1000 a month. This has since been increased to Rs. 1500. The security is paid a salary of just Rs. 900 per month. Asks Kalyanasundaram, “How can one run a family with a salary of just over Rs. 1000. Expenses are mounting but the salary is just too low for a priest here.” He comes once a day for about an hour or so. 

Madapalli Shut, No Theertham,Thaligai
There is darkness inside the temple with the old electrical wiring not having been upgraded for several decades. The Vahanas are in dilapidated condition and need to be repaired. For the last 7 years, there have not been any processions at the temple. The temple well is dirty and needs to be refurbished. With no water available at the temple, the madapalli has remained shut with the Lord not having been fed for many years. With the well in an unusable state, there is no ‘Theertham’ to perform the daily poojas. 
There are separate sannidhis for Soundara Valli Thaayar, Vishwaksena, Yoga Narasimha, Kannan, Anjaneya and Azhvaars at the temple.

It is hoped that the HR & CE will take immediate steps to restore the temple to its ancient glory. Devotees also hoping that the HR & CE will pay a fair salary in line to the priest and the security. A cook has to be appointed for the madapalli. Vahanams have to be repaired and the historical utsavams revived. But for this to happen the HR & CE has to take steps towards performing the Samprokshanam that has been pending for a long time.

How to reach
Sundara Perumal Koil is located 10kms West of Kumbakonam on the Thanjavur Highway near Papanasam. Buses between Kumbakonam and Thanjavur stop near the railway level crossing at Sundara Perumal Koil. Passenger Trains stop at Sundara Perumal Koil Railway Station. The temple is about half a km from the Railway station / Gate.

When here, visit Oothukadu Kalinga Narthana Perumal Temple ( is just over 10kms from here.

The Scenario a few decades ago

Garuda Sevai on Tamil New Year
Horse Vahana on Vijayadasami
Grand Navarathri Utsavam
Daily Food presentations to the Lord

Restoration Needs
Repairs to the Vahanams
Introduce New Electrical System
Refurbish the Temple Well
Paint the Raja Gopuram
Recreate the Nandavanam by planting sacred saplings
Appoint Full time priest and cook at a fair salary
Bring the Utsava Idol back to the temple/ Revive the Utsavams

Friday, February 14, 2020

Gandhi Nagar Sports Club Cricket Ground

Former league Cricketer VS Sukumar who ran a cricket club revived the historic Gandhi Nagar ground after several decades and has in the last few years transformed it to the best lower division league ground in the city

TNCA would do well to study the success model from Sukumar and implement this across all the league grounds in the city 
Venkataraghavan used to watch leagues matches at the ground seated at the same position on his cycle!!!!

It was once a beautiful ground to play cricket and helped swing bowlers. The small pavilion was a special feature at the ground. Teams that came to play here had to pack their kit bags with old balls for it always only a matter of time before a ball was despatched into the river and the umpires would signal for the replacement balls. And then for almost three decades, the historic Gandhi Nagar Cricket and Sports Club ground on Gandhi Nagar 4th Main Road had remained shut. 

Former league cricketer and a resident of Gandhinagar VS Sukumar, a qualified CA who had played several matches at this ground in the 60s and 70s and who also ran a lower division league team for many decades was keen to revive cricket activities there and at the turn of last decade spearheaded the movement to regain physical possession of the entire ground. And he finally succeeded on 1st January 2012. Sukumar also roped in former TN Ranji Trophy winning captain S Vasudevan as the Chief Coach and Mentor for the coaching programme at the ground. Vasudevan has already produced state cricketers in age group cricket.

The Early Story
It all began in the mid 1950s. The Gandhi Nagar Co-operative Colony was the first organised colony south of the Adyar River. Constructed in 1948-49, the first set of residents started occupying in 1950-51. Such was their vision that they deemed it fit to leave open pieces of land for sports activity.They identified a local body of individuals and asked them to form a society and entrusted the ground to them. GNC & SC was registered in 1956 with GN co-op society managing this.

In the first year that they entered the TNCA league, GNC & SC won the championship. NRC (National Recreation Club) was a 2nd team given on a gentleman’s agreement by the founders of this society (this writer played for that team just under a couple of decades ago). An opening bat and off spinner, Sukumar played league cricket for over 30 years for NRC. 
He started playing in the TNCA City Schools tournament representing Rani Meyyammai High School, Gandhi Nagar. In the 1970s, S. Govinda Rao took all 10 wickets in a TNCA league match at this ground watched by his team mate Sukumar. Gandhi Nagar Starlets (a TNCA league team) was also another team promoted by them but unfortunately this was registered as a private club with the TNCA.

In those days, nets facility was made available at this ground for a fee of Rs. 3. TNCA paid a fee of Rs. 10 per match.

Sixers into the Adyar River
TNCA Umpire Kumaraswamy who umpired many a match at this ground has interesting memories from those early years ‘The batsman at the Adyar end could clearly see the Adyar River and there were many occasions when the ball was smacked over the bowler’s head into the river. Also, in those early decades of cricket here, there was just one bus service to this area across the Adyar Bridge. Hence, umpires had to walk across the bridge or come by cycle to umpire a match here.’

Venkat’s unique watching position
In the 1960s, legendary off spinner and former India captain S. Venkataraghavan would come to the ground in his cycle and watch the entire pre lunch session sitting in a particular posture on his cycle. He would go home for lunch and come back to be seated in the same position in his cycle through the entire post lunch session such was his passion for the game!!!  

Vasudevan's League Debut
His spin bowling partner from the late 1970s and 80s and Ranji Trophy Winning Captain has been running a coaching academy at the Gandhi Nagar Sports Club ground since the revival of the ground. It was at this very ground that Vasudevan made his TNCA league debut in 1971 with a six wicket haul for Kamyuth. He remembers the serene atmosphere at the ground from the decades gone by ‘The atmosphere was great then in the 70s. The ground was surrounded by trees and we loved to play here. In fact, we used to sit under the trees instead of in the pavilion. I miss those trees now.’ 
Fastest Outfield in the City
Former Central Zone leg spinner S Madhavan ( played many matches at the Gandhi Nagar Ground in the 1970s. He remembers the ground as having the fastest outfield in the city in those days. 

Monsoon rains and impact on cricket matches
Floods in the Adyar river led to repeated encroachments into the ground leaving the then President a frustrated man. It used to take months to evict them. There was also fire on a couple of occasions from the temporary huts that had been put up in the ground.  With the encroachments becoming a regular feature, the cricket ground was closed in 1984. Legal actions were initiated by the Club for protecting the ground. The case went up to the Supreme Court. An order was passed directing the construction of a 10feet high 440feet long compound wall on the Northern side of the ground to prevent trespassing and misuse of the ground. The huge compound wall that was built later came down. 
With the efforts taken by Sukumar and his brother VS Ravikumar, cricket activity has gained full steam. The main pitch has been re-laid. The outfield is lush green now.  Initially starting off with two nets, this has now been expanded to five practice wickets. An additional wicket has been laid at the South Eastern corner of the ground where cricketers past their teens can have net practice at a nominal subscription fee. TNCA supported this initiative by constructing the toilet and the roof for the pavilion. Earlier this decade, TNCA league matches were posted again at this ground after nearly 30 years.
Walker’s Joint
GNC & SC has also provided over 1000 passes to local residents of Gandhi Nagar to use the space outside the cricket boundary as a walker’s path. It has now become a very popular walker’s joint especially for women for it is a very secure environment with closed walls and a security guard monitoring the ground.

Re-Affiliation to the TNCA 
GNC & SC had been an affiliated member of TNCA since the mid 1950s. Due to the closure in 1984, GNC & SC’s affiliation with TNCA was lost. Therefore, the team could not participate in TNCA League from then. In 1984, the affiliation to the TNCA was lost.  With the ground back in top condition, GNC & SC is awaiting re-affiliation into the TNCA that it had enjoyed for almost three decades from the mid 1950s. It is hoped that the TNCA will consider this favourably and soon provide the re-affiliation to this historic almost six decades old cricket club and take them back into their fold. 
The Best Ground in the TNCA League 
Through this decade, Sukumar has worked tirelessly to complete the transformation of this historic ground. It now ranks as the BEST ground in the TNCA lower division league. The marker Ramesh has done an outstanding job with the wicket and the outfield which is even on all sides.
The creases are always well marked as is the boundary line, a rarity in TNCA lower division cricket when umpires have to  repeatedly go behind the markers requesting them for some of the basic pre requisites for a game of cricket. A wall / fence has been rebuilt on the Northern side to prevent trespassing into the ground. Taking a cue from Vasudevan's memories of the tall tress at this ground in the decades gone by, Sukumar planted around 20 saplings soon after the revival of the ground. He  he hopes that these will one day grow into big trees like in the past adding to the grandeur of this ground.

Some of them have already grown to a decent size bringing back memories from the past.
Since its revival, Sukumar, currently unwell, has been a regular at the ground on the morning of the league matches ensuring that it meets all the requirements for the proper conduct of the match.

The Gandhi Nagar Sports Club Ground has been a great showpiece model on ground maintenance and TNCA would do well to understand the success model from Sukumar and take it across all other lower division league grounds in the city.

Thevaram Patshala Chidambaram

An exclusive Thevaram Patshala provides opportunities for budding Othuvars
Currently there are only 120 Othuvars in TN though the Paadal Petra Sthalam number 274
While Vedic Patshalas have sprung up across the State in recent years, there has been a dearth of a ‘Thirumurai’ Patshalas. The shortage can be seen from the fact that currently there are only 120 Trained Othuvars who have graduated through the typical five year Gurukulam model of Thirumurai education, a number that is less than half of the 274 Paadal Petra Sthalams, temples praised by Saivite Saint Poets. Most Thevaram temples do not have an Othuvar. There is no Formal Gurukulam styled Thirumurai Patshala to train Othuvars

Historically, the Kings were keen to spread the dharmic messages of the Saint Poets and placed the Othuvars and their contribution on a high pedestal. They saw the Othuvars’ daily ritual in front of the God as being integral to the everyday proceedings in temples. Buoyed by this encouragement from the great rulers, the Othuvar service gained prominence and they grew in large numbers and performed service over several centuries across temples in Tamil Nadu.

However, as with priests, driven by low salaries and the cutting down on provisions that were once handed out in large quantities to service personnel, the Othuvars too saw a downturn in the second half of the previous century and their numbers have since dwindled quite drastically. In recent decades, most of the new generation Othuvars have graduated mostly through a three year course offered by the Music Schools as against the traditional Gurukulam model Thevaram Patshalas in the past.

Reviving Othuvars in Thevaram Temples
15 years ago, S Manivasagan, an entrepreneur from Chennai stopped by on the road when he heard a rendition of the Thirumurai by the Othuvars. So captivated was he by their devotional recital that he immediately decided to focus his attention on the betterment of the Othuvars. He formed a specific trust ‘Aalavai Annal Trust’ with the objective of promoting the cause of the Othuvars across all the Thevaram temples, especially the remote ones.

As a first step, Manivasagam began pooling in Othuvars from across the State to participate in Kumbabhisekams. He then moved his attention on their role in historical festivals in these Thevaram Temples and very soon got them to present the sacred verses during the Lord’s procession in these ancient temples especially during the Brahmotsavam. 

An Exclusive Thirumuruai Patshala in TN
With the purpose of creating the next generation of experts in Thirumurai, Manivasagan started a Thirumurai Patshala six years ago from a small rented building in Chidambaram. He roped in the renowned Muthukumaran Othuvar, who had presented the sacred verses at the Meenakshi Amman temple in Madurai for over a decade, to be a member of the Trust.  Sivakumar Othuvar, who continues to serve at the Mayuranathar temple in Mayiladuthurai, too joined him at this Thirumurai Patshala as the Acharya.  Over the last six years, the two Othuvars have gone around the state to find interested students and to get them initiated into the Thirumurai verses of the Saivite Saint Poets. 
Gurukulam form of Education
The two experienced Othuvars have put a strong system in place at this Gurukulam style Patshala and the students are put  through a stringent daily devotional routine starting each day at 5am and ending at 930pm. As a pre requisite to admission, each of the interested students have to undergo a voice test. 

The Daily Routine for the students
5am Music Presentation
9am Formal Thirumurai Class
3pm Learning the way of presenting the Thevaram Verses
6pm Reciting Shiva Puranam all the way to the Thillai temple
7pm Rehearsing the day’s lessons sitting at the Naalvar Sannidhi

Manivasagan believes that this is only the starting point of the revival and other likeminded people should initiate the setting up of more Thirumurai Patshalas elsewhere in the state “Just one trust cannot do the job for the entire state and more people have to come forward in a combined effort to replenish and fill the gaps that currently exists for Othuvars in Thevaram temples.”

An annual trip to all Thevaram Sthalams
Every Margazhi, the entire bunch of around 20 students are taken on a ten day trip to all the Padal Petra Sthalams where they recite the relevant verses sung by the Saint Poets. The first batch of five students has just graduated this week and a few of them have already found service at ancient temples.

Big Opportunities for Othuvars
Muthukumaran Othuvar is of the view that there are great opportunities for the upcoming Othuvars “At a peak point in the century gone by, there were multiple Othuvars present in many of the ancient Thevaram temples, such was the prominence given to the Othuvars in the past. With most of the Padal Petra Sthalams not having the presence of even a single Othuvar, there are ample opportunities for these fully trained Othuvars in the future.”

Historically, Nadaswaram, Vedas and Geetham were part of the daily ritual in temples, of which the musical Thirumurai presentation by the Othuvars was an important component. Muthukumaran Othuvar is hopeful of the HR & CE appointing Othuvars in every Padal Petra Sthalam and reviving this traditional practice.
In December, Othuvars from across the state gathered to celebrate the inauguration of 5000 sq feet own building of the biggest Thirumurai Patshala in the state, right next to the historical Ilamaiyaakinar temple in Chidambaram. This large sized own building of the trust entirely dedicated to the running of the Thirumurai Patshala will serve as a great encouragement for budding Othuvars and it is hoped that there will be more such exclusive Patshalas for Thirumurai initiation opened in the state so as to revive the Othuvar recital in Thevaram Sthalams.

Those interested to contribute to the development and in this revival process of Othuvars can contact: 93801 63791/99447 90380.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Periyava Vathsala Sivaswami Kalalaya

Those Unforgettable 18 days in 1958
Educationist and Director of Sivaswami Kalalaya, Vathsala Narayanaswami, then 26, took a bold and independent call to clear the entire house on Sundareswarar Street in Mylapore to make way for Maha Periya's stay 60 years ago

Within days of her wedding, Educationist and Director of Sivaswami Kalalaya Dr. Vathsala Narayanaswami was blessed to have darshan of Kanchi Maha Periyava in 1958. A couple of months later, much to her delightful surprise, the greatest of opportunity came her way all on its own - a divine one that any devotee would have been happy to be presented with. Just ahead of Deepavali that year, Sankara Mutt placed a request to the new household asking for her residence on Sundareswarar Street to be handed to Maha Periyava for three days.

87 year old Vathsala finds it difficult to move around freely these days given her age but her eyes simply light up when asked about the year when Periyava stayed in her house for 18days. Those devotionally exciting days remain fresh in her memory for it was one that transformed her life and gave her the unflinching belief that she had Periyava’s blessing forever.

A Throw back in time
She had married D Narayanaswami in July that year and moved into the house in Sundareswarar Street that was right behind the Sankara Mutt in Mylapore. Her first Deepavali after the wedding was just round the corner when the Mutt approached the newly married couple asking them for the house, for Periyava to stay for three days.

Her father in law, Padmashri N. Dharmarajan (of Hirakud Project fame), was out of city on work. Her husband had spent his entire childhood and teenage years in the North and was not particularly familiar with the traditions of the South Indian Temples and the lifestyle of the Acharyas. Her sister in law was doing her graduation at the SIET College.  Given this background, her mother in law was a little apprehensive.

But the young 26 year old newcomer to the house took a bold call on acceding to the ‘3 days’ request of Sankara Mutt “I told my mother in law that we could all move to my father’s house on GN Chetty road, T Nagar and that I would drop the sister in law every day at college and pick her up as well.”

All the family members immediately vacated the house handing possession to the Sankara Mutt. Periyava stayed in the bed room while Jayendra Saraswathi resided in the front room of the house. The back wall of the house was broken to create a passage for the disciples to bring milk and food for Periyava from the Mutt.

A Twist to the tale - 3 days extended to 18 days
It was not the end of the story for there was another twist to the tale. Her father in law sent a telegram that he was taking the next flight to Madras as he had completed his work in Calcutta. Not knowing as to how his father would react, Narayanaswami had not updated him about the developments back home. He picked his father from the airport and drove straight to their home in Mylapore. Soon after Dharmarajan reached, Periyava welcomed him with these words “Padmashri - I have entered your home without you knowing.” Periyava had not been told about the achievements of Dharmarajan or his arrival at the house. And yet as soon as he entered, Periyava addressed him as ‘Padmashri’. Tears rolled down Dharmarajan’s eyes. So moved was he by Periyava’s presence that the three day plan was extended and Periyava stayed there for 18 days.

“My father in law commended me for the courageous decision to have the entire family vacate the house with no second thoughts” says Vathsala. It remains one of the happiest moments in her life.

Periyava’s Divine words
She encountered many more dramatic experiences with Periyava, each of which increased her belief in Periyava’s devotional powers. Many years later, when Vathsala’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, Vathsala took her along to Kanchi to meet Periyava. When she presented Kalkandu to Periyava that morning, he, after consuming a pinch of it, told her ‘She is hale and healthy. There will be nothing to worry.” Vathsala’s mother lived a healthy life for many more years.

A CEO once came to her house on work and immediately felt a happy vibration. He asked her if any saint had been there. He later returned and handed a huge black and white photo frame of Periyava that finds a prominent place in her pooja room even today.

Vathsala finds it difficult to explain the fact  that in recent years seven cows from different streets and locations have chosen a tree inside her house on Sundarareswar Street to give birth “This week an eighth cow in pregnancy has entered the house and has taken her place beneath the tree. I strongly believe that the presence of Periyava for those 18 days in 1958 has made this home so sacred that it finds unlikely visitors.”

No bringing down of her home
Six decades on, Vathsala and her husband stay all alone in the huge bungalow with their son having settled in the US. They have resisted the temptation to sell the independent house despite tremendous pressure from many to convert it into a flat “I do not want to bring down a house where Periyava had once stayed” sums up Vathsala on the impact Periyava’s presence in her house has had on her life.

Periyava reached out to me at Sanskrit College - Narayanaswami 

Narayanaswami spent the best part of his first three decades in the North and hence was not accustomed to the traditions of the South Indian Temples. Within a few days of his marriage to Vathsala, he accompanied her to Sanskrit College, where Periyava was residing. Since he was not used to these traditions, he stood outside the College while his wife and parents waited inside for a darshan of Periyava. Much to his surprise, a man knocked on him and told him that he was called for by Periyava.

Narayanaswami shocked everyone with his answer “Periyava would not know me. I too have not seen him before. Hence I think this is a case of mistaken identity. Please go back and check for the right person that he is looking for. Stunned by my statement, more senior members of the Mutt approached me to take me to Periyava, who showered his blessings on me and my wife and wished me a happy married life. 60 years on, I believe that it’s that wedding gift – Periyava’s blessings - that has helped us lead a peaceful and enjoyable life.”

“It was a great first experience with Periyava and I was truly blessed to have been personally called for by him that day. That’s when I realized the great devotional power in him.”

(Dr. Vathsala Narayanaswami holds a Ph. D in Education and is currently the Hony Secy, The National Boys’ and Girls’ Education Society)

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Thanjavur Big Temple Kumbhabhishekam

The grandest Kumbhabhishekam seen in the State took place this morning (Feb 5) after a gap of 23 years
For a temple that was inundated with Bats not so long ago, this mega event has been a monumental transformation, orchestrated by Prince Babaji Bhonsle
The Brihadeeswarar temple (popularly known as the Big Temple) in Thanjavur considered a unique gem of Chozha, Nayak and Maratha artistic achievements has just seen a consecration after 23 years. It would be hard for any devotee or tourist from the current generation to believe that in the not too distant past, the now World Heritage Site of Brihadeeswarar temple was inundated with hundreds of bats, and devotees and priests alike dreaded going inside the temple with darkness all around. Till the 20th century, there had been only two Kumbhabhishekams at the temple one during Raja Raja Chozhan’s rule and the other in early 19th Century anchored by King Sarfoji.  Rajaram Raja Sahib, the grandfather of the current Prince Babaji Bhonsle, was keen to restore the temple to its ancient glory but the finances were poor. The Big Temple was not a tourist destination as it is now. It was not a devotional destination either. The fact that it was not a Paadal Petra Sthalam did not help.

Dark Days – 75 years ago
Erudite Scholar and Teacher of Saiva Siddhantha, Octogenarian, 86 year old, T.N. Ramachandran has been in Thanjavur for the last 60 years. He says that the temple as seen now bears no resemblance to what it was 75 years ago “Almost all of us stood for a while at the eastern gopuram as a nice breeze struck us every time one made his way into the temple. It was a special experience. There were no electric lights in those days and the Sannidhis were illuminated by Ghee lamps. For such a huge temple complex, the darkness was scary and no one entered the temple after sunset fearing dangerous reptiles that moved around inside the temple complex.”
The Big Temple Scenario in the 1960s
A Hindu Religious Endowment Commission under Dr. CP Ramaswamy Iyer had inspected the Big Temple in the early 1960s. In their submission, the members said that the archeological department in their renovation and restoration efforts will have to look after the preservation of the main tower and various other parts of this far flung temple premises. The monolithic glories of the main temple and the paintings enshrined in the walls are truly marvelous “At present, it seemed that something akin to the labour spent on the Taj Mahal and Jamma Masjid has to be attempted in this place whose architectural and pictorial remains are unrivalled in India.” That was the desperate state of the Big Temple 60 years ago with a crying need for restoration and preservation.

The process of driving away bats
88 year old K Ramanarayanan who worked in the Revenue department in Thanjavur for several decades was a close confidant of Rajaram Rajah Saheb for several decades and is probably the only one to be actively involved in three successive Kumbabhisekams. He was an integral part of the entire process of the now legendary Kumbabhisekam of 1980. He was a committee member in the controversial Kumbabhisekam of 1997 and at this old age, despite health issues, he is involved as a committee member in the current Kumbabhisekam. It was Ramnarayanan who moved the Pudukottai Collector and secured an approval for extensive lighting of the temple complex way back in the 1960s. 

He remembers those times in the mid 1960s “Thanjavur Collector Veda Narayanan was a disciple of Maha Periyava. In 1965, he sought the blessings of Periyava who directed him to light 500 ghee lamps at the Sannidhi every Friday with contributions from devotees. It was this devotional endeavour that led to the bats being driven away from the temple that year. It was with the blessings of Periyava that he revived the festivals at the Big Temple by bringing in donors. It was just the sort of fillip needed for the temple at that time.”

Maha Periyava set up the Brihadeeswarar Pooja Trust by Periyava. The trust began providing Oil, Milk and Rice for abhisekam, a tradition that is followed to this day.The Raja’s regard for Maha Periyava even in the most testing of financial times was so high that he handed the Palace’s huge building in the prime location on Mela Veethi to the Mutt.

Gurukal’s Devotional Commitment
86 year old TK Ramanadha Gurukal served the Lord with great devotion for over four decades in the most challenging of phases at the Big Temple in the 2nd half of the previous century having joined the temple at a salary of Rs.45. These days he is short on hearing but remembers vividly those years
 “Very few devotees visited the temple. There was minimal Thattu Kaasu. In the 1970s, we were only three shivachariars to manage the pooja in all the sannidhis. But the Palace always stood by us. They were keen on our welfare and tried their best to support us in every possible way. Not once did it cross my mind to go away from the Big Temple in search of other lucrative opportunities. It was soon after I joined the Big Temple that a son was born and hence we named him Brihadeeswara.”

Pravachanams – A regular feature inside the Periya Koil
Ramachandran says that Pravachanams by renowned scholars was a regular feature inside the Periya Koil in those decades. He himself presented spiritual lectures week on week through the 1960s and 70s at the Big Temple. Devotees came specifically to hear his talks on Saiva Siddhantha Sastras and the significance of the Thevaram Verses and went back with devotional messages for life. He realized early on that the sacred verses were a gold mine as it taught one the way to live life and spent a lot of time to understand the nuances and intricate meanings of the sacred verses of the Saint Poets. This was particularly helpful in answering incisive questions from the audience at the end of these sessions. 

Alankarams during the Navarathri Festival
He points to the Navarathri Festival at the Ambal Sannidhi as being one of the big occasions in the year “Sivachariars of the time were alankaram specialists. Aesthetic sense was very high in those decades and the Sivachariars were perfectionists. Each day of the Navarathri Utsavam, they would drape Ambal in a special alankaram and devotees flocked in large numbers from Thanjavur and all the nearby villages to take a look at the ‘Alankaram of the Day’.”

The 1980 Kumbabhisekam
Rajaram Raja Saheb wanted to perform the Kumbabhisekam of the Big Temple during his lifetime as it had not been done for almost two centuries. He sought the blessings of Maha Periyava who was the Raja Guru of the Thanjavur Raja’s family. Rajaram Raja Sahib was solely guided by Periyava in all his decisions.

Ramanarayanan narrates an incident that took place over six decades ago that left the then CM of TN Shri. C Rajagopalachari furious “When the financial position was poor at the Thanjavur Palace, Rajaji offered the powerful post of ADC to the then Senior Prince of Thanjavur that would have contributed to the financial revival. Periyava did not want the royalty to go and serve as a Government servant and directed the Prince to not accept the offer. And the Prince refused Rajaji’s almost irresistible offer.”

Ramanarayanan, who received a letter from Collector Gangappa commending his support through the entire Kumbabhisekam process, says that Periyava was the sole inspirational force behind the Kumbabhisekam efforts gaining momentum and the subsequent successful consecration.

It turned out to one of the biggest Kumbabhisekams in the State at that time. It was the Kumbabhisekam of 1980 that led to this transformation at the Big Temple in Thanjavur.

A sudden strike by the Sri Patham Thangis
Ramnarayanan has jitters even now when he looks back at some anxious moments on the evening of the Kumbabhisekam “Ahead of the procession that evening following the Kumbabhisekam, the Sri Patham Thangis protested and launched a sudden strike citing pending wage payment. Also, the idol of Raja Raja Chozhan was hidden (by vicious elements) much to the shock of the temple authorities. Both these issues were sorted in time and the grand procession took place as planned around the four streets.”

The 2020 Kumbhabhishekam
Turn on to 2020, lakhs of devotees are visiting the temple this week. 8 Kaalam Pooja took place at a beautifully decorated Yaaga Salai that was fully funded by the Kanchi Mutt. Close to 50 Othuvars from across the state presented Thevaram verses at multiple locations inside the temple. Some of the revered and senior most Shivachariars including Pichai Gurukal of Pillayarpatti and Raja Bhattar of Thiruparankundram were part of the Kumbabhisekam festivities that began last Saturday (Feb 1).

Ashtabandana medicine was applied on 338 idols inside the temple complex as part of the Kumbabhisekam. A devotee from Coimbatore pledged his house to contribute in full to the gold plating (650gms of Gold) of all the 7 Kalasams. A philanthropist from Kumbakonam who had contributed to the old Dwajasthambam has also funded the new flag post. The broken sculptures and the vahanas have been repaired. 

Inspiration from Thiru Vathigai
It is believed that Raja Raja Chozhan was so inspired by the beauty of the Saint Poet Appar praised Veerataneswarar temple in Thiru Vathigai ( that he studied its architectural aspects before construction of Brihadeeswarar temple in Thanjavur. 
The Rathanga Vimanam atop the Moolavar Sannidhi is an architectural wonder.  In memory of this, the Veerataneswarar temple is referred to as ‘Periya Koil’s Thanthai Koil’ (the father temple to The Big Temple). It was in 1967 that the Aipasi Sathaya Vizha to celebrate the birthday of Raja Raja Chozhan was revived. Othuvars were brought in from across the state to present the Thevaram Verses on that day. To this day, the annual celebrations have continued.

As part of the this Kumbabisekam celebrations, a large contingent comprising of 48 Othuvars including some of the senior most in Tamil Nadu such as Swaminathan (Thiruthani), Shanmughasundaram (Palani), Muthukumaran (Madurai), Kumara Swaminathan (Karur), Sivakumar (Mayiladuthurai), Sundar (Karivalamvanthanallur) and Sathugurunathar (Mylapore) participated in the Big Temple Kumbabhisekam festivities and presented Aganda Parayanam, Panniru Thirumurai Muthu Othuthal.

Dynamic Prince Babaji Bhonsle
As he looks at the arrangements for this Kumbabhisekam, Ramnarayanan finds a mega turnaround from the troubles ahead of the 1980 Kumbabhisekam “Back then, there was a struggle to put together the requisite finances for the Kumbabhisekam. There was uncertainty all around. People were generally anxious about the successful completion of the event. 40 years on, the devotees are now competing with each other to support the consecration. The dynamic Prince Babaji Bhonsle  set up 59 committees well ahead of time with close to 1000 volunteers working tirelessly for several months leading up to the event. The security arrangements have been of the highest order with 100s of policemen working round the clock. There has been great cooperation from the Corporation officials for this mega event. The Prince has organised food for the volunteers and the police officials at multiple Kalyana Mandapams during the five days of the event.”

Reviving the Big Temple - A Mega Success
It’s been the biggest event since Prince Babaji Bhonsle took over the Thanjavur Palace from his grandfather Rajaram Raja Saheb in the mid 1980s, when he was still in his teens. The previous one in 1997 was marred by fire at the Yaaga Salai and the authorities just about managed to complete the consecration. The one prior to that in 1980 was a long time coming and took place after a century. But this one has been a grand success. 

The Highs and the Lows
The Prince has seen this as a really long rally and has been patient about the revival process. There was a time in the Palace’s history when the temple staff were paid salary 15 months ahead of time. There was also a period when there was no place to store rice, the availability was in such abundance.  But when he took over in the mid 80s, he felt like he had taken charge immediately after a Tsunami. Everything seemed so bleak. For a long time, he spent money from his pocket to keep the 88 temples active.

But he saw it as his duty to safeguard, protect and develop these 88 temples. He wanted to ensure that the Palace brings back the people connect to temples and thus solicited their active involvement. He  wanted to be surrounded by devotional people. He sowed the seeds then in the mid 1980s and brought together the people of Thanjavur to help it sprout and grow.

Today’s Consecration, easily one of the best seen in the state is culmination of over three decades of hard work by the Thanjavur Palace led by Babaji Bhonsle. But the Prince has his feet firmly rooted to the ground. He sees it as his duty to get the next gen to protect our heritage and historical structures. That he sees as one of his biggest tasks going forward. With what he has achieved over the last three decades one can be confident that he will be able to instill this mindset in the next gen.

( A version of this story featured in today's The Hindu)