The temple comprises a small set of shrines and is remarkably clean — a hallmark of the Gujarati way of life
It could be a set from a rural-themed Tamil film. In busy Ayanavaram, there is an enclave of tile-roofed, single-storeyed row houses that remind you of a traditional village. Standing within these houses, it is hard to imagine that a noisy city is just outside of its walls. At one end of this street is a choultry (guesthouse) and at the other end is the Kasi Viswanatha Swami temple. And it owes its origin and present upkeep to Gujaratis.
The Tawkers are among the oldest Guajarati families to settle in the south, having made the move in the 1700s. They made their name in the jewellery business with Trichy as their base. There have been several prominent Tawkers in the cultural history of south India.
The women of the family appear to have been active in business as well, and according to legend, even lent money on interest to the East India Company. Two of these women, Ramkor Bai and Ratna Bai, went on a pilgrimage to Varanasi in the early 1800s and returned with two Shiva Lingas. One was installed at the community's congregational centre, the Motta Utara on Mint Street. The Ayanavaram temple was built to house the other linga. A Gujarati inscription near the doorway however, mentions a Viswanatha Tawker. Perhaps the women were from his family. The temple comprises a small set of shrines and is remarkably clean – a hallmark of the Gujarati way of life. It has a tank, which is now cut off from it, owing to a road coming in between.
In order to ensure a continuous income to the temple for its upkeep, the row of street houses was built. Each has a low entrance, a vestibule leading to a central courtyard and a few rooms including a kitchen leading off it. Every house has a well. Protecting the street from the noise of the main road is a row of shops, also built by the Gujaratis. An archway between the shops leads you to the houses and the temple. Over the years, land belonging to the temple has been acquired for the Ayanavaram Bus Depot and residential colonies in the neighbourhood.
The choultry, impressive with its tall doorway and a set of rooms around a central courtyard, was originally meant for pilgrims and is now a hostel for indigent students. In the history of the Labour Movement of India, this choultry played a small but significant role – it was here that the Labour Union of the Perambur Railway Workshops, India's second after the 1918 Madras Labour Union at Binnys, was founded in 1919. That meeting broke up in chaos thanks to hirelings of the Madras and Southern Mahratta Railway management.
After the Tawkers, another Gujarati family, the Dagats, managed the temple. Now the trusteeship vests with the Davey clan. It is a strange but satisfying feeling, witnessing worship in Tamil and Sanskrit, overhearing Gujarati conversation and praying to a linga from Varanasi, under a Dravidian temple, all in Chennai.