Apoorva Sripathi walks around the agraharam only to discover that all is not what it seems

Perhaps nothing defines a place more than its smell. The moment you’re in its vicinity, the fragrance of incense sticks and holy smoke and cow dung, hits your nose. If the scent of Triplicane was to be bottled in a perfume, this would be it.

On a lazy afternoon, under the harsh, unforgiving Chennai sun, Triplicane is in a heavy slumber. The area is quiet, except for scooters and cars that whiz past vibrantly coloured houses and various mutts (a religious Hindu institution). From one of the mutts, a number of people walk out; the women are all in madisars, the nine-yard sari worn by married Brahmin women and the men in panchakachams, the traditional veshti style worn by married men. Triplicane is never short of these madisar-clad women who walk around the streets with the ease of a young girl in skinny jeans; they even ride rickety scooters with panache.

Forty-six-year-old Mala is one such maami. Standing at a mere 5 feet, Mala is dressed in a purple and gold madisar and an aquamarine blouse. While her forehead sports a faded, red srichurnam, her lips sport a mischievous smile, giving her the appearance of a much younger woman. “I’ve been living here for 15 years now. My husband is a priest in the Ahobila Mutt here,” she says. “I had come here as a new bride from Tiruvarur and now this is my home. It’s very peaceful here.” Saraswathy, a 52-year-old housewife, too, agrees with the sentiment, “I have been here for 30 years and never have I felt unsafe. The atmosphere is peace loving, ” she says.

Peaceful is a word used by everyone here. From grocery shop owners to men sitting outside on their thinnais and watching people go by, Triplicane’s undisturbed environment is something that all residents agree on. And this includes cows. It’s safe to say that one-third of Triplicane’s residents are cows for they move about as if they own the place; it’s you who has to make way for them.

Like a towering dwarapalaka (a guard), the Parthasarathy Temple watches over Triplicane. Originally built by the Pallavas in the 8 century, it is a Vaishnavaite temple and one of the 108 Divya Desams, dedicated to Lord Vishnu. Triplicane is an anglicized version of Tiru-alli-keni meaning ‘sacred lily pond’, and refers to the pond in front of the Parthasarathy Temple. The temple is lined on all four sides by streets called maada veedhis. Traditional rows of houses occupied by Brahmins are called agraharams — the name originates from the fact that Brahmin houses abutted a temple in the shape of a garland. Once a common sight in Triplicane, they have now been replaced by garish apartmentsagraharam.

Peyazhwar Koil Street, adjacent to the temple, is probably the only remaining agraharam in the area. Walking between the aging houses in this cluster, which is said to be over 150 years old, one is instantly transported back to a simpler time.

Adorned with rice flour kolams, colourful plastic pots and hand pumps, the sand pathway in Peyazhwar Koil Street is lined with concrete blocks on either side. At 5.30 in the evening, women in colourful madisars scurry about drawing kolams before the daily procession of the deity. Seventy-eight-year-old S.K. Rangasamy reclines on a chair in front of a shaky table fan. “My family has lived here for a hundred years,” Rangasamy begins with a heavy sigh. “My grandfather Rangachariyar, who was a bill collector settled here. Then my father Krishnaswamy was here before I moved in,” he continues. Rangasamy, who started out as a driver, had to become a priest for funerals after both his legs were broken in an accident. His house looks barely enough to fit one person, but it houses four people apart from him: his son, wife and daughter-in-law.

Rangasamy is visibly unhappy about living in this agraharam as he starts to recount his problems. “There are no comforts in living here; even to relieve ourselves we have to walk 120 feet to the common toilets. And there are only 10. What will the women do, especially during their time of menstruation, when it’s compulsory to be ‘clean’?” At this point, Rangasamy’s voice changes tone; it becomes wry and his face assumes a deadpan expression. “There is no point in talking about our problems, this place will not prosper,” he curses.

The agraharam was built initially for temple workers and the property was gifted to the Ayodhya Rama temple and is now managed by a trust run by Mandyam Iyengars to whom the residents pay their rents. The rent is not much, a paltry sum of Rs. 800, but it is a lot for the families living there who have a hand-to-mouth existence.

One such is 58-year-old Thirumalai, who worked in the advertisement department of a daily newspaper in the city. “For a lower-middle-class family looking for spirituality and a house near a temple, Triplicane is the best place to be. It’s not economically viable to be elsewhere,” he says. Rangasamy, too, isn’t very hopeful about the future. “There used to be 52 families in this agraharam, now there are only 36. The trust is chasing people away with money. One day Lord Parthasarathy will open his eyes, but I will be long gone before that happens,” he laments.

For people who don’t want to miss out on the hubbub of city life but still want to be in touch with tradition, living here is a good choice. It’s not entirely modern, it’s not entirely traditional. It’s Triplicane.