The Vithoba temple, built in 1909, in Mattancherry, has a history that’s little known
Tucked away at the end of one of those many narrow streets in Mattancherry is the Vithoba temple. Painted bright pink, the entrance is imposing with pictures of Sant Jnandev, Tukaram, Jnana Bai and Namdev. The temple was built way back in 1909. History of how it was shut down for a long while, reopened and renovated to its present glory has all been faithfully recorded. What is missing is the story of Ambu Baliga, the man who brought the idol from Pandharpur, Maharashtra, and installed it here. There are bits and pieces of information of this revolutionary but the jigsaw remains incomplete.
A man of considerable wealth Ambu Baliga ran a successful grocery business. He had two sons and a daughter and the family led a happy life. But all this changed very soon.
Like many people in the country Ambu Baliga was drawn into the vortex of the Indian Independence struggle.
“I have heard that he, along with Sahodaran Ayyappan and K.B. Kumaran, was inspired by Gandhiji’s call for freedom and his teachings, plunged into the movement. He found little time now for his family and business. His relationship with a Devadasi called Lakshmi, that’s what I have heard her name was, also weaned him away from his family,” says Venkateswara Pai, a former school teacher, who married Ambu Baliga’s granddaughter.
It is believed that Ambu Baliga and ‘Lakshmi’ even travelled to Pandharpur once. Here he came across an idol, which he decided to carry along with him and install at Mattancherry. “I have heard my mother-in-law say that Ambu Baliga who went to Pandharpur to propitiate Lord Panduranga or Vithoba, obeyed the will of Lord Vishnu who appeared in a dream instructing him to install the present idol at Mattancherry. When he returned Ambu Baliga was a changed man,” adds Pai.
Ambu Baliga now spent more time in the temple that came up on the land owned by Lakshmi. In this temple, the main mode of worship is rendering of Abhangs or bhajans.
In 1934, two years before the Maharaja of Travancore Sree Chithira Tirunal Balarama Varma issued the temple entry proclamation, which lifted the ban on people from the lower castes from entering temples in the State of Travancore, Ambu Baliga threw open the doors of the Vithoba temple to all . “He even organised a feast allowing people of all castes to sit together and partake of it. Now this act was not appreciated by the people, especially the orthodox, senior members of his community. They even went to the length of ostracising him and his family. That was the price he had to pay for trying to ring in moral freedom, ending social discrimination.”
Pai elaborates how brutally Ambu Baliga and his family were isolated. “He was insulted in public, many a time, and it is said that he was even manhandled. By then, Ambu Baliga had almost detached himself from his family.
His sons were not able to run the business; they lost all their wealth, including the house where they stayed. No one was willing to give them a house on rent in Mattancherry. Finally they found a small, one-roomed house. And that was where I came after marriage.”
Late one evening in 1944 a team of policemen of the Cochin Maharaja came to the temple, caught hold of Ambu Baliga, and dragged him through the street to the waiting police vehicle.
“The charge against him was not clear. It is believed that people complained against him for public nuisance as he used to sing loudly in the wee hours of the night. There are others that thought he was picked up because he had gone insane. But I think that it was because people who were antagonised by Ambu Baliga’s action of opening up the temple wanted to teach him a lesson. They had powerful contacts in the Maharaja’s durbar and through them had Ambu Baliga arrested and taken off to Trichur,” says Pai.
The temple remained shut for a long while till a group of devotees from the locality got together sometime in the early fifties, formed the Sree Rama Bhajana Mandali that led to the revival of the tradition of singing bhajans and taking care of the temple affairs. They took to re-building the structure, which had fallen into neglect.
No one knows what really happened to Ambu Baliga after that.
“There are again many versions but there are certain facts that need to be told. His long-time friend K.B. Kumaran got a letter from him from prison. There are some who say that he went on a vanaprastha but I think he died in custody for he was past seventy when this happened.”
No photographs of Ambu Baliga exist. In the temple there is an artist’s impression of the man. There are many in and around Mattancherry who will testify that such a man lived amongst them. But ask them what happened to him and they draw a blank or at the best get to some assumptions.
Most of Ambu Baliga’s immediate family members are no more. Very soon this revolutionary social activist will disappear into the gauze of memory.