M. Natarajan’s ‘bhakta seva' is extraordinary
Frail and bent with age at 82, M. Natarajan displays amazing strength when he lifts his three kilo peacock feather fan and waves it at the serpentine queue of devotees just outside the sanctum sanctorum in Meenakshi Amman Temple. Flashing a toothless smile, he says, “When I keep the fan down, my hands and shoulder ache.”
Then he suddenly turns around and raises his pitch: “Don't keep standing here. Move on…” Thousands of visitors drawn from all over turn into curious onlookers and even if they don't understand his language, they get the message and hurry up. But not before shaking hands with him or even touching his feet. Most people give him money, too.
He turns back to say, “People do bhakti seva, I do bhakta seva.”
Those who visit the temple regularly and even those who revisit after a gap of a few years have unfailingly found ‘Natarajan thaatha' at the same spot, doing the same job with the same energy and enthusiasm. He has not missed even a day because of illness or any other reason in the last five decades.
Remarked a devotee from Rajkot, Anmol Doshi, “I have been to the temple twice before, in 1989 and 2001. Each time I have seen the old man, he is a permanent fixture after Goddess Meenakshi and Lord Shiva.” Doshi's family have even nicknamed him “pankha baba” and generously reward him. They feel Natarajan himself is a blessed soul as he stands the longest hours so close to the Goddess.
That he perhaps is. Natarajan smiles, “I feel I was destined to do this. I don't expect anything from anybody.”
He first came as a nine-year-old with his father to watch the ‘thirukalyanam” ceremony of the God and the Goddess in 1939. He says there was another old man then at the same mandapam waving the fan for devotees. “I was continuously watching him. He called me and gave me a smaller fan and asked me to do the same, if I wanted. I enjoyed it so much.”
Soon he had to drop out of school and joined a jewellery shop as a helper. But whenever he found time, he came to the temple and hung around watching the old man. Then the inevitable happened. He had worked in the shop for 20 years and wanted to do something different. On a visit to the temple, he found the thaatha missing. “I understood the message, went back home and after collecting all the material made the first fan myself overnight.”
It was during Pongal of 1960 that Natarajan took his place. “I walked to this spot 52 years ago,” he tells me. “You stand here and see how my fan brings relief to the sweat-drenched devotees.” I do for the next 45 minutes. It is a busy day at the temple, the last Friday of the month of Thai, an auspicious day. People stream from the Goddess's shrine. Just at the exit stands a profusely sweating Natarajan, wearing a dhoti and a rudraksh mala. He tells the people to walk on but most of them slow down. They look at him with amusement, curiosity, reverence and awe and walk away only after seeking his blessings and offering money.
Natarajan has fanned Kamarajar, Kakkan, L.K. Advani, Lalu Yadav, the Ambanis and several other chief ministers, high-profile politicians, industrialists and film stars. What he can't erase from his memory is the “warm and firm grip of Pandit Nehru's hand in 1961.”
Over the years, Natarajan has drawn up a timetable and is seen at other temples fanning devotees. He has worn through five peacock fans. “You will find me at Thirupparankundram Temple on Mondays and Tuesdays, in Palani on Wednesdays, Thiruchendur on Thursdays, and Samayanallur on Saturdays. I come to Meenakshi Temple on Fridays and Sundays now.”
This apart, every Amavasya he is at Rameswaram and every Pournami at Thiruvannamalai. He goes to Tirupati once a month and walks to Sabarimala once a year. It is at Tirupati that he gets a dress change and returns with a fresh set of dhoti.
How does he go to all these places? “I get up daily between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m., drink a glass of milk and take the bus.” When he is in Madurai, he reaches the temple by 4.30 a.m. and is usually the last to leave the premises around 12.30 p.m., after the gates close at noon.
“I go home, eat curd rice with pickle, take rest and am back at 4.30 p.m. and stay on till 10.30 p.m. Before going to bed, I take a fruit.”
In his frugal lifestyle and zealous love to serve, Natarajan epitomises a strange kind of bhakti, the power for which, he says, he draws from Goddess Meenakshi. He says, “I will continue to do this till my death.”
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