Asha Sridhar visits refreshment booths that have been serving devotees during Arubathu Moovar for over a century now

Hidden amid the sea of devotees who descended on Mylapore on Wednesday to participate in the Arubathu Moovar festival, stood a pair of humble refreshment booths — they have been occupying this space for well over 130 years.

One of the booths, Sivagyanasambandar Swamigal Thaneer Pandal, was started in 1860 by Sadayappa Achari, and his family has continued to put them up during Arubathu Moovar ever since. The stalls open at eight in the morning, and refreshments are dispensed till 10.30 in the night.

“For 11 generations, we have had one son every generation and he has continued this practise,” says S. Srinivasan, who is now 78. “When we started we only gave water to travellers. In those days, since there were no modern means of transport, most people walked for miles together to reach the temple. The pandal was started for these weary travellers to rest, have some refreshments and then proceed to see the procession,” he adds. Reminiscing about the olden days, he says: “In those days too, there were many stalls selling items like ribbons and dolls, and it was a big attraction back then. Today you have big shops and emporiums selling these items all round the year. The charm is lost.”

His son Venkatesan Achari, who now runs the pandal, is a siddha doctor by profession and is confident that his son and grandson will carry forward the tradition. “We make items like neer mor, panagam, sukku coffee, thayir sadam, puliyotharai, and pongal, among other items, and distribute a different prasadam every two hours. It has been part of our tradition to give a cucumber and a visree (hand fan) to anyone who stops by our pandal,” says Venkatesan. Theirs is a family venture and about 10-15 members of the family get together to cook all the food.

Srinivasan says there were three or four other pandals but most of them are gone now. “Even if the times change, the food we serve will continue to be the same. We will never give up our tradition,” he says. “In those days there used to be more crowds. Now the crowd has come down because it is a working day for schools and offices,” he adds ruefully.

The adjacent pandal dates back to 1875; and continuing this tradition has been a struggle for the family running it. It was started by Krishnappa Achari and is now being run by his son Pichandi, who is 93. “When we started, my grandfather had the money and we had a much larger pandal. We are a family of carpenters and over the years, our pandal has become smaller. We have never skipped a single year even then,” says P. Balu, one of Pichandi's sons. Balu has two brothers and a sister: each pitches in with Rs. 2,000 towards setting up the pandal, and the rest of the money comes from donations from well-wishers. “We will never stop. For us, this is a form of worship,” says Balu.

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