Agraharam — time virtually stands still here

Chennai has managed to retain the charm of a centuries-old lifestyle

April 29, 2012 11:10 pm | Updated April 30, 2012 01:57 am IST - CHENNAI:

OLD AND THE NEW: Modern amenities have found their way into a typical agraharam house in Triplicane, Chennai. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

OLD AND THE NEW: Modern amenities have found their way into a typical agraharam house in Triplicane, Chennai. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

Stories about life in agraharam belong to the late 19th century and early 20th century. But behind the stories lies a simple parallel to today's lifestyle. In modern parlance, an agraharam would be the equivalent of a gated community.

Traditionally, an agraharam was a cluster or row of houses that abutted the temple wall, and served as a colony for the temple priests and their families. Life revolved around the community, which comfortably practised its unique rituals. Even today, Chennai has managed to retain the charm of the agraharam — in Triplicane, in Mylapore and around Kothandarama Swamy temple in West Mambalam.

A typical agraharam house comprises a stone bench in the verandah and an open courtyard in the middle of the house.

It is well-ventilated with wooden beams or terracotta tiles for the ceiling and wooden staircases.

At the agraharam in Triplicane 50 families continue to live in an anachronistic world. Some families depend on the Parthasarathy temple for livelihood while others live on pensions after retirement from central government jobs. Their children have made their way in life but they continue to live in the agraharam on the Peyalwar Koil Street.

The tenants see no reason to vacate. “I was born and raised here,” said one 70-year-old woman, who retains her 400-sq.ft portion. She would return to it but for her son. Vedavalli is also 70 and became part of the household after marriage.

“My daily ritual includes going to the temple,” she says. Her children have bought apartments nearby but she wants to live here.

The tenants pay around Rs.750 and most of them have not renovated their portions. There is no piped water supply but the residents are not complaining. The rent collected is used to improve facilities for the temple devotees, they say.

Some tenants have spruced up their portions and even installed air-conditioners.

On Mundahakanni Amman 4th Street in Mylapore, around 12 houses retain their 19th century charm despite the cars and SUVs parked along the Madhava Perumal temple wall.

Residents here say in the last 50 years the character of the agraharam has changed. Here too, the rent collected is used for the temple upkeep.

“The land belongs to the temple. My mother-in-law became the first tenant and paid a rent of Rs. 45,” said a resident, who has been living there for the past 18 years. The agraharam has been in existence for over 60 years.

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