Floral offerings to the deity are an integral part of rituals followed in temples. It has been a time-honoured practice to pluck fresh blossoms of different colours and weave them into garlands that would eventually adorn the deities. And as the legend goes, Kodai — also known as Aandal — wove garlands for Lord Vishnu every day with the flowers collected from the ‘nandavanam,’ the temple garden.
What has happened to the ‘nandavanams’ over the years? With the expansion of the city, less rainfall and changing sensibilities of contemporary society, the once blooming acres have faded out of sight. Most ‘nandavanams’ in and around Madurai have either shrunk in size or simply disappeared. Unavailability of funds and manpower, and shortage of water are often cited as reasons for the disintegration of an age-old institution.
Only a few major temples such as the Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple has its ‘nandavanam’ maintained with the support of the corporate sector.
The Koodal Alagar Perumal temple, older even than Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple, exemplifies the saga of neglect. The temple earmarked three acres on TPK Road for the ‘nandavanam,’ which is now buried under overgrown weeds.
Says a temple official, S. Selvakumari, “The land was recovered from legal tangles recently. We are planning to rejuvenate it soon but need sponsors to maintain it.
The Madanagopalasamy Temple and Prasanna Venkatachalapathy Temple do not have separate space allotted for ‘nandavanam,’ though the former has a small ‘Brindavan’ within the temple premises and flowers such as butterfly pea and hibiscus are grown and gathered for daily offering to Lord Krishna. “An industrial unit dug the borewell and we are able to water the plants. We would be happy if somebody offers to maintain a garden for the temple,” says an administration staff.
The Prasanna Venkatachalapathy Temple depends totally on flower vendors for its needs. A vendor outside the temple says he supplies flowers worth Rs. 450 every day to the temple. The Tirumarainathar Temple at Tiruvadavur is under renovation at a cost of Rs. 55 lakh and the ‘nandavanam’ will soon get a facelift, according to P. Jayaraman, Joint Commissioner, Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR and CE) Department and Executive Officer of Meenakshi temple.
Of those times
The garden inside Meenakshi temple and the garden surrounding the Kallalagar Temple in Alagarkoil testify to the beauty of the well-maintained temple gardens dating back to the ancient times. Against the backdrop of the majestic gopurams, the neatly grown rows of pink roses, nerium plants in various colours and numerous other flowers in the garden at Meenakshi temple meet the daily puja requirement. “We get at least two baskets of flowers every day. We use them for the various rituals in the sanctum sanctorum and sometimes for the yagnas. If the quantity of the flowers exceeds the demand, we weave the balance into garlands for the deities,” says an official.
The officials at Kallagar temple face a different problem — of guarding the flowers from the monkeys found in abundance here. The moon beam flowers, yellow oleanders and nerium plants along the cemented pathways is a place frequented not just by the monkeys, but also colourful butterflies, parrots and other winged visitors.
Points out an official of the HR and CE Department, “There is no separate fund for maintaining temple gardens. In the ancient times, the ‘nandavanams’ not only catered to the temple needs but also helped conserve biodiversity. Owing to a funds crunch now, we can no longer afford to appoint staff to maintain the gardens, collect flowers and weave them. Reviving the gardens with the help of external support is perhaps the solution,” he says.
An odhuvaar in the Tirumarainathar Temple at Tiruvadavur, A. Paramasivan, has been weaving garlands for the deities since 1981. The temple is among the very few temples in Madurai to have a person dedicated to weaving the blooms into a string.
“My family has been doing this job for more than eight decades. Ever since I started work, I am paid only Rs. 135 every month for the service, he says.
His duty includes travelling daily to the flower market in Mattuthavani from Tiruvadavur at 6.30 a.m., buying flowers, returning to the temple and weaving the garlands.
“We have pujas in the morning, noon and evening. I weave flowers for all the three pujas. My day ends late after I finish weaving flowers for the following morning puja. I adorn the deities with the flowers before going to the market to buy the flowers,” says Paramasivan, who spends six hours a day weaving the flowers.