Mumbai Local

Keeping a tradition alive

Devotees chant mantras, offer prayers during the three-day Ayyappa puja celebrations in Chembur’s Murugan temple in Mumbai.—Photos: Vivek Bendre

Devotees chant mantras, offer prayers during the three-day Ayyappa puja celebrations in Chembur’s Murugan temple in Mumbai.—Photos: Vivek Bendre  

When they migrated to Mumbai, the south Indian community also brought with them their gods. This is the story of how the community comes together for the annual Ayyappa puja which has evolved from bhajans in houses to bhajan groups to mega get-togethers.

The delicate scent of chrysanthemums wafted in the crisp morning air. By 11 am, families with children in tow, several men dressed in veshtis (dhoti), women draped in silks and wearing flowers in their hair, start trickling in a steady stream at Chembur’s Murugan temple, where the annual puja for Lord Ayyappa was being held on Saturday.

Mumbai’s south Indian community, scattered across Wadala, Matunga, Goregaon, Sion, Ghatkopar, Chembur, Bhandup and the surrounding areas of Navi Mumbai, celebrates the annual Mandalam festival between mid-November and mid-January. The three-day invocation of Lord Ayyappa, which is the high point of the festival, culminates this year on December 27.

Festoons made of plantain leaves and garlands adorn the top floor of the premises were the Murugan temple is located. The idol is decked up with flowers and brass lamps lit up the area. Rows of Brahmin priests are chanting the mantras as devotees offer prayers. “Lord Ayyappa signifies purification of the mind,” says Vishwanathan, a retired professional from Chembur, who has been coming for the puja for the past 20 years.

For those like MK Parmeshwar from the Garodia Nagar Bhakta Sangh in Ghatkopar East, the puja is associated with a long tradition that people from the south have nurtured in Mumbai. Once migrants in the city of dreams and opportunities, it is the second and third generation of ‘settlers’ from the south who have kept this annual ritual alive.

“My mother was born and brought up in Mumbai, but our family permanently moved to Mumbai in 1968. This was a time when Bal Thackeray’s agitation against south Indians was at its peak. The grudge was typically against Keralites who were working as mechanics and in the healthcare sector. One half of the migration by Tamil Brahmins was to Delhi, where they went to join the Central government services. The other half, especially from Palghat (Kerala), came to Mumbai and they were number one stenographers. Job opportunities were good in Mumbai. Tamilians started staying in the Pagadi system in Dadar and slowly moved to Sion, Matunga, Wadala and Chembur,” he says.

The number of migrants grew steadily through the 1950s and 60s and as the community established itself, schools and temples came up. Ayyappa being a popular deity, individual houses performed pujas, which slowly grew into larger organised events.

“Ayyappa was always a famous god. In Mumbai, the bhajans held in houses every week led to the mushrooming of several bhajan groups. The Hariharaputra Bhajan Samaj became the largest one. Lots of people from the Maharashtra government also lent their support. Despite this, an exclusive Ayyappa temple has not been built, except in Bhandup and Thane. There is no Ayyappa temple in old Matunga,” Mr. Parmeshwar says.

The Garodia Nagar Bhakta Sangh feeds about 500 people a day and 1,000 on Sunday over the three days of the Ayyappa celebration held on the first Friday, Saturday and Sunday of December.

The Murugan temple is an example of how community members got together in the early 1970s to build the shrine. “A majority of Murugan temples are on hillocks. The unique feature of this temple is it is built on the top floor in granite and situated on concrete. The staircase has 108 steps to give the feeling of climbing up,” says PS Subramaniyan, secretary of the Thiruchembur Murugan Temple.

Krishnan R, a second generation settler has made a pilgrimage to Sabarimala. “For me, the entire Mandalam period is a process of self-discipline and self reflection. The moment you reflect on yourself, you understand yourself better,” he says. Mythili Kesavan, a retired banker, who like everyone else, touches her ears and bowed several times before the deity (gesture asking for forgiveness for sins and mistakes committed) says, “All gods are the same. I just think there is some power beyond us that has several names. Lord Ayyappa sees everyone as human beings. All communities worship him. When I come here, I get a positive energy. It is also a way of meeting people from the neighbourhood.”

A typical puja begins with a Ganapathi homam (havan) followed by Rudra abhishekam . Prayers are then offered to Ayyappa, after which devotees perform Laksharchana (repetition of God’s name 100,000 times), bhajans. The celebration culminates in a community lunch known as Annadanam .

In fact, offering food or Annadanam is a large part of the gamut of events held to worship the bachelor god. R Shankaran, owner of Shanmukha Caterers, has been providing meals at the Murugan temple for the past 30 years. On Friday, the menu was sambar rice, curd rice, poriyal (dry vegetable dish), kootu (curried vegetable), kadalai (chickpea stew), pappadam and two types of payasam and chadachadayam (desserts).

“We see it as our religious duty. Today, we have prepared food for 3,000 people. About 700 litres of milk was used for the payasam, 400 kg of rice was cooked,” Mr. Shankaran says.

The Hariharaputra Samaj, which is among the most popular organisations, is currently headed by Kutchi Jayant Lapsia, whose childhood memories of growing up in a Tamil-dominated neighbourhood, built his faith in Ayyappa.

“My family is from Kutch, but I have been born and brought up in Mumbai. I grew up in a south Indian locality where Lord Ayyappa was the presiding deity. I played in their houses, participated in their pujas and became a devotee. We also started holding the puja in our house. In 1982, we went to Sabarimala with friends,” says Mr. Lapsia, president of the Samaj, which has 400 members and conducts a host of events.

As a way of assembling south Indians, the pujas have served their purpose. “It certainly brings the local community together. Though Ayyappa is originally a deity from Kerala, people from all southern States worship him. There are no restrictions on any community, except women of a certain age who cannot visit the temple at Sabarimala. Ayappa is like the Shani god, where people who are experiencing bad patches in life come to him to ward off the ills,” says Sasidharan Nair, trustee of the Andheri-based Mahakali Ayyappa Seva Sangh, which has 550 families affiliated to it. The Sangh concluded its 13th annual puja last weekend, feeding about 1,800 people.

In the sprawling and bustling metropolis, where people from all parts of the country have made a home, a tradition continues to live.

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Printable version | May 25, 2020 12:40:39 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/news/keeping-a-tradition-alive/article8033719.ece

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