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Once upon a time... when temples were under a lockdown

A view of Koodal Azhagar Perumal Temple in Madurai.   | Photo Credit: S_James (Archive)

Temples without the presence of devotees may seem new but the phenomenon is not so for octogenarians, because six decades ago, such a situation prevailed. The reason, however, was entirely different. The exodus of thousands of the original inhabitants of villages, in search of greener pastures, led to the situation, which some priests recall not without a shudder. The complete closure of temples for devotees has taken priests back in time to the 1960s and 70s, when the temples entered an ‘unenforced’ lockdown mode.

During those dark years, priests in most Divya Desams (Vaishnava) and Paadal Petra Sthalams (Saiva) would perform daily rituals and wait at the shrine’s entrance for the devotees so that they could take some Thattu Kaasu back home to manage the family expenses. Most often that devotee remained elusive. Many of the big festivals came to a grinding halt. Priests did not have enough money for the next meal. They struggled to pay the house rent or even to hire a bi-cycle on rent. There were no communication tools in those days and hence rarely did the outside world get to know of the hardship the priests faced. The stalemate continued for decades and some Bhattacharyas and Sivacharyas remained faithful and braved it out. A few of them share their experiences of that grey period:

Therazhundur

Vasan Bhattar of Therazhundur Aamaruviappan Divya Desam is now a mentor to hundreds of priests and service personnel in the Chola region. He has seen the temple in a war like situation when even daily survival was in question. He calls the 1960s and 70s the worst phase. “I saw my father struggling to get even a rupee as Thattu Kaasu. Salary was not paid to him for many years. There was no money to even light the lamp at the temple. The Lord was left with one vastram (attire) for a whole year and was offered minimal Thaligai. Festivals were, of course, suspended,” he recalls.

“We fought a lonely battle and again now it is a difficult time. We need to have faith in God, like so many of us did all those decades ago,” he says with optimism.

Thirukkannamangai

Eighty-four year old P.K. Ramaswamy Bhattachar performed service at the Bhaktavatsala Perumal Divya Desam in Thirukkannamangai for over six decades and is still in service. He remembers the decade long battle for survival in the 1960s. “We struggled to pay a house rent of Rs. 5. To get the basic provisions, I would cycle all the way to Tiruvarur (7 km away). The cancellation this month of the big utsavams reminds me of my early days at Thirukkannamangai when the Chitrai Brahmotsavam came to a halt and was not held for several years. There was neither money nor people to conduct festivals. My eyes would literally light up at the sight of a single devotee. Finding one was so rare at that point of time,” he recalls.

Pullam Bhoothangudi

Till a few decades ago, there was no road access to the Jatayu Moksha sthalam of Pullam Bhoothangudi Divya Desam. This was in sad contrast to the ‘well laid-out city of tall mansions,’ which Thirumangai Azhwar sang about in his pasuram. M. Krishnamurthy Bhattar, who performed aradhana for five decades, till his death in 1998, would delightfully bring home Rs. 2 that he received as Thattu Kaasu when a rare devotee made it to the Valvil Rama temple crossing the fields from Swami Malai. However, his wife Jayalakshmi would somehow find this hidden money and buy tamarind for that week’s Rasam. Angry and helpless, the Bhattar would go back to the temple to invoke the Lord’s blessings. Such was his way of life back in the 1960s and 70s. “But I had to feed the children,” retorts 87-year old Jayalakshmi, who wonders how she managed to run the family with so little money in all those decades.

Krishnamurthy Bhattachar locates a jotting in his diary, where he records with sadness his inability to perform Pavitrotsavam during his life time. His son, 48-year old Gopalan Bhattar, who joined the temple at a monthly salary of just Rs. 45, says that while the shutting down of temples for devotees is saddening, the lockdown is not entirely new to him for he spent his entire childhood at Pullam Bhoothangudi without devotees. He says with pride that in spite of it, his father performed aradhana all alone every day of the year for several decades. The lack of devotees was not a deterrent and his father faithfully performed his duty as per the agamas. Never once did he complain about the poor financial state or the absence of devotees.

No devotees, no salary

At the historical over 1,000-year old Aabath Sahayeswarar temple in Thiruppazhanam, 2 km from Tiruvaiyaru, a temple praised by Tirugnana Sambandar, Appar and Sundarar, a priest has been taking care of the pujas for the last 25 years — since he was a teenager. For Raja Gurukkal, this lockdown is not any different from what he and his father have experienced in the past many decades. During the time of his father, who served at the temple for 55 years, the payment of even the low salary was infrequent. Even though this is a Paadal Petra Sthalam, only a few devotees visit the temple on most days even now and hence the Thattu Kaasu is minimal. He says that his forefathers looked upon the Lord and Ambal as their own Parents and served them with love and devotion. It is only this sentiment and the opportunity to perform abhishekam at such a legendary temple that has helped his mind stay away from seeking greener pastures, mindless of the meagre income and few devotees.

Madurai too

Even the Madurai Koodalazhagar temple was not spared during the crisis under discussion here. Despite being in the heart of Madurai and close to the Meenakshi Amman Temple, the situation was so bad that the Bhattars for a large part stood outside the sanctum sanctorum each day of the week waiting for the devotees to turn up. And when a stray devotee arrived, the frustrated Bhattar at the Perumal shrine would redirect him to the Thayar and Andal shrines hoping that there would be a few more devotees by the time he finished darshan at these shrines and he could provide a combined darshan for all of them. However, the redirected devotee would turn up again to find the same Bhattar standing in the same position. Imagine, not long ago, the priests were so low on morale that they were reluctant to provide darshan to a lone devotee.

Need for support

Srinivasa Gopalan, Chennai-based devotee, who has been supporting several priests of ancient temples in remote locations for the past many years, has come forward this week to additionally support them during this distress period. “There are tens of thousands of temples in Tamil Nadu, most dating back many centuries and steeped in legend. This heritage needs to be protected and sustained. The priests, who take care of the daily rituals at these temples, play a big part in protecting and sustaining the heritage. The Government and the community have a responsibility in this mission.

In this hugely challenging scenario as well as for the long term, Srinivasa Gopalan feels that all priests must receive financial compensation. “In extraordinary situations such as the present one, they need to speak up. They should voice their difficulties to the local administration, local community leaders, Math heads and Trustees and seek compassionate support.”

What Agama says

Vasan Bhattar of Therezhundur Divya Desam says that the Agamas have laid out clear processes for aradhana and conduct of festivals during war and other emergency situations. If a festival is put off, the agamas allow for it to be conducted over the next six months. As atonement, needy people may be fed during that period. Brahmotsavams should be held later in the year once the situation comes back to normal. Vasan Bhattar points out that more important, these festivals should be conducted with the full and active participation of the people and not just as a formality for the records.

Life at risk

Industrialist Venu Srinivasan, who restored the entire Nava Tirupathi temples in the 1990s and transformed the lives of the priests there, remembers the time he entered the dilapidated Erettai Tirupathi (Twin Temples on the Northern Banks of Tamiraparani) Divya Desam 25 years ago to explore the possibility of restoration. What meets the eye today is a far cry from the situation one encountered then. Seshamani Bhattar literally put his life at risk each day of the year.

“The priest, who came from Thiru Kolur, sometimes had to wade through the high tide in the Tamiraparani to reach Erettai Tirupathi. He would be welcomed into the temple by dangerous snakes that moved around freely. There were no lights. The roof and the walls were in dilapidated state and could have fallen off any time. And for all that risk, there were no devotees in the temple town on most days in the year. The priest, who got a salary of ₹ 200, did not get any Thattu Kaasu except on the few festival days or some select days in the month. The devotional commitment of the priests in remote towns is highly commendable. They weathered such storms, which would have broken the spirit of lesser mortals,” he says.

Appreciating the devotional commitment of the service personnel in temples during this crisis, Venu Srinivasan, who is also Chairman, Board of Trustees, Ranganathaswamy Temple, Srirangam, lays stress on the safety aspects and the precaution priests and others should take while performing their duties.

Stress on safety

Raja Gurukkal is rather sad that teh doors of the Rajagopuram are shut during puja. “Pancha Bhootham — the Five Elements — have to be functional during abhishekam and puja, in order to circulate the vibrations. With the Raja Gopuram closed, the public might be deprived of the benefit. But this is again perhaps His wish,” he sighs.

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Printable version | Oct 20, 2020 11:58:38 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/once-upon-a-time-when-temples-were-under-a-lockdown/article31237418.ece

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