What are temples without processions? It is a delight to watch the deity, with all the paraphernalia, being carried around on the shoulders of men, who seem to do it with effortless ease. Actually, not much thought is given to the carriers — Sri Padham Thangigal — who do their duty with love and devotion. But not all Vaishnava temples have this team. Therefore men, who are able to walk long distance carrying the deity, are roped in. Exceptions are the Srirangam temple and Sri Parthasarathy Swami temple in Triplicane, Chennai. The deity being carried on ‘wheels’ on festive occasions has become a regular feature of processions across most Divya Desams in Tamil Nadu.
In Srirangam, Lord Namperumal, the utsava deity, is carried in the traditional way and in that style, which is unique. Continuing the 1,000-year-old tradition, the Sri Patham Thangis of Srirangam wear a coloured turban and carry the deity on their shoulders through the entire length of the procession never once placing it on a stool, even during his long outings.
Till the middle of the 19th century, the Kainkaryam of carrying Namperumal was performed by Uthama Nambi, Parasara/Veda Vyasa Bhattar, Annangar Swamy and Rangachar, each in charge of a corner. There was also an order in the way the positions were taken. Left side of the Lord was first, then the right side followed by the right and left sides on the rear.
Lord Namperumal is renowned for his beautiful gait. Says Parasara Badri Bhattar, one of the historical rights holders of the Sri Padham Service, “In the past, Sri Patham Thangigal used to practise the different walks of the Lord, including Voyyali, Simha Gathi and Sarpa Gathi. From noon, they practised for hours in the hot sun on the Manal Veli, in the eastern side of the temple. This was how they perfected the art of carrying the Lord on their shoulders.”
It was never easy to get the position of a Sri Padham Thangi. The aspirant had to first prove his capability at the Kamalavalli Nachiyar temple in Woraiyur before being given an opportunity to carry Lord Namperumal at Srirangam. Singaperumal Uthama Nambi (80), a descendant of Uthama Nambi says that they used to perform this sacred service with the help of disciples. “We considered the sacred food we received for our service as a great blessing,” he adds.
In the last half a century, the Sri Patham Thangis in Srirangam have come to be appointed by the HR & CE. Fifty-six year-old K. Srinivasan is now the leader of the Sri Patham Thangi group. “Even as a child, the different gaits in which the deity ‘walked’ during the procession fascinated me. I watched the way the Sri Patham Thangis adapted themselves to the special movements, especially in events such as Kona Voyyali and the devotion they showed during Utsavams such as Poochatru. I got myself trained by the seniors at a very young age,” says Srinivasan, who considers it a great blessing to have had the opportunity to carry the Lord on his shoulders for three decades.
Given the weight of the massive floral garlands, the annual Poochatru Utsavam is one of the most difficult for the Sri Patham Thangis. They stand at the Manal Veli Mandapam carrying the ‘heavy’ Lord on their shoulders. The festival showcases their dedication. Sporting a big smile, they remain on their feet, carrying Namperumal on their shoulders. The 10-day Utsavam for Perumal is followed by a week-long Utsavam for Thayar, at the end of which, each of them is seen with a bruise on their shoulder.
The official ‘Sri Patham Thangis’ of the temple also take the support services of the Srirangam Vethal Group, a team of around 200 selfless service volunteers to carry the Lord on street processions especially on long trips and during Brahmotsavam.
It is a treat to the eyes when hundreds of them take turns to carry Lord Namperumal on his annual Panguni trip to Jeeya Puram and Woraiyur. One of the most spectacular processions of Lord Namperumal is on the eighth day of the Brahmotsavam in Chitirai. With the entire southern stretch of the East Chitirai Street lined with thousands of devotees, the Sri Patham Thangis carry the Lord, atop the Golden Horse Vahana, at great speed diagonally one way and then the other in a zig-zag motion, forward and back. The entire action lasts around 15 minutes and never ceases to amaze an onlooker.
It is also the day of the year when one hears the loudest round of applause for the Sri Patham Thangis after they have completed the exciting Kona Voyali presentation in front of the chariot.
Retaining the tradition
Pon. Jayaraman is a happy man. A decade ago, when he (current Joint Commissioner at the Srirangam Temple) took over as the Executive Officer at the Parthasarathy Temple in Thiruvallikeni, the first thing he noticed was that traditional Vaishnavites were not carrying the Lord on street processions. This saddened him. He encouraged and motivated the Vaishnavites to get involved in this sacred activity. What started off in a small way, led to the revival of the practice and the temple now has a 150-member team.
“I was keen that this service too should be carried out in the same traditional way and with the same devotion as the Divya Prabhandham recital that the temple is already renowned for,” says Jayaraman. “I am delighted to see the positive transformation of the scene in the past ten years. It gives me a great satisfaction that I played a role in this revival. I am particularly happy that a lot of youngsters are getting involved in this service,” he adds.
The traditionalists now carry the Lord on processions that take place almost 300 days in a year simply as a service without any monetary benefit. Most of them are employed with corporate companies and yet turn up on time for processions. The team has school and college students.
Especially pleasing is the way they carry the Lord during the elephant and horse processions during the two Brahmotsavams as well as the famous Garuda Sevai.