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Saturday, January 5, 2013

Archakargal and others in service to God [and their plight]

Dear (s)

Something to ponder deep  on Priests and others doing kainkaryam at Temples

Many of us now living in City, make it a point to visit some Temples at some periodicity ~ depending on so many other factors including financial position and availability of time [!! - ~ still we find time for all other pastime from Cricket, Cinema, visit to Malls among other things ~ but invent some excuse when it comes to temples and our religious activities]

When we travel as a family to those places ~ the priorities perhaps are : first cosy stay at some good hotel; good breakfast; comfortable travel ~ then rush of temples. Many visit temples as if the only purpose to tell others /make a dairy entry – of having visited so many temples.  One expects, wishes and wants things in the way they want – the temple should not be crowded ~ they should get priority darshan and rush out as immediately as one entered.  Some do not have time to have darshan in many of the sannathis other than the Presiding deity and those of Azhwargal and Acharyaras, who have passed on the lineage and the tradition to us.  

Many of the temples in remote areas do look forlorn, not frequented by people, they are unkempt and not properly cared for. We do not miss to make a complain that ‘people are forgetting heritage and fail to appreciate their religion’ ~ an instant showpiece comment without introspecting what we have done and how much we have contributed in every form – the thoughts, coordination, strategy, contribution, physical activity and fighting in the forums when trouble frequented.  

From their pristine glory, some of the Temples have fallen… nothing has changed ~ it is the same Divyadesam or a puranic temple, sung by Alwars / by Nayanmars [padal petra sthalams] and other temples of historic and spiritual significance.  Remember that a small group of people have still remained doing yeomen service [kainkaryam] in the temple.  In every such olden temple, there is the Priest, those who do the service at madapalli [cooking food for the Lord]; singing the hymns [Sri Naalayira Divyaprabandham in Sri Vaishnavaite temples and Othuvaars in Saivaite temples]; those who play Nadaswaram and Thavil; the cleaning staff and more.  The Society which spends in hundreds for parking vehicles in malls and spends thousands for a few hours in mall, cares little ~ remember many of them do not even get what is spent in mall in hours as their monthly pay…….. but ~ still there are some selflessly and whole-heartedly doing service to the Lord.. They have been doing this, not for what you offer, the little amounts that you give when you visit the temples ~ the salaries are too meagre.

In Tamil nadu, Temples are controlled by Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments Dept – a wrong statement at that.  They are actually administrators of property and that too, only in respect of temples where hundial income exceeds prescribed minimum – other temples are neglected. Those with high income flow would have many staff and the salary levels are fixed according to the income of the temple.  

We follow time-bound rituals and have sacred things to follow.  The Archargar and other Kainkaryabarargal often spend out of their pocket, remain poor but are extremely dedicated and happy that they have chosen to serve the God.  They feel the temple is their place, they are destined to take care of the Lord there ~ cleans the Garbagriha, dresses the Lord with the available new clothes; do timely poojas; offer thiruvamuthu [the food] at prescribed timings; provide darshan and archana when devotees visit, closes the temple in the AN ~ back again in the evening, till night ~ only to follow the same, the next morning.

It is primarily a very small set of people, who have been so engrossed into serving the Lord that our Temples are still what they are !!  ~ next time, when you visit an ancestral temple, take time to talk to the Battar [Archagar / Gurukkal] or to others doing service ~ there could be a pattern.  It is passed on to them from ages ~ a family tradition.  The father remains steadfastly committed to the Lord and refuses to move away, even when his children find greener pastures in the cities of Chennai, metropolis in India ~ and abroad in Australia, Singapore, USA, UK, and Gulf……. They would not move ~ they would not be interested in attending even functions, if it were to leave the Lord even for a day.  Great souls.

In a few cases, when they turn very old, no longer able to continue their services or when they fall ill, a good son might return to look after the great father ~ some do not go back.  Having come to their ancestral village, they suddenly feel the urge to serve, take over the mantle from their father and continue the services with renewed vigour, throwing away their position or good job…………….. this is true and I personally know of more than a handful of such noble souls.  

With this background, an article in ‘The Week”  Dated: Monday, December 31, 2012 titled “Why does a nuclear physicist or a molecular biologist become a temple priest?”.  Do read it for yourself, though it might slightly differ in connotation.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar.

Below the article of The Week is reproduced in its entirety.  Click here to read the original article: God's nuke physicist

They are highly educated and could get jobs anywhere. Yet they have devoted their lives to the service of God. Priests in big Indian temples have always been known to be erudite—they have been well-versed in Sanskrit and some other languages, and masters of vedic scriptures. For most priests, service of God is a tradition that is passed on from one generation to the next. So, most accept the role without any complaints. There is not much money in the profession unless one travels abroad, but in many temples, a priest who has crossed the seven seas is not accepted back. Things, however, are changing. With a steady rise in demand for priests abroad, the temples are rethinking their stand. So, a homam here and a puja there, and you get your job back.

The money may not be good, but what keeps most rooted to the job is this belief that they are among the lucky few who share an intimate relationship with God. Their families, too, share the belief. Their wives accept their role and follow the rules without any question. Many of the women are well educated and have regular jobs, but when it comes to serving God, they are as committed as their priest-husbands.

Things have, however, changed for the younger generation. While earlier they were not given a choice, today a child may take up the family occupation or do something else. Also, serving the temple no longer remains the right of a particular family. In fact, many 'outsiders' have made their way into the inner circle.

THE WEEK profiles six men who have devoted their lives to the service of God.

Sreedharachar : Worked with Co-optex. Is now a priest at the Sri Lakshmi Narayana Temple, Tamil Nadu.  Pullikundram, a small village off the Mahabalipuram coast, a stone's throw from the famous Thirukazhukundram Temple, is home to the Sri Lakshmi Narayana Temple, said to be built between 1509 and 1529. It still has its ancient gateway and roof intact and has been Sreedharachar's family temple for six generations.

“My father [a priest, himself] left the village to go to Calcutta and then to Nagpur, Delhi, Dibrugarh and was in Pushkar for 32 years,” says Sreedhar. “No puja was being performed in the family temple. In 2000, we returned and found a snake pit around the idol. My father hit it with a stick and an 8ft-long snake glided out.” Though born in a family of priests, Sreedhar did not take up the occupation. He worked for the Tamil Nadu Handloom Weavers' Cooperation Society (Co-optex) and took voluntary retirement in 1994. “We had no plans to return but I think it was God who called us,” he says. “I wanted to join ISKCON. I had no training and had not taken deeksha (initiation). We searched for someone to look after the temple but could not find anyone. That is when my father asked me, 'Why don't you do it?'”

Sreedhar agreed. “I went to Kancheepuram and got deeksha and got myself a new name—Anirudh Battar,” he says. “An old man in the neighbouring village taught me the basics [of chants and rituals]. I learnt the rest from videos. It took me more than six years and I still have a lot to learn. I think I have achieved only 40 per cent.”

A miracle bolstered his belief that he was fulfilling a divine calling. Married for 14 years, Sreedhar and his wife, Sudha, had no children. They consulted many doctors, but to no avail. But within days of Sreedhar agreeing to look after the temple, his wife conceived. He now has two sons—Laxminarayana, who is in Class V, and Sowmyanarayana, who is in Class I.

For Sreedhar, the transition from a working man to a archakar (priest) was not very difficult because he did it willingly. The man who once sported a French beard and wore a three-piece suit now leads an austere life. Sreedhar does not regret his decision to be a priest, nor is he bothered about whether his sons will follow in his footsteps. Laxminarayana has shown interest in his father's way of life. “He came up to me one day and asked me to teach him the vedas,” says Sreedhar. “I will not compel him but then there is a demand for people in this profession. Let him learn the vedas and also get additional qualifications. He can then make a choice.”

Summing up the life of a priest, Sreedhar says, “It is a life of discipline. There is no unnecessary talk and there is no chance to make any mistakes.”

Muralidharan Battar:  Works in BHEL and is also an archakar at the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Tamil Nadu.

Walking through the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple is like walking through a maze. The temple perimeter is where the town flourished in three tiers, with gates to show direction. Houses here share walls, but the residents don't complain because they have the perumal's darshan (the Lord's sight) every day when the idol is taken through the streets for the perambulation. Better known as Srirangam, it is the foremost of the eight self-manifested shrines (swayam vyakta kshetras) of Lord Vishnu. It is also considered the most important of the 108 main Vishnu temples. Spread across 156 acres on an islet between the rivers Cauvery and Kollidam, the temple has 21 towers that provide a grand view.

Muralidharan Battar, 55, is one among several Battars (a community of priests) serving the temple. “It is something that my family has been doing for generations now,” he says. “I was the first widower to enter the sannidhi (sanctum). When my wife died, I wanted to commit suicide but my father prevailed over me and here I am.” Murali works in Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd. Every day, he travels 60km to be at the temple. “My workplace is nearby and I can take leave and I do it even at loss of pay but I will not miss a day at the temple,” he says.

He keeps talking about a special sensation that he feels every time he walks into the temple. And he even shares his experiences with people through Facebook and listens to their problems and provides solutions. “People come with all kinds of problems such as diseases, court cases and family separation. I give them a spiritual solution for material problems.” His only grouse is that there's very little money in this work. So, he has to work at BHEL to make ends meet. “I love to be near the perumal and work for him but there is not much money in the temple,” he says. “Priests, by and large, are poor except, maybe, in a rich temple. Temples have started becoming crowded only in the past 25 years, which is one reason why I went to work.”

It was during the MGR period that the hereditary system of appointing priests was abolished. But, Murali has got his son Harish into the temple and says it is now his responsibility to carry out the duties and continue the tradition.  Harish, 26, is a mechanical engineer and has done his MBA in finance from Coimbatore. “It took me 12 years to learn the vedas, agamas [a traditional doctrine], decoration, pujas and customs of the temple,” says Harish. He doesn't consider the duty a burden. In fact, he thinks it is a privilege that only a select few enjoy.

Dr V.S. Gounder, : Ph.D in nuclear physics. Serves at the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Tamil Nadu.

Reluctant to talk and almost reclusive, Dr V.S. Gounder has the task of getting the holy water from the Cauvery and distributing it among the devotees. His family has been involved with the temple for years now.  He did his Ph.D in nuclear physics at Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and returned to his native village to take care of his ageing father. He has published 18 papers and is a guide to two doctorate students.

“So what if my colleagues earn more; it does not matter to me,” says Gounder. “It is my duty to serve God, the temple and the nation.”

Ayyapan Kurukal : Head priest, Vaitheeswaran Koil, Tamil Nadu

He travels abroad quite often. In fact, between 1996 and 2001, Ayyapan Kurukal was serving at a Ganesha temple in Malaysia and the next three years, he was at a Murugan temple in Washington. Ayyapan is a second generation priest in his family. His father, Muthukumaraswamy, was the head priest of the Vaitheeswaran Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva. But ill health forced him to quit. Now, the responsibility has fallen on Ayyapan's shoulders.

Through his travels, Ayyapan has realised that most devotees today lack knowledge about the ancient scriptures and rituals. “The devotees often discuss with me Hinduism, the rituals and how they are conducted, and the vedas,” he says. “I have also studied astrology. In the US, even highly educated people are into horoscopes.” He returned to India because “My father wanted me to do puja at the [Vaitheeswaran] temple. Only if I continue to do puja at home, can I perform pujas around the world. We are not allowed to cross the seas but [if we do] we cleanse ourselves with ashta homam which goes on for two hours.”

Ayyapan is happy with his job. “I think my job is the greatest in the world,” he says. “I have two sons and I would want both of them to join this work. But we will have to wait and see.” Though travelling abroad means more money, Ayyapan does not enjoy it much. “I do not like to go abroad,” he says. “After all, money is not everything. It does not stay with us forever.” Like it or not, he travels up to four times a year.

Ayyapan has a brother, who has finished his education and is now settled in Germany. “I, too, was good at studies,” says Ayyapan, did his BCom. But when his brother refused to step into their father's shoes, Ayyapan decided to do it. “My grandfather asked me to take up this profession and I obeyed. I have no regrets,” he says.

T. Ramalinga Deekshitar: Priest at the Chidambaram Temple, Tamil Nadu

When we met him, 73-year-old T. Ramalinga Deekshitar was taking rest at his home, which is literally at the gate of the temple. The room was spare but for a cupboard that contained his books. A well-read man, he did his MA in Sanskrit and doctorate in the study of the 'Chidambaram Temple as recorded in Sanskrit literature'. Showing a copy of the doctoral thesis, he says, “Look at it and be worshipful”.

The only temple that still follows the hereditary tradition of appointing priests, Chidambaram is managed by the Deekshitar community. Ramalinga became a priest to continue the family tradition even if it meant turning down an offer to join Annamalai University as a lecturer. But he does not regret the decision. Apart from performing rituals, Ramalinga makes money by giving radio talks. “While I am maintaining the tradition, people do cross the seven seas,” he says. “Purification is not the issue here. People go abroad for their own satisfaction.”

He has three sons who have followed in their father's footsteps and are fulfilling temple duties. “I am definitely a better man because of all the japams [repetition of mantras] that I do and the pujas that I perform,” says Ramalinga. “More than that, I am content.”

Ramana Dikshitulu : Chief priest at the Tirupati Temple, Andhra Pradesh.

A. Venkata Ramana Dikshitulu is the 37th descendent of Vaikhanasa Archaka Gopinath, who discovered the idol of the moolavirat (idol of the Lord) 1,700 years ago, near the site where the temple was built. “It is our good fortune that our family has, without a break, been in the service of the Lord for 37 generations,” he says. “I took it up to fulfil my commitment to the elders.”

A Ph.D in molecular biology, Ramana Dikshitulu got an invitation from South Carolina University for a lucrative post-doctoral position. But he chose to serve the temple. “When people come to me with their problems, I try to guide them and help them overcome the situation in a balanced way,” he says. “I think that is the role destined for me.” However, he misses working in the lab. “But I'm satisfied because I have done justice to the lineage,” he says. “Also, I treat religion like the way a scientist would. It has got a system which needs understanding and 100 per cent concentration and dedication, too.”

Ramana Dikshitulu believes that being in this profession has definitely made him a better man. He has three sons who are highly educated and yet chose to follow his profession. “We were instructed by our ancestors not to take up any other occupation,” he says. “I have passed on the same principle to my sons, who are committed to continuing the tradition.”


Maha Bharat is a Great land, where you find more Great souls doing Service...


  1. I totally agree with all you had written with a bit of shame that I could not do anything for my religion. Probably it is God's will. I dont analyse anything in my life. It is God's will. All I do is chanting His name as told by my acharya.

  2. Thanks sir, A great post.. have sure changed my thought and approach to those in service to Lord - Great Souls.. noble minds : Malavika

  3. What a quality writing. I cannot but agree and appreciate the views expressed by you - Mohana

  4. Dear Sir (s),

    Adyen Rajan at the age of 53 what to start doing some kind of service to Vaishnava temples. Due to various reasons, I am zero in day to day activities as aBrahmin. Am I qualified to become as aArxhagar, if trained. If so, kindly suggest me the right person or location where I can contact?