Was it the end for me vis-à-vis Srirangam? The last of our relations, a dear uncle, sold his huge ancestral house and moved to Chennai. Many in the family always found the house to be a delightfully hospitable base in Srirangam for visiting the huge and holy temple of Lord Ranganatha, besides enjoying the time with my uncle’s affectionate folks.
Strictly speaking, it was not so. A cousin-sister of mine I’m fond of is also living in Srirangam. And, topping it all, very fortuitously our son-in-law happens to hail from Srirangam!
So the connection endures!
Though my cousin would be more than happy to put us up for a few days, during the last couple of visits we chose to stay, with grateful thanks, in our sambandhi’s house, presently unoccupied, equipped with all basic amenities for a comfortable stay, also conveniently located not too far from the temple.
It is a different world out there. No TV, no newspapers or mags, no malls, no traffic snarls, abutting houses, sittng squat, lining the broad streets – trodden by Azhvar’s, Acharya’s and other holy men for over a thousand years – with an occasional vehicle passing by. Can’t remember ever seeing a traffic light in the inner parts of the town. What one sees most are pilgrims – simple folks, their faith unequalled – on the bustling main street rushing towards the temple or leisurely making their way back to their parked buses, happy over their accomplishment, some stopping for coffee and snacks in chotu eateries and some looking to buy mementos from the shops.
Our routine was to set out in the morning by 8-30, have a nice south-indian breakfast at Madappalli served on banana leaf and hasten to join the queue for free or paid darshan at the main sanctum. In about 60 to 90 minutes, we would be (pushed) out after a mere precious minute or two before the Lord.
Achieved big, we would now proceed to have darshan of His consort, at Her own temple located within the same complex.
On the way to and back we would also go to a number of smaller shrines set on the inner perimeter of the huge complex. They are too numerous, some 50+, to be covered all in one visit.
We would return to our place by 12 or 1 noon, thoroughly exhausted, not failing to appreciate the sculptures to be found all around – so much so I was once taken for an antique smuggler looking for a good pick!
Lunch would be again at Madappalli or it would be prasadams of tamarind or curd rice bought at the temple.
Resting for a couple of hours and finishing some chores, we would set out again by about 5, this time for a shorter visit. On some evenings we made it to any of those other temples outside the complex, of comparable vintage, some well outside Srirangam reached by town bus or on hired transport.
A routine we repeated every day of our stay, not getting bored one bit, not wanting anything else. Who cared what happened to the world outside?
The small shrines unfortunately draw only a handful of devotees unlike the bigger ones. Some of them, not readily accessible from the circumambulatory pathway fare even worse – you’ll find them only if you go looking for or you have vowed to visit every shrine in the complex.
We were told – not verified – the archakars (priests) in charge are paid very meagre salary; nothing at all according to some. They are sent some prasadams from the temple kitchen. Otherwise they are left to survive on the plate collection.
We also heard these shrines were at one time scattered all around Srirangam. During the times of invaders – 15th/16th century – overrunning the town, these were relocated inside the temple complex, but managed by the original owners. Even today some of them are in the hands of their descendants.
Be that may, these archakars remain as poor country cousins of those serving in the larger temples of the complex.
For our part, I took care to carry wads of ten-rupee notes for offering at least a tenner every time we went to a shrine during our stay. Admittedly a mere flea-bite, but that was as far as I could stretch given the numerous places to visit over the days.
In our visits, one particular shrine and its archakar, R, caught our attention. In his forties, I guessed, he came across as a guile-less person who went about with simple sincerity attending to those few devotees who came in from time to time for darshan. His non-hustling ways moved me to break the norms and offer at the least a hundred every time we went to his shrine, making it as often as we could.
One day, he was not at his station. I made inquiries and learnt about his antecedents. He had left his job elsewhere, coming here at someone’s request. Presently he was away attending to a sick wife – they were childless. Felt sorry for him. Luckily, he returned in a couple of days – he was his usual busy self with no hint of his troubles, giving the opportunity I yearned to offer a more substantial sum on the plate. But all I had on my person at the instant, sadly, was not more than a couple of thousands to give.
Don’t know how it is with you folks, paucity of funds and a sense of spending over the budget are never felt more acutely than when I’m travelling.
May be if I had his bank details, I could help him with more on returning to my base, I thought. This did not happen for some reason I’m unable to recall.
We left Srirangam – and R – as always with a heavy heart, returning to the world we knew and lived.
Fast forward a couple of years.
A few weeks ago, was chatting with Rag now at peace with life after making far more than a pile in his business in Chennai, philanthropy presently his main preoccupation.
He was sharing with me how, in this time of pandemic, he was helping with funds some staff serving the Lord and His temple at the Srirangam day-in day-out from close. Why Srirangam? Well, Rag was born and brought up here.
‘Does that mean you visit the place often?’
‘No, it is all done sitting in Chennai thru my contacts. Why, you want anything from there? Tell me, I can arrange.’
With guilt and shame, I must admit, at the mention of Srirangam, instead of Lord Ranganatha, R popped up in my head.
That’s when I told him about R. And I was curious to know how he was doing and if he was clear of his troubles.
Rag knew lots of people, not R. No issues, he said. He would find out from the sketchy details I had given him.
I left it at that.
A couple of days later, Rag told me he had located R thru his contacts. A sum of Rs 10,000 was personally handed over to him by his contact. And here was a snapshot of him.
I was aghast. Felt guilty and happy at once.
Guilty for causing, though unwittingly, an expense by no means a trifle, to Rag. ‘No bother,’ he assured me magnanimously.
And happy for R. So what if I was not the one who did the good deed.
To think Rag did it unsolicited on a mere casual inquiry! Bless him – he had not even met R and knew nothing about him…Strange indeed are the ways of the Lord in helping His.
Well, I consider myself no less blessed, for good Rag is my cousin! ‘Not all with money are rich, not all without are poor,‘ as they say!