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Miscellanea / A Ganesh Nadar

The head priest revolts

A Ganesh Nadar continues his series on life in a small village in southern India

The Bathakrasamy temple is at the east end of the village. It is located in the paddy fields and is about half a mile from the centre of the village.

The temple compound is huge and the idols are equally gigantic. The temple priest may be around eighty years old. Some say he is seventy-five, others that he is ninety. He resembles Julius Caesar in my school literature textbook. He is bald, has brown eyes and you can see the gold in his teeth when he smiles.

When he is in a story telling mood he relates the legend of the temple. A toddytapper was on top of a palm tree. He heard a voice calling him, 'Give me some neera.' The toddytapper came down, but he couldn't find anybody.

The next day the same thing happened. On the third day when the toddytapper heard the same voice asking for neera he lost his temper and started screaming: 'If you want neera or toddy come and drink it, don't test my patience.' He started brandishing his knife menacingly.

The voice laughed. 'I'll drink the neera, but only with a meal. On Tuesday night I want you to sacrifice a chicken and cook a meal for me. I'll eat with you.' 'First you tell me who you are,' demanded the toddytapper. 'You may call me Bathakaraswamy,' said the voice and vanished. In Tamil Pathai means path, Karaiis by the side and Swamyis God. The confused villager returned home.

On Tuesday evening as ordained he sacrificed a chicken, cooked a meal and waited with a pot of neera.

Bathakaraswamy came and ate a little, drank a little and said 'Now you can eat the rest.' 'It is too much, I can't eat this alone.' 'Don't worry, two more people are coming.' 'But will they eat with me?' 'Of course they will eat with you, Every year I want you to do the same on this very day, build a temple here for me, I'll look after your village.' Then he vanished. Two people did come down the path and shared the man's meal. They were Thevars from the neighbouring village.

Unlike other temples in this village, to this day when the temple festival is held in September-October, Thevars come and pray here.

Sometimes the head priest claims it was his great grandfather who was the toddytapper and sometimes he says it was his great great grandfather who was the toddy tapper. Nobody questions him.

It started off as a small temple. Over the years as the village grew in prosperity the temple also grew in size. Two other features distinguish this temple from other temples in the village. The first is that on the day of the temple festival the crowd is composed of 20 per cent villagers and 80 per cent outsiders.

Most of the outsiders are unknown to the villagers. If you ask them why they come, they reply, "My ancestors came, so I come." Nobody knows what links them to this deity. If you ask the priest he will nod sagely.

The other distinguishing feature here is that there is no temple hundial or iron safe to stock cash offerings. Every other temple in the village has a prominent hundial. Here, if you want to make offerings you have to give it to the priest in a pot he brings specifically from home.

On the day of the temple festival the priest used to wear ten gold rings. His pot used to overflow with cash offerings. The villagers watched amazed, then in consternation.

'We built the temple, we whitewash it every year, we spend on the festival and he takes all the collections' was the general rumbling. Finally a meeting was called and it was decided to install a hundial.

The priest said, "you must not install a hundial." The villagers became angry. 'Who is he to tell us what to do in our village?' they asked. The villagers installled a hundial against the priest's wishes.

One evening the priest along with his son collected a few of the huge bells, lamps and other items from the temple, loaded them in a bullock cart and went home.

Every Tuesday, the villagers gathered at the temple to pray. That particular Tuesday the temple priest wasn't around. The following Tuesday one of the villagers, M Ramasundram, cleaned the temple with the help of his servants. There was no sign of the priest.

After the poojain the temple the priest used to sit on one side. The villagers used to sit on another side. Then the priest would call the villagers one by one. You could tell him your problems and the Spirit of God would reply. If the priest did not call you, you could not ask him questions.

It reached the ears of the villagers that the priest was now conducting these question-answers sessions in his home and quite a few people were going there.

The villagers were flabbergasted. 'He is calling our God to his house to answer questions - blasphemy,' was the unanimous opinion, but nobody knew what to do.

A meeting was called in the Bathakaraswamy temple complex. Most of the villagers turned up. Everybody was vociferous in condemning the priest. ''See that bell is missing, this lamp is missing.''

It was decided that two villagers would go and ask the priest to return all the temple belongings. Ganesh offered to go. "You will go there and start an argument with the priest, you don't go," admonished the elders. Yogarajan offered to drive Rajarathinam's Contessa Classic and one elder villager went with him.

After the car left it was agreed that Rajarathinam and MRG would do the talking.

The Contessa came back. Everybody was surprised when the priest got down. "We asked him for the things, he said 'I'll come' " announced Yogarajan.

Rajarathinam welcomed the priest with respect and asked him to sit. The priest greeted him and sat down. He then surveyed the villagers. Everybody sat down quickly. The man no doubt had style.

Rajarathinam began, "This is our temple, we have appointed you as the priest, I hope you understand that." "Yes," agreed the priest. "Then why did you remove the temple belongings?" asked MRG. "I was one who collected them," the priest replied.

Lamps, bells generally come in the form of donations. If you don't have a child you go to the priest and ask him for a heir. He will say, "I will give you an heir this year but you must buy a bell for the temple." Once the villager gets a kid, joyous, he buys a bell for the temple.

That's why the priest took credit for all the things in the temple. Anyway that didn't deter the villagers. "You have the right to collect on behalf of the temple, you have no right to take it home, your son has sold bells in Eral, we have proof," alleged Rajarathinam.

"I have toiled for the temple throughout my life," said the priest. "You have also benefited a lot from the temple," retorted Rajarathinam.

The priest agreed to return everything he had taken from the temple. His son was warned against selling anything that belonged to the temple. This time he was let off with a warning.

Then the second act commenced. "Why have you not performed pooja for the last month? asked MRG. "He is answering questions at home," said Alagesan. Rajarathinam asked him to keep quiet.

"For generations, members of my family have been the priests here, there never was a hundial, the offerings are for us," said the priest.

"In those days, there weren't much offerings, anyway you have to change with the times, the government is putting hundials in all the temples, why can't we install one in our temple?" asked Rajarathinam.

"If somebody gives you money you can keep it. Some people give you gold rings, you can keep them, but bells and lamps must be kept in the temple," said MRG. "What about the collection in thehundial?" the priest asked. "That's for the village," said Rajarathinam, adding, "We will give you 20 per cent of the hundial collection." The priest thought a while and then said, "okay." Everybody breathed a sigh of relief.

The priest performed the pooja. Villagers rang the bells. He then distributed holy ash. The villagers dispersed happily. The priest was back in business.

Ganesh Nadar

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