Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXVI No. 20, February 1-15, 2017
Outside Ravi’s house I meet ‘King’ Bala. Bala is probably thirty, is almost six feet tall, has a velvety black complexion and the largest eyes I have ever seen on a man- the whites of those thickly fringed eyes seem to stretch back to the Milky Way. After Ravi introduces us, I ask Bala, “Why are you called King?”
“Every thug needs a moniker, and since I am big and was generally lording it over everyone in my area, people began to call me ‘King’. It sounded nice. So I stuck with it.”
“So you are a proper rowdy?”
“Not any more,” Bala says hastily.”I used to be a tough in my teens. We lived in the Housing Board colony around here and I was sort of bossing over people there. When I turned eighteen I became an auto driver. One day Ravi saar got into my auto. He was arranging for a funeral and we had to go to a lot of places, arranging a lot of things. I was very impressed with the way he did things and the way he spoke. Then, on the trip back, he talked to me and suggested that I drive for him on a regular basis. It seemed a good idea and that is what I have been doing ever since. He made me see how I was wasting my life. So I gave up all the stuff I was doing earlier and found that I was perfectly happy without it! I make a lot of trips to get all the goods he needs from outside Chennai. But I’d be willing to do anything he asks me to. I see how he helps people. I never mind when I have to suddenly pitch in as a pallbearer at a funeral.”
A DMK fan, Bala says he has no interest in politics as such. “I used to love the way Kalaignar and all the other big orators spoke.”
Does he see a lot of violence in West Mambalam? “There used to be a lot of thieving and a bit of violence many years ago. All that has come down now. It’s actually one of the safest places in Chennai. And one other thing—there is hardly any friction between people here on the basis of caste or religion. People live quite harmoniously.”
“That’s actually true,” says Mohammed Malik of Malik Betel Stores, opposite Ayodhya Mandapam on Arya Gowda Road. It’s a tiny shop selling several types of betel leaves and betelnut, and things like honey, rosewater, incense sticks, sandalwood powder, turmeric powder and everything else that is required for puja and anointment in a Hindu temple. We supply all the puja items for the Murugan temple around the corner,” Malik says. “My father used to be here before me and there has never been an instance of violence here in the name of religion.” West Mambalam has a church and a mosque but these seem to co-exist peacefully with the myriad temples in the area.
Across the street from Malik’s shop, one can see the ornamental stone facade of the Ayodhya Ashwamedha Maha-mandapam. Inside, one finds cement flooring and an asbestos roof. Like elsewhere in Mambalam, here too the interior is stark. The Tanjore painting of Rama Pattabhishekam that is worshipped here, along with bronze idols, is placed on a dais behind iron grill doors. Steel foldable chairs have been placed in neat rows to seat all those who come every evening at five to chant Vishnu Sahasranamam. This chanting has been going on every evening without fail for very many years. “Even during last year’s floods when West Mambalam was badly affected and water came up to the dais here, at least four or five of us were here every evening chanting the Sahasranamam, standing in knee deep water,” recalls S.Thiagarajan, a long time member of the Sri Rama Samaj that runs the Mandapam. “ Even the man who works the mike knows the Sahasranamam by heart now!”
People are drifting in by ones and twos now, taking their places in the rows of seats, bringing out their prayer books from their bags, chanting with their neighbours. Thiagarajan observes, “You will notice they are all middle aged. It is as much a social activity for them as a religious one. When the children come back from work, the parents leave for the mandapam. They stay on for a little while after the chanting, discussing their personal problems with their friends. The Samaj provides prasadam every evening and the people wait to taste that as well.”
The Sri Rama Samaj was started in 1954 by K.Subra-maniam, a long time resident of Mambalam and a staunch Rama bhakta. The Samaj was begun mainly to celebrate Sri Rama Navami (March-April) as a ten day festival with pujas, homams, discourses and cutcheries. Originally it functioned from a thatch roofed place on Bhaktavatsalam Street, right across the road from where the Mandapam is now. Srinivasa Rao, a reporter for The Hindu and K.S’s neighbour suggested that they collect donations to finance the celebration and the Samaj members went from door to door collecting even the smallest donation (Rs.1) and issuing receipts for them (This practice continues even today.
Just before Sri Rama Navami, the members hit the streets handing out invitations for the wedding of Rama and Seetha and collecting anything people are able to give them.) In 1958 the Samaj was registered. Much later, Srinivasa Iyer, a real estate man, found the four ground plot on Arya Gowda Road and it was bought for Rs 5400. At this point, the late seer of the Kanchi Mutt, Chandra-sekharendra Saraswathy, while on a visit to the Public Health Centre, was persuaded to visit the Samaj. He walked up and down the newly purchased plot and then sat down at one spot and began to meditate. “It is on this spot that we built the dais where the Rama picture and idols are now kept,” says Thiagarajan. “This piece of land augurs well for your Society”, said the seer after his meditation. In fact, he returned for several visits over the next few years, each time suggesting fresh activities and improvements. “It was Periyaval who named the place Ayodhya Ashwamedha Maha Manda-pam,” Samaj members say. When the shed-like structure was built on this ground the Rama Navami celebrations took off on a big scale. Perhaps because of the Samaj’s association with the Kanchi seer, the best musicians and musical -discourse orators performed in the Mandapam.“M.S has sung here, Sembai, MLV, you name it, they have all performed here,” says Thiagarajan. It was also the seer who suggested, -after some years, that the Samaj build Gnana Vapi, a place where, for very little cost, people could conduct their funerary rites and obsequies, -especially those who could not afford to do them at home.
The Samaj acquired land from the Sarada Vidyalaya, behind T.Nagar police station and Gnana vapi was opened in 1983. The Samaj also runs a wedding hall, Mithilapuri Kalyana Mandapam and a Matriculation school, Sri Sita Ram Vidyalaya. These are said to be run on a non-profitable basis and collect low fees.
Murmurs about the Samaj’s finances led to the HR& CE department of the state government making a bid to bring the Samaj and its properties under its governance in 2014. There was some minor chest thumping by RSS volunteers and Samaj members outside the Manda-pam. But being a pacific lot on the whole they chose to take the legal route and the bid by the HR&CE was stayed.