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Vol. XXIX No. 8, August 1-15, 2019

Better facilities needed for Athi Varadar

by A Special Correspondent

Tamil Nadu is known as the Land of Temples for a reason; the state is dotted with temples and hardly a fortnight goes by without a temple festivity taking place. Tens of thousands of devotees flock to these festivals, and while they brace themselves to negotiate uncomfortably large crowds, safety or access to basic facilities have never been a major concern. Indeed, this year’s Thaipoosam arrangements at Palani were reportedly exemplary, with the district administration working closely with the HR & CE, police, fire and rescue, health & other departments to ensure that pilgrims have a memorable spiritual experience. So, the fatal lack of planning for the Athi Varadar Darshan at Varadaraja Perumal temple, Kanchipuram, came as a nasty shock to devotees.

Per a longstanding tradition, the Athi Varadar idol is kept immersed in the temple’s Ananthasaras tank and brought out for public worship only once every 40 years. On July 1 this year, Lord Athi Varadar was raised again and the elusive idol is on display until mid-August. Extensive media coverage spread the word far & wide, attracting millions of devotees – numbers unlike anything the temple has seen before. However, ground reports point to a lack of planning & arrangement to safely manage the crowds. Vehicles are not allowed access beyond a point and people, including the elderly, often have to struggle to make their way to the temple entrances. Darshan queues snake around the temple for kilometres, with devotees often waiting for six hours or more to catch a momentary glimpse of Athi Varadar. Devotees also complain that they don’t have access to basic facilities like water, toilets or food; for instance, just six bio-toilets have been installed for their use, and they’re not properly maintained. Things took a sombre turn when reports emerged of 4 persons losing their lives due to breathlessness while waiting in the queue.

Even as the state government works to make amends & fix issues, one wonders where they dropped the ball, despite having sufficient funds to make the necessary arrangements. The slip-ups point to a grave underestimation of the number of expected visitors – after all, the event has never received so much media coverage before, traditional or social. It also looks like the administration was caught off-guard by the scale of planning involved; Athi Varadar this year attracted devotees from all over the country, not just Tamil Nadu. The basic two-system darshan in place – a free darshan queue & a single paid darshan queue for donor pass & ticket holders alike – was not effective in rallying the crowds, either.

A few checks could have greatly improved the experience for devotees. A multi-tier ticketing solution would have helped organize and mobilize crowds in an orderly fashion. Special arrangements ought to have been made for the elderly and parents with infants – for instance, the number of wheelchairs at the venue seemed hardly enough (this correspondent could see only a couple, at the entrance). Temporary structures could have been put up for the comfort of the devotees – a roof to protect them from the rain and sun, and sturdy queue stanchions, for instance. That there simply needs to be more portable toilets & drinking water stations goes without saying.

A couple of solutions are already reportedly underway, which will hopefully fix a few problems. The administration is considering shifting the idol to a more spacious venue, and ticket slabs might be expanded. There are reports that a new queue has been added for senior citizens and devotees requiring the use of a wheelchair – where there are no attendants to push the wheelchair, the organizers are stepping in to help. The authorities are also proactively urging vulnerable persons such as the very elderly, pregnant women or parents with infants, to avoid the Athi Varadar darshan. It might be well to consider expanding the appeal to VIP pilgrims from out-of-state, who, with their special needs, contribute additional stress and disruption on an already strained infrastructure.

Here’s hoping that the rest of the Athi Varadar fest sees better days, for devotees and administration alike.

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