Vivekananda &c.

Thu May 7 11:24:27 EDT 1998

Saw this in newsgroup soc.culture.indian.
What is going on? What a change from PeriyavaaL's days?

N. Ganesan


Subject:      Nagereshu Kanchi
From:         Mohan Gopalakrishnan <leoroar at>
Date:         1998/01/31
Message-ID:   <34D3B9A7.292DD896 at>
Newsgroups:   soc.culture.tamil,soc.culture.indian
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Please Note: I have kept the name of the people involved in this story
hidden as the goal is not to hurt anybody. Some of this is a expression
of frustration and some just a story that I share with you.

     I have just returned from India. I had made great plans to see very
many places. Unfortunately bad planning, unavailability of Railway
tickets and an acute attack of gastroentritis confined me to Madras(nay
Chennai) and its suburbs.
  I had never been to Kanchi. Strange for a Brahmin boy raised in Madras
for all my life. Well it so happened that everytime a visit to Kanchi
was made, I was unavailable for various reasons. I had decided to change
it this time. Since all other places were closed to me, I planned a
visit to Kanchi. With a little coaxing I convinced my dad to come with
me to see this ancient Pallava town and capital and home of a thousand
temples. The city of
Kanchipuram also called Kanchi by the tamils.
   Kanchi for those of you who do not know is about 70 Kms out of Madras
and very close to another temple town of Sriperumbudur(famous for the
Assasination of Rajiv Gandhi ) and is a good hour and a half by car. So
I decided to hire a tourist taxi from Madras to Kanchi. It worked out to
be about 1500 rupees(circa 40 dollars) for the entire journey. Not bad
really. Since we began our journey a little late, it was decided that we

should make our first halt at the Kamakshi Amman temple, since temples
close for lunch and do not reopen until 4 PM.
   It was nearly past noon and very near the closing time when we
arrived at the Kamakshi Amman temple. Scared that we may be locked out
we ran into the temple to find out to our releif that the temple was far
from closing this afternoon as they were conducting some special pooja.
I had a video camera bag and wanted to shoot in the temple. Afraid that
I may offend someone, I asked dad if he thought it was appropriate if I
can shoot. Suddenly a voice from Behind said I could not shoot the
Moolasthanam(Sanctum Santorum). I turned around and found a gentleman in
his late 50's or early 60's spelling temple policy to me.
   So I asked him what I could shoot and what I could not. He glanced at
me and said...OK you come with me with an authority of officialdom and
showed me a few spots that I could shoot at and started playing the role
of a tourist guide. I should say that he was not a bad tourist guide at
all and went into some depth to explain the logic behind the temple and
also other sites in Kanchi. He also took me via a special route and got
me Darshan which would have otherwise entailed a very long wait. Later
he explained to me that he was a "Special VIP tourist guide", I dont
know what that meant. In any case I knew that it meant an expenditure of
some sorts and rather than keeping the guy guessing I gave him a hundred
rupees for his services. My dad standing next to me remarked that he
must have stared a fox in the face when he woke up today.
  Balaji that was his name, gathered quite a few details about my
background in the course of the tourist guiding that he did for me. I
think in a moment of weakness I might have let out everything there was
about to me. India does this thing to you where any sense of private you
have simply disappears after a while. Well one of the things that Balaji
gathered was that I was a Brahmin and realized that like all good
Brahmins my next stop would be the Sankara Mutt. He asked me a few times
if I had my sacred thread on and after getting a reply in the
affirmative decided he would help me further. He said go and see Mr XYZ
who runs the affairs of the mutt, tell him Balaji sent you and also
explain that you are from the USA and they will take you straight to
periyaval(the mutt head Sr).
  I thought it must be a joke, but I decided more out of curiosity than
anything else to do some name dropping. Dad and I went and bought some
offering for Periyaval and walked
into the portals of the Sankara mutt. As we walked in with Video camera
in hand, we immediately attracted attention. The standard question
"Neenga Yaaru" was asked. Then I decided to follow Balaji's cue and
explain that he had sent me to XYZ mama and that I was from the US.
Suddenly the minor mutt official who was sitting in his chair jumped and
shouted out to someone call XYZ mama. Soon XYZ mama a middle aged
gentlemen clad in a Veshti and bare waist up, smelling of high grade
scented tobacco showed up. He took charge of us. I was clad in my Veshti
and Shirt as was my dad. He requested us that since we are going to see
periyaval that we should remove our shirts. I asked him why, and he
remarked that it was the way things are done here and also it would
become very clear that we were brahmins when Periyaval see's us and be
able to talk to us more freely.
    Having read Viveka Chudamani (the classic work of sankara the
founder of this mutt) it seemed strange that it mattered that I was a
Brahmin, but being in Rome you do as Romans do and hence I decided that
I will simply follow without questioning. I saw a big long line of
people and was taken past that. My US of A status and a desire to grow
the mutt overseas apparently gave me that status of cutting accross
lines. I was finally taken to the Mutt head (senior) to a back room. The
mutt head was seated in a window distributing Prasadam to the long line
of people who I saw while being whisked to this room. Suddenly the
periyaval(called Pudhu Periyaval) turned his attention those of us
inside the room. A gentleman got up and spoke to him. He must have been
some high official or something in Government. He was telling the mutt
head that he wanted a MCA admission for his son and that he(Periyaval)
should do something about it. I did not follow the rest of the
conversation as I was a bit exhausted by that time. I was also feeling
pretty weird and confused. maybe the intoxication with Sankara and what
I was seing at the mutt was confusing me. Finally XYZ mama introduced me
to Periyaval. I asked permission to film him and was granted that. Then
he asked me if I knew someone in the Sankara Mutt in california and I
remarked in the negative. He muttered some intructions to XYZ mama, who
then took us out of the room and said that he would take us to Bala
Periyaval(the junior Mutt head) in the afternoon. We were off to have
lunch at the local Saravana Bhavan. I had mixed feelings about coming
back in the afternoon. However since I had promised I decided I would be
   Soon after lunch we decided to set out to see one of the temples that
was open in the afternoon. This was the ancient Kailasanathar temple
which was a magnificient piece of Pallava Architecture. No visitor to
Kanchi should ever miss this. The temple is now controlled by the
archieology dept. It was a beautiful day to be in Kanchi. It was the day
of Siva, the day of the Star Arudra in the month of
Margasirsha(markhazhi in tamil) the birthday of Lord Siva. It was also
full moon, the day the Secret of the universe is revealed each year in
chidambaram and the day they do Giri Pradakshanam in Tiruvannamalai. So
a visit to any siva temple is Auspicious.
   There are five siva temples which represent the five forces of
nature. As I recollect they are Tiruvanaikaval(near Trichy) for Water,
Sri Kalahasti in AP for Air, Tiruvannamalai for fire, Sri Ekambereswarar
in Kanchi for earth. Chidambaram I think represents ether but since I am
not sure of that I will not comment. It is auspicious to be in any of
these temples on the day of the star Arudra and I was to be there in
Ekambareswarar temple on Arudra. Strange I had planned a trip to
tiruvannamalai to do giri pradakshanam or to chidambaram to have Arudra
Darshanam but I finally wound up in Kanchi unmindful of the fact I was
in one of five siva holy sights at Kanchi on this day.
  So much for the diversion, at 4 PM as planned we had returned to the
Sankara Mutt. XYZ mama was taking a group of people for coffee. He asked
us to wait and we sat near one of the pillars of a new mandapam that was
coming up. A few minutes into relaxation a gentleman with a Namam(caste
mark red..) on his forehead comes to us and decides to delve into our
life history. With a sense of helplessness my dad reveals to him who we
are and what we do and where his children are settled. He the on his own
reels out the story of his life and then after a while tired of the new
aquaintance he retires. Then another gentleman in a tuft sitting along
side one of the other pillars approaches us and we repeat the same
process with him. I felt like I should carry a cyclostyled sheet
containing all relevant details about my family life and add an appendix
of all the Indian folks I know in the Bay area(A question that comes
soon is do u know my Nephew so and so who is also somewhere near San
Fransisco....He is very famous because he plays Kabbadi in San Fransisco
or whatever).
   Finally XYZ mama returns. He takes us to see Bala Periyaval. Bala
Periyavaal is this youngish swamiji. He is fluent it seems in multiple
languages. A DIG or some such major Police official had come from Assam.
So he was given first go before all of us. His holiness spoke to the Man
in hindi and asked him a few question. We were all asked to keep a
distance from the swami lest we pollute him. Strange I thought ascetics
were liberated souls and Madi and Aacharam were only things for the
world of Maya. Again Sankara confuses me..should I beleive his writings
are the way to live or emulate his mutt which is quite the opposite. It
is deep rooted in everything worldly. Or is there something that I dont
   In any case the meeting ended, and XYZ mama decided to take me to his
chambers. It was nice and cool in the basement where he took me. XYZ
mama is a tall chap, he is always bare chested like all sideys in the
mutt are. He sat down in front of us and gave us a bunch of pamphlets. I
fully understood that coz his main work was to promote the mutt and it
was well within his right to collect money or spread the word or get
work done through us. I appreciated the fact that he wanted youngster
involvement. However in the process of doing all this the cause i.e. to
keep the teachings of Sankara alive and going, has long been dropped by
the wayside. If you came to discuss the Viveka Chudamani I am sorry
wrong place. This is like a cosmopolitan club for South Indian Brahmins
and some other high officials. Coming back to XYZ mama, the conversation
continued until it came to his personal life. It is then that he
described how useful the mutt has been to get his children settled in
life. XYZ mama has a regular government job. Thanks to his connections
within the mutt he seldom goes there. Instead he spends his time in the
mutt hobnobbing with the high and mighty. It definitely has served him
   The last stop in Kanchi( I wanted to do more, but the fear of hitting
the Indian Roads at night prevented me) was the Siva Temple which I have
described earlier. It is called the Ekambareswarar temple, named for the
famous mango tree, 2000 years old which still stands and 4 different
types of mangoes grow on its four branches. A wonderful site and
something all should see. I like going to Siva temples as they tend to
be non commercial. So I thought until I came to this one. With Priest
after Priest hounding us for the next level of prayers for a little
extra something, I came out very disillusioned. Maybe the priest lot
should be cared for better. Why blame them for wanting to make money. We
all do.


  "A Book of Verses underneath the Bough
   A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread, -- and Thou
   Beside me singing in the Wilderness
   oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!"
            -The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
             (An Edward FitzGerald Translation)


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