Thursday, July 19, 2012


I first met Dipa in the lobby of my hotel in Port Blair. She was in the Andamans volunteering with an NGO, teaching young children English. She was bubbly, cheerful and full of life. In fact, it took me a while to realise she was visually challenged. She was very confident and moved around, using her other senses to guide her. I was so impressed by her positive attitude that we soon became good friends.
Photo Courtesy: Royal Blind Society
Mornings were busy at work and in the evenings we strolled along the beach, talking about every topic under the sun. I told her that I planned to visit the Cellular Jail over the weekend before moving back to Chennai. She told me that she too had wanted to visit many a time, but had not had the opportunity to do so.

I was excited. My visit to Port Blair was never complete without a visit to the Cellular Jail. For hours I strolled around the grounds, often with tears in my eyes, going over the various symbols that reminded us of the great struggle for Independence. To me, Kalapani as the Cellular Jail was often called, is a great temple of sacrifice of innumerable freedom fighters who got us the precious gift of Independence.

I asked Dipa if she would go along with me - she gladly agreed. Most of the evenings during my stay in Port Blair, had been spent narrating stories about my travel to different temples. Dipa was always a keen  listener, asking a lot of questions to understand better. I felt my skills in story-telling improving, as I made the description very detailed and user-friendly for Dipa to understand.

Our plan to visit Kalapani was made. We decided to leave after lunch so that we could look around the jail and then stay back for the Sound and Light Show at 5.30 pm.

The day arrived for our trip, and we were very excited as we got into the car. Once we alighted, I tried to explain the entrance to Dipa. I drew a semi-circle in her palm to describe the arched entrance and told her there were towers on either side."A tower?" she enquired. I held up my hand and ran her fingers over it. I told her a tower was similar in shape but as high as ten people standing on top of one another. Dipa's response made me realise how easy it is for us to talk about various things and how difficult it was for someone like Dipa to visualise. Dipa held on to my elbow, as she bent touched the ground with her right hand.   " We stand today where our brave freedom fighters had put up with all forms of inhuman treatment, just for us" I said.

We walked into the sunny courtyard. From where we stood, the jail looked like a regal British building. There was a central watch tower with seven arms. Each arm of three storeys, was of varying length with a number of cells. I described the construction to Dipa. She now understood the watch tower and its arms and I was glad she did. Dipa stopped, listening to the excited blabber of children and tourists as they passed us by.

The construction of the jail had begun in 1896 and was completed in 1906. The complex had a total of 696 cells each one of them measuring 13 feet 6 inches in length and 7 feet 6 inches in width with grilled doors. Each one of these small cells contained a prisoner in solitary confinement. No communication was possible at all between prisoners. When I told her these details, Dipa wanted to go into the cells and take a look. We moved up the narrow stone staircase, and went into the first storey. The cells occupied by famous personalities had their names mentioned against them. I stopped at the cell of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, popularly known as Veer Savarkar. Sentenced to fifty years of imprisonment, he had not even known his brother Baburao Savarkar was also in the same jail for almost a period of two years. 
Inside the Cell occupied by Veer Savarkar
I took a picture of Dipa inside the cell, measuring its length and breadth with her outstretched arms, asking me to describe the corridor outside, the bare walls with a couple of alcoves and the eerie air around the place. She wanted to take a picture of me and so I helped her do so. When I told her she had shot a perfect picture, her face broke into a broad grin. 

We went out into the exhibition wing, containing statues of the prisoners(primarily freedom fighters) and the treatment meted out to them.

The chains that had once adorned the bodies of the prisoners were now placed on the statues. An iron ring around the neck connected to chains around the back, and across the torso ended in cuffs around the ankles. These chains weighing 3-5 kgs had to be worn by the prisoners while performing tasks like extracting oil (replacing cattle)and cutting trees. Dipa's face grew red with anger. I sought permission from the official nearby to let Dipa touch and feel the chains. " This is so inhuman" she said. " After all, all that the prisoners were doing was fighting for freedom, that is rightfully ours", she said.

The next set of statues was even more painful to witness. A semi-naked man was strapped by the hands and waist to an iron stand and a guard was seen whipping him. Tears ran down my cheeks as I described this to Dipa. She wanted to know what a whip was and when I told her it was a thin piece of leather, that was used to punish people, she shuddered. Both of us stood still , thinking of the inhuman tortures our freedom fighters had undergone. After describing several other similar scenes to Dipa, we walked out to the area used to hang prisoners. 

It is here that several prisoners who had either protested against their arrest or tried to escape, had been hanged to death. Dipa ran her fingers on the ropes, and even asked me to put the noose around her neck, to show her how people were hanged.

There were wooden trenches outside these compartments through which the bodies of the hanged prisoners were dragged out and disposed. When I described this to Dipa, she was absolutely horrified. "Oh no! I don't want to hear any more...did not the prisoners deserve to be treated with dignity?" she exclaimed.

We sat down for a few minutes, sipping cold water. The afternoon sun was beating down on us, and we were exhausted not just by the heat, but also by the emotions. After some time, we walked up to the watch tower. I walked behind Dipa, guiding her up the narrow stairs. "Raise your leg, one more step to go!" Dipa followed my instructions and we were soon in the watch tower, a strong breeze embracing us. 

The seven sprawling arms lay spread out from the central tower. The arms were designed in such a way that the guards could easily shoot any prisoner trying to escape. Dipa and I walked down the arm, the breeze on our faces, as I described the view - the swaying coconut palms, and the ocean beyond.

Our last stop was at the flame of freedom - Swathantrya Jyothi - a tribute to all those selfless souls who lost their lives in the struggle for freedom. We stood for a couple of minutes, paying homage to the great men.

We then moved to the lawns were people were slowly trickling in, for the sound and light show. Chairs were arranged in a semi-circle in the center of the corridor, giving the audience a complete view of the prison complex. We moved to the first row, and took seats in the centre.Dipa listened to the sound of children squealing, and chiding parents asking them to sit down.

Soon, the show began. 

Video Courtesy: You Tube

As the sounds (and lights) moved around the jail complex, we were transported to another world. This show was ideal for Dipa to visualize how things had been at the Cellular Jail during the freedom struggle. The audience who were laughing and talking had grown silent, as they heard the sounding of guns and the slogans raised by the freedom fighters when they were beaten ruthlessly. We remained seated in our chairs even as the crowd trickled out...the song sung by our freedom fighters "Naa Sahenge Atyachaar" still echoing in our ears!

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Saturday, July 14, 2012

A treasure trove waiting to be explored!

Tiruparkadal has been closely linked with Aalayam Kanden for a long time now. When I visited the Prasanna Venkatesaperumal Temple at Tiruparkadal recently, the Bhattar Mr.Vengatrangan wanted me to visit the Karapuranathar temple nearby. I was aware that the temple was a Devara Vaippu Thalam and jumped at the opportunity to visit.

Vengat further explained that the temple had very little patronage and had not been opened regularly ever  since the Gurukkal who had been performing prayers there had passed on. However, he said, a family had been brought to the village recently for this purpose and that we could actually visit and worship at the temple.

The temple as expected was deserted. The three tiered gopuram lead into what used to be a temple tank many years ago, now just an expanse of sand. This temple is one of the five Shivalayas of Tiruparkadal. Appar (Saint Thirunavukkarasar) has mentioned this temple as Karapuram in his Kaapu Thiruthandagam. (Tamil verse here)

The main deity of the temple "Karapuram Udaya Nayanar" sits inside a very humble sanctum sanctorum, only a piece of white cloth adorning him.

The archagar Mr. Sairam showed us a tunnel right in front of the main shrine. This is said to lead upto the Margabandheeswarar Temple at Virinjipuram near Vellore. During the muslim invasion, this tunnel is said to have been an escape route between temples to move idols and valuables. The priest also said that snakes still come out of the tunnel and when he opens the temple in the morning, they are often found on the shivalingam, but slither away without disturbing anyone.

The entrance to the tunnel

The Goddess Abhithagujambal is seen in a seperate shrine. And she, just like her lord, is clad in simple clothing and jewellery, with not even a lamp lit in front of her, waiting for devotees to bestow her grace.

Goddess Abhithagujambal
The archagar Mr. Sairam, showed us a yellowing piece of paper, the remains of an invitation printed in the year 1926 for the Laksha Deepam Festival. This document is probably the only piece of information available in readable form about the temple. The complete information from the invitation can be found here.

The invitation speaks about the temple existing in what was then called "Avani Narayana Chaturvedi Mangalam" or "Karapuram". The temple is said to have been patronized by the Chola King Madurai Konda Koparakesari Varman,(985 CE), Parthivendra pallava (967 CE), Velaar    Bhuti Vikramakesari (10th Century CE) and Karimangalamudaiyaar - this refers to a king of the present day Dharmapuri in Salem District. I am not sure who it is.

Is this the only evidence available? Definitely not.Practically every wall in the temple is filled with inscriptions, sadly covered with wall putty. Rows and rows of inscriptions waiting to be transcribed.

I just shot pictures of a few walls as a sample. Some of them are faint, while others are quite prominent and could be read well if the wall putty is removed.

Yet another wall....yet another tale!

And more!

Even the external walls of the temple have a tale to tell!

The temple is a typical example of the construction style of over 1000 years ago where a covered platform goes around the sanctum sanctorium. This raised platform is called "Thiru Nadai Maaligai".

Interesting idols can be seen as Goshta Devathas.
Sanhata Vinayaka
Lord Muruga with his consorts
The Lord Muruga here has been sung by Saint Arunagirinathar. The hymn that he sang at Karapuram can be accessed here.
We are now near the Durga idol and stop by to witness something peculiar. Here is an idol of Jyestha Devi alias Mhoodevi.
She is seen here with her son,the Bull headed Manthi and daughter. The story of Manthi is interesting.Ravana wanted to have an immortal son. In order to facilitate that, he captured seven planets, and asked them all to stay in the 11th place, so that his son would be born immortal. However, Saniswara, taking the advice of Guru Sukracharya created Mandhi from his sweat and body secretions outside the 11th plce, and it is Mandhi who is said to have been the cause for Indrajit's death.

Mandhi is normally found with Jyestha Devi. Worship of Jyestha Devi was popular upto the 10th Century. It is believed that women worshipped her every day and offered food to her before eating themselves, in order to make sure that poverty and famine did not affect their lives at any time.

The priest mentioned that still a few women from the village came everyday to worship Jyestha Devi.  They light lamps in front of her and perform archana to Karapureeshwarar to ensure prosperity and harmony in their households. Visitors from other places also come back to worship Jyestha Devi once they know of her presence in this temple.

The Bhairava found in this temple is also unique. He is seen without his Vahana - The Dog. Clearly this temple needs attention. With proper transcription of the various inscriptions as well as maintenance and upkeep of the temple with enough flow of devotees, this is indeed a treasure trove that needs exhibition and patronage!

At the time this article comes to you, I heard that the archaka family has left the village due to lack of patronage and the trustees are on the lookout for another priest!

Contact Information:
R.Shanmuga Mudaliar - Trustee - 99763 60865
R.Vengatrangan - Bhattar, Sri Prasanna Venkatesa Perumal Temple - 94868 77896/ 84284 80210

Temple Timings:
10 am to 12 pm, 5 pm to 7 pm. The temple could be opened on request if intimated via phone.

Directions to the temple:

Kaveripakkam is on the Chennai Bangalore Highway. Turn left at Kaveripakkam junction if travelling from Chennai and drive down about 3-4 kms. There are enough signposts at the junction and along the lane to Tiruparkadal. At Tiruparkadal, the temple is walking distance from the twin temples of Prasanna Venkatesa Perumal and Ranganathar.