Deccan Herald, Sunday, November 17, 2002


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Meet of minds

Mani Mantapam in Kanchi would be a temple dedicated not
 to any God but to learning itself! VATSALA VEDANTAM
 witnesses the impossible dream taking shape

From time immemorial, the name Kanchi has evoked images either of a Kamakshi temple, a Kamakoti Peetam or a silk weaver’s ancestral home. One rarely thought of this hoary place as an international centre of learning. Where research scholars and students of world religions would one day assemble to exchange and generate philosophic thoughts. When the small temple town would regain its forgotten glory...
After all, Kancheepuram did flourish as a centre of literary eminence at one time. It was home to a galaxy of distinguished poets and scholars. It even had institutions for advanced study known as ghatikas where thousands of students studied the various branches of the Vedas and scriptures. And, what more, Ramanujacharya, the 11th century saint and founder of the Vishistadwaita philosophy had his early education here and entered the ascetic order. Studded with temples, steeped in mythology, Kanchi is also the proud home of the hereditary trustees of Adi Sankara’s first peetham - the Kamakoti - also known as the Sarvagna Peetham. It also has the proud distinction of being the one and only southern mokshapuri of India - the place where one has to start or end one’s life in order to get deliverance from the cycle of birth and death. In all, Kanchi conjures romance and magic.
So, when trustee Atmanathan spoke about this 300 foot long monument in stone - the dream child of a railway employee called Pradosham Venkataramier - that was rising in Orirukkai just beyond the temple town on the bank of the Palar river, and described how it would capture a 2500 year history “starting with Adi Sankara and his unbroken line of 70 descendants”, the magnitude of the Satabdhi Mani Mantapam slowly began to sink in. When he added that M S Subbulakshmi had initiated the project with a donation of Rs 30 lakh and the proceeds of all her recorded music, I knew that this was one dream that had to come true. Subbulakshmi and Sadasivam have supported several programmes in the past. Their house Sivam-Subham is again the nucleus for this dream.
A massive 21st century temple that would recreate the architectural splendours of the Chola and Pallava dynasties? A temple dedicated not to any god - but to learning itself in memory of one of the most liberally enlightened of all those acharyas. Where there is no idol waiting to be worshiped. But where spirituality will unfold itself as “devotees” come to pray and stay to learn. Where thinkers and scholars and philosophers will be inspired by the erudition and greatness of one who looked like a mendicant and lived like a saint. The plain wooden sandals that he wore will be the only icons in this temple to remind visitors that such a saint scholar did live and walk in these parts. And, that is what Mani Mantapam is all about. A memorial to remind visitors that it is possible to be spiritual without getting bogged in narrow schisms. I decided to go to Kancheepuram to see this impossible dream taking shape.
The road to Orirukkai en route to Utharamerur tells its own tale of religious integration. Driving down the scenic highway towards Kancheepuram, you can see a Jesuit missionary school showing the way to Sriperambudur, the hallowed birth place of the Sri Vaishnavite saint Ramanuja. Just as you can see the devout offering prayers in the opposite mosque even as you receive the prasadam from the present Sankaracharya in the Kamakoti Peetam. That is the magic of Kanchi where all religions blend and survive with no rancour. Which is why the late Paramacharya - Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi or Periyaval as he was fondly known - chided his followers who wanted this particular mosque shifted from the proximity of the Sri Matham by telling them: “I can at least hear the devotees over there praying five times a day. Why should I then move their temple?”
There are many instances in his life to illustrate his liberal outlook. The story of a Christian devotee D’Souza who met him during one of his padayatras to tell him how he could not conduct his daughter’s marriage because he could not raise the money, is yet another instance of Periyaval’s religious attitudes. He calmly gave him a silver plate containing money, a gold chain with mangalsutra and other gifts just presented to him by a Hindu couple celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary!
Perhaps, the Mani Mantapam is a fitting tribute to the sage of Kanchi. It will not only commemorate his liberal teachings. But, it may even generate more scholars and thinkers of his genre.
You can hear them even as you approach the site situated on the northern banks of the Palar river. A hundred and ten artisans and sculptors chiselling away on huge slabs of stone. They come from far flung districts, some even from towns in far off Andhra Pradesh. Some of them are trained professionals from schools of architecture and sculpture. Many others are the talented descendants of traditional master sculptors, trained by their own ancestors. But, they are all dedicated to this massive work they have undertaken. To them, it is a labour of love where each one is making a significant contribution. They are all proud to be associated with this remarkable monument dedicated to the memory of a 20th century saint. Both in concept and execution, the Mani Mantapam is a one-in-a-million effort which seeks to revive the 1000 year old architectural grandeur of ancient dynasties.
“Our goal is to give a concrete shape to the teachings of the Paramacharya,” says Atmanathan who hopes that this temple of learning will be an inspiration to future generations. Its physical appearance has to be as magnificent as its goals. This is where the Ramakrishna Math comes into picture. It has donated giant granite slabs which have gone into the making of its impressive features like the Simha-Mukha Sthambam or the beautiful Saptha-Swara Sthamba or the huge vimanam (dome) resting on four pillars and embedded with real rudrakshas and surrounded by delicately curved stone chains.
According to Ganapathi Sthapathi, chief architect of this project and a master sculptor par excellence, the Satabdhi Mani Mandapam will incorporate the best of Chola, Nayaka and Pallava traditions. Its four main hallways called the Maha Mantapam, Praja Mantapam, Prakara Mantapam and Paduka Mantapam will be supported by 151 magnificently carved pillars. The outer walls of the inner prakara and the inner walls of the outer prakara will depict the life and work of the 68th Sankaracharya, Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi, who ascended the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham at age 13 and reigned as the pontiff for the next 87 years. Popularly known as Periyaval, he was not cast in the usual mould of Sankaracharyas. Far from cloistering himself into a life of prayer and penance, he opened the minds of his disciples to the outside world where science and technology dominated. He enriched his own mind with studying subjects as far removed from his Peetham as photography, music and languages. Quick to know and appreciate the virtues of different cultures, he also preached the value of understanding one’s own culture first.
Nicknamed “a walking saint” by his followers and admirers, the sage of Kanchi ushered in a new era in the history of the Kamakoti Peetham. This is what the Mani Mantapam hopes to portray to all those who will make the journey to Orirukkai. If a queen of Greece could be moved by the simple teachings of this Sankaracharya to return again and again to Kanchi to meet him, future scholars may be inspired by his life and example to emulate his ideas. Which is the reason why the only symbols to be placed in the Garba-Griha (sanctum sanctorum) will be the padukas or wooden sandals worn by the Sankaracharya. No godly figures will adorn its walls except the unbroken line of 70 Acharyas who guided the Peetham over these last 2500 years. The creators of Mani Mantapam hope to provide a visual commentary on one segment of India’s spiritual and cultural heritage. Not Saivism or Vaishnavism or any other ism will predominate here. According to them, it will be a meeting ground of fine minds and nothing more.


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