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Sunday, June 03, 2001

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In memory of a saint

As you stand in the small shrine, you realise what an ideal spot it is for a grand project. Both here and in the huge sheds where the tinkle of chisel on stone provides rhythmic music, the bustle of the mundane seems far away .... Orirukkai promises to leap on the national map, says KAUSALYA SANTHANAM.

OFF the Bangalore highway for a distance of 9 km, from Kancheepuram, the milestones point the way to one of the most remarkable monuments dedicated to the memory of a saint in recent times. "The Sri Kanchi Mahaswami Manimantapam Project" reads the inscription on the stones and as the vehicle eats up the miles, we feel a heightened sense of anticipation. The car winds its way through the mud lanes of the tiny village, past the thatched dwelling where an old potter turns his wheel while his grandson watches in unblinking infant concentration. This is the village of Orirukkai, sanctified by legend and where weavers in silk and cotton have plied their craft for generations.

Orirukkai promises to leap on the national map in a big way in a few years time both for the architecture marvel that is springing up here and the spiritual solace it will offer to millions who are devotees of Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Swamigal of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam. For this is the site chose by the Sri Sri Sri Mahalakshmi Mathrubhutheswarar Trust for the construction of the Satabdhi Manimantapam to Maha Periyaval as he was reverently called.

A few minutes later as you stand in the small shrine built on the 7.5 acre site, you realise what an ideal spot it is for the grand project. The breeze from the nearby Palar river neutralises the heat of the May noon-day sun. Both here and in the huge sheds where the tinkle of chisel on stone provides rhythmic music, the bustle of the mundane seems far away. It is the 108th Jayanthi (according to the lunar calendar) of the saint who after 87 glorious years as the head of the Kanchi Math attained Siddhi on January 8, 1994. An NRI couple from the United States along with their relative who is trustee of the project and his wife, are busy distributing food packets to the inhabitants of the village and the devoted craftsmen at the site. The benevolent presence of the Mahaswami is palpable here and the peace that he bestowed on his teeming devotees who made their way to him, is to be found in these precincts.

The embodiment of simplicity, Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Swamigal, the 68th pontiff of the Sri Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam established by Sri Adi Sankara, followed in the footsteps of the great guru. He traversed the country meeting people from all sections of society, acquainting himself with their problems and showering his blessings upon them. His boundless erudition and compassion endeared him to all irrespective of class, creed and nationality. Hailed as the prophet of our times, and as the representative of Sanathana Dharma, the saint reached out to all equally, erasing communal and caste boundaries. His presence radiated divinity. Scholars and laymen flocked to the Math to hear his discourses and be touched by his grace. Even those who came restless and unhappy returned contented and reassured.

It is appropriate that Orirukkai is the choice for the Mani Mantapam. One of the many stories Mahaperiyaval recounted in his simple inimitable style was the legend of how the Lord moved by the devotion of Thirumazhisai Alwar and his Bhaktha, Kanikannan, obediently accompanied them in exile from Kancheepuram and stayed the night at this spot. And it came to be known as Oriravuirukkai (overnight stay) which later got shortened to Orirukkai.

The legend is a moving one. Thirumazhisai Alwar who worshipped the Lord of Thiruvekka majestically reclining on his serpentine bed, was cared for by a couple. When a son Kanikannan was born to them, he became the Alwar's steadfast devotee. One day when Kanikannan saw a woman frail and bent with age, sweeping the temple premises offering worship to the Lord, he was moved. He stroked her hunched back in appreciation. The power of his guru surged into him and the woman regained her youth and was able to continue offering worship to the Lord with fresh vigour. The king who greedily desired his youth restored to him requested Kanikannan to do so. But the young man refused outright which enraged the king and he banished Kanikannan from his kingdom. The Alwar prepared to go with him and asked Lord Thiruvika to do come too as he could not live without Him. The Lord rolled up his serpentine bed and obediently followed the Alwar and Kanikannan.

The three travelled some miles from Kancheepuram and stayed the night there. Meanwhile, with the Lord's departure, the city was plunged in darkness and disorder. The king realising his mistake rushed to the trio and sought their forgiveness. The Lord returned to Kanchi once more with his devotees. The place where He stayed came to be known as Oriravuirukkai, which later got shortened to Orirukkai.

The Manimantapam was the dream project of the late Pradosha Venkatarama Iyer. A railway employee, he adored Periyaval. After retirement, he settled at Kanchi and gave up all his possessions to celebrate Anusham, the birth star of Mahaswami, every month.

"We are trying to give his dream concrete shape," says K. R. Athmanathan, one of the trustees of the project. "Nearly one- fifth of the structure has been completed."

"And if funds are available, we hope the Rs. 12 crore project will be completed in five years time," adds Mr. K. Vedamurthy, another trustee.

The trust with seven members was set up in 1989 and the foundation of the Manimantapam was laid in 1997. "Since then it has been progressing steadily.

"There has not been even a single day's disruption of the work," says Mr. Athmanathan.

Renowned Carnatic vocalist M. S. Subbulakshmi and her late husband Sadasivam, devotees of Periyaval, have played a major role in initiating and sustaining the project through substantial contributions from concert and cassette proceeds and evincing keen interest in its progress.

The pace of the project can be appreciated only when one witnesses the fine quality of the work modelled on the lines of Chola and Pallava architecture. Carved pillars in varying stages of completion are seen everywhere. The piece-de-resistance is the beautiful Simha Pillar which is a feature seen only in ancient temples. It consists of a plump, round faced lion bearing the weight of the column on its head while a stone ball is held captive by tongue and teeth in its capacious mouth. "It took us three months to chip out the stone to leave behind the ball that rolls freely in its open mouth," says Kandaswamy, assistant sculptor to S. M. Ganapathi, Sthapathi who is in charge of the work.

The sthapathi is away for the day but his masterly touch is evident everywhere. His expertise and knowledge have fetched him many awards. The numerous temples and monuments under his supervision both in the country and abroad testify to his skill. But the testimonial he prizes most is the appreciation of Periyaval who persuaded him to settle at Kancheepuram. The sthapathi has designed a monument grand enough to translate his devotion into art. Many of the architectural features of the Manimantapam are rare and delicate - the stone chains that have taken three months to carve, the saptha swara stambam (pillar) that emits the seven notes of the musical scale when tapped, the various types of pillars, the rudrakshas to be embedded on the vimana of the sanctum sanctorum, the scenes from the life of Periyaval to be depicted on panels and so on.

The entire complex will consist of four mantapams. The innermost paduka mantapam, the sanctum sanctorum will be adorned with the image and gold plated padukas (sandals) of the saint. "The mantapam will take forward the cherished ideals of the guru and be a centre for Vedantic studies," say the trustees.

Visitors pour in daily from across the country and even abroad to the site. The visitor's books overflow with the joy of the devotees of the work taking shape. Princess Irene of Greece was brought to the site recently by ghatam maestro Vinayakram, one of the founder trustees, who was advised to do so by Sri Vijayendra Saraswati Swamigal of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam. She writes of the beauty of the work. Others echo her opinion that it is "a fitting tribute to a saint who spent his entire life for the welfare of humanity".

"Most of our donors are middle-class people," say the trustees. Funds come in from unexpected quarters and in unusual ways. Like the NRI who kept a dollar aside every day during puja and sent $500 (Rs. 27,000). And the physically immobile R.M.S. (retired) employee who had saved Rs. 5 lakhs for the shrine of his kula deivam but decided to contribute it to the Manimantapam.

If the massive mantapam is to materialise soon, devotees like these can make all the difference, say the trustees of the Sri Sri Sri Mahalakshmi Mathrubhutheswarar Trust(Sivam Subham, First Main Road, Kotturpuram, Chennai-85; Ph: 4474113/14/15).

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