Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Temples and Temple Priests - Shefali Vaidya

Shefali Vaidya
It was high noon, the temple was deserted. I was the only visitor. It was a very quiet temple, though very old and very beautiful. The Goddess glowed in the soft golden light of the oil lamps. Her Shringara was tastefully done, a bright green pattu saree with a yellow border adorned the Murti, with rows of jasmine, mogra, rose and Aboli garlands arrayed in contrasting colour combinations. Her jewellery sparkled. I stood in front of the Sannidhi, mesmerised. Clearly, the Archakas had spent many hours getting Her Shringara just right!
At first, I couldn’t see any Archaka, dazzled as I was with the radiance of the Murti. Then I saw him, a frail man with a white beard, sitting uncomfortably on a hard wooden stool in a corner just outside the Sannidhi. When he saw me, he stood up and came to me with a pooja thali, putting each step gingerly in front of another, probably troubled by arthritic knees.
I put the flowers I had brought me with into the thali. He went into the Sannidhi with the string of Mallipoo that I had brought, taking a moment or two to decide exactly where it would go. He then arranged it lovingly on the Murti, taking care to tuck in the ends neatly. He then chanted a shloka and did the Arati. When he came out with the thali, I put in my offering. He smiled and dropped a pinch of Kumkum on my outstretched hand and muttered blessings.
The temple did not get too many visitors on a normal day. It is not in the city and it is not ‘popular’. In all the time that I was there admiring the architecture, I was the only devotee. And yet, the Archaka toiled on, serving the Devi and the devotees.
The Archakas have a hard life. An average day for an Archaka starts at 4 a.m! They have to follow many vows to maintain their ritual purity. The day is long and involves standing on one’s feet for hours at a time. The heat inside the garbhagriha emanating from so many oil lamps can be stifling. Their salaries are a pittance and in temples that fall outside the popular circuit, the offerings in the thali are too meagre. And yet, most Archakas do their jobs with a smile on their face and devotion in their heart.
In all the temples I visited in Tamil Nadu, not once was I asked for money nor was I treated differently because I put in more money. The Archaka offered Tirtha and Kumkum to all, exactly the same way. I know there is a lot of hate going around and terms like ‘brahminical supremacy’ are being fished our liberally, but the Archakas I met, especially in the out of way temples, are anything but rich and arrogant. They work hard, standing for hours on their feet, performing their duties with love and devotion.
Why do they choose this life? I asked this question to a young Archaka who spoke good English. He is an engineer from a reputed institute, but chose to follow this profession. ‘Kulachara’, he replied with a smile. ‘Family tradition’ ‘if I must serve someone, I would rather serve Him’.
Hard to argue with that. But it is time we, as a community, understand the tremendous service the Archakas are rendering for the Dharma. Why must we, the urban, well-to-do Hindus always scramble for change when we go to the temple, especially when we never think twice about paying 200 rupees for a movie ticket?
Next time you are in a temple, be generous in your offerings in the Pooja thali. We don’t have the concept of compulsory zakat or tithe, but we can open our hearts and pockets for those who live to serve the Dharma!
And before any of you bleeding heart liberals ask me, ‘but but but, what about the millions of starving children’, it is good that your heart beats for the starving children when it comes to going to a temple. I hope it beats with equal fervour each time you buy a coffee at Starbucks, eat out with your family, when you are buying a new cell phone or when you blow 500 rupees on a multiplex experience!
Shefali Vaidya

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