Kasi Vishwanthar of Varanasi at Aynavaram Chennai
Chennai – my current home being the third biggest metropolitan city of India with temples, beaches and centers of historical and cultural significance, including the UNESCO Heritage Site of Mahabalipuram, is one of the most visited cities in India. The city serves as the gateway to the southern part of India with tourists landing in the city and starting their trip to the rest of the region. Chennai was the most visited Indian city by foreign tourists in 2009 and issued the third highest number of visas on arrival in 2014.
When you are roaming on the roads of Chennai you are frequented by Green Name Boards pointing the temple streets. There is a temple in every corner of Chennai almost all being atleast a century old. As I love visiting temples – here I am sharing about Kasi Vishwanathar Temple of Ayanavaram – a residential locality of chennai.
In busy Ayanavaram, there is an enclave of tile-roofed, single-storeyed row houses that remind you of a traditional village. Standing within these houses, it is hard to imagine that a noisy city is just outside of its walls. At one end of this street is a choultry (guesthouse) and at the other end is the Kasi Viswanatha Swami temple. And it owes its origin and present upkeep to Gujaratis. The Tawkers are among the oldest Guajarati families to settle in the south, having made the move in the 1700s. They made their name in the jewellery business with Tirichy as their base. There have been several prominent Tawkers in the cultural history of south India.
As with other traders who headed South to escape the volatile climate of invasions and change of rule in 1600, Gujaratis chose the region to set up their business. Some of the earliest migrants also played a significant role with their business spreading across several trades that included diamonds merchandising, besides textiles and hardware. Karthik Bhatt shares an interesting story on the early migration that preceded even the setting up of the East India Company. “A Gujarati book had the information on the earliest settlers and traced it to the early 1600s when a Khedawal family moved to Thanjavur, where many of their kin had already settled. Fort St George dates back to 1639, so it is only fair to make such an assumption. The earlier families included Tawkers and the Gocooladoss Jumnadoss family that have made a valuable contribution to the field of education with institutions like schools and colleges.
The Ayanavaram temple owes its existence to the Tawkers, a clan which, though of Gujarati origin, had moved South and made Trichy its base in the 1700s. In fact, most members used T as their initial, thereby establishing their connection with the historic town of the Rock Fort. The most famous among the Tawkers was, of course, T.R. Tawker who later moved to Madras and had a Henry Irwin-designed showroom on Mount Road. This branch of the Tawkers became insolvent in the 1920s. Those who were responsible for the temple were, however, of a collateral branch and an inscription on a granite slab let into the doorway of the temple mentions the name of Viswanatha Tawker. It was, however, two women of the family who really were the primemovers and this was around 200 years ago (a very convenient figure for most things historical in Chennai).
The women of the family appear to have been active in business as well, and according to legend, even lent money on interest to the East India Company. Two of these women, Ramkor Bai and Ratna Bai, went on a pilgrimage to Varanasi in the early 1800s and returned with two Shiva Lingas.
One was installed at the community's congregational centre, the Motta Utara on Mint Street. The Ayanavaram temple was built to house the other linga. A Gujarati inscription near the doorway however, mentions a Viswanatha Tawker. Perhaps the women were from his family.
A vast expanse was demarcated and the shrine was duly built, complete with a modest tower, a courtyard, some sub-shrines and a sanctum with two shrines in it, one for Kasi Viswanatha Swami and the other for his consort Visalakshi. A tank was excavated across the road. It is said that the sisters had planned to build a companion shrine for Vishnu as well, probably on the lines of the Chenna Kesava and Chenna Malleeswara Temple of George Town.But a burglar made off with the money earmarked for the second project and so it never materialised.
The Tawker line that built the temple died out over time and the administration passed on to the Dagat family and, from them, it came to the Daveys. They take care of the well-being of the shrine and the Choultry. An intriguing tale has persisted in the family. Apparently, the money loaned to the East India Company was never returned and the Government of Madras continued paying interest on it till independence and this was in turn passed on to the temple administration. Post-independence, however, the payment was stopped and the hereditary trustees took the matter to court. The judgement was in their favour and the principal amount was returned.
The Temple and the Agraharam
The temple is a huge landmark and stands sandwiched between the Ayanavaram bus stand and Medavakkam Tank Road.The temple is very close to the Medavakkam Tank Road and abuts the Ayanavaram Bus Stand. In fact, I ought to put it the other way round, for the Bus Stand was built on land taken over from the temple, as I was to discover later. The shrine is, however, completely hidden from view by a row of shops built to front the main road. You access the temple proper either through an entry arch between the shops or through the main entrance which is in a street off the main road. The temple comprises a small set of shrines and is remarkably clean – a hallmark of the Gujarati way of life. It has a tank, which is now cut off from it, owing to a road coming in between.
In order to ensure a continuous income to the temple for its upkeep, the row of street houses was built. Each house has a low entrance, a vestibule leading to a central courtyard and a few rooms including a kitchen leading off it. Every house has a well. Protecting the street from the noise of the main road is a row of shops, also built by the Gujaratis. An archway between the shops leads you to the houses and the temple. The line of houses reminds you of the agraharam(the first circle of houses around a temple) in any village in Tamil Nadu.
Over the years the temple lost a lot of its surrounding land. The Ayanavaram Bus Depot, Annai Sathya Nagar and other residential colonies came up on land acquired from the shrine by the Government. The Tawker sisters evidently planned a huge temple chariot to load the deity on, for which a flight of steps was built abutting the temple wall. Today the staircase leads to the roof of the bus depot! New constructions also saw the tank being separated from the temple by the main road. The temple celebrates Annual Brahmotsvam in April month. Below is a small clip of the Deity going for procession during Brahmotsavam-
The Story of Dried Temple Tank
Once upon a time, the float festival was held in the temple tank and many famous musicians have performed at the temple. But now it may seem an irony that despite heavy rain during November and December'2015, that resulted in widespread inundation across chennai, the Kasi Viswanatha Swamy temple tank at Ayanavaram here is completely dry. Concrete buildings around the temple have blocked the entry of rainwater. The temple tank located adjoining Konnur High Road is surrounded by residential buildings on three sides. The two century old temple tank has a provision for entry of rainwater from Konnur High Road while concrete structures on other sides blocked t water entry. The 220-year-old temple tank has been dry for several years now, he said. “In the early 1990s, the temple tank used to brim after monsoon. There were no buildings around the tank and rain water from adjoining areas entered without hindrance. It is now time that the corporation has to take lead to channelise run off rainwater into the tank.
The ancient temple tanks if had proper channels would act as great soak and prevent extensive flooding to some extent even if they cannot completely irradicate.