The Agraharam at Ayanavaram

I had always been vaguely aware of a Kasi Viswanatha Swami Temple in Ayyanavaram. But though I happen to pass Ayyanavaram at least once a week on work, I had never bothered finding out where in that bustling suburb of Chennai stood this temple. More recently I saw that it was one of the 400 and odd heritage structures listed by the Padmanabhan Committee and duly notified by the High Court of Madras. It was however young Karthik Bhatt who, given his Gujarati lineage, was quite naturally interested in the shrine, for it had been built by that community. And when he informed me one hot April afternoon that the temple was celebrating its annual festival and the Rishabha Vahanam (the deity being taken around on on a silver bull) procession was that night, I decided to go along with him. “We can also see the Tawker choultry,” he added enticingly.

The temple is very close to the Medavakkam Tank Road, and abuts the Ayyanavaram Bus Stand. In fact I ought to put it the other way around 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 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 Tawkwers was of course TR 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 prime-movers and this was around 200 years ago (a very convenient figure for most things historical in our city).

Ramkor Bai and Ratna Bai were sisters who were either directly descended from or married into the Tawker line. They were wealthy in their own right and according to family legend, at one time had even lent money to the East India Company for financing its cloth trade. They had been on a pilgrimage to Varanasi and brought back with them two Shiva lingas. One was enshrined at the Motta Utara on Mint Street, the larger of the two congregational centres for the Khedawal community of Gujaratis in Madras. The sisters planned to consecrate the second linga on land owned by them at Ayyanavaram. 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 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 that never materialised.

In order to ensure a permanent source of income for the temple, the Tawkers built a row of single-storey street tile-roofed houses in a line that runs parallel to the shops that front the road. Each has a low entrance, a vestibule leading to a central courtyard and with a few rooms including a kitchen leading off it. A well was dug for each house as well to ensure water supply. These were to be rented out to middle-class families. This row, protected as it is from the main road by the row of shops has remained completely intact, and being in continuous is in a fair state of preservation. The line of houses reminds you of the agraharam (the first circle of houses around a temple) in any village in Tamil Nadu.

At the end of this street stands the Tawker Choultry. Entered through tall doors, it was meant originally as a guest-house and is now a hostel for indigent students. Around a central courtyard stand rooms, meant for senior students and a dormitory for newcomers. The rooms are Spartan, equipped with a stone couch and a few pegs for hanging clothes. The roof is a combination of Madras terrace and Mangalore tiles. Meant to accommodate at least twenty students, it houses a solitary boy now. The locals say that several of those who studied in Chennai thanks to the Choultry are now senior officials in the Government and in the private sector. And some have come back to see the place which was responsible for their success in life.

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 interesting 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 was returned, an exchange rate for the pagoda vs the rupee being calculated for the purpose!

Over the years the temple lost a lot of its surrounding land. The Ayyanavaram 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 which a flight of steps was built on to the temple wall. Today the staircase leads on to the roof of the bus depot! The new constructions also saw the tank being separated from the temple by the main road.

The temple and its precincts are however in an excellent state of repair and are evidently well-administered. I was introduced to the brothers Davey who now are in charge, several of them living in other parts of India but all of them making despite age to the annual festival. There was a good turnout for the Rishabha Vahanam. The God took his time to get ready and it was past midnight when to the accompaniment of the nagaswaram ensemble and a western orchestra, the deity was brought out. The festival of nine nights sees the Goddess being similarly feted and music concerts are also conducted in the courtyard at that time.

I leave the place at around midnight. A packet of puliodarai (Tamarind rice) was pressed into my hand as I left. Back home and hungry for a midnight snack I ate it and found it to be excellent. It carried with it a flavour of a village festival, a spirit that the Kasi Viswanatha temple has maintained intact despite a city having swallowed its neighbourhood.

The Hindu, on 23rd May 2012 carried my article on this temple –






4 responses to “The Agraharam at Ayanavaram”

  1. Sowmya Avatar

    I grew up in Ayanavaram in the 1960’s and 70’s, and this temple was our `local’. As I recall, the real name is Thakkar, though corrupted to Tawker; it is a very Gujarati surname, as I discovered when I moved to Bombay later on. I remember that AIR ran a sketch on this temple and the Thakkar family in those days. The Navaratri festival and the Tirupati kudai during the Tirumala Brahmotsavam were the highlights. During Navaratri, there were special homams, pujas etc; a lady called Visalakshi mami used to collect donations and organise archanais at the temple during the 10 days. The Tirupati kudai passed through the main road, with tiny shops lining and blocking the road; shopping there for bangles, choppus (earthenware toys, mostly miniature kitchenware) and dolls was much anticipated! We had many friends living in the agraharam- life there was lived half on the street thinnai. I also vaguely remember a theppam festival held on the temple tank- but this had stopped even then.

    I visited this temple early this year after more than 20 years. I was saddened by the dirt and deterioration everywhere. Maybe my childhood memories are playing false- but in my mind, it was a very clean and safe place. We children used to cross the road and run to the temple whenever we felt like it.

  2. Mahesh Jagadeesan Avatar
    Mahesh Jagadeesan

    Ayanavaram was where I grew up, and this temple was where we used to go for any festivals, celebrations or prayers. A lovely temple that I remember used to be jam-packed on days like Vaikunta Ekaadasi, it also gave off a very relaxed ambience. It has been the source of many pleasant memories.

  3. yessel Avatar

    The PTC bus terminus was called Tawker’s Choultry till late 1990s. PTC route nos. 16, 22, 23C were some of the oldest rather longest running bus routes of Madras / Chennai.

  4. […] The ancient suburb of Tiruvottiyur has its market as well, largely the property of the temple of Adipuriswarar. The celebrated Devadasi, Bangalore Nagarathnamma is said to have built additions to it in early 20thcentury and bequeathed the shops to the temple. Indeed, several temples of Madras have played a role in the construction of markets, by way of making use of their land and also generating revenue. The Karaniswarar Temple in Saidapet built its market in 1949. Of earlier construction is the one belonging to the Kasi Viswanathar temple in Ayyanavaram. […]

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