Jennifer Byres and Clarisse Treilles visit Tirumohur Village to discover the ancient temple that makes this village so unique. They experienced the warm welcome of its inhabitants and learnt of the ancient legends surrounding the deities of the temple.
Upon arrival in Tirumohur, we were struck not only by the colourful and powerful dominance of the temple, but of the curious smiles of the locals. In particular, the ones selling colourful arrays of flower garlands that were hand-picked in the sprawling fields surrounding Yanamalai or the 'elephant mountain'. However, there was calmness when we appeared, and we soon found out that the people of Tirumohur were used to meeting foreigners! The temple attracts both locals and tourists, so we did not have so much of a celebrity status!
It was around 11 a.m. when we arrived, and the sun was beating down on us with a furious glare. We retreated to the coolness of the temple, absorbing the aroma of jasmine and burning incense as we padded from room to room in wide-eyed wonderment.
Outside the temple, men, women and children all seemed eager to express their thoughts and feelings on life in the village. There was a strong sense of community, irrespective of occupation or background, as they all knew each other and would refer us back and forth depending on our questions.
Tirumohur is a village situated between Madurai and Othakadai. It is 9 kilometres from the periphery of Madurai and is 15 kilometers from the centre of the city or around a 40-minute drive. It is famous for its ancient temple-the Kalamegha Perumal temple, a Vaishnavite temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu, believed to be around 1000 years old. The village is scalloped by mountains, the most famous of them being Yanamalai. Stretches of paddy fields form a green patchwork quilt in the landscape.
The village has a population of approximately 15,000. The life expectancy is around 75-80 years of age, with the oldest person approaching 90!
Production and Labour
At the heart of Tirumohur lies the ancient Tirumohur temple. The presiding deity of the temple is Kalamegha Perumal. There are shrines for Goddess Mohanavalli, the Divine Consort; and Sudharsana or Chakrathalwar; the discus of Lord Vishnu.
Located right outside the temple, there is a row of tables with people selling beautiful garlands of flowers, namely Jasmine – which is a popular flower with which South Indian women adorn their hair. Although it is marketed at temple visitors, it is reflective of the large floriculture industry that dominates Tirumohur. We talked to M.S. Srinivasan, a retired engineer, who told us that at the foot of the 'elephant mountain' (Yanamalai), was the Agricultural College of Madurai. The florists were part of the tertiary sector of this industry, and they seemed to take great pride in their work.
M.S. Srinivasan had told us that after he retired as an engineer from the Integral Coach Factory (ICF) in Chennai in 1993, he became a priest at the temple. I noticed the distinctive Vaishnavite symbol on his forehead—two white lines, drawn in a v-shape with a red line in the middle, that I also saw painted in and around the temple. He told us that he had been educated at the local elementary school in the village. As it happens, Tirumohar has only one school, and further schooling has to be outside of the village.
We talked with some of the younger inhabitants, who were selling garlands with their families. We met a boy called Singaraj and a girl, Arumugam, who were both 18 years old. They told us that they sell flowers from 6 am until noon and then from 4 pm until 8 pm. The business is 25 years old and currently, 30 percent of the population is involved in it. The temple attracts tourists from both India and abroad, therefore it is suitably marketed.
We met Kumar, who held a very important position in the temple. During the festival months of January and April, he would assist the temple priests by holding an umbrella for the deities as they were taken around the temple as part of the circumambulation. We were told that the Kodimaram or the dwajasthambam (the gold post in the centre of the temple) is the main part of worship in Vaishnavite temples.
We were shown various small shrines that housed different deities. For example, a small temple on the left of the Kodimaram was the shrine of Hanuman, the Lord of strength. Kumar himself has served in the temple for the past 35 years. During his time, the only reconstructions that have taken place are some white sculptures on the roof and paintings that were constructed specifically for the kumbabhishekam or consecration of the temple.
Kumar explains that consecration happens every 12 years, with the last one being performed in 2010. He explains that on the first day a coconut is taken to the top tower of the temple. The coconut is split open and the water is poured from the height. The remaining parts are offered to the main deity of the temple – Perumal. Before we were led into the passage way towards Perumal, we noticed two very peculiar statues covered in yellow paint. These were of Rathi and Manmatha or the God of Love covered in a yellow powder or turmeric. We were shown the tiles on either side of the passageway to the Perumal shrine that depicted stories from the epics of Ramayana and Mahabarata. We reached the shrine where a priest performed a ritual before giving us thulasi leaves that has medicinal benefits for curing colds and fevers. He gave us holy water and also placed a bell-shaped object that represented the feet of Perumal, on the heads of devotees.
The sacred lotus temple tank is the place where Vishnu assumed the form of the enchanting Mohini, when the gods and demons were wrangling over the nectar that arose from the churning of the ocean.
Even though the temple generates income for the people in the village, their financial problems are far from over. Clearly, flower vending as a business seems insufficient to provide a decent standard of living. Yet, a quarter of the village is involved in it. Singaraj, for instance, had to discontinue his studies at the age of 15 in order to support his family after his father's death. He became the 'man of the family' when he was just 18 years. For Selvaraj, and many others like him, the sale of flowers is at best a short-term solution to earn some money.
As Selvaraj is into full time paid employment, he is unable to study. The financial problems of the family are a vicious circle that entraps young people and deprives them of an education that will equip them to earn better. This trend is common in the village, but recently there has been a dip. Indeed, 50 percent of the current generation in the village is educated, in contrast to only 25 percent from the oldest generation whop have pursued education beyond the primary level. The fact that there is only one elementary school (which is a hundred years old!) in the village explains why 90 percent of the parents send their children to school but it only provides them a basic education. That is why young people have to leave the village if they want to study further and to work in a field other than agriculture.
M.S. Srinivasan's daughter now lives in Ireland, as she is married to a physician who worked in Chennai. People who have higher work expectations need to leave the village in order to find a job. Otherwise, the people in the village are dependant on government grant and subsidies.
The only hospital is 5 km from Tirumohur. Therefore care in the village is rather basic. The common ailments are cold or fever. However, as life expectancy is quite good, we wonder if the medicinal plant, called the Tulasi, which is part of the sacred offering to the Lord, is the secret of longevity in the village.
Prospects and Promise
The children learn English right from the time they enter school. While we entered the school playground, we heard them welcome us and understand what the teacher told them in English. This early beginning could well be a stepping stone for their higher educational aspirations. We, at Madurai Messenger, hope that with the government emphasis on universal primary education, and improved economic conditions, their aspirations may grow skywards and soar like the towering gopuram of the Temple Town.
We left this peaceful village with the smiles of the children and the legends about the temple in our minds. Before we left, we visited the local school. Although the children were in the middle of lessons, they came rushing out to greet us with beaming smiles. They hastily offered us seats, but unfortunately we couldn't stay. However, their warm welcome and innocent curiosity will remain in our memories of this village. We left as we came; no crowd, no agitation; just simplicity.
On a Thursday afternoon, all the villagers were looking for shade and only the millennium temple remained still, similar to a lighthouse illuminating the whole village.