RATHAM: A Heritage Bus Ride Into A World Of Myth And Music 

Harsha Bhat

Apr 01, 2018, 01:33 PM | Updated 01:31 PM IST

Temples and beyond
Temples and beyond
  • A short bus journey or ‘ratha yatra’ ferries visitors in and around temple towns, transporting them into a space of myths and music, history and heritage.
  • Throughout my childhood, I looked forward to the Rathotsava in Mangalore (now Mangaluru), the annual temple car festival. For, while all other festivals would be about decking up the house and may be cooking up a feast and meeting a few relatives – a tiny family affair – this is one festival where the entire community celebrated as a ‘family’.

    The entire area turns into a home of sorts for almost a week, with people seated along the streets through the night, watching the fanfare. A few thousand people eat at the same time at the feast, and the final procession sees at least half a lakh people standing in awe of the ratham (chariot/temple car), which moves in all its grandeur with chants and songs in praise of the deity resounding through the crowd.

    Even those who are settled in various corners of the world visit Mangaluru to watch the ratha parade. A minimum of three generations of every household sit hearing stories about the temple, the deity, and all else surrounding it. The temple premise for those few days is a melting pot of emotions, of narratives, of culture.

    Which is why the word “RATHAM” struck a chord when a young architect, whose erudition clearly surpasses his age in years, professor Madhusudhanan Kalaichelvan, spoke of his attempt to connect people to their heritage through stories, music, and travel. A professor of architecture at a college in Chennai, Kalaichelvan, who is also a conservationist, wanted his students to benefit from what the temples and structures around have to offer in terms of architectural intelligence, historical knowledge, and cultural capital.

    That is what led to the 2013 launch of RATHAM, a heritage trip venture. Through RATHAM, which the architect also turned into an acronym for ‘Road Access to Temples, Heritage, and Monuments’, Kalaichelvan takes people to ancient temples and places of historical importance and those that are part of our cultural legacy. But the manner in which he executes the trip, sets it apart. Like the Rathotsava, people from various walks of life take part in these short tours, descending on a temple town and reliving its cultural glory and its myths through detailed and animated narrations by Kalaichelvan and associated classical musical renditions by renowned singers on board.

    I signed up for a two-day tour of Srirangam and Tiruvanaika that RATHAM had organised early last month. Little did I know that the tour would be more than just another visit to a temple town. A short bus journey (symbolic of the ratha yatra) that ferries people in and around the temple town turned into a time machine that transported us to a mythical space with Kalaichelvan narrating tales, myths and historical events associated with the different sections of the temples; and with the singers performing various renditions associated with those tales that had been specially chosen and composed for the trip.


    What took off in 2013 as an experiential know-how session for his students with a visit to the Parthasarathy temple in Chennai, now has the patronage of many a heritage and temple enthusiast who looks forward to revisiting these structures anew with RATHAM.

    Whether it is exploring the lesser-known temples or the Pallava monuments of Kanchipuram; Chidambaram, Melakambur, and Tiruvannamalai; the Pallava caves around Tiruvannamalai, the likes of Mandagapatta, Siyamangalam, Talavanur, and Singavaram; the bronze gallery of the Madras Museum; Tiruvarur; Nagapattinam; or Kulikarai, a small village where Muthuswami Diskhithar, a musical trinity of Carnatic music, had composed his magnum opus – the trips have been appreciated and therefore often repeated.

    RATHAM team at Nadavavi Kinaru
    RATHAM team at Nadavavi Kinaru

    “There were some who have never seen many of these sites even once despite having visited these towns, and there are those who would have been to these temples umpteen times but tell me that the trip has helped them see the temple in a completely different light, which is very rewarding,” Kalaichelvan explains.

    Almost a one-man show, RATHAM has been Kalaichelvan’s attempt to curate an experience which makes these visits not the typical heritage trips or pilgrimages but a unique experience that transports one to the era in which the temples were built, or the myths with which they are associated. He is helped by his students who take care of the arrangements of the trip and the like.

    Intent To Share

    What started as an intent to take learning beyond the classroom and see how traditional Indian architectural wisdom manifested itself into temples and other monuments, was nursed by the ache that hardly any institution offers these subjects to students of architecture. “Indian knowledge systems in this field are often dismissed as nothing more than vastu, which is sad and not true. The subjects, though prescribed by universities, are often electives that are dismissed as being mumbo jumbo and hence hardly find any takers,” says Kalaichelvan, who is also trained in conservation and has been involved with many a restoration work like that of the Raja Raja Gopuram of Thanjavur Big Temple.

    RATHAM participants listen to tales of Tiruvanaika
    RATHAM participants listen to tales of Tiruvanaika

    What was initially intended for students, soon had parents, friends, and acquaintances getting on board these trips. As the word spread, Kalaichelvan soon had people requesting him for places and temples of their choice to be included in the RATHAM tour, and thus organically grew this venture that has managed more than 20 trips in the last few years.

    Tryst With Temples

    It isn’t hyperbolic to say there is none who has heard Madhu (as Kalaichelvan is fondly addressed by those aboard his trip) talk of temples and who isn’t awestruck by his sheer mastery over both the myths and the facts and his seamless narration.

    A testimonial from a participant on his blog reads, “And then came to the forefront the unassuming professor, the cornerstone of the entire trip; he just needed a gentle tap to pour out… facts… Knowledge… Wisdom… Experience… name it to find it in this encyclopedia that assumed a human frame by the name Madhusudhanan Kalaichalvan...”

    Madhusudhanan with the participants of the RATHAM trip to Srirangam
    Madhusudhanan with the participants of the RATHAM trip to Srirangam

    Kalaichelvan has been touring and documenting temples for more than two decades now, with his tryst with temples and storytelling beginning as a school-going child. His father, who initiated him into temple touring, took him to most temples across the country. This sowed the seeds of storytelling as he spent his summer vacations not just travelling but also documenting his experiences. “My father would buy me books that had the sthala purana (souvenir books) of the temples we visited, and ask me to make a scrapbook documenting our travel and all that I learnt about them,” he muses. “Whatever photos we would click I would stick them too in these books and take them back to school post vacation, and show it to my teachers and classmates,” he says of his early initiation. This was the beginning of his ever-growing fascination for temples.

    Decoding inscriptions
    Decoding inscriptions

    “I developed an academic interest in temples, the multidisciplinary verticals of a temple many of which have been standing for over a millennia and a half now, the bronzes and the like”. But it was only when he started travelling on his own, bike riding to villages around Tamil Nadu, that he discovered that almost every village had a massive temple, apart from the ones that his father had taken him to.

    “This is when I started appreciating the sculptures, observing the different styles of architecture practised by various dynasties, reading up works associated with them. And once I found it interesting, I thought I should share it with others and began sharing some of what I had learnt with my father, and then slowly to others. That is how it all began,” says the man, who also went to Ohio to pursue his masters in architecture, but returned after completing a year’s course as he felt this was where his heart was. He then pursued architecture while also interacting with the best of minds in the field like Dr Nagaswamy, which he says steered him in the direction in which he leads the ratham today.

    Melodious Musings

    A trained mridangam player and Carnatic vocalist himself, Madhusudhanan sees music and temples as inseparable. Which is why RATHAM trips are not just about touring temples and hearing their tales, but also experiencing them musically. The Srirangam trip, for instance, had singer sisters Archana and Aarti Bharadhwaj accompanying Kalaichelvan’s narratives with musical compositions of various dikshithars, the pasurams of various azhwars, which were set to specific tunes and specially composed for the trip.

    As the drone sound of the electronic tanpura plays and sets the stage for the rendition, even those with no knowledge of music are sure to be spellbound, what with the songs reverberating through the mandapam, surrounded by the majestic towers, enlivening the narration of the antiquity of that space.

    “Once we finalise the destination, I chose the musicians who will accompany us based on the place we are visiting. Srirangam has been sung about in an ensemble of language. Hence I chose singers whose linguistic background and proficiency would facilitate the same, while for the Nandanar trail we had to be specific even about the gender and hence we chose Bharat Sundar,” says Kalaichelvan, who then chooses the songs which the singers over the next two to three months set tune to, compose specially for the trip.

    The Social Ecosystem Of A Temple

    Going beyond the architectural and historical grandeur of the temple, something that moved many participants on the Srirangam trip was a visit to the house of the Araiyars. The Araiyars have for over a thousand years carried on the practice of performing the 4,000 pasurams of the azhwars at the shrine of Ranganatha, and Bharadhwajan Araiyar whom we visited, is one of the very few descendants of the small group of Shri Vaishnava Brahmins, who are entitled to perform this unique service and continue to do so.

    The Araiyars of Srirangam
    The Araiyars of Srirangam

    The impact of these trips goes beyond gifting aesthetic delight to the participants as it has brought to focus the almost forgotten and dying traditions and practices by giving a glimpse into the lives of its practitioners.

    This socio-cultural aspect of trying to draw attention to the people who make the temple what it is, most of whose descendants no longer may keep the tradition alive if not for patronage and support, is a unique experience for most participants. It is humbling to see that our attempt to highlight the people, who are integral to a temple but may soon become history, has turned very rewarding.

    “One of our participants was moved by the plight of the Odhuvars (traditional performers who recite the Tevaram in Shiva temples) and asked us how he could support them silently. Ever since, he has been quietly providing monthly financial support to an Odhuvar, who is in his early eighties but continues to perform,” muses a gratified Kalaichelvan, adding that incidents like this make the trips even more rewarding.

    Ripple Effect

    The endeavour has also led Kalaichelvan to meet individuals who wished to do their bit for their temples and revive the ancient cultural centres, often resulting in unmatched discoveries. For instance, a chance meeting with Sudarshan, whom he met during one of his visits to Tiruvanaika, led them to stumble upon and later decode various inscriptions in the premises of the temple.

    An inscription that was decoded during the workshop
    An inscription that was decoded during the workshop

    In a bid to have these decoded they decided to hold a workshop in which participants were trained on estampage recordings and read inscriptions that could be found in the temple premises.

    At the estampage workshop
    At the estampage workshop
    Inscriptions being recorded
    Inscriptions being recorded

    As a result of which over 150 mediaeval Chola inscriptions have now been recorded. “Even though they are fragmentary inscriptions, they will serve as important tools to bridge gaps in the historical timeline,” recollects Kalaichelvan who is now in the process of reading the fragments and compiling them, probably taking the shape of a book in the future.

    Next Stop?

    While the next tour is being planned, he is also working on taking the same model to smaller villages, and has begun work on his own village, Chengam, which he calls a “burger of historical activities of all eras.” In the process of preparing a cultural map for this village near Tiruvannamalai, which has numerous hero stones from the Pallava times, he is trying to educate the villagers about them and chart out a master plan for its development and create a database, which can also serve as a prototype for anyone who wants to replicate it and create cultural atlas for their own villages.

    His plans are aplenty and his work relentless, and having been on the tour recently, even with absolutely no knowledge of either what the temple holds or what the music did, I can surely say that just like the annual temple festival I cherished as a child, I shall await the next jaunt of RATHAM.

    This article is part of the Swarajya heritage programme. If you liked this article and would like us to do more of the kind, consider being a sponsor – you can contribute as little as Rs 2,999. Read more here.

    Harsha is an Associate Editor at Swarajya. She tweets @bhatinmaai.

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