On a warm Sunday morning, Sivaramakrishna Dikshithar got into a tub filled with water in the precincts of a Shiva temple in Pallikaranai, a Chennai suburb. Holding a Shivling in his hands, he went into a deep meditative prayer for nearly thirty minutes as his devotees formed a circle and chanted mantras. The 64-year-old priest was invoking Varuna—the god of rain—for urgent showers to end a crippling dry spell that has sparked a severe water crisis in Tamil Nadu, including capital Chennai.
Prayers to appease the god of rain are common in India and Dikshithar was one among thousands of people who had joined hundreds of such community prayers being held in the parched state. But the trouble started when the government too pitched in by instructing the temple administration department to organise such rain prayers in all shrines under its control. A government circular even specified the prayers and rituals to be followed by big temples.
“Rituals and prayers should be left to the discretion of the board of trustees of the respective temple, who would then follow traditions of that temple. But the circular showed only a lack of knowledge. It asks the temples to chant something that doesn’t exists. Let the government first appoint trustees to run the 20,000 plus temples under its control rather than issue such administrative fiats,” said T.R. Ramesh, president of the Temple Worshippers’ Society.
Faithful say that though the method was questionable, the intent cannot be doubted. “There have been such prayers held during the time of MGR, Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa whenever the monsoon failed. It has been part of Tamil Nadu’s temple tradition...Even the high court has said that if the prayers are meant for public good there can be no restrictions,” pointed out Prof. Arulanandan of the Madras Sanskrit College.
But fringe groups and atheists see this as another indirect attempt to impose Hindu traditions at tax payers’ expense. State minister Sevur Ramachandran, however, said that such practices abound in temples of the neighbouring states as well. “Last year, during a severe water crisis in South Africa’s Cape Town, churches there held special prayer sessions for rains. These are matters of faith best left to the believers.”
Since the failure of the October-December Northeast monsoon in 2018, at least 24 out of 33 districts in Tamil Nadu have been declared drought-affected. All the four major reservoirs that provide drinking water to Chennai have hit red levels as have groundwater table across the state due to indiscriminate and large scale tapping of water for both irrigation and drinking purposes.
Experts say that the more urgent task before the temple administration department is to save and retrieve thousands of temple tanks that have become dump yards for want of maintenance. “Many temple tanks have been encroached and houses and shops built on them. This has been done with the collusion of the temple officials. Let them first revive these temple tanks and ensure there is free flow of rain water into them and there will be no water crisis, at least in areas around the temples,” said Pakshirajan, a resident of Rameswaram involved in temple tank rejuvenation.
Arun Krishnamurthy of the Environmentalist Foundation of India said excess water from good monsoons “is allowed to drain off into the sea” instead of being stored. “If we can protect and restore our lakes and ponds there will be enough surface and ground water during the odd dry season. Our best prayers are in our deeds,” Krishnamurthy added.
By G.C. Shekhar in Chennai