Volume 5 - Issue 04 APRIL 2007
Prof. G. Venkataraman
In the last issue of H2H, I offered you some glimpses of the memorable meeting that took place in Chennai on 21 st January, 2007, in the Divine presence – I am referring to the Chennai Citizens’ Conclave - during which prominent politicians expressed their gratitude to Swami for coming to the rescue of Chennai by providing with lots and lots of drinking water. [To read the cover story again, click here]. In this piece, I would like to recall some of the other highlights of Swami’s visit to Chennai in January this year.
Talking of Embraer, I remember that some years ago when this company was making its debut, someone arranged for a small version [with a seating capacity of about 30 or so] to be brought to Puttaparthi for being shown to Swami. I remember that event very well. In those days, Swami was physically much more mobile than now, and He went to the airport to see the aircraft. Actually, He was not at all keen about the whole thing but did so merely to oblige the devotee who had brought the plane to Puttaparthi. Apparently, the devotee wanted Swami to have one such plane! But Swami being Swami, saw the plane and left it at that; it was a case of meeting the wishes of the devotee half way, or to put it in Swami’s own words, “If you cannot oblige, speak obligingly!” The visit to the airport took place around 1.30 or so. Swami climbed into the aircraft, saw the interior and all that but declined a joy ride over Puttaparthi. However, He graciously invited the crew and the company reps – all Brazilian of course – to Sai Kulwant, where He played the generous host, by offering them snacks, juice, etc!
Getting back to the present trip, on reaching the airport, we were told that there was some delay in the arrival of the aircraft from Chennai, but what with every one busily chatting in anticipation of the Divine journey, no one noticed the delay. The aircraft later arrived, looking nice, elegant and compact. Without much delay, all of us were boarded, and soon there was a buzz, which meant that Swami was about to arrive. We all craned our necks to get a peep out of the aircraft window, and managed to see Swami’s car driving in. Looking out, I checked to make sure that our boys from the Studio were at work, documenting the event using both the still camera and the video.
Sometimes, even God is rendered helpless, and I have seen this many times at airports and inside the aircraft! Anyway, Swami was finally seated but the photo session would still not stop! As if to say why not me too, the Brazilian pilots also took their turn to welcome Swami with flowers and offer their obeisance! After that, the Captain ordered the ground staff to deplane, had the doors shut and secured, and revved up the engines. That happened at 1.20 pm, after which a taxi and we were airborne by 1.25; the take off was from the Hospital side towards Yelumalapalli village; those who are familiar with Puttaparthi and its surroundings would understand what I mean. By the way, Sri Satyajit also told me that the elevator was covered with Swami’s pictures practically everywhere!
In the past, I have seen Swami invariably give Darshan during flight but this time He did not; possibly because the duration of the flight was expected to be rather short. Anyway, the people in the aircraft, starting with the students, all went one by one to where Swami was seated and, in the name of having His Darshan managed to have their pictures taken. The boys are good at this sort of technique and the efficiency with which it was all done convinced me that the boys had all this worked out in advance. It was clearly a case of: If…, Then… as in formal logic. Anyway, this gave us an opening, and I said, if they can do it why not I? Thus it was that after the boys were finished a few of us elders also decided to act like boys! Result, I managed a photo of myself with Swami, up above in the sky!
One thing that amazed me was that one of the crew members who had taken a picture – by the way, picture shooting was 100 % digital, and so many had digital cameras; what a change from the old days! He even had a picture printed on board and showed it to Swami! I found it absolutely amazing; how on earth he did it, I do not know; maybe someone had a laptop with a small colour printer! Anyway, soon we were descending which meant that we would be landing soon. Having been blessed with a window seat, I looked out to see if I could catch any familiar sights. I could pick up a few and one thing I did see was a reservoir and later a canal. I was pretty certain I was looking at one of the big lakes that stored water for supplying to the city.
Re-living Memories of the Old Madras
Just before landing, I was told by Mr. Raman that we would be taken to the old airport for deplaning. Here I must explain that the old airport means that which served until the early eighties. Madras airport, called Meenambakkam after the place where it is located, goes back a long time, to pre-Independence days. I think my first visit to that aerodrome, as it used to be called in those days was sometime in 1946. I was then studying in Besant School in Madras, founded by Arundale and his wife Rukmini Devi, a great danseuse herself and also a great patron of classical arts. She also founded the Kalakshetra and was closely connected with the Theosophical Society both which still survive, although I am not sure about the school. Located on the southern bank of the Adyar River, and right next to the sea, the Theosophical Society has even now a wonderful park-like appearance and boasts of a serene atmosphere in a city overtaken by the madness of so-called progress. As for the school, it was located just to the south of the Society across a road that led to what was then called the Elliott Beach [favoured by the British, especially during the war years when there was a large presence of British troops].
Back in those days, all this was a wilderness but in the seventies, a huge colony grew up south of the school area known as Besant Nagar, named after Annie Besant of England, who made India her home, and Indian tradition her way of life. She was of course a key figure in the Theosophy movement and in the campaign for what was called Home Rule for India. When in Besant school, we were taken every Thursday to a temple in the Theosophical Society for Bhajans, and I distinctly remember Tiger Varadachari, a great exponent of Carnatic Music used to sing there during Bhajan times. Tiger was also a teacher in the Kalakshetra and I have seen him tutor students under a tree in the true Gurukulam style.
Getting back to the story of my first ever visit to Meenambakkam aerodrome, all of us kids from the school were taken there to accord a warm welcome to Rukmini Devi on her return from one of her foreign tours. In those days, my father used to work in the Met Office just across the road from the aerodrome – that building still stands, though dwarfed by huge constructions that have cropped in the neighbourhood – and he took me once to see Lord Mountbatten arrive in Madras. This was just after Independence and Mountbatten was then the Governor General, having served earlier as the Viceroy, before the transfer of power. I still recall His Lordship arriving by his own plane, a York, given to him for his use by the British Governor. Mr. Archibald Nye was then the Governor of Madras, and he, of course, came to receive the GG. Very little security in those days and that is how my father was able to take me there. I also recall another such visit, and this was in 1948, soon after the fourth cricket test between India and the West Indies in Chepauk, a famous cricket ground and now a stadium named M.A. Chidambaram Stadium. That morning, the West Indies and Indian teams were flying off to Bombay I think, and there was not much of a crowd. I could easily move around and collect autographs of the big stars, all of whom are of course now no more.
I am mentioning all this because I was eagerly looking forward to seeing how that old airport looked now but as it turned out, we taxied to a stop close to the domestic terminal of the new airport. Looking through the window I could see a car waiting for Swami, driven by Mr. V. Srinivasan, who wears many Sai hats, one of which is as the All India President of the Sri Sathya Sai Organisation of India. After the aircraft came to a halt, all of us exited through the rear door while the specially decorated elevator came to enable Swami to deplane. By this time, we were in the bus meant to take us to the terminal building, but fortunately before the bus started moving, we managed to see the elevator come down, and Swami drive off. I instigated one of the boys to take pictures with his video camera, while a member of the ground staff of Paramount Airways cautioned us about that being against the rules. That was true, of course, but then sometimes, the rules are downright stupid and we hoped that we would be granted Divine pardon for transgressing a silly man-made rule.
The Metamorphosis of Madras into Chennai
The change was noticeable right in the air terminal. This is one through which I have passed many a time, both going in and coming out but now it was so very different. It was not that the place had been completely rebuilt or anything like that. Rather, the growth of traffic due to the economy boom had led to the addition of so many new frills that the place wore a very different look. The roads our vehicles went by were ones through which I had been many times in the past but this time they were totally unrecognisable – so many new constructions, buildings and so forth, all a signature of a new and vibrant city, bursting at the seams with auto manufacture, IT and what not. All this prosperity, I reminded myself, brought with it many problems too, one of which is the increased demand for drinking water, and I wondered how many of these Chennai citizens who were so desperately crying for water barely a few years ago were aware of Swami’s contribution in rescuing them from acute distress.
As we move slowly towards Sundaram – for that was our destination – I found that I simply could not make out what street we were driving through. All these were roads through which I had gone many times before but now they looked very different. Philosophically, I reflected how life itself is like that. In our young age, we make so many friends but later in life when we meet after many decades, we are hardly able to recognise and reconnect.
Our route took us through a road that goes past the Governor’s residence. I believe it is now called the Sardar Vallabhai Patel Road, after a renowned freedom fighter, India’s first Home Minister, and a close associate of Gandhi. It is a long road that leads to Adyar, Theosophical Society and all that, and we had to take the same road to go to Sundaram. This road too is one that I have gone through many times, starting from 1946, when my father took me in a Jatka [a horse-drawn carriage] all the way from Saidapet station to Besant School. In those days, this was an absolutely desolate road.
On the right side was the huge Government House Estate with hundreds of acres of forest land, in which the Governor’s Mansion occupied a tiny part; all the rest was a forest and in fact the British Governors used to hunt there. On the left, there was only one solitary establishment, the Guindy Engineering College as it used to be known [now Anna University]. After getting past the Governor’s estate, one crossed the famous Buckingham Canal which was operational as late as 1955 – I ought to know because me and my college buddies hired a boat for an all-night boat ride to the tourist destination Mahabalipuram, about sixty km to the south; it was full-moon night. Subsequently the canal became a gutter and now a terrible one, “decorated” by a horrible slum on its banks. In addition, all sorts of establishments have come during the past fifty years. For example, the famed IIT Madras was carved out of the erstwhile Governor’s Estate, mercifully preserving much of the forest landscape.
On the other side, we have the College of Chemical Technology, the Leather Research Institute and so on. Many of this I was already familiar with back in the seventies and eighties but what made the scene totally unrecognisable now was the presence of many flyovers and an elevated railway, plus of course a whole new battery of houses and business establishments, shops and what not, all connected with the IT boom. It was all so very confusing that after a while I simply gave up trying to recognise familiar places. More confusing scenario after we crossed the Adyar River, over a bridge that was new. The bridge might have been new but there were still a few landmarks left that I could make out.
Aarathi was offered after which Bhagavan withdrew inside, and the volunteers at the gate woke up to our presence. The moment of mesmerisation having passed, suddenly, they became hyper active, making a corridor for us to enter. VIP treatment once again, and we were escorted inside upstairs, where Swami had sat down for some snacks. A glance at my watch told me that it was 3.20 pm, while lunch had been offered on board the aircraft [that many merrily tucked into], Swami, as always, did not touch even a glass of water. Having some idea of Swami’s eating habits as I do, I was sure that even now Swami was hardly hungry; but then He always makes it a point to sit down at appointed hours for meals or snacks or whatever, so that those in His company would get their fill. He was now with a dozen boys, and He had to play the Divine Mother and feed them; and so it was that the “stuffing game” commenced with much tenderness around 3.30.
During the “tiffin-break”, Swami made enquiries as to who would stay where – all of us in Swami’s party were to stay right there in Sundaram so that we could be physically close to Him and be at His beck and call. Having made sure we would all be duly accommodated, Swami made a few enquiries about what would happen later in the evening, after which He withdrew; and so did we, going in search of our luggage and settling down wherever we were supposed to be parked.
Later in the evening, Swami came out, went into the temple premises in Sundaram to formally light a lamp marking the commencement of the proceedings related to the Yajna and then blessed the priests who would officiate during the Yajna. This team was more or less the same as the one that did such a terrific job earlier in Prashanti Nilayam, and Swami was so impressed with the Head Priest that He ordered that it was this priest who must be in charge again; a great tribute I would say, considering that Chennai was full of highly qualified priests with much experience in Vedic traditions.
After blessing the priests, Swami came out into the porch-cum-balcony at the lower Darshan and signalled for Bhajans. While the Bhajans were being sung, He sat there giving Darshan and the crowd gathered there had its full. How long they in Chennai had waited – around ten years or so I guess; no wonder there was such a thirst. After Bhajan, it was dinner a bit later and Swami retired for the night, after making enquiries about the next day’s program. Meanwhile, Sundaram burst into a flood of wonderful lights and presented a heavenly appearance bathed in tastefully arranged floodlighting.
Magical Transformations Made for the Yagna Site!
I thought the day was over but Mr. G. K. Raman said it was not; he insisted that Mr. Giri and I take a ride with him to the site of the Yajna or Yajna-salai as it was known in vernacular. So for the Yajna-Salai we left, and after a ride of about eight km or so, we arrived at the site, which presented a fairy-land appearance. And busy as bees in that fairy-land were thousands of volunteers, mostly young, who for the next ten days would not know what sleep is. For the next two hours, we had a grand tour of the site which literally took my breath away. Till then, like all parochial natives, I was under the impression that the Yajna at Puttaparthi was the ultimate and could never be surpassed; but drinking in the sights of this Yajna-salai, I knew even before commencement, that this Yajna was going to be a truly mega affair. I whispered into Mr. Giri’s ears that while our Yajna was a mofussil [rural] affair, this one would be of metro dimensions! And so it was as the next days proved. While the Puttaparthi Yajna did not in any sense lack spiritual grandeur or religious rigour, it was in terms of sheer scale that the Chennai Yajna earned for itself the glory of becoming a symbol of massive devotion and Himalayan effort.
To start with, the arena was huge, and in the middle of that vast arena was the area where the Yajna was to be performed. This main action area, if I might call it that, consisted of a spacious region reserved for the Yajna proper, and surrounding it on three sides was a vast space meant for seating devotees attending the ceremonies. On the fourth side was an elevated stage, with a railing reminiscent of that in Prasanthi. In fact, the main Yajna space itself was almost of replica of what we had in Prasanthi, though perhaps somewhat bigger.
Though the site was an open ground, the main action area was a covered space, a huge shed but well done and completely open on the sides. While I was drinking in the scene with all its details, Mr. Raman kept up a non-stop commentary on not only the various features but also all that had been done to get the site into the state of readiness it was now in. Barely forty or so days earlier, this same site presented a very different picture – rough, uneven and full of water, thanks to days of incessant rain. When the planners arrived to survey and decide what was to be done, their heart sank; can we really get this place in shape, was the question uppermost in all minds. When the going gets tough and things seem almost impossible, there is only one way out – to pray, which of course they all did; did they have any other choice?
Prayers have a magical quality. It was the Lord who had Willed and declared that the next Yajna would take place in Chennai and He it was who had decided also on the date. So while the devotees of Chennai were presented with a Herculean task of Himalayan proportions, they were also blessed with the firm determination that springs forth when one knows that the Lord is there to help and guide [which was certainly the case here]. And so, as thousands toiled day and night, the whole site transformed into something that appeared to be straight out of Arabian Nights.
Mr. Giri and I were taken from one wonder to another. “Take a look at all these wonderful decorations,” I heard Mr. Raman say; “last week they all were not there, but now, it is a huge wow!” Mr. Raman went on, and then with the legitimate pride of one who has done his best for the Lord, he pointed out the numerous posters depicting the Glory of the Avatar of the Kali Age and the miracles of Love He is constantly performing. As I gazed at this exhibition in amazement, I was pleased to see many pictures that had featured in H2H and other publications we had done earlier. Seeing the smile on my face, Mr. Raman said, “Yes of course, we have taken many things from your earlier works!” and added, “We do not know a thing about display technology but all this was made possible because Swami brought to us Mr. Adimoolam, [a devotee and the Publisher of a large Tamil daily, that regularly featured and prominently too, the Sai Ganga project both during execution and after completion].”
Even as I was trying to absorb the details, Mr. Raman dragged us away to see other things such as the arrangements made for seating, the “inner and outer ring roads” made for Swami to move on giving Darshan to devotees seated, vast arrangements made to provide drinking water, the toilet facilities, and the special Media room. Here I must make a special mention of the facilities made for audio and video recording. For the Yajna at Prashanti, we had done a lot of planning for the video coverage, while the Mandir staff took care of the audio part. Together, we ensured a detailed coverage and the end-results were quite good; I am proud of that. But what I saw here was breathtaking. Cameras everywhere, dollys, a special camera with robotic control placed on the stage to focus exclusively on Swami, TV monitors in every corner, a control room with internet connections, remote camera control, a mobile van and what have you. Seeing all this, I felt like a village boy being overwhelmed by skyscrapers!
There stood here a building that at one time housed the bio-medical laboratory of a medical university that has since been moved to another location. This building, complete with air-conditioning, was the nerve centre of the entire operation. Located within it were not only rooms that served as offices for the people [including Mr. Raman] engaged with various administrative and management tasks, but also an elaborate store where flowers and various other consumables as well as perishable items needed for the Yajna were stored. Next to it was a computer centre that kept track of all activities, up to the minute. Naturally, there was a communication room as well. I can tell you that back in Prasanthi we did not have any of these facilities; but then that was because in a sense, Swami did all this without any aids, especially mechanical!
What about the priests? Right next to this “administrative block”, separate quarters had been specially built to accommodate the entire crew of priests [most of who had participated in the earlier Yajna too]. Of course, they had their own mess facilities. As for the Head Priest, he had his own room.
No Devotee is Spared of Darshan!
This is not all. There is a road, almost a km long, which leads to the Yajna site. This is a public road, popularly called the 100 feet road [because of its width]. The Police had declared this road out of bounds for cars, except those having a valid car pass issued by the Yajna authorities. [In fact, during the early days when I would be seated with Mr. Raman and others waiting in Sundaram premises for the signal from upstairs that Swami has emerged from His room, I noticed how often Mr. Raman would be called on his mobile, with requests for passes!] This proved a great blessing for the devotees attending the Yajna. Among other things, it enabled devotees to throng on either side of the road and catch a glimpse of Bhagavan as He drove to or from the Yajna site. As we saw later, thousands were benefited by this dispensation from the Police. I should also not forget to mention the fabulous canteen on this road, run of course by Sai devotees and volunteers, offering food and snacks throughout the day, at incredibly subsidised prices. This too was an enormous boon to the thousands coming from afar. Altogether, the Madras Yajna had the scale of a Metro-Yajna, in all its aspects! That’s all for this issue and more next time!
Jai Sai Ram.
Other articles on the Chennai Water Project:
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Vol 5 Issue 04 - APRIL 2007
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