After a week's hectic work, some people go to the theater, some watch a movie and munch popcorn, some listen to music or read books, while still others prefer the television.
But for B. Rajesh and his wife Rajani, relaxation is of a different kind altogether. After taking care of the demands of Rajesh's small factory, the Chennai-based couple, along with their daughter and some close friends, drive down to a remote village where they stay for a week. Their mission: to clean and renovate temples that have fallen prey to neglect and the passage of time.
Rajesh is an MTech from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, and owns a small factory with a turnover of Rs 3 million. Rajani works at the government-run television channel Doordarshan.
The couple was first inspired by the words of Adi Sankara, that once upon a time temples were the focal point of village life and that all social activities in a village revolved around the temple. The second inspiration occurred 15 years ago when they came to know about a dilapidated Vishnu temple in Thirumazhisai near Poonamallee from a friend.
"I still remember how the Vishnu temple looked when I first reached the place," says Rajesh. "We could hardly call it a temple. The face of Lord Vishnu was not visible at all. There were cobwebs everywhere and the whole place looked so dirty! We got all the more inspired to start work, and it went on for several weeks."
Rajesh and Rajani cleaned out and renovated the temple. When the shankaracharya of Kanchi heard about the couple's work at Thirumazhisai, he summoned Rajesh to Kancheepuram and asked him not to stop the exceptional work that he had just begun. He also asked the couple to pay a visit to one Shiva temple at Achirupakkam, in Kancheepuram district. The shankaracharya had found the temple to be in a very bad shape, with bats infesting the interiors and few devotees visiting it. "Can you do something there? Can you make the villagers visit the temple?" he asked Rajesh.
This became their second assignment.
Rajesh first visited each and every house in the village and requested the villagers to come to the temple, but no one was willing to do so. So he, Rajani, and a few friends started cleaning the premises on their own. Soon, the embarrassed villagers joined the couple and their friends. Once the temple became visit-worthy, they organised prayers for the welfare of the villagers.
Within a month, the number of people coming to the temple went up to around 500. "I didn't have to personally do all the renovation work there," he says. "I just kindled the interest in them, and that was enough for the villagers themselves to clean up the place. They understood that after all it was their own temple."
Thus began their new journey. One temple after another was cleaned and renovated as the years flew by. Now, after 15 years of relentless work, they have renovated 50 temples in and around their district.
Rajesh and Rajani's modus operandi is this: Every weekend, accompanied by a few friends and relatives, with bagsful of fruit and flowers, they drive to the village where their efforts are needed. Without waiting for the villagers to join them, without even calling them, they start cleaning the temples. This act generally prompts the villagers to join them. Sometimes they carry food prepared at home to the temple site; at other times they carry the necessary provisions and, with the help of the villagers, cook lunch in the village. But they always make sure that the villagers join them in partaking of the lunch. After a day's work, they prepare prasadam and distribute it to all the villagers.
"Free food also attracts the poor villagers and they join us in the renovation work that way," says Rajesh. "After a few visits, we become friends. We start carrying the provisions needed for a feast and the villagers join us in preparing the meals. We sit together and eat the food. My driver Antony is a big help in the effort."
One of the most exciting experiences the couple has had was at Kovalam, a place near Chennai. When they came to know that a place filled with waste and plastic bags was once a temple tank, they decided to reclaim it.
"Funds are never a problem for us, we get money from somewhere," says Rajesh. "In this case, somebody gave a bulldozer free, somebody gave two lorries free, someone gave diesel free... all for a good cause. Within five days, we dug up the whole place and collected two lorries full of plastic waste. After that, we invited the district collector to inaugurate the tank. After the inauguration, he promised to construct a compound wall.
"It is a service and not only the local people but even the government is involved in such constructive projects. Once the tank reappeared, the villagers started getting good water! We also renovated the temple in the process. Believe it or not, Kovalam is a Muslim-dominated area and a Muslim gentleman donated Rs 1,000 to the temple!"
Soon, one by one, the villagers joined them in cleaning the surroundings. "As we moved forward, cutting the bushes, we saw the temple, and also knee-deep dust inside. The temple was built in such a way that only on the 1st of Chithirai [the Tamil New Year Day, which coincides with April 14], sunlight would fall on the deity. So the whole area was very dark and we could not see anything. Then somebody lit a matchstick and suddenly we saw a Siva lingam three feet tall!"
This is not an isolated story, Rajesh says.
Once the locals are motivated enough to take care of the temple and other community activities, they help the villagers form a village committee. Slowly, the couple moves to another village, another temple, and another challenge.
Encouraged by Rajesh and Rajani's effort, a few voluntary organisations have also chipped in. For example, the Sankara Netralaya, one of the most famous eye hospitals in Chennai, arranges free eye camps for the poor and old villagers when such temple-cleaning operations are on. When the doctors visit the villages, the villagers invite the doctors to eat food with them.
Not that the couple never faced difficulties. They had to encounter resistance and protests in some places where the villagers suspected their motives. Why do these city people come here? Is it to grab our land? Once, when Rajesh opened a temple that was locked for 50 years, he received a lawyer's notice for doing so. But no hurdle has deterred the couple or dampened its spirit.
Both Rajesh and Rajani believe that religious places are very important for the development of a village. "We are willing to clean and renovate other religious places too. The good thing is, when we start cleaning old temples, people belonging to other religions also start cleaning their places."
Money and help have never been a problem for them. People from unexpected quarters come forward and offer them money and manpower. "All the profit that I make from my small factory goes to this work," says Rajesh. "I am only a catalyst. I have to only start and afterwards the villagers themselves continue the work. And we do it because we get pleasure out of the work."