Sivasri Thangam Bhattar, 91, was the first of the Madurai Temple priests to serve Hindus overseas
To describe the unusual life history of this year’s recipient of the Hindu Renaissance Award as our “Hindu of the Year,” we offer three testimonies of Sivasri Thangam Bhattar’s exemplary life of service to God and devotees given by three admirers: a fellow priest, a distinguished academic, and a longtime member of the Texas Meenakshi temple.
Shanmukha Sivacharyar, priest at the Sri Kaalikaambal Temple, Chennai: “S ivasri Thangam Battar hails from an Adisaiva family who have dedicated their whole lives for the worship of Lord Somasundareshwara and Goddess Meenakshi at Madurai, India.
“Sri Chandrasekara Bhattar, fondly called Thangam Bhattar, was one of the dedicated priests who left his family in India during the mid 1970s and wholly sacrificed his life by serving in a country alien to him, America. In 1982 he began his service at Sri Meenakshi temple, Houston, Texas. After several years Sri Manicka Sundara Bhattar also joined this team of dynamic priests extending their humble and dedicated service to the devotees along with the vibrant prayers to the Gods and Goddesses of the temple.
Honoring Priests: Thangam Bhattar receives an award and is honored at the 2018 Maha Raja Gopuram Kumbhabhishekam for the Ganapati Temple of Arizona
“Bhattar and his wife are an example of the priest couple’s showering love and affection on all people they meet. At the first consecration ceremony of Sri Meenakshi Temple in Texas my father, Sambhamurthy Sivacharyar, was the officiating acharya along with Bhattar. I have fondly called him Thangam Mama from a young age. I remember him as always happy, selfless, content, helpful, dedicated and having a pleasing personality. I have not seen him speak much, but the few words he uttered with a gentle smile always made me feel the grace of Lord Somasundareswara and Goddess Meenakshi.
“Even in his elderly period of life, he remains active and preaches the love of Lord Siva through his dedicated service. His immaculate nature is what the younger generation of priests should imbibe, to serve the Lord and His children. He is a person whom I always love to see. May his service continue for the benefit of the world.”
Chris Fuller, professor emeritus, Department of Anthropology, London School of Economics, excerpted from his book, The Renewal of the Priesthood: Modernity and Traditionalism in a South Indian Temple: “In 1976, Thangam Bhattar, then in his late forties, who had briefly visited Malaysia three years earlier, became the first Meenakshi Temple priest to work overseas when he went to a Singapore temple for a few months. In 1982–83, Thangam worked in Pearland, Texas, for nearly a year when its Meenakshi Temple was first opened, and he was then replaced by his younger brother Rajarathna; Thangam also returned for over a year in 1986–88, when the temple was extended in size, but Rajarathna stayed on permanently in Pearland until retirement. Thangam and Rajarathna both acquired green cards in the mid-1980s. Back in 1976, though, nobody in Madurai would have predicted that Thangam, Rajarathna, and then Manikkasundara would work in Texas, and that the latter’s graduation from an Agamic school would be so important for his career in Madurai and his eventual move to America.
“Indeed, although it may be a very small element in the history of latter-day globalization, the emergence of ‘traditional’ education in Sanskrit scripture as a valuable asset in the United States is a striking sign of how the world changed during the twentieth century’s last quarter, for it was not only unpredictable in the mid-1970s, it was virtually unimaginable.
“A significant minority of priests, following in Thangam Bhattar’s footsteps, have been working abroad as well, and this has been made possible by the growing prosperity and strengthening ethnic identity among overseas Hindu communities, whether in older regions of settlement such as Malaysia and Singapore or newer ones such as Britain and especially the United States, where the NRI population has rapidly expanded.”
Dr. Bala N. Aiyer, temple member, Sri Meenakshi Temple, Pearland, Texas: “ In the summer of 1982, our chief priest Sri Thanga Bhattar came from Madurai to perform the main rituals of kumbhabishekam and puja for the inauguration. On June 21, 1982, Air India flight 403 from Chennai to Mumbai crashed while landing in a heavy rainstorm and fell at the beach, partly in the ocean. Seventeen passengers and crew lost their lives, but miraculously, Sri Thanga Bhattar, Sri S. Narayanan, and few others who were coming to Houston for the temple event survived unscathed. Bhattar had checked in two suitcases as his luggage, one with his personal effects and other with materials and clothes for the Prathishta rituals at the temple. When he walked along the wing and stepped down to the knee-deep ocean water, he noted something hitting his leg and found that it was the suitcase containing the temple puja materials. Most of these items were specially sent by Madurai Meenakshi-Sundareswarar Devasthanam for use in our kumbhabishekam ceremonies. In the middle of all the restrictions due to police investigations for the accident, he was permitted to carry this one box and catch the next flight. He reached Houston without much delay to participate in the inauguration puja rituals for kumbabhishekam.”