A Penang Island youth group sets a world standard for community service, volunteerism and teamwork, conducting a wide array of temple programs.
BY RAJIV MALIK
THOUSANDS OF MILES AWAY FROM the six original abodes of Lord Murugan in South India, at this Deity’s Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani Waterfall Temple in Penang, Malaysia, a small group of His devotees lead a life of service and sadhana, intoxicated with His divine love. For them, the blessings they get from Murugan are so powerful and all-encompassing that no area of their life is untouched. This group is known all over Malaysia as SBYO, the Shri Balathandayuthabani Youth Organization. In June, 2013, I went to Penang to report on the temple’s rebirth in a new location and on its volunteers. I saw men, women and children, from the aged to the very young, including highly qualified professionals and businessmen, all serving the temple in joyful devotion.
The morning of my first visit was a hot, sultry midweek workday. Climbing the 400-plus stairs left me breathless, but my fatigue vanished as soon as I entered the temple and had darshan of Lord Murugan. It was a magnificent, grand building. Not a speck of dust could be seen anywhere on its floors. The place shined. After abhishekam and arati, I interviewed the chief priest and some devotees. The priest lavishly praised the SBYO members for their committment to consistent weekly routine service at the temple. He said that during the Thai Pusam festival as many as four million worshipers come to the temple, and the volunteers work around the clock. Their range includes grass cutting, bush clearing, grounds maintenance, temple cleaning, decoration, small maintenance jobs related to electricity and water supply and even artistic work such as painting the roof of the temple with spiritual motifs and symbols. Women and children primarily help with feeding the volunteers, cleaning the temple before festivals, lighting lamps and distributing drinks to pilgrims.
Cleaning the temple’s 1026 steps
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I visited again on a Sunday morning. Most SBYO members make a commitment to serve at the temple at least one Sunday a month. I met the entire team—officers, volunteers and their families. Everyone had testimony to offer of their special experiences and relationships with Lord Murugan, explaining that He is like their father—revered, respected and loved from the core of their hearts. The fact that instead of relaxing at home on the weekends, they chose to come and serve at the temple spoke volumes about devotion and sacrifice of comfort and time for a higher cause. They all love being part of SBYO, describing it as a big extended family, each member participating in the happiness and sorrows of all the others.
Diverse SBYO Services: accounting, maintenance, feeding, crowd control
ALL PHOTOS COURTESY SBYO
Karma yoga, working for God: Helping with Kalvi Viratam when thousands of students fast and bring water to bath Murugan before for their exams.
Nannthini Shunmugam, Kamaladevi Nethievellu, Neetiaasree Shunmugam, Gahyathiri Shunmugam. Nannthini is SBYO secretary and handles a ton of paperwork!
The SBYO effectively serves as a management school where they learn how to interact with other team members and the public and work in an efficient, disciplined and organized manner. Members learn respect for elders and develop the art of public speaking. Working with SBYO has made them self-confident and enthusiastic. All this has helped them become successful in their academic and professional work outside the temple. Parents who gained these qualities through decades of service in the SBYO are now working to pass them on to their children.
The credibility and reputation of SBYO reached new heights in 2012 when, together with the management of the temple, they organized the completion of the renovation and a grand reconsecration. Spread over many days, the ceremony made front page news, not just in Malaysia but in other parts of the world where the devotees of Lord Murugan took keen interest in this great spiritual happening.
Priests pours milk over the temple Deity during puja
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Origins Inspired by Community Need
Ananth Viswanathan relates the early history of SBYO: “In 1981 Mr. Chitravelu, Mr. Jodi and Mr. Medi, senior temple committee members, appealed to their friends and colleagues to come to the old Waterfall Temple on the hill to prepare for Thai Pusam. I was eighteen at the time. Around 25 to 30 of us cleaned and painted the temple and joined the temple committee to help organize the festival in January of 1982. After that we decided to come on the last Sunday of every month. A year later we had a sort of annual general meeting. We needed to create a formal organization to expand our service beyond just cutting the grass and cleaning temple drains. We named ourselves unofficially the Balathandayuthapani Volunteers (BTV) and gained some community recognition.”
Shanmugam, 52, who was the longest serving former chairman of SBYO, relates, “I’ve been associated with SBYO for 33 years. Whatever we have done, we have done out of our love for our Lord Balathandayuthapani. But it would be wrong to say that we are the creators and pioneer members of SBYO. The Lord Himself is the pioneer. He has put us together so that we can work together selflessly.
Pioneer SBYO volunteers in 1982
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“Initially the intent was to help the temple committee manage festivals. This expanded to beautifying the temple grounds. Gradually, we wanted to do more. As unoffical volunteers, we could only act on decisions by the temple committee. To raise funds and work outside the temple, we needed to be officially registered as an independent organization. My first job as secretary of the BTV in 1983 was to get us registered. At first the registrar rejected our application, saying there were already enough Hindu organizations. We were advised to add the word “Youth” to our name because the government was encouraging youth organizations. We all agreed and also felt the youth should take over and lead the organization.
“So, in 1985 we successfully registered as Sri Balathandayuthabani Youth Organization. Those over forty years of age automatically give up official membership. Of course, the youth still work with the blessings and guidance of the elders, and those over forty are still considered senior members. Today we have about 33 youth members and 40 senior members. Everyone works together as a team.”
Lord Murugan’s shakti inspires the hearts and lives of His devotees
ALL PHOTOS COURTESY SBYO
Three decades of service: Managing the crowd of four million devotees who come to make milk and kavadi offerings during the annual Thai Pusam festival.
Ladies serving lunch to other volunteers; SBYO member P.V.K. Devagaran cutting the temple compound grass.
Challenges and Success
Ananth Viswanathan describes some of the challenges, “After we registered in 1985, a new group of office bearers on the temple committee felt threatened. The public identified the temple with SBYO, and the management committee thought we had plans to take over their role. In 1988, after six years of service, they banned us from working and serving at the temple. We were chased out and felt deeply hurt. The problem escalated and was reported in the newspapers. We had the sympathy of the devotees and general public. Temples on public land are owned by the state government, overseen by the Hindu Endowments Board. The matter went to the state. Suddenly there was a reshuffling of the temple management committee and the Hindu Endowment Board by the government. The old temple committee was disbanded.”
Ananth continued the story: “The new management committee that was appointed did not want to see this happen again. They decided that every time a new temple committee is formed, two or three SBYO members would be included on the committee (which has fifteen members) and may even be assigned executive positions. For example, I was once the secretary of SBYO and later served as the secretary of the temple committee. Since then we have had no problems with the managing committee. Some say that this 1988 incident should be forgotten, but I feel it offers valuable lessons. The Maha Kumbhabhishekam was a very big event, and once it was over we were shedding tears of joy. For our old team members it was a dream come true. I have spent almost my entire youth since the age of eighteen dedicatedly working for this temple. Now our children join us in doing the seva work, serving the temple with the same dedication. So the cycle goes on, and gradually the younger generation is taking over.”
P. Kuvena Raju, 53, former temple chairman, shared his views, “The SBYO team is a permanent presence here. The temple committee keeps shuffling, but SBYO has continuity over decades. But now we cannot manage all the work with the same manpower. Over half of our 13-acre parcel now has structures and landscaping that need maintenance. SBYO needs to grow to cover the area. But so far we see the same SBYO faces and no increase in their strength. We need more hands. Now we are trying some paid staff to help SBYO cover the maintenance. However, when we have festivals we do need the manpower of SBYO to run the show.
“Last year we introduced a new system of abhishekam for Thai Pusam. We put in pumps to transfer the huge volume of milk from one point to another. The SBYO contributed to this improvement. They have also been instrumental in making Karttikeya Dipam a prominent annual event. Sometimes the temple committee has to make a firm decision and request they abide by that, but during my tenure we have tried to give them whatever they have needed from us and support them in all possible ways. I do not know if the new management will have the same view as I have, but to me the SBYO are part and parcel to the running of the temple, and I very much value their contribution.”
SBYO volunteers reach out to handicapped youth and bring them to the temple to receive blessings.
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An Amazing Array of Services
Thandabaniy Subramaniam, 35, present SBYO chairman, describes current activities: “We have annual temple functions and ongoing services. The most important festival is Thai Pusam. Then we have Chitra Pournami, Karttikeya Dipam and Kanda Shashthi that we help organize. For the past seven years we have also conducted education seminars for all the Indian children who finish their exams and want to enter different universities for higher education. We also organize pilgrimage to other Murugan temples in Malaysia, visit other temples and interact with the other temple management committee persons and learn from them how they are managing the affairs of their temples. We also celebrate a festival connected to Lord Vinayaka, and we clean the temple steps before Skanda Shasthi. We help other Penang temples organize their kumbhabhishekams when they request assistance.
“Before the students take exams, we organize Kalvi Viratam, students fast and bring water to the temple for Muruga’s abhishekam, and pray for His blessings in the studies. We also help our members who have a wedding in their family. If there is a death in the family of one of our members, we organize atma shanti prayers for the departed soul. We hold a family day get-together once a year, and we have a weekly badminton session in which our members participate. Some of our members work to help organize community athletic events. We help ISKCON when they organize their annual yatra. We serve in charity homes of handicapped children and orphanages, and help with their painting and renovation. We organize Diwali and parties for them. We hold Vinayaka prayers annually for ten days. During that time, we invite underprivileged and handicapped children to join us, drive them in vans to the temple and give them donations. We even carry them up the steps to the temple during the Karttikeya festival. Every year we sell calendars to raise funds. All our activities and finances are recorded and well documented, as we have to submit them to the registrar.”
Shunmugam, SBYO chairman from 1992-2001, says, “Even before us, another group of volunteers was here. Our forefathers have given us this heritage which we want to pass on to our youth. Hinduism has taught us the way to live our lives. It has taught us to work in the service of mankind.”
Karttikeya Dipam—Manifesting Lord Murugan’s Divine Light on Earth
ALL PHOTOS COURTESY SBYO
Spreading love and light: The annual Karttikeya Dipam festival was once a small event at the temple, but the SBYO has brought it into prominence as a major annual festival.
Lighting over 5,000 lamps from the base of the hill up the steps and through the temple (that’s Georgetown in the background).