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Eleven people died recently near Thanjavur when a temple (mutt) car grazed against high tension power cables and got electrocuted. The car lost its way a bit, having faced navigation problems. A few days later, at the Uttarapathiswarar temple in Tiruchengottangudi in Nagapattinam district, the man who helps to navigate the car using a wedge-shaped wooden block died when the car ran over him. A similar incident happened in 2016, at the Thyagaraja Swamy temple at Tirukkaravasal in Tiruvarur district. Two of the men who put blocks to make the temple car stay on course died.

temple car being pulled

The Tiruvarur temple car while being pulled by some 4,000 people.

Best practices that go back to the Tiruvarur big temple car procession initiated by M Karunanidhi when he was chief minister in his first term and other temples later can be used everywhere in Tamil Nadu to avoid accidents in future. These include the use of hydraulic brakes, cement roads and underground power cables.

The temple car is key to temple festivals and is often the grand event that draws large crowds. It is a popular part of village life and draws the entire community into the festival. But the car procession does pose a risk.

Rationalist M Karunanidhi may have asked rhetorically why the temple car procession was required when farmers were struggling. But when he became chief minister, Karunanidhi ensured that the grand Tiruvarur Azhi car procession happened with safety features.

In 1926, the massive Tiruvarur temple car with 10 wooden wheels got burned down in a fire. In the 1930s, the car was reconstructed but with eight wheels.

In the 1970s, based on a request from Thyagaraja Swamy temple hereditary trustee Vadapathimangalam V S Thyagaraja Mudaliar that the damaged wheels should be repaired and the procession conducted, then chief minister M Karunanidhi took efforts to renew the car with modern technology.

If the car goes off course to a side of the street, while being pulled by some 4,000 people, the wedge shaped block of wood is put on the wheels on both sides to bring it under control.

Moving the 96-foot car weighing 360 tons through the narrow streets of Tiruvarur is not an easy task. The chief minister asked Bharat Heavy Electricals in Tiruchy to manufacture steel wheel axles that were 24.5 feet long and 1.5 feet height and four wheels that were 9 feet diameter and 1.5 feet width. Hydraulic brakes were fitted to stop the car and hold it. Pucca roads were laid on the temple car way and the sides cleared so there was enough room.

Two bulldozers were arranged to push the car from behind. This helped to make pulling the car easier. What used to take seven days for the procession to complete got over in 12 hours – 7am to 7pm.

wooden block under temple car

A wedge shaped block of wood is put on the wheels on both sides to avoid the car going off course.

Despite the brakes, the Tiruvarur car does need the traditional blocking stick mechanism to keep the car on track. If the car goes off course to a side of the street, while being pulled by some 4,000 people, the wedge shaped block of wood is put on the wheels on both sides to bring it under control.

Kanakasabathy is one of the two block men for the car. A farmer, 52-year-old Kanakasabapathy does this as service.  As the car is pulled, he stays on one side to keep that side of the wheel moving straight. Even while coming to a stop, the hydraulic brakes are often not enough. The blocks bring the car to a complete halt. Smaller cars need 10 or 20 blocks whereas the Tiruvarur temple needs 500 blocks, he says. “This is a skilled job. We have to practice with smaller cars before doing big ones. I first did this at Tiruchendur before coming here,” he adds.

The block men stand in front of the car just below the frame and on both sides. On the left in Tiruvarur is Satish, son of Vadivel, a construction worker. On the right is Kanakasabapathy. The two sync and put the blocks to keep the car on course. A man standing outside will keep giving the blocks to them. “Only we can keep the car that is being pulled by 4,000 people on course. We can relax a bit only when the car is turning,” he says.

An ingenious differential like mechanism is used to turn the massive car (video). In automobile vehicles, the differential allows the wheel on whose side the vehicle has to turn to rotate at a slightly slower speed than the wheel on the other side. This makes the vehicle turn to the side the wheel is rotating slower.

On the temple car, this is achieved by putting a thin metallic sheet under the wheel on whose side the car has to turn. Grease is applied generously on the blade. When the car gets on it and is pulled, the wheel that is on the sheet slips. It therefore rotates less than the other side and the car turns on the side the thin sheet has been put.

On the temple car, a differential-like mechanism used in automobiles to facilitate turning is achieved by putting a thin metallic sheet under the wheel on whose side the temple car has to turn.

The Tirvarur car used to take many hours to turn in the past. Only in 1982, this ingenious method started to be used. Some 11 metallic sheets are put. Oil and grease are applied on the sheet. And the car quickly maneuvers a turn due to this, says Kanakasabapathy.

In the past copra was used to pull the car. In 1999, nylon ropes started to be used.

Thin metallic sheets are inserted under the wheel to help one wheel rotate at a slightly slower speed than the wheel on the other side. This turns the car

Now the streets on which the procession moves has cement roads. Overhead cables have been removed and put underground. This ensures no accident like in Kalimedu happens.

The government has sanctioned Rs 10 crore to lay underground cables all around in that area. Though the big car has hydraulic brakes, the four smaller ones that follow this in the procession don’t have hydraulic brakes.

In many temples across Tamil Nadu, BHEL-supplied steel wheels are being used in temple cars. Annamalaiyar temple in Tiruvannamalai, Varadarajapuram temple in Kancheepuram, Saneeswarar temple in Thirunallar, and the big temple car in Thanjavur have hydraulic brakes in addition to metallic wheels.

In Tiruchanur, the hydraulic brakes are operated by electrical actuators so a switch is all that is required to apply the hydraulic brakes. It may make sense to install this device elsewhere too.


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