THANJAVUR: Like clockwork every day at noon, a motley crowd of nearly 400 people gathers outside Thilagar Thidal near the Brihadeeswara Temple in Thanjavur. The sun beats down on them as they queue up outside the famous Big Temple. The long queue has people from all walks of life, ranging from truck loadmen, auto drivers, and the homeless. They are not there to offer prayers, but to receive what usually eludes them — a hearty meal.
Divine intervention arrives in the form of the much-awaited van that feeds the rumbling stomachs, just as it has across Thanjavur for the past 21 years. Volunteers from Arutperumjothi Trust begin handing out food packets to each one of them, standing in the queue. It could be a bountiful sambar rice one day, a packet of wholesome vegetable rice the next, and on occasion, a bowl of cooling curd rice.
A new face among the crowd is a 50-year-old woman whose house is soon to be demolished in an eviction drive. “I came here to look for a rented house and could not cook today. So, I’m taking food from the van,” she says. For most, Arutperumjothi Trust — a community kitchen that traces its genesis and ideas to Saint Vallalar’s teachings — feeds them their first and only meal of the day. The trust began feeding people near Thilagar Thidal in April 2020.
While the apex court has been nudging the Union and State governments to set up community kitchens to prevent starvation deaths, the 69-year-old B Thambaiah who set up Arutperumjothi Trust has been light years ahead of them.
Even during the lockdown in 2020, the Trust supplied food to around 80 underprivileged people in the district. They also provided food packets to 150 sugarcane-cutting workers from Jharkhand who were stranded at Thanjavur. Inpatients at the Covid care centre in Vallam got their signature dish — ‘Mooligai Kangi’ (herbal porridge) amid all the waves of the pandemic. They also supplied food to 300 inpatients and staff at Thanjavur Medical college hospital.
“Born in a poor family, I knew the pangs of hunger in my childhood,” recalls Thambaiah, the founder and the managing trustee of the trust and anchor of a group of followers of Vallalar. The group is on a mission similar to the 19th-century saint who was an advocate of feeding the hungry as the prime duty of everyone. Now a Siddha practitioner, he contributes 33% of his earnings to the trust.
Belonging to a farming community, Thambaiah was also no stranger to hardships. At 10 years old, he began training in the traditional art of herbal and Siddha medicine under his elder brother in Thuraiyur. By the 70s, the young man began preaching Vallalar’s philosophy. The year was 1974 when Thambaiah began distributing food for 50-100 people in Thuraiyur.
This bloomed into a full-scale ‘Agathiyar Aalayam’ at Madhakottai Road in Thanjavur in 1994. Every day, at noon, 50 destitute persons were fed. “On April 13, 2000, we started annadhanam (food donation) near the Raja Rajan statue (near the Big Temple). Around 400 people would come to get food,” says Thambaiah. It grew popular as no one else in the city used to practice annadhanam, he says.
He remembers attendants from a nearby government maternity hospital used to gather in large numbers to provide food to expectant mothers. “As the demand was high then, it was a struggle. But many altruists came forward to donate whatever they could,” he adds. Additionally, when Thambaiah goes to other countries to provide natural medicines, he charges a higher rate and uses this for the annadhanam.
Often, Thambaiah finds himself humbled by some contributions. “Once, a woman who used to take alms from us donated Rs 500 in coins and a new saree. I consider that to be the greatest contribution I ever got,” he states. When TNIE was at the feeding site a few days ago, a homeless person donated Rs 90 to the volunteers distributing the food packet before accepting his food. “We even reach out to people asking for Rs 200 a month as donation. Nearly 20 people donate in this way,” says Thambaiah.
Some choose to donate food instead of money. “Often we get anonymous donations where they keep bags of rice at the doorstep of Agathiyar Aalayam,” Thambaiah says.The trust now receives around Rs 70,000 donations a month but it requires around Rs 9,000 to feed around 400 persons everyday. There are 25 regular contributors and an engineer from the government service that reimburses the cost of diesel for transporting the food packets and also for the fuel of the modern kitchen in the Aalayam. This modern kitchen, worth Rs 4 lakh, had been installed in 2001 and the cost had been borne by Thambaiah and G Subramanian, an engineer with a petroleum company.
(Those interested in contributing could contact 9443375533.)