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Murder in a temple

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November 16, 2004 23:49 IST
The Varadarajaswamy temple in Kanchipuram is huge. The 24-acre complex includes two huge ponds amid coconut groves. A 100-pillar hall is the central attraction; each pillar intricately designed and unlike the others. Entering the temple costs Rs 1 and an additional Rs 5 if you bring along a camera.

The watchman at the main gate, Gajapathy, greets people in Tamil. He says it was raining here on September 3. The Paravasautsavam, a temple festival, was underway. During the week-long festival, a special puja is organised at 6.30 every evening.

Sankararaman's office was alongside the temple's main office. An hour before the puja was scheduled to begin, Sankararaman was sitting in the temple office. Two clerks, Ganesh and Duraikannan, were with him. Another employee, Kuppusamy, was in the garden.

At around 5.30 pm that day, five men came to the temple riding three motorcycles. They walked into the office, stabbed Sankararaman and fled. The two clerks say they were terrified. They shut their eyes and claim they did not see the faces of any of the men. They only saw their backs as the men were leaving, the clerks say.

Holy Man in a Controversy

The 100-pillar hall is diagonally opposite the office. Gajapathy, the watchman, says, "When I saw the commotion I came running to the office. I wanted to call an auto to take Sankararaman to hospital. The others told me it was too late. He was dead. The police would not like it if we touched anything or moved the body."

Gajapathy talks highly of the murdered man, whose killing led to the arrest of Jayendra Saraswati, the Shankaracharya of Kanchi, on November 12. "He was a man worthy of respect," he says, "He was tough too. When he spoke to anyone, he would not allow others to listen. He would ask 'What do you want here? Can't you see I am talking to someone, go away and come back later'."

Never in the temple's 400-year history has such a violent incident occurred within its premises. The temple's treasurer, Kannan, told "This is Kalyug. In this world the good will suffer and the evil will prosper. Sankararaman was a good man. This should not have happened. The Lord will see that the guilty are punished. Nobody can escape His wrath."

Sankararaman's character is illustrated through several anecdotes. Last December, temple staff recall, the gold and diamond chain worn by the dieties went missing. It was valued at Rs 105,000. Sankararaman did not hesitate to immediately suspend the two priests who were on duty at the time. He let them in again only after they replaced the jewelry with their own money. The original jewelry were never found.

Another office-bearer, Kuppusamy, says, "He was a soft spoken, but firm man. He had a good working relationship with everyone. I have been working here for 35 years and he had been here for more than 25 years. I knew him to be a good man. He regularly visited the Math (Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham)even though he worked here."

Another watchman, Sundar, was on night duty at the time of the murder. He too says that Sankararaman was a good man. T A Kannan, a friend of the slain man's family, says, "Most of his close friends have fled. They are scared of the Kanchi Math. They are scared of the police. And they are scared of the press."

The police arrested 14 people, before arresting the Shankaracharya.

A Ganesh Nadar in Kanchipuram