Bharat Heavy Electricals company', Trichy and temple chariot wheels and breaking system.

Tyagaraja swami temple,Thiruvarur big ratha,

Above imageThis chariot is one of the tallest and heaviest ones in India. In Tamil it is called AZHI THER (rath).  The temple  is dedicated to Lord Shiva who goes by the name of Tyagaraja.
BHEL, Tiruchirapalli city, TN fixed the steel wheels and hydraulic breaks for the first time in 1969. 

Suchindram temple car wooden base.Thanumalayan Temple,

What has BHEL - Bharat Heavy Electrical Ltd, a Govt. of India undertaking, got to do with wheels of Hindu temple chariots? It is a moot question and many people will flop, because the product comes altogether under a different realm.  BHEL makes boilers and turbines for utility companies and has big plants across India.

The popular BHEL plant at Tiruchirappalli  Tamil Nadu has gotten into a different field not for commercial purpose.  It is that of making sturdy  steel wheels for the Hindu Temple chariots and the public may not be aware of this strange link BHEL has with religious institutions. The HR & CE, an arm of the TN govt, has more than 38000 temples under its  administration. The HR & CE is repairing and restoring damaged temple cars -rathas. 

As wheels are important parts of the ther (chariot), special attention is focused on their quality, longevity. usefulness and easy maintenance. Several hundreds of famous Hindu temples in Tamil Nadu have a temple chariot or chariots to be used annually for the Rathotchavam - chariot festival. The procession deity or deities will be taken around the four streets in a  huge chariot being pulled by countless devotees. Special thick ropes are tied to the chariot for this purpose. Some  heavy chariots may need extra push which will be taken care of by heavy-duty bulldozers.  In the chariots  four wheels need to be strong and sturdy to bear the huge weight  above and to keep the chariot moving forward safely.

Ever year the TN govt places orders for special steel wheels  with BHEL.  New wooden wheels are not made nowadays for reasons of preserving well-grown trees. To make huge thick weight-bearing wheels, you need strong, well matured tree trunks. In the olden days, the roads were made of mud and the wooden wheels did  not suffer wear and tear as much as they do nowadays on asphalt roads. Further, there is the risk of  wooden wheels running off the road. For a few decades steel wheels are preferred to wooden ones for the temple car.

Believe it or not, for more than 50 years, BHEL has been making wheels. Until 2013 BHEL has made 700 wheels for the chariots in Tamil Nadu alone.  Why do chariot experts give preference  to steel wheels over the wooden one? The following reasons may be worth mentioning: 
 01. Poor availability of quality wood. 

02. Difficulty in sourcing  big quality wood. 

03. Wooden wheels may be subject to termite attack, if the chosen wood is not good enough. 

04. In this era of global warming, it is not a good idea to cut well-grown trees as we need lots of tree cover, besides check on soil erosion that might cause landslides.  

05. Periodic maintenance of the wooden wheel is a must, because, they have to bear the heavy weight plus the divinity while in motion. Any defect in the wheels means the chariot may be stuck in the middle of procession on the street.

06. Since chariots weigh between 200 to 300 tons, the wheels have to be strong to bear the weight. 

07. Aged wooden wheels are not dependable as they been subject to wear and tear for a long time. Traditional wooden wheels are becoming tough to maintain. 

08. Though most of the chariots are kept under proper shed through out  the year, they also get affected by the vagaries of weather. The condition of wheels may change as   years go by.  This is not true of steel wheels that need to be properly painted and the axles greased periodically.

 As per 2013 estimate each  steel wheel costs between 3 to 7 lakhs depending on size and the weight of the chariot. The diameter may vary from 900 mm to 2700 mm and they weigh  up to 2500 kg  (about the weight of an adult elephant). Now, the cost of wheels will be much higher.

Believe it or not the very first order came  from Thyagaraja temple of Tiruvarur, home town of the late CM Karunanidhi. Under his rule, the car festival of this temple revived, having been stopped in 1947 due to safety concerns, The Temple Chariot is roughly 95 feet tall  and weighs roughly 400 tons, including the canopy, etc  The BHEL has special division to design chariot wheels, axles and hydraulic break system.  With respect to wheel making for the temple chariots, according to BHEL, ''it is not a corporate activity, rather a social responsibility.''
 Chariot of Tiruchanur Sri Padmavathi temple in Tirupati

Above image: TTD engineers applying the hydraulic braking system to the chariot during the trial run held at Tiruchanur Sri Padmavathi Ammavari temple in Tirupati. Photo Credit: KV Poornachandra_Kumar .........

In  November 2012 TTD - the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams has  begun introducing in a phased manner in its temples the hydraulic braking system for the chariots. The unique feature is it  can be operated using switches by personnel walking along with the chariot.   During the chariot festival associated with the Kartheeka Brahmotsavams at Sri Padmavathi Ammavari temple in Tiruchanur, the officials had to use  huge wooden blocks to stop the rushing chariot. To avoid risk to life and for smooth running the TTD decided to go for the hydraulic braking system for the wooden chariot. BHEL  designed the suitable hydraulic braking system, taking into account the chariot's weight, breaking distance, etc. The chariot was taken out on the street after a trial run for a distance of 150 metres. Occasionally the breaking system fails because of huge weight. But, the officials take precautions beforehand - far before the use of the chariot. 

Tit Bits:
Wooden wheels, Balabhadra chariot, Puri, Odisha.

Puri Jagannath temple, Chariot  made of wood.

01. There are 989 wooden cars in 809 temples. Besides there are 52 temples with golden car  and 39 temple with silver car (figures may be higher now) in the state of Tamil Nadu

Humpi, Karnataka, stone chariot with stone wheels.

02. At Puri Jagannath temple (Odisha), only wooden wheels are used for the three chariots (raths).
03. No metal wheels are used so far and  every year fresh wooden wheels are made from specific trees to carry the idols of Lord Jagannath, Subhadra and Balarama.  
04. Religious toys are made from the broken wheels.
05. The chariots of Jagannath temple in Puri inspired the coining of an English word: ''Juggernaut''.
06. When a ratha goes around the street, it is believed, it will dispel all the evil forces along its path.
''BHEL has made about 700 wheels for temple chariots....''The Economic Times 02 November 2013.