Sri Padham Thangigal ‘walk’, a hoary tradition of some Vishnu temples of Tamil Nadu

Srirangam. Sri Padham ThangigalThe Hindu
In the Hindu temples of South India, in particular Vishnu temples of Tamil Nadu, probably you would have seen fairly well-built men, with considerable ease, carry the procession deities  around in a well-decorated palanquin  on their shoulders often accompanied  with all the paraphernalia including musicians and drum players.  Sri Padham Thangigal  are the men  from the Brahmin Vaishnavite community, who do their duty with utmost devotion and dedication often driven by the love for the presiding deities.
Srirangam temple, Tamil Nadu.
Often referred to as Sri Padham Thangigal ‘walk’, it is an important temple ritual believed to have been introduced by  saint Sri. Ramanuja way long back centuries ago. It is a unique way of carrying the revered deities around the temple premises, etc. There is no Hindu temple in south India that does not have a procession of deities as part of temple festivals!! Not  all Vishnu  temples have this team of sturdy men. Exceptions  being the Srirangam temple and Sri Parthasarathy Swami temple in Triplicane, Chennai.  Normally, the deity  is taken  out  on festive occasions on ‘wheels’ and this is true of most of the  Divya Desam shrines  in Tamil Nadu.
Sri patham thangigal. Ranganathar temple iSrirangam
In the hoary temple of Sri Ranganathar, Srirangam, TN,  the procession deity (Utchavar) of Lord Namperumal (Vishnu) is carried in a traditional way and this rare tradition has been around for about 1000 long years. While on duty, the Sri Patham Thangis of Srirangam wear a coloured turban  to establish their tradition and carry the deity on their shoulders through the entire length of the procession. The amazing fact is the men never place the palanquin on the stool, for a brief respite during long walk.  

Carrying the perumal on the shoulder is believed to be a great  Kainkaryam (devotional task) and no less people than  Uthama Nambi, Parasara/Veda Vyasa Bhattar, Annangar Swamy and Rangachar in the 19th century engaged themselves in this devotional duty.  The carriers followed an order while carrying  the deities.  The presiding deity Sri Ranganathar is quite well-known for his impressive gait and the tradition has it the Sri Patham Thangis of Srirangam must maintain the gait and bring out the grandeur  and majesty of Lord's walk.  There are different walks of the lord called Voyyali, Simha Gathi and Sarpa Gathi. In the past Sri Patham Thangis had to practise these walks  barefoot for long hours  in the hot sun on the Manal Veli - sandy ground in the eastern side of the temple. It is to be noted, you need  good physical as well as mental endurance to get involved in this traditional devotional ritual. This kind of rigorous training is a must for the chosen men to perform the divine task with dedication. A prospective aspirant can not join the Srirangam temple group. The aspirant has  to prove his capability and worth first at the  Kamalavalli Nachiyar temple in Woraiyur, Tiruchy. If done well, he can join the group of Sri Padham Thangi of  Srirangam temple.

With the temple having come under the management of the HR & CE, an arm of the Tamil Nadu government, in the last several decades, the appointment of  Sri Padham Thangi is vested with the officials, a fact that countless devotees deplore. Many men have been Sri Padham Thangi for a few decades and their family members  take pride in the devotional task done by them during the festival time. Among the festivitiesPoochatru Utsavam is one of the toughest for the Sri Patham Thangis. The duty involves standing on the  the Manal Veli Mandapam  and carrying the ‘heavy’ Lord on their shoulders. Without losing either their composure or showing any signs of fatigue, they stand  on their feet, carrying Namperumal on their shoulders. The 10-day Utsavam for Perumal is followed by a week-long Utsavam for Thayar (Goddess), at the end of which,  all most all of them may carry a bruise on their shoulder.
Sri Patham Thangigal, Srirangam. Sanskrit Literature -
There is a voluntary group called the Srirangam Vethal Group that has 200 volunteers. They do an yeomen service to god by way of  giving support to the official ‘Sri Patham Thangis’ of the temple, especially  during the  long street procession of the lord and  also during  the annual Brahmotsavam in Chitirai.  The annual Panguni trip to near-by Jeeya Puram town  and Woraiyur is an interesting one in which hundreds of them take turns to carry the lord Vishnu on the shoulder. During Brahmotchavam, East Chitirai Street of Srirangam will be over crowded with thousands of devotees. The impressive visual feat is the way the Sri Patham Thangis carry the Lord, atop the Golden Horse Vahana, at great speed. They do it  diagonally one way and then the other in a zig-zag motion, forward and back. The  peculiar feat may last  around 15 minutes  making the audience spell-binding.

That traditional Vaishnavites were not carrying the Lord on street processions was a sad story. Now things have changed owing to some dedicated HR & CE senior officials and the old tradition has seen a revival and there are 150 ‘Sri Patham Thangis associated with this age old tradition. Most of them are employed in corporate companies and they do this service to god without any monetary benefits; it is purely for their spiritual fulfilment. Driven by pure love and devotion, men  who come from traditional families of Sri Patham Thangis carry the lord on their shoulders 300 days in a year and it is good to see such age old tradition is not broken and keeps going with rejuvenated enthusiasm.