The trust that administers India's richest temple at Tirupati has begun a new initiative to help other smaller temples dedicated to Lord Vishnu in the region.
The Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD) has identified as many as 108 such small temples in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh that are facing problems in running even their day-to-day rituals.
The saint poets, Alwars, visited these Vishnu temples and sang in praise of the lord and 108 such shrines have come to be known as Divya Desams. There are about 80 Divya Desams in Tamil Nadu. Now, with the help of a sister NGO, Selfless Movement Improving Life Everywhere, known as SMILE, the TTD has begun assisting these Vishnu temples through its Divya Desam programme.
"Most people go to temples to ask god for something. Tell me, how many are ready to do something for god? It is this 'doing something for god' that is the essence of SMILE," CN Paramasivan, who set up SMILE in Chennai, told.
The NGO was set up in 2001 as an initiative of the TTD's charity work. But how is it different from other NGOs? "Luckily, we do not have a cash register, an accountant," he says.
The organisation, run completely by volunteers, has taken a deliberate decision not to deal in cash. It has 5,000 volunteers who offer their time and expertise to SMILE projects.
SMILE has been recognised by Stanford University, California, as an NGO that does cash-less charity work for the largest number of people. Paramasivan is now a regular guest lecturer in the university's department of sociology.
SMILE's projects are varied. They first began sending hundreds of volunteers every year to the Tirupati temple during festival times to manage the hundreds and thousands of pilgrims who come to visit the deity. They now also arrange pilgrim traffic to Tirupati.
SMILE then took up distribution of clothes for the needy and has helped 160,000 people. It has also a registry of 4,000 blood donors and has conducted 165 blood donation camps.
"We have never used a celebrity. We think, if people think what they are doing is good work, there is no need for celebrities to draw them, they will come on their own," Paramasivan says.
SMILE volunteers have helped to adjust the valves in 4,500 cisterns of old-fashioned toilets, which used to hold large amounts of water, "resulting in a huge waste of water every time one flushed such a toilet".
Both in Chennai and Tirupati, SMILE has thus helped save about Rs 50 million litres of water annually. It has helped in cleaning the Cooum river in Chennai.
"It is not about being religious or devout," Paramasivan says. "It is about devoting a few hours for a common goal".
SMILE has cleaned 350 places of worship in Tamil Nadu, including the Srirangam Ranganatha temple, the Thiruvannamalai and the Madurai Meenakshi. It has also helped clean up gurudwaras and churches in this city.
To begin, with the Divya Desam initiative will support the Anbil temple, the Thiruvellarai and Koviladi temples near Srirangam, the Koodalur, Kandiyur, Thiru Pullabhoothangkudi and the Athanur temple near Kumbakonam. It will also help the Thirukadanmallai temple in Mahabalipuram.
"The condition of many of these temples is pathetic. They do not even have sufficient change of clothing for the deity or rice or prasadam to give to devotees. They need immediate help."
Clothing, daily pooja items and prasadam provisions will be collected from devotees and sent to these temples by volunteers.
"No cash donations will be accepted under this initiative," he says. Contributors can contact 98841-99284, 98407-99989, 24334895 or can e-mail to 'firstname.lastname@example.org'.