Nestled in the locality of Sreevaraham in Thiruvananthapuram, Lakshmi Varaha temple is one of few temples in the country dedicated to Varaha, the third incarnation of Lord Vishnu.
Believed to be more than 5000 years old, the temple is also unique for having both Varahamurthy and his consort, Lakshmi showcased together as its presiding deities.
But none of the pilgrims or devotees heading to the ancient temple would have any inkling of a treasure existing a couple of lanes away.
If the mention of treasure lures you into imagining a vivid picture of gold coins and gemstones stacked up, you are in for a disappointment.
But for bibliophiles and intellectuals, it is nothing less of a wonderland.
Vani Granthalaya is a small house near the temple, such that you wouldn’t lend a second glance to if you happen to pass by.
Owned by Devanarayanan Potty, who is a head priest under the Devaswom Board, the house probably has more books and manuscripts than the entire population of Sreevaraham.
Like a regular library, this small ‘granthalaya’ has stacks of books under genres ranging from anything and everything one could think and not think of!
From rare Sanskrit granthas to extensive research pieces on areas like Law, Medicine, Engineering and Religion, it is a wonder that such a small place could hold so many books and publications under one roof.
Upon inquiring about the number of books, the man isn’t quite sure, but at a glance, one can be certain that it could number up to many thousands!
Eldest of seven siblings, Devanarayanan was born in a Brahman family in Thiruvananthapuram, whose father was the head priest of the famous Sreekanteswaram temple in the city. Though the tag of an upper caste gives one an idea of prosperity and opportunities, for Devanarayanan and his family, every day was a struggle to meet ends.
From having slept on a hungry stomach on many indefinite nights to lack of money to fund for higher education, their family had been through it all.
Out of all his siblings, only Devanarayanan managed to complete his Pre-Degree education, with his penchant for studying and acquiring knowledge taking him this far.
Unfortunately, the burden of feeding his family seemed to overtake the scholarly aspirations envisioned by the young man, who wanted to study as much as he could.
Taking over his father’s position, the man spent many years working as a priest in the same temple after which he found himself a job in the accounts department of the civil engineering branch under the Devaswom Board.
“The pain of having discontinued studies always dwelled underneath. Probably, it was this anguish that lead to the idea of teaching myself, and I wasn’t going to let fate intervene this time,” remembers Devanarayanan.
And thus began a journey of acquiring books and manuals from every pedagogy he could reach, that was religiously devoured by the young man who wanted to learn.
“After a point, it was obstinacy and sometimes, anger that drove me to make up for all the years that I could have spent learning but for fate,” he quietly remarks.
Some years down the line, he found himself drawn back to sacerdotal activities and was taken in as an apprentice by a tantric priest, after being impressed by the young man’s relentless pursuit.
After years of apprenticeship, Devanarayanan finally took over as a tantric priest and has been continuing the legacy.
Rising to the top ranks of a head priest, today over 200 temples fall under his jurisdiction, for which he performs complicated tantric rites and rituals.
Trudging through the troubled waters in major hours of his life, the opportunity of settling down or having a married life never presented itself for Devanarayanan. By then, he had resigned to his fate and continued to pursue what he loved the most—learning.
“And somehow, books have found their way into my hands,” he mentions. From as far as the United States to London, Devanarayanan has been able to trace and painstaking source out priceless books for the last three decades that when compiled, might cost one a fortune in today’s date.
The racks in his house, hold some of the rarest books that one would probably not find anymore.
One amongst these is the compact Oxford English dictionary that comes along with a magnified reading lens—everything compressed into a single volume in microscopic size!
“I’d pledged all of my provident fund savings to get the book all the way from England. It cost around ₹10,000, which is a huge sum back in the eighties, but it is nothing less than a prized possession, for you might never come across another copy of the same in your lifetime,” he proudly says.
Another interesting set is the 1960 edition of Britannica encyclopaedia. “That marks the year of my birth!” laughs the old priest.
The granthalaya in Sreevaraham continues to remain unbeknownst to the people living in close quarters.
The man lives a solitary life, and sans a cot in the house, he has no possessions to call his own, except for his books.
Having taken an apprentice under his wings, just the way his mentor had done a few decades back, he intends to entrust the responsibility of his priestly duties and granthalaya to the young apprentice and head to the Himalayas as his final journey.
So what happens to the granthalaya, once he takes leave for the mountains?
“Many years ago, I’d set up a trust for the books when the idea of the journey started taking shape in the hindsight of my mind. These will eventually fall in the hands of someone well deserving who shares the same passion that I have,” he adds.
In a time where books are finding fewer and fewer takers, the granthalaya in Sreevaraham stands tall, just the way the millennia-old temple rests in close quarters.