Kanchipuram: Home to the King of Blessers

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This venerable town hosts temples whose history goes back to the ancient days of Vaishnava prominence in South India.

Kanchipuram, along with its ancient silk-trading history, is famous as a holy city and home to the great saint Ramanujacharya and his worshipable Lord Varadaraja. Hundreds of temples attract delighted crowds that flock into this pilgrim center situated in northeast Tamil Nadu. Fifteen of these temples are designated divya deshams, or special “divine sites” for Sri Vaishnavas (followers of Ramanuja). These divya deshams are connected to the Alvars, prominent South Indian Vaishnavas who appeared roughly between 4200 and 2700 B.C. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Nityananda Prabhu, and Madhvacharya visited here. It is the birthplace of Canakya Pandita, author of Niti-shastra (civic laws) and minister of the Maurya empire. It is also the birthplace of Vedanta Deshika, the most prominent Sri Vaishnava acharya after Ramanuja. And it is said that here Lord Varadaraja, the presiding deity of Kanchipuram, spoke the basic principles of vishishtadvaita philosophy to Ramanujacharya through one of his gurus, Kancipurna.

It just so happened that I arrived in Kanchi on the birth anniversary of Tata Deshika, one of the acharyas of the Tatachar community, which has deep roots in this region. I immediately left for the celebration at the Varadaraja temple.

As I entered the inner courtyard, which resounded with the mantra om namo narayanaya, I saw that a big crowd of devotees had gathered in front of one of the temple shrines. I approached a small group of young men, intent on discovering the cause for this gathering. One of them, Krishna, told me excitedly that at any moment the small utsava (“festival”) deities would be carried out of the temple and brought in front of a shrine dedicated to Tata Deshika.

Because of the patronage of Tata Deshika in the fifteenth century, many temples of South India achieved the peak of their functional and architectural development. On his birthday he is blessed by the deities, and grand rituals are performed with meticulous perfection and devotion.

The morning began with an offering of rice and fruits to the four-armed Vishnu form of Lord Varadaraja and His consorts Lakshmi, Sri, and Bhu Devi. This was followed by a bathing ceremony, during which hymns from the Taitireya Upanishad, Purusha-sukta, and Tirupavai were chanted. Priests offered sanctified food, sandalwood paste, and Tulasi flower garlands to the deities, and later distributed them to brahmanas standing to the left and right side of the shrine. At noon, the deities went in procession around the temple. Two groups of brahmanas followed the procession; those at the front chanted the Divya Prabhanda prayers (Vedas sung in Tamil by the Alvars), while those in back chanted Sanskrit Vedic hymns. The palanquin carriers lightly swung the deities to and fro as they approached the Sudarshana-Narasimha temple, passing a flower garden that runs along most of the procession path. In the flower garden is a small pond where it is said that Sri Perundevi Tayar (Lakshmi), the consort of Lord Varadaraja, originally appeared on a golden lotus.

Further along the path is a shrine to Ramanujacharya, where the procession stopped so that he could receive the blessings of the Lord. Ramanuja spent most of his youth serving Lord Varadaraja in Kanchi. He also met his gurus Yamunacharya and Mahapurna here for the first time.

Before the deities were respectfully put to rest, we completed circumambulation by arriving at the starting point, the shrine of Tata Deshika.

In the evening, another procession took place, this time along the main temple road, and brahmanas and pilgrims again escorted the gorgeously dressed deities.

One of the ornaments decorating Lord Varadaraja this time around was the Clive necklace. Robert Clive, the British governor of Madras during the 1700s, presented this necklace in appreciation to the Varadaraja deity after his fight with the Muslim Nawab of Arkad. On the way to Arkad, Clive stopped in Kanchi. Having felt severe stomach pains for several days, he was worried about the outcome of the impeding battle. The priests gave him holy water and sanctified food, and upon taking these he was relieved from the pain. In gratitude, he decided that he would present to Lord Varadaraja the most valuable thing he captured from Arkad’s treasury.

Another time, while Lord Varadaraja was being fanned, Clive expressed his doubts about the deity feeling hot. Upon hearing this, the priest fanning the Lord wiped the deity’s face with a small towel and gave it to Clive, who was amazed to find it wet.

In the late evening hours, before the deities were brought back to the temple, I went to see them with Sridhar Veerapuram, a Sri Vaishnava I had met during the procession. He brought Lord Varadaraja’s face to my attention. According to the history of the temple, Lord Varadaraja appeared from the fire of a sacrifice performed by Lord Brahma. Sridhar said that the the Lord acquired the pinkish spots on His face when He emerged from the fire. Sridhar spoke enthusiastically about the Lord, so I requested him to accompany me on my visit to the other temples of Kanchipuram.

Exploring the Opulence

The next day, Sridhar suggested we first complete our exploration of the shrines, pastimes, and architectural wealth of the Varadaraja temple, and then go to the other temples. I gladly agreed.

Our morning began at the unavoidable prasadam stand prominently placed at the main entrance. Upon receiving the Lord’s mercy in the form of food and perceiving a spiritual atmosphere, we walked down a hall of one hundred pillars that had magnetically attracted my sight with its astounding beauty. Dexterously carved on the monolithic black granite pillars are exquisite sculptures of dancers, men riding on various kinds of animals, rampant horsemen, avatars of Lord Vishnu, and scenes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Certain parts of these carvings, like the bows, spears, and arrows, sound like the strumming of a tampura when struck. At the end of the hall stands a platform used for festivals, such as the reenactment of the marriage of Lord Varadaraja and Lakshmi.

Almost adjoined to the back of the hall is Ananta Tirtham, a pond believed to have been created by Lord Ananta to witness the pastimes of Lord Varaha. (Lord Ananta is an incarnation of Lord Visnu who serves, in the form of a serpent, as Vishnu’s couch.) The original deity of Lord Varadaraja is kept in a silver casket in a shrine inside this pond. Sridhar told me that once, during the intense heat of the summer, the deity felt hot and, appearing in the dream of one of the priests, asked to be put in the water. Now every forty years the deity is taken out and worshiped for forty-eight days.

Sridhar and I next proceeded to the fourth area that encircles the main sanctum of Lord Varadaraja. Located here are Lord Rama’s shrine, a mirror hall, and a deity kitchen. Sridhar told me that traditionally only the healthiest and purest items—such as the fuel wood, vessels of bronze and silver, and water from the deities’ own reservoir for cooking—are used for the Lord in this kitchen.

On the third circumambulation path we saw the shrines of Andal and Sri Perundevi Tayar, consort of Lord Varadaraja.

Next, we approached Lord Nrisimha, to whom we prayed to protect our devotion. Lord Nrisimha is worshiped at the base of a hill, in a cave rebuilt by Chola kings as a one-story building. Since Lord Nrisimha gave permission to Brahma to perform his sacrifices here, it is known as Nrisimha Kshetra (“Nrisimha’s Place”).

Dazzled by the Main Temple

The main temple houses the shrine to Lord Varadaraja, so, circling halfway around the building, we climbed the steps that lead towards it. As we did so, we noticed rough mountain rock poking through the plaster wall. Upon reaching the sanctum on the first floor, we were dazzled by the splendor of many ghee lamps, which revealed the Lord’s form in a shrine accessible by several steps. The deity of Lord Varadaraja, whose name means “the king of those who give benedictions,” is huge. In three of His hands He holds the insignias of conchshell, disc, and mace, while His lower right hand is raised in blessing, with the words ma shucah (“Do not worry”) inscribed on it. This means that He will fully care for and protect whoever surrenders unto Him. The Lord was richly decorated with costly jewels, and a huge golden necklace inscribed with the thousand names of Lord Vishnu hung around His neck.

The priest there offered us Tulasi leaves and caranamrita (water that has bathed deity), and described the wonderful relationships between the Lord and His devotees. He spoke of the glories of Ramanuja’s guru Kancipurna, whose simple and pure devotion enabled him to converse with the deity. And he told the story of Ramanuja’s disciple Kuresha, and how the evil King Kotalunga was so intolerant towards Vaishnavas that he viciously blinded him. Kuresha had been unselfishly ready to sacrifice his own life for the sake of his spiritual master. Therefore, due to his unconditional and surrendered service to his guru, Lord Varadaraja granted him transcendental sight.

Sridhar and I stayed there to hear about the Lord’s wonderful reciprocation with His devotees for a long time, deeply moved by the power of His presence.

Temples Around Town

In the next few days, Sridhar and I visited other temples and shrines sacred to Vaishnavas. Driving through the teeming city, we faced the inherent challenge of often finding the temples closed, since many of the smaller ones have irregular opening times due to lack of priests. Whenever our visit was successful, we emerged blissful, jubilant at being able to witness the Lord’s many forms in Kanchipuram. Particularly impressive was the thirty-five-foot-high, twenty-four-foot-wide monolithic form of Lord Trivikrama (Vamanadeva), as well as the twenty-five-foot-high deity known as Pandava Dootha (“Messenger of the Pandavas”).

Another deity, Yathoktakari, manifests Himself in an exceptional lying posture. In every other temple where the deity of Lord Vishnu is in the reclining pose, He lies on His left side, but here He lies on His right, just to demonstrate His affection toward His devotees.

As the story goes, long ago a king banished the great devotee Tirumalasai Alvar and his disciple Kanikannan from the city because they wouldn’t comply with his request to rejuvenate his aging body so that he could go on enjoying sensual pleasures. On the request of Tirumalisai, Lord Yathoktakari followed him out of the city, creating a gloomy darkness in the city. Alarmed, the king apologized for his mistreatment. So Tirumalasai Alvar returned to Kanchi with the Lord, who dispelled the darkness created in His absence.

Next, we visited the Kamakshi temple. Though people generally worship the Kamakshi deity as Durga, she is said to be Lakshmi Devi in the Brahmanda Purana, where Lord Hayagriva narrates her glories to the sage Agastya. Lord Hayagriva mentions that King Dasharatha, ruler of Ayodhya and father Lord Rama, prayed to Kamakshi here to obtain children.

To visit the Vijaya Raghava temple, last on the list of the divya deshams in Kanchipuram, I took a local bus to Tiruputkuli, some seven kilometers from the town of Kanchipuram. According to the Vamana Purana, Lord Rama performed funeral rites here for Jatayu, the giant bird who valiantly fought to prevent Ravana from abducting Sita, the wife of Lord Rama.

The hall opposite the temple pond commemorates the place where Ramanujacharya studied the advaita philosophy under Yadhava Prakasha. Since Ramanuja kept refuting the impersonal philosophy taught by his teacher, he was expelled from the ashram. Yadhava Prakasha even made an attempt on his life, but fortunately, by the mercy of devotees, he later recognized Ramanuja’s saintly qualities and became his disciple.

In the nearly two weeks I spent in Kanchipuram, I continuously discovered the neverending glories of the Lord and His devotees. Every detail I tracked down revealed some almost forgotten and charming pastime of the Lord. My search seemed endless and therefore ever fresh and dynamic. It was stimulating for my intellect and nourishing for my soul. Now I bear in my mind a deep impression of the most auspicious, beautiful, and enchanting smile of Lord Varadaraja.