shrIshamnamAmi shirasA yadushailadIpam
I offer my salutations by bowing before the repository of all that is auspicious that compassionately resides in Srirangam, that black cloud that hovers at the top of the hill of Venkata, that divine fragrance which radiates from Hastigiri and that beloved of Lakshmi who shines like a lamp atop the mountain of Yadu.
The above verse encapsulates four great Vaishnava shrines namely Srirangam, Tirumala (Venkatadri), Kanchipuram (Hastigiri) and Melkote (Yadushaila). It is often said that it is enough to visit these four shrines in a lifetime in order to attain salvation. Of these the first three are most important as they represent in order Koil (Temple ? Srirangam), Malai (Hill ? Tirumala) and Murthy (Idol ? Hastigiri). These three form part of the 108 Divya Desams of Vaishnavite tradition, while the fourth was sanctified by a prolonged stay of Ramanuja thereby qualifying it as an Abhimana Sthalam.
The 108 Divya Desams are so grouped because they were visited by one or more of the twelve Azhwars who composed songs on them. The Azhwar?s visits are termed as MangaLashAsanams. The songs are called pAsurams. Among the Azhwars themselves, Madhurakavi did not dedicate any of his songs to any shrine. He sang of the greatness of Nammazhwar alone. The remaining Azhwars, of whom Andal is the sole lady, were great travellers who covered the length and breadth of the country. Tirumangai Azhwar was the most prolific traveller among them all. Of the 108 shrines, two, namely Tiruparkkadal and Vaikuntham are the heavenly abodes of Vishnu and are not present on the Earth. The remaining 106 are distributed all over the country with a majority being in south India.
In this account we will be looking at some of the great Vaishnavite shrines of India.
Foremost among these shrines is Srirangam. An island formed by the dividing of the river Kaveri into two near Tiruchirapalli, this is the greatest among the Divya Desams, with eleven out of twelve Azhwars having sanctified it. Vishnu here is referred to as Sriranganathar and reclines on the serpent Adisesha. The idol is said to have been brought to the Earth complete with its canopy called the Pranavakara Vimana by Ikshvaku, the ancestor of Lord Rama. Later it was given to Vibhishana who was tricked by the Gods into leaving it at its present site. The deity looks south towards Sri Lanka as though blessing Vibhishana even now. The Lord was praised by both Tyagaraja and Muttuswami Dikshitar who each dedicated five songs to the temple. The Goddess here is called Ranganayaki. The Srirangam temple is the largest in area in India, spanning as it does over 150 acres. The temple is of great historic significance and has a unique temple record called the Koil Olugu that goes back many centuries. The scene of two Muslim invasions, the temple was largely reconstructed by the Vijayanagar Kings at the instance of Vedanta Desika.
This shrine nestles in the foothills of the Himalayas at the confluence of the Alakananda and the Doli Ganga and was once a thick forest of Badari trees and hence the name. This tree is said to be very dear to Mahalakshmi and the Lord is said to have taken his seat below one such tree in order to explain the significance of the mantra Om namO nArAyaNAya to his devotees. The idol here is said to have originated by itself without any sculptor working on it. The idol, said to be made of Saligrama (a stone that is holy to Vishnu) wields the conch and the discus. The Goddess here is Aravindavalli. The tank here is called the tapta kuNDa and is a hot spring. The vimana (canopy) here is referred to as tapta kAncana vimAnam. The temple is open only during the summer months. Worship here was largely codified by Adi Sankara. Periyazhwar and Tirumangai Azhwar have dedicated 22 pasurams to this shrine. The kriti shrI satyanArAyaNam in shubha pantuvarALi, attributed to Muttuswami Dikshitar is on this shrine.
This shrine possibly needs no further explanation, as it is probably the most well known among the Vaishnavite kshetras. Located at the southern tip of Andhra Pradesh, this shrine is in the midst of seven hills. Three towns actually form the cluster, with Tiruppati being the first, which is located at sea level. Here we have Vishnu as Lord Govindaraja. The second is Tirumala, which is on the hill with Vishnu as Srinivasa. The last is Tirucchanur where the Goddess is worshipped as Alamelumanga or Padmavati. There are fourteen holy tanks in Tirumala and the canopy is called the Ananda Nilaya Vimana. Ten Azhwars have sung on this shrine and among the famed Carnatic composers, Purandara Dasa, Annamacharya, Tyagaraja, Muttuswami Dikshitar and Subbaraya Sastry are but a few who have sung at this shrine.
Also known as Tirunarayanapuram, Melkote shot to fame when the Vaishnavite reformer Ramanuja moved there in order to escape the persecution of a Chola king in the 11th century. Ramanuja lived there for 18 years and from then on the temple became forever associated with him. The utsava murthy (processional deity) is referred to as Chella Pillai (dear boy) which is how Ramanuja called Him. The idol was taken away by a Muslim Sultan and given to his daughter as a play thing. Ramanuja followed the sultan?s army and convinced the ruler to return the idol. The sultan agreed but asked Ramanuja to identify the idol among the many he had brought away from his sack of temples. Ramanuja called out to the idol as Chella Pillai and the Lord followed him obediently back to Melkote. The sultan?s daughter followed the idol and attained salvation in Melkote. She is commemorated as Bibi Nachiyar even today. The vairamuDi sEva when the Lord is adorned with diamonds is a well known festival here.
Located close to Madurai, this is a shrine where the Utsava Murthy (processional deity), called the Apta wields all the five holy weapons namely sudarshana (discus), pAncajanya (conch), nandaka (sword), shArnga (bow) and kaumOdaki (mace). The main deity is called Kalamegha Perumal and the Goddess Mohanavalli. The Lord here is known for His beauty as the shrine commemorates His taking on the enchanting form of Mohini. The canopy here is called the Ketaki Vimana and the sacred tank is called the Ksheerabdhi Pushkarini. The shrine also called Mohana Kshetram was sanctified by Nammazhwar and Tirumangai Azhwars who composed pAsurams on it.
Located in the heart of Madras city and now referred to by its anglicized named of Triplicane, the temple here is one of the oldest in India, with the idol dating back to the 8th century CE. There are two shrines combined into one, with the shrine to Lord Narasimha, called Tulasinga Perumal being the older one. The entire area is said to have been a grove of the sacred Tulasi (Brinda) plant and hence was called Brindaranya Kshetram. The Lord here manifests in the form in which he expounded the Gita to Arjuna. The main deity is called Venkatakrishna and as befitting his Yadava clan, has a luxuriant moustache. The sanctum has the Lord surrounded by his immediate family, namely wife Rukmini, brothers Balarama and Satyaki, son Pradyumna and grandson Anirudhha. The processional deity is called Parthasarathy. The face of this deity is pockmarked and these are said to be the scars of the wounds that Krishna received during the Mahabharatha war. The temple was praised by Peyazhwar, Tirumazhisai Azhwar and Tirumangai Azhwar. Among the composers several including Muttuswami Dikshitar, Subbaraya Sastry, Mysore Sadasiva Rao and Subbarama Dikshitar have praised it.
The town has many Divya Desams in it of which the most famous one is Hastigiri. The Lord here is Varadaraja and is said to have granted salvation to the elephant king Gajendra. The Garuda Seva festival when the deity is brought out on Garuda is very famous. The Goddess here is Mahadevi and Her processional image never leaves the temple, with all its processions taking place within the precincts. The canopy here is called the puNyakOTi vimAna and there are several sacred tanks and other water bodies, of which the Vegavati river is the most holy. This is the only Divya Desam visited by each of the Carnatic Trinity, with Syama Sastry composing a varnam on the deity. Purandara Dasa too has sung on it. A unique aspect of this shrine is an image of the Lord made of the wood of the Athi tree. This is kept submerged in the temple tank and is brought out once in forty years. Pey Azhwar, Bhootathazhwar and Tirumangai Azhwar have sung at this shrine.
Varkala or Varkalai as it is referred to in Tamizh is an ancient temple town situated in Kerala, a short distance from Tiruvananthapuram. The deity here is Janardhanaswamy and the temple dates back to the 13th century in architecture. The shrine is famed for its festival held in the month of Meenam (April-May) that lasts for ten days. The Lord here is said to be holding some sea water in his right hand. It is believed that the hand is rising closer to the Lord?s mouth each year and when He gets to swallow the sea water, the world will dissolve into praLaya. Close by is the Papavinasini, which is a series of mineral rich waterfalls that springs from laterite rocks. The town is today a flourishing resort. The Samadhi of the social reformer Narayana Guru is close by.
Referred to as Tirumal Irum Sholai, the shrine, true to its beautiful name, is located in a vale surrounded by lush green hills, a short distance from Madurai. The area is also called VrshabhAcala. The Lord here is referred to as Paramaswami (moolavar) and as Sundararaja or Azhagar (utsavar or processional deity). The utsavar is made of a type of gold alloy called Aparanji. The Moolavar wields the five great weapons and is seen in standing posture flanked by Sri and Bhoo Devis. The temple has a canopy called the sOmachanda vimAna and the holy waterfall here is the nUpuraganga. Six Azhwars have composed at this shrine and Muttuswami Dikshitar dedicated his shrI sundarAjam in rAga kAshirAmakriya to the deity here. The temple is famed for its festival of Kallazhagar when the processional deity goes on a long tour of Madurai and its environs, culminating in a dip at the Vaigai river.
Vaishnavite shrines are known for their adherence to tradition, their great festivals and colourful processions. They are made holy by the living presence of the Lord. Truly they symbolize the spiritual heritage of India, a puNya bhUmi where to be born is salvation by itself. In her lifetime Smt Ambujam Krishna visited all these shrines and composed on them. Each song has lyrics that pertain to her observations of the temples and their rituals and these make the song an emotional experience for listener and singer alike.