घुष्यते यस्य नगरे रङ्गयात्रा दिने दिने । तमहं शिरसा वन्दे राजानं कुलशेखरम् ॥
(Ghuṣyate yasya nagare raṅgayātrā dine dine |
tam ahaṁ śirasā vande rājānaṁ kulaśekharam ||)
Translation: That person (king), inside whose capital city the words Ranga Yatra (travel to Shri Rangam) are uttered every day, I bow down my head to that Kulasekhara. King Kulashekhara of Chera desha, area that is present day Kerala longed to visit Shrirangam. Kulashekhara placed broadly in 8th century CE was born at Thiruvanjikalam, place near Kochi. He was a parama bhagavata who spent lot of time and attention in patronizing bhagavatas to the extent of being derelict in his duties as a ruler. His intense desire to visit Shrirangam to have a darshan of Arangan or Shriranganatha echoed in “Ranga Yatra Dine Dine”.
Thiruvarangam or Shrirangam known as ‘The Kovil’, Thiruvarangam Periya Kovil, is the most important and biggest of the Vishnu temples in the country. Being a king he was too busy, bogged down by his duties that kept delaying his Yatra. One fine day Kulashekhara gave up his duties, abdicated his throne and left Vanjikalam for good. His Tamil work, part of the 4000 Sacred Verses or Nalayira Divya Prabandham, ‘Perumal Tirumoli’ opens with this verse on Shrirangam.
Iruliriya sudarmanigal imaikkum netri
Inathuthi ani panam aayirngal aarndha
Aravarasap perunjothi anantan ennum
Anivilangum uyarvellai anayai mevith
Thiruvarangap perunagarul thenneerp ponni
Thiraik kayyaal adi varudap pallikollum
Karumaniyaik komalathiak kandu kondu en
Kannimaigal enrukolo kalikkum naale!
“In the big city of Arangam my dark gem-hued lord reclines on Ananta, the white coiled serpent with a thousand hoods each marked with a ‘U’, the lord’s feet- and bearing radiant gems on each forehead that dispel the darkness everywhere. His tender feet are caressed by waves of the pure waters of Kaveri. O, when will my starving eyes feast on his subtle form?”
(Translation by Shrirama Bharati)
When will my eyes feast on his dark, beautiful and subtle form, pines Kulashekhara. Every Shri Vaishnava yearns to visit Shrirangam one day as much as Kulasekhara Alvar wished to, but with not much luck for a long time. My grandmother would say, if for a King it was so difficult to attain, what are we?! She would tell us, which many Vaishnavas still practice – when we wake up in the morning, to take three steps towards south in the direction of Shrirangam uttering “Ranga yatra dine dine”. Alvars have been uniform in their praise and their pining for Arangan’s darshan. All the Alvars have done what we called “Mangalasasanam”, sung about Shrirangam and Arangan (except Madhurakavi who sang only of his Acharya Nammalvar).
This simple and a deep attachment to the ‘Archavatara’ form of the Supreme Being relative to the other four, Para, Vyuha, Vibhava and Antaryami is a continuing tradition. The ‘archa’ or the vigraha in temples becomes closest to the devotees because it is the most approachable for the ordinary devotee. More significant than that is the fact the great saint poets, the Alvars have sung such grand verses in praise of the deities of each of the Divya Deshams – there are 108 Divya Deshams they have sung about, and excluding the Thiruparkadal (ksheerabdi) and Paramapadam (Shri Vaikuntam) the rest are on this earth.
It is not that they have not sung about the other four – to quote Nammalvar’s
Vinmeedu iruppay malaimel nirppai kadal serppay
Manmidu uzhavay ivatrul engum maraindu uraivay
Enmidu iyanra puravandattay enadavi
Unmidu adi urukkattade olippayo
“The Supreme Being resides in the transcendental realm (para); He reides in the Thirumalai Hills (archa); He is lying in the milky ocean (vyuha); He moves on earth with different roles (vibhava); He is immanent in all the entities in the universe (antaratma) and also inside one’s heart (antaryami)”.
To briefly explain the five –
Para – Supreme Being in his eternal abode of Paramapada as Para Vasudeva
Vyuha – Lying in the ksheerabdi, the milky ocean
Vibhava – His manifestation as various avataras in celestial or human forms for the protection of devotees
Antaryami – Residing in the Devotees heart
Archa – “The Archa is the manifestation of God in the form of icon either on His own or in response to the prayers of human beings to provide an opportunity to them to offer divine worship” – (S.M.S.Chari – ‘Philosophy of Theistic Mysticism of the Alvars’).
With the spread of Divya Prabandham as a text equal in weightage to Vedas, and subsequent commentary literature that followed the Archavatara concept became popular. To quote Rajneeta Datta from her paper ‘Vaishnava Pilgrimage’, “the implications were that the paratva (transcendental) lord became saulabhya (accessible) through the arcavataras, that is, incarnations in the form of temple images, an idea already well stated in the hymns of the Alvars. Situated at a particular time and place, an arcavatara was different from the usual avatara, which transcended the temporal and spatial boundaries. The pilgrimage tradition was associated with this arcarvatara image.”
Kulashekhara after his verses dedicated to Shrirangam proceeds to Thiruvenkatam – Kovil, Malai, Perumal Kovil are the three most important Divya Deshas every Shri Vaishnava must visit in a life time. Malai being Thiruvenkatam on Thirumala, and Perumal Kovil being Kanchipuram.
Sediyaaya valvinaigal theerkum thirumale!
Nediyaane! Venkatava! nin koyilin vasal
Adiyaarum vanavarum arambayarum kidandhiyangum
Padiyaaik kidandu un pavalavaai kaanbene
“O Lord who ends the misery of overgrown-like-weed Karma! Eternal Lord of Venkatam hills! O, for a glimpse of your coral lips constantly, I wish to lie on the doorstep at the portals of your temple, where devotees, celestials and Rambha stand and wait”. Kulashekhara then addresses the Lord of Vittuvacode or Thiruvithuvakkodu / Mittakode in Kerala.
Meennokkum neelvayal soozh vithuvakkottu amma! En
Paal nokkiyaagilum un patru allal patru ilen;
Thaan nokkaadhu ethuyaram seidhidinum taarvendhan
Kolnokki vaazhum kudi pol irundhene
“O Lord of Vittuvakkodu, surrounded by tall fields where fish dance in the waters! If you do not turn your glance on me, I have no refuge other than you; just as even if a despotic king pays no attention to his subjects, they still live respecting the authority of his spectre”.
The impact of Kulashekhara’s emotions and passion has been deep on the devotees. These are all part of experiences shared by parents and grandparents perhaps in every Shri Vaishnava home. My grandmother’s mother I have heard would forever keep uttering “Ranga Yatra Dine Dine”. Being a young widow she had little means to undertake any Yatra. She stayed devoted to the Divya Desham where she happened to settle down after her husband’s death.
The main shrine at Sholingur was atop a hill with 1300 steps. During annual pavitrotsam festival she would climb up and down twice a day. She breathed her last once during the same pavitrotsavam at the temple tank atop the hill. What she passed on to her children and grandchildren was the same devotion. My grandmother well beyond 60- undertook “Kashi Yatra” going up to Badrinath. My father followed in the footsteps covering more Divya Deshams in his life time than his mother. Having been to Badrinath, Puri, Dwaraka, Pushkar, Ayodhya, Mathura, Naimisaranyam, and almost all the Divya Deshams in south India his only wish was to go to Gaya and complete his duties towards his Pitrs.
It was not easy those for everyone to visit the Divya Deshams in the past – one, resources, two logistics. Even among the three most important, Perumal Kovil or Kanchipuram was the most accessible for us, those of us who hailed from the villages around Kanchipuram. My maternal grandmother was blessed to have been born in a village closer to Kanchi and naturally had been to Kanchipuram many a times. In fact, the annual trip to Kanchi for the Vaikasi Garuda Sevai a tradition that was followed by many villages around – many of us continue to keep up with the tradition though we have moved far away. Tirupati, though distance wise was not very far away, it was a difficult pilgrimage as the trek to Thirumala was through a dense, wild forest, and the weather up there not too congenial. Till the time the motor roads were laid, Thirumala was a difficult terrain to reach. Today many Vaishnavas complete 106 and come back and throw the customary feast or Tadiyaradhanai. In the good old days I hear a Yatra to Thirumala and back entailed a Tadiyaradhanai on return. She was able to undertake Thirumala Yatra when as a family a trip was made for my first birthday, for the traditional mundan. Perumal Kovil and Malai done she nurtured her desire for Shrirangam – will I be ever able to go, she would lament. She did, as a sudden trip was planned just for her sake by my father.
One must visit Shrirangam, but by when? Elders used to say, do it before you hit 60. Nammalvar, who holds a foremost position among the Alvars says:-
Kilaroli ilamai keduvadan munnam
Valaroli maayon maruviya koil.
Valarilam pozhil soozh maalirumsolai
Talarvilar aagilum saarvadu sadire
“Ere the radiance of youth fades, it is wise to go without tiring, to Malirumsolai, the temple of the radiant lord amid fertile groves” Thirumalirumsolai or Algar Koil is just a hop skip and jump from Madurai and who can imagine today the fitness required to reach the shrine that Nammalvar bids one to complete before the youth fades.
Thiram udai valathaal theevinai perukkadhu
Aram muyal aazhi padayavn koil
Maruvil vansunai soozh maalirumsolaip
Puramalai saarap povadhu kiriye
“The lord of discus in Malirumsolai amid groves and sweet water lakes destroys evil by the power of his will. Reaching that hill is our only Karma” Why do you go to any of these destinations? It is the darshan of the deity and deity’s ability to grant moksha. The ladies of Shrirangam may say the ‘Aindhu Kuzhi Moonru Vasal’ near the Thayar Sannidhi refers to Goddess Ranganayaki keeping her fingers in the five finger pit looking towards the gateway in expectation of Arangan who visits her only once a year. The philosophical explanation might be controlling the five senses and looking to the three pathways that will lead to the Paramapada, for the Vasal or the doorway one looks to from the junction is the Pathway to Paramapada or the Paramapada Vasal. My grandmother may or may not have had the understanding of the philosophical nuances of Ramanuja Siddhanta.
But, she believed if she went to Shrirangam and kept her fingers in the five holes, and looked through the three pathways she will attain Moksha. In what turned out to be a day trip – we boarded the Rockfort Express from Chennai, reached Trichy and using the station retiring rooms got ready and headed straight to Shrirangam temple. To her the ultimate Yatra experience was achieved when she was able to there and do it. Nammalvar is said to have travelled from Alvar Tirunagari his birth place and attained Moksham at Thirumohur near Madurai – in his Tirumohur pasurams he says, “He is sure to help in the path to Moksha, we will seek his favour”. In a decade that appears much before the Tirumohur pasurams, he sings of Shri Venkatesa, seeking refuge at the feet of the Lord of Tiruvenkatam, and what boons would those who recite the ten verses get – “Will secure joy of Vaikuntam forever”.
Thus the Shri Vaishnava yatra tradition follows the path Alvars and the Acharyas had shown. Nathamuni considered the first Acharya in the guru parampara of the Ramanuja tradition himself had undertaken pilgrimage – the memory of his north Indian pilgrimage gets is reflected in how his grandson Alavandar got his name as Yamuna or Yamunacharya. Not only that, Nathumani’s greatness in the traditional and as foremost Guru emanates from the fact that it was he who retrieved the lost work of Alvars to give us the Nalayira Divya Prabandham. He gets to know about the existence of Nammalvar’s 1000 when he heard pilgrims from the west sing 10 out of the 1000. He goes in search of the rest to Alvar Tirunagari or Kurugur and gets them. Ramanuja who moulded the sampradaya in the way it is today we hear from Guru Parampara Stories desired to visit the 108 Divya Deshams, and travelled extensively in the South, to kshetras like Puri. Traditional stories of his yatra to Kashmir to obtain Bodhayana Vritti on Brahmasutras is well known. Melkote though not a Divya Deshams gets added to the Kovil, Malai, Perumal Kovil list – Ramanuja is said to have left Shrirangam due to sectarian issues and travelled to Melkote and established the temple there and residing for a period of time. While Nammalvar sang 33 Divya Deshams sitting at Alvar Tiruangari with his yogic vision, the last of the Alvar’s chronologically Tirumangai Alvar is said to have visited 86 centres traveling from Badrinath to Tirukurungudi.
Tirumangai’s songs give graphic geographical and also a few historical details of the places he travelled to. In one decad, he goes on a whirlwind tour of multiple Divyadeshams. In 10- verses he sings nirmalai, kannamangai, venkatam, tanka, tiruvali, tirunangur, tirupper, tiruvellarai, tirunaraiyur, tirumeyyam, tirucherai, thirukudandai, thiruvalundur, tiruvekha, tirumalirumcholai, tiruvinnagar, tirukottiyur, tirunavai, tirupper. Madhurakavi Alvar was on a pilgrimage to north India and on his way to Ayodhya had a vision of light. Tracking the effulgence he reached Alvar Tirunagari to Nammalvar seated at the tamarind tree.
In the last 20-30 years, the number of Vaishnavas completing the 106-Divya Desha yatra has increased manifold. What was not on anyone’s mind even in the 80’s is common place now. My grandmother yearned for a Shriranga Yatra, four of her children have completed the 106. There are many tour groups which conduct specific geographies – Thondai Mandala, Malai Nadu, Chola, Pandya Nadu Yatra, Nava Tirupati Yatra etc.
Popular and respected scholar, orator Velukkudi Krishnan has been successfully conducting Yatras to many of the destinations, and in places like Brindavan and Dwaraka daily lectures are included. Dushyant Shridhar another young orator does many lecture-tours as well. Affordability, accessibility has thrown open the idea of traversing the length and breadth of the country to see the kshetras and see the glory of Deities Alvars had sung about. There has been a rejuvenation, and larger reading of Alvar poetry with the Yatras. We found a group of pilgrims from Tamil Nadu at Thiruvanvandoor in Kerala reciting Divya Prabandham. They said it is their practice to go and stay at each of the Divya Deshams and do a complete recital of 4000. The songs, the deities, and the experience of it through Yatra, the tradition continues.
(The paper was presented at the Yatra Conference at BHU, Varanasi, between 15th and 17th November, 2019, Jointly organised by Indic Academy and Bharat Adhyayan Kendra, BHU.)
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