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Unravelling Athi Varadhar’s journey on Earth, under water
2019 marks the 40-year period when the 10-foot wooden idol is brought out of the temple tank. The 48-day period of darshan is considered a once-in-a-lifetime experience for devotees.
The Varadaraja Perumal temple in Kancheepuram is a quiet temple town for most of the time, but 2019 marks the 40-year period when the 10-foot idol, made from wood, is brought out of its resting place – the bottom of the temple tank and is on display for devotees. The 48-day period of darshan is considered a once-in-a-lifetime experience for devotees from across the globe.
Srisaila Thathacharyar, a lecture from the Sanskrit department of Sri Sankara Arts and Science College in Kancheepuram, says that renowned scholars like Vidwan Krishna Thathacharya have said that the Athi Varadhar is one of the most powerful deities.
According to Puranas, Brahma came down to Athigiri hills in Kancheepuram to conduct Ashwamedha Yagam. “Once, when Brahma went to Vaikuntam for an audience with Vishnu, he failed to gain the same. An oracle told Brahma that this was due to his vacillating mind and one way to overcome this and gain Vishnu’s audience was to conduct 1008 Ashwamedha yagams. “Conducting one yagam itself is a challenge, how can I conduct 1008 yagams?” retorted Brahma. The oracle directed him to Satyavrita Kshetram in Athigiri. Brahma set about making elaborate preparations. The yagams demand the participation of many. Accordingly, while Brahma invited a number of people, he left out Saraswati, with whom he was having differences. When she found out, Saraswati turned into Vegavathy, a raging river, intent on destroying the yagam. A shaken Brahma prayed fervently to Vishnu. The lord, always ready to please a devotee, simply took up the supine position and arrested the flood. Saraswati too calmed at the sight of Vishnu. The yagam went ahead, and from its flames emerged Varadhar. Brahma and the others wanted Varadhar to remain on earth for eternity and bless devotees. The lord, however, said that was impossible, but an image resembling the original could be worshipped. That is how Athi Varadhar came about — made of wood,” says Thathacharyar.
Since Vishnu himself appeared in that form, praying to Athi Varadhar is considered to be a high point in one’s life. While some say the deity assumed the form of a fig tree, some others say Athi also refers to elephant, in Tamil. The elephants in the hills are supposed to have prayed to Vishnu with great devotion. Hence, Athigiri hills.
According to Thathacharyar, nearly three centuries ago, the deities were removed from the temple, for safe-keeping following invasion by people of other faith. Athi Varadhar, the presiding deity (moolavar) was secreted in the temple’s pond, by two priests, Thriumala Desikan and Venkatavaradha Desikan, a secret known only to them which they took to their graves. The utsavar (processional deity) was hidden in Udayarpalayam jamin. After the political turmoil settled down, another presiding deity and the utsavar were brought back, after many parleys between the jamin and the descendants of the two priests, and the worship continued.
But, in 1703, when the temple pond at Varadharajaswamy temple was emptied, the original Athi Varadhar, made of wood and extremely well preserved, was discovered.
One of the biggest ‘miracles’ is the fact that the wood, which despite being left underwater, doesn’t warp or decay. “Many types of wood can be preserved under water, it depends on what type of wood,” says V Balaji, an architect, who also quotes from a blog written by Mike Shanahan on “The nearly magical properties of fig trees.” The blogger quotes the example of Meghalaya, where “the people who live in the forested hills train the aerial roots of ficus elastic fig trees into living nets… some of these bridges are thought to be centuries old.”
According to other experts, the idol is coated with a mix of 27 herbal oils, almost 2,000 litres of this mix is prepared and the idol is treated for three days before darshan to the public. This oiling process prepared the wood for public viewing and also allows it to endure being submerged for another 40 years.
A divine darshan: Athi Varadharbeckons one and all
It was the sixth WhatsApp message of the day and the boast quotient was enough to spur me to hit the road to Kancheepuram (Kanchi) to see Athi Varadhar, on Friday. Ever since the deity was raised from the temple pond after a 40-year siesta period, and displayed for the public at the Devarajaswamy Temple (also known as Varadharajaswamy Temple) on July 1, a number of Chennaiites have been heading to Kancheepuram for a darshan.
Motivated by feedback about how easy it is to get there, and what a wonderful an experience it is, I set out. The drive takes around two hours by car. Once you reach the turn-off to Kanchi, it is easy to see why Athi Varadhar (made from wood) is such a huge draw. Devotees are arriving by buses, vans or trains, alighting at Kanchi station. What was merely a spiritual journey until forty years ago, is a unique experience today, where spirituality meets social outing.
It is also a fairly democratic process. You have the free darshan and an archana ticket which can only be bought online. Thousands of visitors are heading towards the temple in the afternoon. The weather is mild on Friday, and that is a blessing. From the dedicated parking for two-wheelers and four-wheelers, it is quite a walk to the East Gopuram street, which is the only entrance to the mandapam where a supine Athi Varadhar is offering darshan. Footwear has to be left behind in a cordoned off area and the earth is not kind on anyone’s feet, be it senior citizens or the children, especially on the return trip. It is a longer route and a tough search amongst hundreds of identical footwear, left in the sandy, dusty soil.
Throughout the walk to the Vasantha mandapam, where the deity is displayed, volunteers hand out glasses of water that are tapped out of a pipe.
A temporary metal canopy keeps the sun out, while a mild afternoon breeze kisses you on the brow before heading away. Suddenly there are two young boys, queue breakers who claim their mother is holding a place for them ahead, but the boys get roundly admonished. “Shame on you, when older people like us are waiting,” admonishes 68-year-old S Gopal, a small-time farmer living on the outskirts of Kanchi. He says he visited Athi Varadhar in 1979 as well. “In those days, people would walk in casually, pray and then leave. It was all very leisurely, and just a handful would be present at a given time,” he says, referencing the serpentine queue ahead.
Roughly 35-minutes after walking into the temple and joining the queue, we suddenly make the final turn and the spectacular site of the deity is upon everyone.He is displayed in a spacious area and the priests (for once) are not covering Him or walking about as they are wont to.
Devotees shout ‘Govinda’ ‘Govinda’, while a priest holds aloft a piece of lit camphor. As with all great works of art, the deity’s eyes seem to follow you. A policewoman pulls a female devotee by the arm and hustles her to move. The male police politely tell the crowd to move. “Take your time,” says a policeman to me and I stand there for nearly five minutes. The vigraham, made of wood, shines lustrously.