The Varadaraja Perumal Temple is the biggest and the most important Vishnu Temple in Kanchi, the location of many Vishnu temples in Kanchipuram. The ancient temple town of Kanchipuram has been divided into Vishnu Kanchi, Shaiva Kanchi, Buddha Kanchi and Jain Kanchi. The presence of various ancient Indic holy sites in one township goes to show how important and spiritually charged Kanchipuram has been since antiquity.

Varadaraja is a name of Lord Vishnu and it literally means The Lord of Boons. This is a very sacred place for Vaishnavites and for Hindus in general. It is one amongst the 108 Divya Desams (mentioned by 12 Alwar saints) that are located all over India. Alwars are the poet-saints from South India who sang devotional songs dedicated to and in praise of Lord Vishnu and Lord Krishna (Lord Vishnu’s Avatar) and the 108 abodes of Vishnu. The Alwars were associated with the Bhakti movement during the early medieval period.

There is a unique feature of this temple and that is the ‘Athi Varadar’ or manifestation of Lord Vishnu on the wood of a Fig (Athi) Tree. This is a nine feet statue of Lord Vishnu that remains in a special vault submerged inside the temple tank called the Anant Saras for 40 years. After every 40 years, Athi Varadar is meticulously taken out and kept for public darshan for 48 days.   

(Athi Varadar being carried out of the Anant Saras Temple Tank)

For the first 30 days, he will remain in a reclining position and placed upright for the remaining 18 days. The Lord is decorated with flowers and devotees offer flowers to him. Thereafter the Lord will be placed in a container with an armour of preservatives and put back in his Anant Saras water abode for another 40 years. This is a fortunate year as the Lord can be seen by his devotees from 1st July to 17th August 2019. After this, he will be seen only in the year 2059.

Athi Varadar in a reclining position and in floral glory, displayed for Public Darshan)

(Photo of Athi Varadar in an upright state taken in 1979)

The medieval and mughal era was witness to large scale temple desecration. During this troubled phase of Muslim invasions, temple caretakers tried to save the deities by hiding them. Athi Varadar was the original main deity of the Varadaraja Perumal Temple. The correct time of starting this practise for hiding the main deity is not historically confirmed, but local sources put the time of Malik Kafur’s southern expedition, or the time of Aurangzeb as the likely period. Athi Varadar was replaced with another murti of Varadar and pujas continued in the temple. It was after a gap of 40 years that the original Athi Varadar was traced and recovered from within the Temple Tank.

(The Temple Tank, Anant Saras within which Athi Varadar remains submerged for 40 years at a stretch)

History of the Temple

The Varadaraja Perumal Temple is a massive construct that has been built and expanded over centuries and through various ruling dynasties of this region. There are hundreds of inscriptions dating to the various dynasties that reveal the continued devotion and upkeep of this holy site.

A very famous Alwar from the 8th Century CE, Thirumangai Alwar wrote devotional songs and literature in praise of the great Pallava King, Nandivarman II and in praise of the Vishnu temples built during that period. Thirumangai was a chief in a small realm of Mangai near Kanchipuram. It seems that he had spent his wealth in building this temple and had avoided paying his taxes to the king for which he was punished. The king later exonerated him. Later on, Thirumangai became a devotional singer and then an Alwar. It is because of the episodes in Thirumangai’s life that it is believed that Varadaraja Perumal Temple was initially built by the Pallava King Nandivarman II in the 8th Century CE. Thirumangai Alwar’s works along with inscriptions have helped corroborate the history of the Pallavas during the 7th and 8th centuries.

The great theologian and one of the most important proponents of the Vishishtadvaita Vedanta philosophy within Hinduism, Ramanuja, lived in this temple during the 11th Century. He was a priest in this temple and developed his philosophy while staying in this temple.

(From the West entrance to the Temple)

Construction of the main areas of this temple is attributed to Chola rule during the mid-11th Century CE. It was further expanded under Kulotunga Chola I and Vikram Chola. These two Chola Kings reigned from 1070 CE to 1122 CE. Later Chola kings made further additions of walls and as well as gopurams. Additions and donations were also made by the Hoysala kings and Vijayanagar rulers during the 13th and 14th centuries. This shows how important this temple was for Hindus in South India.

The Rajagopuram is the entry way from the west side of the temple. The massive base of this Gopuram is granite with beautiful carvings of pillars and miniature doorways.

(The massive Rajagopuram)

This Gopuram is a massive construct and the view of the mandapas and Dhwajastambha all align in a straight line is a beautiful sight.

(Entry through the West gate or Rajagopuram)

What must be admired is the sense of history of the Pallavas, Cholas, Hoysalas and Vijayanagar rulers. The walls of the Gateway, as well as the temple walls and pillars, have carved inscriptions detailing the benefactors, donations together with the addition of buildings made by the royals that either ruled this area of had influence over the area.

(Inscriptions carved onto the gateway wall.)

On entering the temple compound, a remarkable feature to the left is the 100 pillar Mandapam or Hall of 100 Pillars that was built by the Vijayanagar rulers. This hall overlooks the temple tank, Anant Saras. The pillars are exquisitely carved in the form of horses and mystical creatures or Yalis that are ridden by warriors. No two pillars are the same. All around the pillars, we find carvings depicting Vishnu and his avatars, scenes from the Ramayana, Krishna leela, beautiful ladies, etc.

(Side view of the 100 pillared Mandapam that overlooks the Anant Saras Temple Tank)

The stairs that lead to the pillared Mandapam has fierce Yalis on the sides. These Yalis are very artistically made with fire coming from their mouths that form the railing of the sides of the stairs. The high base of this mandapam has intricate carvings on all sides. Miniature replicas of the entire mandapam adorn the entire base at regular intervals.

(Yali spewing fire carved on the stairway; the miniature replica of the Mandapam on its base; a sword wielding warrior riding a Yali)

One stands in awe on the sight of this mandapam as all the sides have animated horses and Yalis with warriors and humans riding and controlling the animals. All four top corners of this mandapam have twelve link chains that hang with the lowest link in the form of a bell. What is extraordinary about these chains is that they are carved out of one piece of stone with no gaps or joints in those chains.

(The joint-less stone chain)

On entering the mandapam one has to marvel at the mind boggling sight of the profusion of sculpted figures on the pillars. This is another example of a superlative display of Vijayanagara workmanship that is dated to the 14th-15th century CE.

(Profusion of sculpted figures)

The warrior horseman is a recurring theme. These animated pillars are just amazing. Below we see a warrior piercing a man with his lance, while that man is trying to attack the horse with a dagger from below. More men stand below the horse with daggers in an attempt to kill the horse. Such horsemen are carved out of the outcrops of the pillars while the main pillars that hold the roof of the mandapam are intricately carved right from the top to the base at the floor.

Lord Vishnu and his avatars were a favourite theme of the Vijayanagara rulers. Therefore we find various pillars with images of Lord Vishnu and his avatars.

(Lord Vishnu and his avatars- Lord Rama and Lord Krishna)

The Alwars have been given much importance as a theme in this mandapam. These Vaishnava saints are shown in the Bhakti pose with hands folded, in prayer while performing the Abhay mudra, blessing the onlookers.

(Alwar Saints)

Another interesting subject is the depiction of beautiful women adorned with jewellery from head to toe. One image is of a maiden with amphora in both her hands and people at her feet waiting for their share of the drink.

There are scenes wherein all the sides of the pillar have been used to showcase episodes from Indian tradition. Lord Ram is aiming his arrow towards Bali while Sugriva and Bali are in a fight. On another pillar, Lord Hanuman is depicted carrying the mountain with the Sanjivani herb in order to revive Lakshman from the toxic arrow that injured him.

There are scenes showing the daily life of commoners and even a court jester gets a place here.

Tamilnadu in particular and South India, in general, has a large number of temples with 100 pillar or even 1000 pillar halls. But the clarity of the sculpture of this place has to be seen to be believed. Each and every side of each and every pillar has two or three levels of exquisite carvings.

(Top left- three performing acrobats with only four legs; Narasimha avatar of Lord Vishnu, coming out of the pillar to attack Hiranyakashyapu)

In front of the main shrine, there is an intricately carved square boundary where offerings are made by the devotees. Different sized ‘Bali peetham’ have been placed for devotees to place their offerings on. There are carvings of deities, Vishnu Avatars and scenes from episodes of the Ramayana along with miniature replicas of the temple. There is no limit to the artistic expertise of the creators of these stone constructs. There is life in the stones everywhere one views.

(The place for offerings just before the main shrine)

The temple complex is made up of the main Perumal Shrine along with multiple smaller shrines within the temple complex. These smaller shrines are later additions by rulers of various eras. Even if a ruler defeated their predecessors to gain control of this area, the one aspect that remained common was the upkeep and development of the earlier temples along with the development of the area and its populace.

(A sub-shrine on one side)

There is a small pillared granite mandapam that stands as if on the back of a tortoise. One of Lord Vishnu’s avatars is the Kurma (Tortoise). The head can be seen from the base of the Mandapam. Its four feet are carved on the four corners. All four pillars have very intricate carvings with the base having miniature replicas of this mandapam.

(The Mandapam on the back of a Tortoise)

The main shrine walls and ceilings are a repository of intricate and resplendent wall murals. These murals can be dated to the Chola era and further additions were made by the Vijayanagara rulers. This is the only temple to have murals depicting all the Divya Desams and therefore a repository of information. Sadly the murals have weathered with time and due to neglect. Repair works do not portray the same beauty. The original work was done using natural and vegetable dyes. It will be better if authorities could involve professional artists, who know this art and then the repair works would be in tune with the original. The ceilings remain untouched by human hand and therefore are in better shape.

Some murals have retained the original colours, one such mural depicts the episode of Narasimha Avatar of Lord Vishnu.

One of the subsidiary shrines belongs to Dhanvantari, who was the main physician of the Gods, also known as the God of Ayurveda. According to lore, Dhanvantari arose out of the Samudra Manthan (churning of the ocean) with the vessel containing ‘Amrit’ (nectar of immortality) in his hand.

Some pillars inside the main temple also depict carvings from different events from the Indic traditions. One such panel shows Lord Vishnu lifted by his mount Garuda. Another one shows Lord Ram being carried on the shoulders of Hanuman during the war.

Another major attraction in the temple is an overhead panel with a golden and a silver lizard along with the sun and the moon. The legend goes that there were two disciples of Sage Gautam who were cursed by him to become lizards, as they had allowed a lizard to fall in the holy water used for the puja. They came to this temple and stayed here as lizards. King of the celestial deities, Lord Indra was cursed by Goddess Saraswati to roam the earth as an elephant. He came to this temple and prayed to Lord Varadaraja and attained salvation. The disciples also attained salvation at that time. Devotees touch these two lizards on the way out of sanctum sanctorum as it is believed to cure chronic illnesses.

There is another legend which details the existence of the Lord at this location. According to this legend, the creator god Brahma had a disagreement with Goddess Saraswati. He performed a Yagna at this place and Saraswati took the form of a fast flowing river (Vegavati) and tried to sweep everything away. On the request of Lord Brahma, Lord Vishnu came and put himself in a reclining position and stopped the deluge. That is why the original Athi Varadar deity is worshipped in reclining position when it is taken out after every 40 years. As Lord Vishnu emerged here with the “brilliance of a thousand suns” and stayed here permanently, this temple is also called as Devrajaswami temple.

Devotees throng in lakhs for this auspicious darshan. It is believed that Athi Varadar showers blessings on his devotes and radiates energy. A good practice of the temple management this year has been to allow photography of the idol. It gives an opportunity to the devotees to keep a visual token of their pilgrimage to this holy event. The ardour and fervour of the throng of devotees has to be seen to be believed.

Conclusion

The year 2019 has seen an overwhelming response from the devotees to worship Athi Varadar. This once in a generation event of bringing out the deity from the holy tank in the temple has attracted huge crowds from near and afar. Varadaraja temple is the holiest Vishnu temple in Kanchipuram.

This article was first published by Pragyata http://www.pragyata.com/mag/varadaraja-perumal-temple-kanchipuram-part-2-778