Of a deity, who heeded his devotee and Vishnu on warpath.
Thiruvekha – Little Kanchi
The four forms of earth are chewed and spat out by the fiery sun
This dry desert is the last we need to cross dearest girl!
Vekha is beyond, where even the celestials worship Krishna
And beyond that Tirutankal amidst a shaded grove
Be patient dearest for our long journey draws to a close
So saying the Vaishnavite Saint Nammazhwar mentions Vekha. The metaphor of the sun chewing and spitting out the land had always fascinated me and I always wanted to visit the temple in summer! By even 7 a.m., the sun was blazing as I reached the small temple in Kanchi. The original Vekha may have been a separate village but time has merged it with Kanchi. The temple is small and not on the tourist circuit. However for a literature lover, Vekha is a town of great antiquity.
Perumbanatrupadai by Kadiyalur Uruthirankannanar on king Thondaiman Ilanthirayan, has a long description of the beauty of Thiruvekha from lines 372 to 392. Among the many things, the poet says, Vishnu reclines in Thiruvekha like an elephant reclining. The only difference is that instead of elephants, there are mounds of flowers from the fragrant forests that surround the temple.
The place is so thickly wooded that sunlight hardly penetrates and reverberates with the cries of the kuyil. The poet spots many Kanchi trees that have the creepers of the Kurukathi flowers.
The poet finally requests the reader to rest awhile among the other residents, who know how to enjoy spring besides the river and string a few tunes on their lute made of the Karungali wood on the powerful God before they move on.
The entrance gopuram is of Vijaynagar/Nayak times and on the door jamb is a small well- executed lion pouncing on an elephant. The main deity is unique. The reclining Vishnu is on a right-left axis, in a state of almost getting up. At his feet is a seated figure in worship. “This god heeded to the words of Thirumazhisai Azhwar to follow him out of Kanchi and therefore the popular name Sonna Vannam Seitha Perumal or the one who did as he was told.”
Is this a legend concocted to explain the demolition of the temple when many Hindu kings converted to other religions only to be converted back by the Azhwars and Nayanmars? Sadly the truth will forever be buried in the sands of time. It is said that when a temple that has been damaged is entirely reconstructed, the cardinal positions and directions are reversed. Perhaps this is one example as well.
Though the priest had no inclination to discuss such historical probabilities, he was a man who loved his literature. He poured out the verses of Nammazhwar, who incidentally in all his 100 verses in Tiruviruttam mentions only this temple apart from the two others of Tirupati and Srirangam. Vedanta Desika has also sung of this temple in the Vegasethu Stotra. Poigai Azhwar, among the oldest of the Azhwars was said to have been born in Vekha. He is among the five who have sung of this temple.
The temple is rich in inscriptions, recorded and published in 1921. In 944 ACE, Parantaka I made a gift. The inscription mentions that the lord was pleased to lie “like an anicut” to Tiruvekha, then the name of the river Vegavati. Others from the reigns of Rajendra and Kulotunga record gifts of gold, lamps, land and villages to the temple, house sites for those associated with the temple. Saka 1448 to 1509 are full of inscriptions from the Vijaynagar kings, many are in the gopuram. By then, Sonnavannam… had become a well established name as is another name used today – Yathothakari.
One inscription mentions the construction of a mandapam to the west and a water-shed. Another is of King Kampanna Udaiyar seated in the Janaki Mandapa granting honours and gifts to Sri Parakala Nambi. Gifts in other times were made for the summer and float festivals and cakes (Paniyaram?) were provided for.
History and gifts seemed to recede as a few pilgrims leisurely walked along the temple precincts. Much of the temple land inside the walls had been fenced off. A board bearing the name “Nallapa Grove,” a few banana trees and soil ready for cultivation indicated a well tended garden.
Attabuyakarathan Temple, Little Kanchi
The traffic jam in the main road in Little Kanchi prompted me to take a detour and I was confronted by a small temple beside a dried up tank bed. The board had a photo of a very unique eight-armed Vishnu. The only other image of an eight-armed Vishnu I had seen was at Angkor Wat in Cambodia that has had connections with Kanchi and its Pallava kings. I stopped to investigate.
The deity is within a simple temple that has entrances in the side - a very unusual feature peculiar to ancient temples. The main image was certainly awe-inspiring. Apart from the Discus and Conch, the deity had a sword, shield, lotus, bow, arrow, and mace. I was reminded of Nammazhwar’s verse in the Tiruvoimozhi, 7th decad where he relates the horrors that occur when Vishnu goes to battle. Even Muruga, the God of War, flees away says the saint.
Three Azhwars have sung of this temple. Vedanta Desika has also dedicated a set of eight verses on this shrine called the Ashtabhuja Ashtakam. Tirumangai Azhwar, that indefatigable traveller, has the most number of verses to his credit.
The saint takes on the role of a lovelorn girl awed by a beautiful form and in the end, as she asks, who it is, she realises it is Attabuyakarathan – the Lord with eight hands. Appropriately, many of the verses allude to Vishnu’s military exploits. The ninth is in a different key,
I waste away for his form and my bangles slip away
My heart is with him too.
He looked hard at my slender hip
And opened his coral hued lips to say a word
But I received only sweet poison from them
Who could this be I wondered
“I am the lord of Attabuyakaram”, he said!
(Periya Tirumozhi 2.8.9)
The last verse is an important one. The saint mentions Thondaimaan Vairamegan who patronises this shrine. This, some scholars believe, refer to the Rashtrakuta King Dantidurga whose second name was Vairamegha. He invaded and occupied Kanchi in 743. Inscriptional evidence in the temple, recorded in 1921 have only those from Rajendra Chola and Kulotunga I giving land to the temple with the deity Thiru Ashtabujathu ninru aruliya Paramaswamin. The period 1593-97 has Vijaynagar inscriptions of land gifts, one of them from a lady.
The temple today has sadly been vandalised with modern floor and haphazardly built shrines. It is unlikely that we will ever know anything more about the cult and the tumultuous times of the Rashtrakuta invasion that will shed more light on this temple but for those interested in off-beat Vaishnavite iconography, this temple is surely a must see…
(The author can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org)