A civilisation is as rich as its raison d’etre, the river. Flowing through the heart of the Tamil region Ponni Nadhi, as River Cauvery is known alternatively, bestowed bountiful harvests through the ages besides engendering fertile thoughts culminating in the bhakti cult. Cauvery and bhakti are inseparably intertwined, enriching each other to mutual benefit.
Bhakti’s fountainhead lays in temples where divinity is worshipped both in the precept and concept forms. Both these forms of devotion manifest magnificently at the Bhooloka Vaikuntam, Srirangam, with River Cauvery adorning Lord Ranganatha’s earthly abode as a regal necklace. River Cauvery has a special affinity to Lord Ranganatha, garlanding Him at three places - at the Aadhi Rangam, Madhya Rangam and Antha Rangam.
While the first two sacred spots are in Karnataka, the Antha Rangam is Srirangam, the island formed by Cauvery that splits into Cauvery and Coleroon at Upper Anicut only to rejoin about 20 miles downstream.
Arangam, in Tamil, connotes variously as an island formed by a river, a place where art forms are tutored, a dais that hosts performances by artistes and a gathering of erudite scholars. More than anything else arangam represents the universe and the Lord at Thiruvarangam, in the reclining posture shaded by the Adi Seshan, is adored as the Master of the Universe - Aranganathan.
In Hindu mythology, serpent represents power and Adi Seshan symbolises the archetypal power of the five basic elements. If Lord Ranganatha’s philosophical disposition signifies His lordship over the elements, then the archa moorthy at Srirangam also epitomizes the peak of percept form in the Vaishnavite bhakti cult.
The Thiru Adhyayana Utsavam or the Vaikunta Ekadasi festival at Srirangam is at once a celebration of both the corporeal and metaphysical forms of divinity. The festival commemorates the principal role of Dravida Vedham - the sacred Divya Prabhandam composed by the Azhwars in Tamil. Lord Ranganatha, scholars have emphasised, indulges Himself in listening to the recitation of Divya Prabhandam verses rendered by the Arayars and priests to extol the virtue of Tamil language, literature, culture and devotion. Not for nothing Lord Ranganatha is fondly called “Pathinmar Paadiya Peruman” as Azhwars and Andal have eulogised Srirangam, its presiding deity and His devotees. Vaikunta Ekadasi stands tall at the head of a slew of festivals celebrated in Srirangam all through the year.
In fact there is no Tamil month sans a festival in the temple. Legends indicate that the Lord was adorned with separate jewellery for each festival that had a unique significance.
During Chitrai the Virupan Thirunal, enunciated by Virupanna Udayar, who was also instrumental in bringing back the Azhagiya Manavalan, is being celebrated as a 10-day festival marking that as a Brahmotsavam.
On the eleventh day the Aalum Pallakku is being taken out.
In the month of Vaikasi the Vasanthothsavam is celebrated while the sacred Jyeshtabishekam is performed and the Moolavar will be in thaila kaappu during Aani. In Adi the Lord comes to Amma Mandapam to offer His blessings to River Cauvery.
The Tamil month Aavani the Pavitrothsavam is held while the Purattasi is significant in that Navaratri festival decks up the Thayar Sannathi rounding off the festival with the Vijayadasami. Aippasi or Thula month is of huge importance to the temple ritual calendar as the priests carry sacred water from the river in golden pot atop the temple elephant with due honours.
In Karthikai, the sacred Kaisika Ekadasi is observed in the temple followed by the Karpoora Padiyetra Sevai, the festival that made the then ruler Vijayaranga Chokkanathar, and his family, reside in Srirangam to savour the spirit of all festivals round the year.
The principal festival, Thiruadhyayanotsavam comprising the Thirumozhi Thirunal and the Thiruvaimozhi Thirunal, is observed during Margazhi. The festival includes the Mohini Alamkaram and Vaikunta Ekadasi.
During Thai, Bhoopathy Thirunal resembling the Brahmotsavam as also the Sankaranthi festival are celebrated, while the Thirupalli Oda Thirunal or Theppotsavam is celebrated in Maasi and the Tamil year culminates with another Brahmotsavam in Panguni. Despite the year-long festivities, it is the Vaikunta Ekadasi that attracts the maximum pilgrims and remains the most popular event in the annals of the temple calendar.
Vaikunta Ekadasi is a festival celebrated and observed at once by the learned and the laity, eulogised by the Azhwars and adored by the Acharyas. If one could find the learned scholars reciting the holy scriptures on one side, on the other the common folk give vent to their bhakti, in no less a fashion, through singing emotional outpourings of famous bhakti cult figures. One does not need a spoken language to gauge the depth of the common people’s bhakti towards Lord Ranganatha at Srirangam. A mere look around the front yard of the 1,000-pillored mandapam on the Vaikunta Ekadasi day would testify that bhakti needs no medium.
In Vaikunta Ekadasi, it is hard to decipher whether the Lord adores the devout or vice versa as the dividing line is blurred, drawing the devout to the god even as it brings divinity to earth. What better place to celebrate the festival than Srirangam where divinity rejoices as much as the devotee?