Friday Review

Water without boundaries

Karnataka and Tamil Nadu — the two States today stand divided by a tussle over water. Rewind to almost a thousand years . Ramanujacharya moves to Karnataka, from Chola Nadu. After a few years in the village of Salagrama in Karnataka, the Acharya moves to Tondanur, where he builds a lake. Tonnur Kere, (kere meaning lake in Kannada) built by Ramanujacharya is spread over nearly 2,200 acres, and is about 20 km from Melkote.

Brihaspati Samhita says that creating new tanks and repairing old ones help a person reach heaven. Clearly, when Ramanuja had the Tondanur lake constructed, he would not have sought something fleeting like a sojourn in heaven; in fact, he would have aspired for nothing for himself. Ramanuja was known as kripa maatra prasannacharya — an Acharya who had nothing but mercy towards others. It was this trait of his that prompted him to help the people of Tondanur.

Vasistha Dharmasastra gives a list of duties of a king. One of them is to ensure the building of a well in every house in his kingdom. But wells serve a limited purpose. Wouldn’t it be better if a huge lake were built instead? Ramanuja was Yatiraja, a king among ascetics, who wisely provided the people with a lake.

Water also figured in a major way in Ramanuja’s discovery of the idol of Thirunarayana at Melkote, and also his discovery of the sacred white clay called tirumann. Ramanuja had a vision of a path strewn with basil leaves, which led to an ant hill to the South West of the Kalyani pond in Melkote. Under this ant hill was the idol of Tirunarayana. Ramanuja also had a vision of a place to the north west of the pond, where sacred white clay was available. Ramanuja followed the directions indicated and found both the idol and tirumann near the Kalyani tirtha.

He left giant footprints on the sands of time, with acts hard to replicate. But his disciples always did their Acharya proud. When Ramanuja asked who would take up pushpa kainkaryam in Tirumala, his disciple Anantazhvan volunteered. Anantazhvan not only established a garden in Tirumala, which he called Ramanuja Nandavanam, but also built a lake there, which he called Ramanuja Pushkarani. Ramanujacharya laid down that on the seventh day of the Brahmotsavam in Tirumala, the processional deity must be taken to Anantazhvan’s garden to honour him, a practice that is still followed.

Coming back to Melkote, Ramanuja lived there for many years, and appointed 52 scholars to administer the temple and perform various services. The descendants of the 52 continued to serve in the temple, long after the Acharya’s departure from this world. There are inscriptional evidences to show that they honoured those who repaired water tanks.

There is an inscription dated 1519 C.E., belonging to the reign of Krishnadevaraya, Emperor of Vijayanagar. It says that the tank called Hosakere in the village of Pura, which belonged to the Melkote temple, was repaired and a sluice built by Lakshmipathi Setti, son of Odeyar Tibbasetti. In recognition of this, the 52 officers of the temple arranged for an offering to the deity of Melkote, in the name of Tibbasetti. One fourth of this offering was to be given to Lakshmipathi Setti, to be distributed to Srivaishnavas in the tirumalige of Sadagopa Jeer.

Another inscription dated 1534 C.E. belonging to the reign of Achyutadevaraya of Vijayanagar, talks of Peri Raja, son of Harigila Abbaraja, who repaired the tanks Hosakere and Krishnadevavodeyarkere. The 52 officers of the temple established a charity in his name, by which offerings were to be made to the deity using funds from the temple treasury. One fourth of the offering was to be given to Peri Raja, or his nominee. Interestingly, the inscription says that the charity was to continue even if the tanks breached their bunds in future.

Melkote is dotted with more than 30 ponds, and quaint stories are told regarding the origin of some of the ponds, as for instance the akka - thangiyara ponds. The story goes that of two sisters, one willingly constructed a pond, while the other did so unwillingly. As a result , the pond built by the latter has brackish water, while the one right next to it, built by the other sister has sweet water! The date of construction of the akka-thangiyara ponds is not known. Perhaps the story grew up to drive home the importance of providing water to others, something Ramanuja did happily several centuries ago in Tonnur.

A unique festival in Melkote, is the Ashta tirtha festival, in the month of Kartika, instituted during the Wodeyar period (16th century). During this festival, the satari is given holy baths (tirumanjanam) with the waters of eight tirthas of Melkote, mentioned in the Naradiya Purana. The eight tirthas are — Vedapushkarini, Yadava, Darbha, Palasa, Padma, Parasara, Narayana and Vaikuntha Ganga. The ashta tirtha festival begins with the processional deities of the Lord and His two Consorts being taken to Kalyani Tirtha. The satari is then brought from the temple, and is given a ceremonial dip in the Kalyani tirtha, from where it proceeds to the Vedapushkarini for tirumanjanam. A difficult climb up rocks then takes one to Danushkoti, where water comes out of a rock to form a pool. It is believed that to quench Sita’s thirst, Lord Rama struck the rock with His arrow, and water came out of it. From here, the distant Tondanur lake looks like a small sliver of water. Water from the pool in Dhanushkoti is sprinkled on the satari, which is then taken to the remaining seven tirthas for a holy bath. The eight tirthas represent the Ashtakshara mantra. When the satari finally returns to the temple around midnight, a complete circumambulation of Yadavagiri has been done.

It is a pleasure to take a stroll around Melkote, clamber up the rocky cliffs, and to sit on the banks of the town’s many ponds with silence for a companion. The ponds of Melkote remain unsullied, and the people use them responsibly. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the civic sense of the people of Melkote is perhaps a throw back to Ramanujacharya, who was a model of social responsibility.

(The supplement will carry articles by various authors on Sri Ramanuja up to his millennium birth anniversary.)

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Printable version | Dec 8, 2021 5:37:02 AM |

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