Curtains down on once-in-forty-years Kanchi Athi Varadar festival

Published - August 17, 2019 04:26 pm IST

The once-in-forty-years Athi Varadar festival, which began on July 1 with fervour, ends on August 17.

On July 1, deity Athi Varadhar was brought up from the depths of ‘Ananthasaras,’ the tank at the Sri Varadharajaperumal temple, and remained for darshan over the next 48 days. After the completion of rituals, the deity carved out of fig wood will be immersed in the tank and remain there for the next 40 years.

The last time this festival occurred was in 1979, and before that, 1939.

A view of the famous Varadharajaperumal temple, also known as the Sri Devarajaswami temple, as pictured on the morning of July 1, 2019, right before the deity was brought out of the temple tank for darshan.

Seen here is a picture of the temple tank taken on July 2, 1979, when the festival was previously held. Vaishnavite scholar Akkaarkkani T.A. Srinidhi says no one knows why the idol is to be brought out once in 40 years or why it is placed for public darshan for 48 days. “There are many theories, the primary one being that it is the belief of thousands of devotees that the Lord with the Abhaya Hastam will bless them. Some say that the idol was placed in water after it appeared in the dream of a temple priest and [The Lord] asked that he be placed in the tank. While there is another theory that it was an idol made during Balalayam (temple renovation) and later placed under water,” he said.

Picture of the idol being brought out of the tank early on July 1, 2019. The idol, nine feet long, is made from fig tree wood. According to legend, Goddess Saraswati had a misunderstanding with her husband Brahma and in a fit of anger took away his divine wand, to retrieve which he performed the Aswamedha yagna in the athi forest (fig forest), in Kanchipuram. Aided by the Asuras, the demons, Sarawati then ran as the Vegavathi river, in an attempt to interrupt the yagna, when Vishnu emerged from the holy fire as Athi Varadhar. Saraswati was then pacified and the yagna continued. Viswakarma carved out a body for Athi Varadar using a fig tree, who then agreed to stay in Kanchipuram atop the Elephant Hill.

Akkarakani Srinidhi, a Vaishnavite scholar residing near the temple, says: “Whether Athi Varadar was kept under water as part of the rituals or was it owing to threats from continued invasions, is a million dollar question, but the ritual has come to stay.’’

No archanas or abhishekam were performed for the idol during this 48-day period. But floral offerings of devotees were accepted by priests. Neivedhyams were also offered to the idol.

Seen here is a battery vehicle transporting the elderly inside the temple. This is among the many special arrangements that were made for devotees this year. The administrators also put barricades in place to control the crowd, made provisions for drinking water and annadanam, and created additional parking lots.

During the last 10 days of the festival, the idol was kept in standing position.

President Ram Nath Kovind and his wife offered prayers on July 12. Many prominent personalities and celebrities took part in the festival. Over one crore devotees are said to have paid a visit to the temple in the last 48 days.

There were pleas for extending the darshan beyond the stipulated days. However, the Madras High Court rejected them. The period of 48 days constitutes one mandalam and the archakas as well as sthanikars of the temple had made it clear that extending the darshan period beyond this would amount to violating the Agama Sastras and established custom, the court ruled.

A picture showing the Ananthasaras temple tank being readied before the immersion of the Athi Varadar idol on August 16. The Madras High Court had ordered officials to ensure the tank is cleaned and filled with purified water to ensure pollution doesn't affect the idol. The TNPCB, in its interim report, told the court that samples of water drawn from Anantasaras as well as the nearby Pottramarai Kulam (golden lotus tank) showed that all important parameters such as pH (measure of hydrogen ion), total hardness, iron, residual chlorine and heavy metals were within acceptable limits prescribed for drinking water.

Despite several safety measures and policing, as many as five people died while waiting in the queue to catch a glimpse of the deity. The Kanchipuram Collector insisted there was no stampede-like situation in the queue. The State government informed in the Assembly that the deceased were already suffering from health issues.

According to R. Srivatsa Bhattar, 21 archakas of the temple will apply a concoction on the idol. About 60 kilos of Sandhanadhi Thailam, containing, among other ingredients, saffron, vettiver, velamuchi ver, sambrani, cardamom, jaadhikka and lavangam would be applied by the priests thrice to protect the idol from fungus and termite attacks. The idol will be placed inside a granite stone tub underground of the Ananthasaras tank. Naga stones will be placed on the idol’s shoulders, feet and hip to prevent it from floating up. Once the idol is placed inside the vault, priests predict rain that will help fill the tank up.

A view of the famous Varadharajaperumal temple, also known as the Sri Devarajaswami temple, as pictured on the morning of July 1, 2019, right before the deity was brought out of the temple tank for darshan.
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