History & Culture

Retrieval of Kanchi Athivaradar: a deity’s tryst with history

Anantha Saras - in Sri Devarajaswamy Temple, Kancheepuram   | Photo Credit: K_V_Srinivasan

The date with Time has begun at the Athi Hill in Kanchipuram. Awakening and rising every forty years from the depths of ‘Ananthasaras,’ the temple tank, Athivaradhar emerges to remain with his devotees for 48 days. The last time he came out was on July 2, 1979, and earlier on July 12, 1939. When he emerges, he brings with him strength and prosperity, which dispels darkness — within and without. Vibes speak louder than history. Time and distance blur our mind but every forty years Athivaradar returns to restore the faith that has been under constant attacks in the society we live in.

Darshan details
  • July 1-August 15: Daily 5 a.m.-5 p.m. Up to 8 p.m. on special days. Free entry and ₹50 entry through East Rajagopuram. Online booking of ₹500 for special darshan and Sahasranama archana, from July 4 through website: www.tnhrce.org. Entry through West Gopuram

Athivaradhar is actually a nine-feet long idol, made out of the divine fig tree, botanically identified as Ficus Racemosa Linn falling under the Moraceae family. According to legend, Goddess Saraswathi 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), now Kanchipuram. Aided by the Asuras, the demons, Sarawati runs as the Vegavathi river and tries to interrupt the Yagna, when Vishnu emerges from the holy fire as Athivaradhar. Saraswati is pacified and the yagna continues. Viswakarma carves out a body for Athivaradar using a fig tree and He then agrees to stay in Kanchipuram atop the Elephant Hill.

Akkarakani Srinidhi, Vaishnavite scholar

Akkarakani Srinidhi, Vaishnavite scholar  

 

“For those who refuse to get involved in the culture and traditions of the soil, Athivaradar might just be a wooden idol lying beneath the water which is taken out every forty years for worship. It is all just so simple at face value but looking at the sensation his emergence is causing, one can realise Athivaradar’s incredible power to make us nostalgic for earlier eras we never grew up in. Of course, the works of Azhwars and Acharyas of Sri Vaishnavism are silent about Athivaradhar, confirming the belief that the idol must have been kept under water considering the prevailing political situation then. There is also another theory that the idol was damaged and hence kept under water since Agamas do not permit the worship of a damaged idol!’’

Akkarakani Srinidhi, Vaishnavite scholar residing near the temple, says: “Whether Athivaradar 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.’’

The life of a temple priest in Kanchi Varadarajar temple does not end with just breaking coconuts and adorning the idols. An archaka here is not only the preserver of traditions who allows devotees to worship but he also serves as a curator for temple treasures and allow people to enjoy art and architecture too. The temple pond, in a sense, serves as a museum and gives a great insight into the history of Kanchipuram.

Lakshminarasimhan Bhattar

Lakshminarasimhan Bhattar  

 

How are the preparations going on for the mega event? Lakshminarasimhan, known as Kittu Bhattar, who was going through a check list for the event, along with the temple Executive officer, N. Thiyagarajan, turns around slowly displaying a face of lined by experience and wisdom. “True, people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture are like trees without roots and we are fortunate enough to have rich traditions in the form of our temples,” Kittu Bhattar says. He himself is not sure when the ritual had began but he shows records from his mobile of the event being held in the nineteenth century too.

’For most of the archakas, taking out the Athivaradar idol from underneath the water is an harrowing experience and some of us have been psychologically affected after coming out with the idol. An archaka who first saw the idol after 40 years in 1979, was under depression for seven long years. Generally fig gains strength in water and the forty long years under the water makes the idol emit mercurial vibes. Although 12 feet of water is drained out, we’ll have to wade through marsh to reach the idol,” Kittu Bhattar says.

Kittu Bhattar was not born during 1979 event but his father who had been one of the team members then had narrated him his experience. “Standing under the dimly lit water pond, it takes time to recognise shapes: After reaching the surface of the pond, one needs to descend 12 steps deep further and there lies a nine feet tub brimming with water. The image exactly fits in the tub and lies at its bottom, with nagabasams (serpent images) fixed to the various corners of the tub serving as clamps to prevent the idol from coming out of the tub. Three days before the event, we enter the pond, remove the nagabasams and bring the idol out. After cleaning, the idol is placed for worship for 48 days and then put back inside the tub under water, with the clamps back in their place. Before placing the idol in the tank, we apply organic preservatives so that the salt content in water does not corrode the image.’’

“The idol is kept in the Vasantha Mandapam right on the main entrance of the temple and although regular aradhana rituals are not performed, the offerings of the devotees are accepted,’’ Kittu Bhattar says.

Much excitement

N. Thyagarajan, Temple Executive Officer

N. Thyagarajan, Temple Executive Officer  

 

Temple executive officer, Mr. N. Thyagarajan is so excited about the event. “The event has drawn worldwide attention, and we expect at least 50,000 devotees on a daily basis from July 1. We have vowed to ensure a smooth conduct of the event, and the District Collector is in constant touch with us. The DRO and other officials too have lent support to leave no stone unturned in making the event a grand success. Since vehicular movements around the temple will be restricted till the event is over, a battery car and around 150 wheel chairs will be in place to transport the disabled to the temple and out,” he said.

“There's nothing as exciting as a comeback — seeing someone or something that has links with the past. Being 90, I have earlier seen Athivaradhar idol, in 1939 and then in 1979 and hope to see him for the last time, this year too, says Bhamadevi from Bangalore.

Like her, several people who have crossed 90 years are waiting to have a glimpse of Athivaradar for the third time.

Head for Kanchipuram to visit Athivaradhar unless you are confident of living up to 2059 or 2099 the last year of this century.

A slice of memory

Sri Varadarajaswamy temple in Kanchipuram.

Sri Varadarajaswamy temple in Kanchipuram.   | Photo Credit: K.V. Srinivasan

 

As the wheel of Time turns, Athivaradhar becomes a vignette of memory to be cherished — for those who have seen him once. This writer, for instance. Will I Him again, I asked myself when a Vaishnavite scholar excorted me during His outing in 1979. The scholar not only showed me, a teenager, the idol but expalined why the idol was removed every 40 years. Generally, people who live to see 500 and 1,000 full moons are themselves considered auspicious. Sathabhishekam is performed to a person who had seen 1,000 full moons Sighting 500 full moons is also a great accomplishment and the event too calls for a celebration and hence Aththivaradar is taken out and worshipped. That makes it every 40 years.

The idol when taken out of tank is dark but after few days turns somewhat reddish brown. The first 24 days it is kept in a reclining position and the remaining 24 days, standing.

Back in 1979...

M.K. Parthasarathy

M.K. Parthasarathy  

 

A Chennai resident shares memories of the day:

It was on a Thursday in July 1979, that M.K. Parthasarathy, serving in the temple was stopped by Maniyakaarar Swaminathan from going home after the temple was closed. “You are part of the team, which will bring Athi Varadar out from the tank,” he was told.

Parthasarathy was a well-built 23-year old youth and several young men like him had been asked to stay back in the temple. Around 10.30 p.m., 35 hefty men were guided down the tank. “We had initially removed the marsh carrying big pails till 5.30 in the morning and carried the idol to the Vasantha Mantapam before the temple opened,” says Parthasarathy. “Two days after I carried the idol to Vasantha Mantapam, I got a job in Indian Bank,” he adds, attributing this to Athivaradar’s blessings.

“'When Athivaradhar visited us in 1979, not much planning was in place and the arrangements were poor. They used to open the temple as early as 4.30 a.m. that became a routine till Athivaradhar returned to his underwater abode.

“One day, the opening of the temple gate got delayed and thousands had gathered in front of the temple. No sooner had the gates opened than they rushed resulting in a stampede and three persons were killed. ‘Athivaradar was angry and punished people,’ it was said. Athivaradhar comes to grant boons, not to punish. It was a human mistake,” recalls Parthasarathy, who lives in Triplicane now and says that he had a steady rise in his life after he was part of the 1979 event.

The Vasantha Mandapam in Sri Varadarajaswamy temple where Athivaradar will be kept.

The Vasantha Mandapam in Sri Varadarajaswamy temple where Athivaradar will be kept.   | Photo Credit: K.V. Srinivasan

 

The Vasantha Mandapam where Athivaradar will be kept, has been spruced up for the occasion. Restoration work started as early as March and are almost over. The temple authorities do not want to take any chances and they expect a crowd of more than a lakh every day.

The temple’s Eastern entrance will be thrown open for the occasion. Big canopies and pandals have been put up to avoid devotees standing in the hot sun. Special trains and buses have been planned.

According to the temple administration, there were no VIP darshans in 1979 but this time, visit by several VVIPs are likely — State and Centre. But more than the temple officials, its the small traders, who are keenly awaiting the event. They believe that Athivaradar’s re-emergence will give their business a much-needed fillip.

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Printable version | Apr 7, 2021 1:33:36 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/retrieval-of-kanchi-athivaradar-a-deitys-tryst-with-history/article28182955.ece

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