Hamsa Sandesha – Kancipuram (3)

तामासीदन्प्रणम नगरीं भक्तिनम्रेण मुर्ध्ना

जातामादौ कृतयुगमुखे धातुरिच्छावशेन।

यद्वीथीनां करिगिरिपतेर्वाहवेगावधूतान्

धन्यान् रेणूंस्त्रिदशपतयो धारयन्त्युत्तमाङ्गैः॥1.27 


Kāñcī was born right at the beginning, at the start of the golden age, by the force of the creator’s will.  Bow as you approach the city, bending your head in worship.  The supreme gods wear the blessed dust of her roads on their heads, blessed because it was raised by the speeding horse of the lord of the elephant mountain.


From Tirupati, the swan travels about 100km south towards the sacred land known as Satyavrata (the land of true vows), and the temple-strewn town of Kanchipuram.  Kanchipuram is a mukti-kṣetra, a place in which liberation (mokṣa or mukti) is possible, and the only one of the seven mukti-kṣetras south of the Vindhya mountains that cross central India.  The Kanchi Math is one of the four maths of the great philosopher Shankaracarya (also known as Adi Shankaracarya, or ‘the original Shankaracarya’, to distinguish him from his successors who are also called Shankaracarya), and the city is sacred both for Shaivites and Vaishnavites: the Ekamranātha temple is a pṛthvī pancabhūta (which means it represents the earth element of the five elements – pañcabhūtas); 15 of the 108 divyadeśams (holy sites) of the Srivaishnavites are found here and it is one of the two principal centres of the Srivaishnavite community.   

Vedānta Deśika was born in a small village called Tuppul, whose shrine bears an inscription testifying to its celebrated son, just outside Kanchi.  His uncle was the chief ācārya of the city, a role which Deśika himself later assumed.  The city is thus attributed the importance that Ujjain, Kālidāsa’s home city, carries in the Meghadūta.  But whereas the cloud is told that he mustn’t miss Ujjain for the city’s ladies (paura-aṅganānāṃ 1.27), Kanchi’s attractions are its holy sites; Kanchi today is known as ‘The City of 1000 Temples’.  Deśika devotes in total 11 verses to the city and Varadarāja, the incarnation of Viṣṇu who watches over the city from Hastigiri. 

Although he fixes his attention on the Varadarāja Swami temple in the south east of the city, Deśika does not omit to mention the famous Ekamranātha – today referred to as Ekambaranathar – temple where Parvatī finally won Ṥiva as her husband:

मन्दाधूतात्तदनु महितो निस्सृतश्चूतषण्डात्

पार्श्वे तस्याः पशुपतिशिरश्चन्द्रनीहारवाही।

दूरात्प्राप्तं प्रियसखमिव त्वामुपैष्यत्यवश्यं

कम्पापाथः कमलवनिकाकामुको गन्धवाहः॥1.28

After that a celebrated breeze, lover of the little lotus cluster in the waters of the Kampā, will slip out of the slowly swaying mango grove carrying with it the snow from the moon on Śiva’s head on the western side of the city.  It will, I’m sure, welcome you as if you were a close friend come from far away.


The title Ekamranātha, ‘lord of the single mango’, comes from the mango tree at the centre of the temple, said to be 3,500 years old.  The tree itself is rather small and looks rather insignificant, at the centre of a small courtyard just off the main shrine.  On one side of the tree is a tiny shrine from which hang bright pink wooden sleighs with small figures inside them. 

These are given by devotees eager to be blessed with children.  Many come to this temple to ask for Ṥiva’s help in effecting either marriage or offspring.  Such requests are granted within 48 days.  The mango tree does not, as legend has it, yield a fruit every day for the Lord; it fruits, as other mango tress do, in April and May.  But it does have four different types of fruit khaṭṭā (tangy), mīṭhā (sweet), khārā (spicy), kadvā (bitter) which represent the four Vedas. 

The temple celebrates a ten day festival from 28th March during which time couples may come to get married in the large marriage hall.  The day preceding the festival, at exactly 7am, a ray of light comes through a purposefully built gap in the entrance colonnade to hit the Ṥiva Liṅgam (the symbol by which Ṥiva is worshipped) in front of the Nandi statue for five minutes. 

There are said to be 1008 Ṥiva temples in Kanchi. For those who are unable to visit all, the Ekamranātha temple houses a Liṅgam made up of 1008 mini-liṅgams, one for each temple. 


By contrast, Deśika dwells at length on the Varadarāja Svamī temple.  Deśika wrote many other works on Kanchipuram and Lord Varadarāja, both in Tamil and Sanskrit.  His Sanskrit Varadarāja Pañcāśat (50 verses on Varadarāja) and his Tamil Meyviratamānmiyam (The Splendour of the City of True Vows) in particular are closely related to his description here of temple and city respectively.   

The Tamil poem tells in detail the story of how Kanchi and the temple came into being – first told in the Brahmāṇḍa Purāṇa – which Deśīka gives here in brief.  Sarasvatī, Brahmā’s wife and goddess of learning, is sulking by the river that bears her name after a marital tiff.  Brahmā tries to persuade her to come and help him perform his grand horse sacrifice but, in her continued absence, turns to another wife for help.   Sarasvatī is naturally upset and charges down in or rather as her river to destroy the sacrifice.  Viṣṇu appears as Acyuta, the Unshakeable One, and dams the river so that the sacrifice can be completed.  Viṣṇu then takes the form of Varadarāja, the lord who grants his devotee’s wishes, arising out of the fire of the yajña (sacrifice).  As the priests at the temple tell you, Varadarāja emerged from the sacrificial fire as the idol itself.  The mūrti is thus self-formed, not created by man.


The temple, where Rāmānujācārya is said to have lived for some time, has two main shrines, plus a golden lizard.  The shrine that Deśika urges the swan to go to is the upper one, the uttara-vedi, right at the top of the tall structure at the centre of the temple.  Here, as you tunnel further into the increasingly narrow passages that lead to the garbha-gṛham, the sanctum sanctorum, is Varadarāja as he arose from the fire.   

Deśika’s description of a myterious, sublime divinity here is almost identical to that in the final verse of the Varadarāja Pacāśat (indeed the second two pādas are identical), which is also in the mandākrāntā metre: 

सञ्चिन्वाना तरुणतुलसीदामभिस्स्वामभिख्यां

तस्यां वेद्यामनुविदधती शीतलं हव्यवाहम्।

भोगैश्वर्यप्रियसहचरैः कापि लक्ष्मीकटाक्षैः

भूयः श्यामा भुवनजननी देवता सन्निधते॥1.32

A god who defies description, the god who brought the world into being, dwells at that altar.  It deepens its dark sheen with garlands of ever-fresh tulasī, resembling a fire grown cold.  Its night-blue hue is intensified by Lakṣmī’s sidelong glances which accompany her beloved at leisure and ruling supreme.

The garlands of tulasī that further darken the divinity’s sheen must be kṛṣṇa-tulasī, the dark green-purple variant rather than common tulasī, which is bright green.  Tulasī is still offered at the temple today, and garlands the mūrtis, but the common variety is most in evidence, not the kṛṣṇa-tulasī.  In the next verse Rāma tells the swan not to take fright at the dark cloud as which he appears, irradiated by his wife Lakṣmī as lightning – an image which is also found in verse 20 of the Varadarāja Pañcāśat

सारास्वादी सवनहविषां स्वामिनस्ते सदेवः

शुद्धं चक्षुः श्रुतिपरिषदां चक्षुषां भागधेयम्।


माविर्मोदैरभिमतवरस्थूललक्षैः कटाक्षैः॥1.34 

God who tastes the best portion of your master’s soma offering – the pure eye of the collected Vedas and the happy fate that all eyes look to – will receive you as you bow low, with looks of open delight that bespeak ambrosial showers and dispense longed-for gifts liberally.


After paying obeisance to the Lord, the swan is advised to serve him if he should find him at play with Lakṣmī, by taking the form of a chowry, a fly whisk made of yak hair which acts as a fan. There  is a clear parallel here with Megha Dūta 1.60 where the cloud is asked to arrange his body in such a way as to become a soft staircase for Gaurī playfully wandering about the mountain hand in hand with Śiva. 

Varadarāja dwells upon Hastigiri, ‘the elephant hill’, so called because the four elephants of the quarters (dig-gaja) came to worship here.  This seems to refer to a rock upon which the temple structure is built, a rock which acted as Brahma’s sacrificial altar before Varadarāja and thus the temple appeared. (The actual city of Kanchi is apparently a logistical afterthought – Brahmā created Kanchi so that the attendees would have somewhere to stay while he performed the sacrifice.) As such Hastigiri purifies the Dravidian land and those who are lucky enough to live at its base will attain Vaikuṇṭha, Viṣṇu’s heaven, when they die. This again compares directly with Megha Dūta 1.55 where believers who see the rock which bears Śiva’s footprints are absolved of their accumulated evil and win themselves a permanent place in Śiva’s group of followers.

The temple of Varadarāja is also the location of another legendary episode in Deśika’s life, which is painted on one of the temple’s walls.  A conclave of pandits are listening to a discourse on a work of Rāmānujācārya in the temple’s lecture hall.  The five year old Deśika is brought in by his uncle.  Both audience and speaker are so bowled over at the beautiful boy that there is silence until he helps them resume their conference.

The river that Sarasvatī became is known as Vegavatī, because of the speed or force (vega) which with she hurtled down to demolish the sacrifice.  It is said to have seven tributaries: śuktikā, śiprā, kanakā, kampā, manjulā, caṇḍavegā.  The river today, still known as the Vegavatī, has been a victim of Kanchi’s rapid expansion: the population has ballooned from two lakhs ten years ago to 12 lakhs today. 

The swan is directed to bathe at a place in the river called Sarasvata Tīrtha: 

तीर्थे पुंसां शमितकलुषे तत्र सारस्वताख्ये

स्नात्वा सार्धं मुनिभिरनघैस्सम्यगुल्लासिताङ्गः।

विश्व चित्ते विगतरजसि व्यञ्जयन्तीमशेषं

वक्ष्यस्यन्तर्बहिरपि परां शुद्धिमक्षेपनीयम्॥1.30


You will bathe with faultless seers in that river which expunges men’s impurities. Once your body has been wholly cleansed, you will possess a pure radiance both within and without which cannot be removed, a pure radiance which lights up in your mind – now freed from rajas – the universe entire.

This sanctifying spot, which not only cleans you of dust (rajas) but also the subtle quality of rajas which clouds the mind, is still thought to have purifying properties although chiefly for inner cleansing rather than outer due to the lack of water.  Sarasvata Tīrtha is said to be a place known as Thiru-muk-koodal in Tamil, just outside Kanchi. 


The swan is now to travel about 300 km south to Thiruvallarai and then to Srirangam Temple near Trichy (Thiruchirapalli). 


2 Responses to “Hamsa Sandesha – Kancipuram (3)”

  1. 1 Sreenivasarao S March 3, 2011 at 11:01 am

    Dear Venetia, Beautifully done. You brought out very well the beauty of the early Kanchi the gem among the cities of ancient India –Nagareshu Kanchi. Sri Desika fondly called it the very ornament of the earth, ever resonant with sound of music flourishing under the benign gaze of the Lord of Hastigiri (Lord Varadaraja). He devotes eleven verses (25-35 ) to his city.
    It is said; Sri Desika’s special affiliation with Kanchi was because he born in Tooppul Agrahaaram in the suburbs of Kanchi
    I am amazed at the depth of your understanding and familiarity with details.
    With Warm Regards and full of appreciation

  2. 2 Tom Ansell March 6, 2011 at 6:48 pm

    I enjoyed reading this, and the stories are full of fantastic gems such as “land or true vows” and “lord of the mangoes”.

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