[To read the introduction to the Hamsa Sandesha click here]
In 1310 Muslim invaders stole the presiding deity of Srirangam Temple, Lord Raṅganātha, and bore him off to Delhi. A delegation of pandits from Srirangam travelled to Delhi, taking with them some dancers to entertain the emperor. They found their idol in the princess’ bedroom, a new plaything somewhere between toy and lover. The emperor, pleased with the show they put on, granted their request for the idol to be returned. His daughter, though, was heartbroken. She eventually travelled to Srirangam and died there, mourning her lover-god. She was later made a goddess and given a shrine in the Srirangam temple. The goddess – Bibi or Tuluka – is offered chapatti instead of rice in consideration of her northern provenance.
By the time of the second Muslim invasion, several years later, Vedānta Deśika had moved to Srirangam and, having defeated most of his rivals in various philosophy and poetry contests, had become the chief ācārya. This time the invading army was more successful and when word reached Deśika and his fellow pandits they decided that one party should flee with the utsava-mūrtis (the ‘festival icons’ which come out of the temple to see their devotees and are thus mobile) while the other, led by Deśika, should wall up the shrine of the main idol, which could not be moved. Deśika then fled with an important commentary on one of Rāmānujācārya’s works to Tirunaryanam, the village of Melkote near Mysore – a favourite spot of Rāmānujācārya.
The idols travelled first to the Pandya country and then up through Kerala, Mysore – with a brief stint at Melkote – and finally Tirupati where they remained until Srirangam was liberated in 1371. Lord Raṅganātha appeared in a dream to a general, Gopaṇārya, of the Hindu Vijayanagara empire and the general picked up the idols from Tirupati and marched on Srirangam, defeated the Muslims and reinstalled the god. Vedānta Deśika, who returned to Srirangam as soon as he heard the news, composed a verse in the general’s honour which is inscribed on the temple wall. He died here, as had Rāmānujācārya before him.
Lord Raṅganātha was well travelled even before the Muslims arrived. The statue was an heirloom of the Ikṣvāku clan (Rāma’s family). After the defeat of Rāvaṇa, Rāma gave it as a thank you present to Vibhīṣaṇa, Rāvaṇa’s brother who defected to Rāma’s side and after helping defeat Rāvaṇa was crowned king of Laṅkā. Vibhiṣana set off from Ayodhyā, in northern India, hoping to install the idol back in Laṅkā. He had been warned not to place it on the ground because wherever the god first touched land he would settle. Tempted though to cool off in the Kaverī river beside Srirangam, he entrusted it to a small boy to hold. The small boy turned out to be Vinayaka, or Ganeṣa, in disguise, and promptly put it down on the spot where the temple now stands.
As the poet notes though, in Rāma’s time the Raṅganātha statue had not yet arrived, nor had the temple been built, so the swan could only pay his respects in anticipation. Nevertheless, in an overflow of emotion, the poet intrudes upon the narrator to describe the shrine as he, Vedānta Deśika, knew it:
सत्वे दिव्ये स्वयमुदयतस्तस्य धाम्नः प्रसङ्गा-
न्मञ्जूषायां मरकतमिव भ्राजमानं तदन्तः।
चेतो धावत्युपहितभुजं शेषभोगे शयानं
दीर्घापाङ्गं जलधितनयाजीवितं देवमाद्यम्॥1.46
At the thought of Śrī Raṅganātha’s naturally emanating radiance in that sattvic spot, my mind flies to the first lord, Viṣṇu. He reclines on Śeṣa’s body using his arm as a pillow, shining from within that shrine like an emerald within a box, his shapely eyes tapered, the very life of Lakṣmī.
If Tirupati holds the records for devotees and donations, Srirangam lays claim to being the world’s biggest temple in terms of size, covering 156 acres.
At the heart of the seven rings of gates, inside a series of smoke-blackened stone chambers, sits the garbha-gṛham, where only Hindus may go to worship the Lord (a rule made, it is said, after the Muslim invasion). The innermost chamber that houses the mūrti is so small, and natural ventilation so bad, especially given the crush of the crowds, that industrial air conditioners attempt to cool the air. The actual shrine itself, a tiny stone enclave beautifully lit by oil lights, can not be enjoyed at length – as in Tirupati the priests need to keep the crowds moving – but lingers long in memory.
The poet also bids the swan visit the Chandrapuṣkariṇī pond – ‘the moon’s lotus pond’ – which lies within the third concentric wall. As recounted in the Māhabhārata (Śalya parvan, Chapter 34), the moon married several of Dakṣa’s (Dakṣa was one of the original gods, and the son of Brahmā and Aditi) daughters but ignored his father in law’s advice to give them all equal attention. Dakṣa cursed him and he spent 15 years on the banks of this pond doing penance until Viṣṇu eventually cured him and then named the pond after him.
In his play, the Saṅkalpasūryodaya, Vedānta Deśika’s apparently autobiographical character King Viveka sees the South as far outdoing the once great but now corrupted North in terms of holiness. Here, once again, the South is shown to have substitutes for all that the North can offer, and more: this Chandrapuṣkariṇī pond will, the swan is told, cure him of his longing for Lake Mānasa in the Himalayas, to which swans retreat each monsoon.
Srirangam sits upon an island between the Kaveri river and its tributary, just outside the city of Trichy. The Kaveri is the huge river that flows from Coorg in western Karnataka to spill out into tributaries that criss cross the Tamil coast. It is often said to be the southern Gaṅgā, but Deśīka characteristically goes further:
स्रोतोवेगादथ जनपदं सौम्य सीमन्तयन्ती
प्रत्यादेशो विबुधसरितस्स्यन्दते सह्यकन्या।
काले काले परिणतिवशात्पर्वभेदावकिर्णैः
पुण्ड्रेक्षूणां पुलिनविशैर्गद्गदा मौक्तिकौघैः॥1.42
The torrential stream of Sahya’s daughter Kaveri parts the country there, Sir. A reproach to the river of the gods, Gaṅgā, she flows along gurgling with the hundreds of sand-white pearls which are scattered when the joints of the red sugarcane burst under pressure as they ripen in every season.
(Pearls are believed to be found in sugarcane, bamboo and elephants’ heads, and all the best rivers.)
सह्योत्सङ्गात्सपदि मरुता सागरं नीयमानां
भद्रालापैर्विहितकुशलां त्वादृशानां द्विजानाम्।
मन्दस्मेरां मधुपरिमलैर्वासयन्तीव पूगाः॥1.43
Right at that moment, the Kaveri river is led away from the lap of her father, Sahya, to her husband the ocean by the wind. Those who have been born twice, like you, ensure her happiness with their words of blessing. At dawn, unblown betel nut trees infuse in her the scent of honey while the falling petals of the nectar-dripping Piper betels give her a gentle smile.
From Srirangam, the swan flies to Azhagar Koil, near Madurai, then the Tāmraparṇī river in Tirunelveli district. From there, he will go to the coast and shoot, like an arrow, across the ocean to Laṅkā.
The photos of the temple and the idols are courtesy of the Srirangam temple and depict the festival idol and the main idol on the festival day of Vaikuntha Ekadashi.