Nagareshu Kanchi : Part-1 (Sri Varadaraja Swamy Temple)
Jasmine is the only one among flowers, Vishnu is the great one among Gods, Rambha is the choice among women, and Kancheepuram is the best among cities- Mahakavi Kalidasa
This verse is quoted often to describe the glory of Kancheepuram, especially the reign of the Pallava dynasty in the period 5th-9th centuries CE. Mahakavi Kalidasa has described, it to be the best among the cities (Nagareshu Kanchi) while Yuan Chwang, the great Chinese traveler, visited the city in the 7th century and said that its people were famous for bravery and piety as well as for their love of justice and veneration for learning. Kancheepuram is one of the seven sacred cities for Hindus. As regards learning, Kanchi stood second in glory only to Kashi ( Banaras). Like all ancient cities, Kancheepuram is also situated on the banks of a river, Vegavati. From the 3rd to the 9th century A.D. Kanchi was the capital city of the Pallavas who ruled over the territory extending from the river Krishna in the north to the river Kaveri in the south. The Pallavas fortified the city with ramparts, moats, etc., with wide and well laid out roads and fine temples. They were a great maritime power with contacts with far-off China, Siam and Fiji through their chief Port Mahabalipuram. The Cholas ruled this town from 10th century to 13th century. Kings of Vijayanagara dynasty ruled from 14th century to 17th century. The temple tower, 192 feet height in Ekamabaranadhar temple and 100-pillar mandapam in Varadaraja Swamy temple in this town are famous for the architectural techniques of Vijayanagara dynasty.
Ancient Kancheepuram, the city of thousand temples, is one of the seven most sacred pilgrim centers for the Hindus. Kancheepuram owns 108 temples dedicated to Lord Shiva and 18 temples dedicated to Lord Vishnu besides scores of other temples, mosques and churches and Adi Shankara Mutt. The city is informally divided as Chinna Kancheepuram (little Kanchi), also known as Vishnu Kanchi, and Big Kancheepuram (also known as Siva Kanchi). There are hundreds of temples in the city, of which 14 are Vaishnavaite shrines known as divya desams (sacred shrines). It is the birthplace of PoygaiyAzhwAr and Swami Vedanta desikan. The famous Vaishnava Guru Sri Ramanuja lived here. According to history records Lord Buddha had visited the place. SankaraMutt( Sri Kanchi Kamakoti peetam) is the monastery started by Sri Adi Shankaracharya around 2500 years back and remains as one of the center of attractions in Kancheepuram city, inspite of several controversies. Today, apart from its temples, this small town is also known for its thriving handloom industry, traditional cotton and silk saris. The silk weavers of Kanchi settled more than 400 years ago and have given it an enviable reputation as the producer of the best silk Saris in the country.
Let us describe the Sri Varadaraja Swamy temple in Vishnu Kanchi in this article. This is one of 108 Divya Desam’s temples. The temple is very huge and architecturally beautiful.
Kanchi Sri Varada Raja Temple:
While the Pallava kings built several temples in the city, it was the Cholas who built the Varadaraja Perumal temple in the so-called Vishnu Kanchi in the year 1053 CE. The Chola kings shored up the base of the hill to signify a cave in the hill wherein the idol of Lord Narasimha is located in a seated posture facing west. There is a two-storied corridor surrounding the hill with colonnades of uniform pillars forming a central courtyard in typical Chola architecture. During the reign of Kulottunga Chola and his son Vikrama Chola (in the 11th century) the temple was expanded to a great extent. Later the rulers of the Vijayanagara Empire added more halls, embellished the existing ones, and developed the entire 23-acre complex. The architecture of this temple is a marvel characterized by several mandapams including a 100- pillar hall adorned with stone chains. The 9-tiered east tower rises to a height of 180 feet and the western Gopuram is 160 feet high.
Varadaraja Swamy temple is known as Hasthigiri. The name probably derived from the episode of Gajendra Moksham (salvation of the elephant) and from the legend that Indra’s elephant Iravatam in the form of a hillock bears the image of Lord Vishnu. Another legend has it that the original image of the Lord was carved from an aththi (fig) tree and accordingly the Lord is also called Aththiyuran. The wooden image is kept at the bed of the temple pond and is taken out once in 40 years for worship for a period of 10 days. The next viewing of the wooden idol is supposed to be in the year 2019. The first enclosure of the temple is on the holy mound called “Hasthigiri”. The main sanctum is at a height of 40 feet with 43 steps to climb. In the basement level there is the idol of Lord Narasimha in a seated posture.
The main deity here is Varadaraja Swamy in a standing posture facing westward, also known as Devarajan. His consort is known as Perindevi (Maha Lakshmi). The holy water tank is known as Ananthasaras. The river Vegavati is also considered part of the temple environment. The crown structure over the sanctum is known as Punyakoti Vimanam. There are other shrines in the same complex for Krishna, the Azhwars, Rama. KariamAnikka PerumaL, Andal, and Varaha Perumal three AzhwArs have sung the praise of the Lord in 7 pasurams. Vedanta Desikan wrote “Varadaraja Panchasat” in praise of Lord Varadaraja. Manavala mahamuni wrote “Devaraja Managalam”. Sri Ramunjacharya also wrote verses on Lord Varadaraja.
There are several legends associated with this temple. One narrates that Brahma worshipped Vishnu at this location in the Krita Yuga. The name KanciIpuram is supposed to have been derived from Ka (Brhama) and Anjitha (worship). Pleased with the yagna of Brahma the Lord granted a boon and hence He is known as Vara (boon) darAja. Another legend states that Brahma worshipped the Lord in this place without his consort Saraswati. Saraswati took the form of Vegavati River and flooded the place. Lord Vishnu blocked the river flow by lying down in its path. There are two lizards carved in stone in the sanctum plated with gold and silver and are supposed to represent the Sun and the Moon. Viewing them and touching them is supposed to remove any accumulated curse thereby ensuring the welfare of the worshippers in addition to negating the ill effects of the eclipses.
The annual Brahmotsavam is celebrated in the Tamil month of Vaikasi for 10 days. Garuda Seva (procession on Garuda mount) and ratha yatra (procession in a chariot) are important elements of this festival. Adyayana utsavam (recitation of Vedic scriptures) is celebrated in the month of Margashiram (Dec-Jan). NavarAtri festival is celebrated for 10 days in PuraTTAsi month (Oct-Nov) and the grand celebration of Vaikunta Ekadasi is celebrated in the month of Margashiram (Dec-Jan).
Muththuswamy Dikshitar and Saint Thyagaraja sang kritis on Lord VaradarAja. These kritis are generally descriptive of the features, characteristics, and exploits of the deity in question. They invoked the blessings of the Lord in all their kritis.
Lyrics: Muththuswamy Diskhitar
varada rAjamupAsmahE vanajAsanAdi pUjitam
muraLI dhara SObhA-karaM mura kharAdi dushTa haram
nIla mEgha jita SarIraM niratiSayAnanda-karaM
kAncI nagara vihAraM kALI rakshita cOram
(madhyama kAla sAhityam)
kali dOsha hara tIrtha prabhAva guru guhAdi nataM
kapila SukAdi sannuta garuDa vAhArOhitam
Lyrics: Saint Thyagaraja Swamy
Varada rAja ninu kOri vacciti mrokkErA
surulu munulu bhU-surulu cuTTi cuTTi sEvincE (varada)
vara giri vaikuNThamaTa varNimpa taramu kAda
nirjarulanu tArakalalO candruDai merayuduvaTa
vara tyAgarAja nuta garuDa sEva jUDa (varada)
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