Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The Frog Sage and Other Stories

Suthapas Maharishi had a very peculiar gift. He could stay under water forever, without coming up for air. He had obtained this exceptional ability, through unending penance to Narayana. And he put the skill to further use of the same kind. Daily, he would go into the Silambar, immerse himself in the cold flowing waters and there, safe from the eyes of the world, he would offer his heartfelt prayers to the Lord. This became a daily ritual, and the hours under water kept increasing as the days went by. It was on one such occasion, when Suthapas was deep under the waters, that Durvasa came along. Known for his flaring temper and equally sharp curses, he was received and treated with respect wherever he went, lest the place earned the misfortune of his displeasure. Knowing through his Gnana Drishti (The Power of Sight beyond the mundane)  that Suthapas was indeed under water, he waited for him to come out. Suthapas, on the other hand was so immersed in his prayers that he hardly acknowledged the presence of Durvasa, and did not come out. Durvasa’s temper soon reached its critical point and boiled over. “Oh Suthapas, when you remain under the water for so long, you are no longer fit to be a human. May you turn into a frog (मंडूक भव).” he shouted and in a huff, prepared to leave. Suthapas Maharishi realising the gravity of the situation, jumped out of the river and fell at his feet, begging for forgiveness. Durvasa, easily sated as heated, smiled and told him “I am sorry, but a curse is a curse. Only when Shriman Narayana chances to come upon you, will you regain your human form. Long live your devotion”. (People may wonder why Suthapas, who was engaged in devotion of the highest kind, had the misfortune of being cursed thus. The reason can be drawn from the Srimad Bhagavatham, where it is said that devotion to Bhagavathaas (devotees) is much higher than devotion to Bhagavaan. Suthapas, engaged in worshipping Bhagavaan, ignored the Bhagavathaa and hence the curse)

Suthapas Maharishi, with his new amphibian body, swam through the SIlambar to the holy city of Madurai. There by the banks of the sacred Vaigai, he engaged himself in constant prayer to Narayana. Since he now had the form of a frog, he came to be known as Manduka Maharishi.

Manduka Maharishi Sannidhi
Vishnu, pleased with Manduka’s unflinching bhakthi, came down from his hilly abode in Thirumaaliruncholai (Azhagar Kovil, Vrishapathri) and granted him freedom from the curse. The Rishi, now back to the human form is overcome with emotion at the grace of the Lord and his happiness burst out in the form of beautiful shlokas glorifying the compassionate Azhagar at Thirumaaliruncholai. He  set up his ashrama along with the hundreds of sages already occupying the place besides the holy Silambar and then, he too merged in the ocean of Hari Nama Smarana.

At that time, Madurai was ruled by the great Pandya king, Malayathvaja Pandian. He was the proud owner of a very beautiful Pushpaka Vimana (ancient airplane) and he used it to go to the Ganges every day for a holy bath. One day, as he was flying over the hills of Vrishabadri, the force generated by the intense penance of the many Rishis stopped the Vimana and brought  it down. Perplexed by the sudden halt of his Vimana, Malayathvajan looked around and came across the beautiful Silambar. At that moment, a voice called out from the skies “Oh king of the mighty Pandya Empire, why go north every day, when you have this sacred river-par-supreme running right outside your city? Many Rishis like Sutapa and Marichi have attained moksha by bathing in it. Why not you?” Malayathvajan felt his entire body to be covered with Goosebumps at the divinity of the whole incident. Considering himself to be blessed, he started to bathe in the Silambar every day, his heart constantly praying for an heir to the powerful throne of the Pandya empire. Soon his prayers were answered when he was blessed with a beautiful girl child, Thataadhagai, who was none other than the future ruler of Madurai, Goddess Meenakshi incarnate. She married Shiva (Somasundara perumal) and the divine couple still reign over the ancient Pandya lands, whilst her brother rules over the mountains of Vrishabadri, a stone’s throw away. A place which we now know as “Azhagar kovil”.

Moolavar SriDevi Bhoodevi Sametha Paramaswami

Azhagar Kovil, happens to be one of the foremost Divya Desas in Pandya naadu. Also known as Thirumaaliruncholai, the main deity is called Paramaswami. The deity was not carved or established by human hands. It is believed that Dharma Raja himself performed the Prathishta of Paramaswami. He gives darshan standing tall, adorned with the Kausthuba, flanked by Shree Devi and Bhoo Devi on either sides. The idols are huge, definitely atleast twice the height of a fully grown man. It is one of the rare temples where Vishnu is found sporting his Panchayudhams (Five weapons), including the Prayoga Chakra (Chakra which is about to be released), as he is described in the finishing shloka of the famous Vishnu Sahasranama :

वनमाली गदी शार्ङ्गी शङ्खी चक्री नन्दकी
श्रीमान् नारायणो विष्णुर्वासुदेवोऽभिरक्षतु ||

“Bearing the Vanamala, The Gadaa, The Sharngaa Bow,
the Conch, The Chakra and the Nandaki Sword,
Shriman Naarayana, the all pervasive Vishnu,
Oh Vasudeva, do offer us your protection”

Aparanji Azhagar

However, the place gets its name from the Utsava-Moorthi, who is called Soundararajar or Azhagar (the beautiful one). Since, he happens to be the Ancestral deity for the Kallas (a caste in India), he is also called Kallazhagar. A more interesting reason for his name is however, attributed to his flawless and charming beauty. In their melting compositions, many of the Azhwars have time and again alleged Maha Vishnu to be the thief of their hearts. This fact achieves further validity at Thirumaaliruncholai where the exquisite beauty of the Lord standing with the Goddess of fortune at his side, is known to have stolen many a devotee’s heart. Due to this repeated thieving (கொள்ளை) behavior, the Azhagar at Thirumaaliruncholai came to be known as Kallazhagar.

The beautiful Utsavar statue is a marvel carved in gold. Cast from Aparanji, a rare form of pure gold, this happens to be one of the two existing statues made from this highly precious metal. The other one is a much more gigantic statue of Narayana engrossed in his Ananthasayana, which is worshipped at Trivandrum in the Anantha Padmanabha Swamy temple.

Azhagar Kovil with the Hills at the back

Apart from Nammazhwar, the Kshetra has also been offered Mangalaasaasanam by  Aandaal, Periyazhwar, Thirumangai Azhwar, Bhoothathaazhwar and Peyazhwar. With 121 Divya Prabandhams being sung on Azhagar, the temple has the 4th largest number of Divya Prabandhams to its credit after Thiru Arangam, Thirukachchi and Thiruvenkadam. Paramswami has been worshipped by the Seven Virgins, the Saptha Rishis, The Pancha Pandavas and Bheeshma. Koorathazhwan is believed to have had his sight restored by worshipping Azhagar here and then having had gone to SriRangam to meet Sri Ramanujar, who gladly accepted him as a disciple. The grace and compassion of Azhagar, as well as the sanctity of the Kshetra have also been sung in Silapathikaaram, one of the five great literary works in Tamil. Interestingly, Azhagar Malai is part of a mountain chain consisting of seven mountains  (Alangaaran Malai, Kulamalai, Kolamalai, Kulir Maamalai, Kotra Malai, Nila Malai and Neenda Malai). For this reason it is also praised as Southern Tirupathi.

Rakkayi Amman Temple

Azhagar at Noopura Gangai

The temple stands at the foot hills of Azhagar Malai, on the outskirts of Madurai (21km from the Central Bus Stand). The mountains also house the last  Arupadai Veedu of Lord Muruga, Pazhamuthirsolai. A number of smaller shrines dedicated to Shiva, Vigneshwara and Naga Devathas also dot the mountain paths. From the very peak of Azhagar Malai flows out the Noopura Ganga. The source of the spring is yet undetected, and it wells out from the sanctum of Rakkayi Amman and rushes down with all its purifying power. Rakkayi Amman is the protector of all the Theerthas in the place and is supposed to be the daughter of Angirasa munivar. On new moon days, special poojas are offered at her mountain shrine. Thousands believe that a dip in this Noopura Ganga is as holy as the one taken at the Triveni Sangamam in Prayaga. All the abhishekas and bathing ceremonies performed to Azhagar are done with the holy waters from the river. Temple sources report that if any other water is used, the Aparanji statue will blacken instantly.

The temple complex itself plays host to a number of shrines dedicated to minor deities, Manduka Maharishi, Krishna, the Azhwars and the Thaayar, Kalyana SundaraValli Naachiyar.  The Thaayar of this Kshetra is often referred to as Thanikkoyil Thaayar (The Mother with her own shrine) because the Thaayar shrine is located separately from the complex. At the Thaayar shrine Kasturi Manjal (turmeric) is given as prasadam as a symbol of auspiciousness. The Thaayar leaves her shrine only on two occasions - for the Thirukalyanam that is celebrated on Panguni Uththiram and for the Kanu festival which is held in conjunction with Mattupongal in mid-January. The Thirukalyanam is celebrated on a grand scale at the Kalyana Mandapam where Azhagar marries Kalyana Sundaravalli Thayar, Shri Devi, Bhoo Devi and Aandaal. On that day alone he is seen with four Thaayars. This darshan known as Pancha Lakshmi Sevai (The fifth Nachiyar resides eternally as Maha Lakshmi in the very heart of Azhagar) is believed to grant one with all the sixteen types of wealth and a long, fulfilling life.

Intriguingly, the temple also has separate shrines to Valamburi Vinayagar and Kaala Bhairavar. Predominantly Shaiva deities, Vibhoothi is given as the prasadam at these two sannidhis. Bhairavar is supposed to be the kshetra Paalakar of this temple (He is usually the caretaker in all Shiva temples). Legends inform us that in the days of yore, after the Artha Jaama Puja, the head priest used to lock the door of the temple and hold out the key through a hole, into the temple. This was taken by the Kshetra Paalakar for safe keeping and was always found on the door step the next morning. Once it so happened that the priest had locked his child inside the temple. When the priest had attempted to enter the temple, he was consoled by Bhairavar that the child would be safe  until the next morning. However, the priest adamantly tried to enter the shrine. Vexed with the priest's behavior and angry at his lack of trust, Bhairavar threw the child over the wall. Shocked by this, the priest cursed Bhairavar to lose all his powers. Due to the priest's immense devotion to Azhagar, his words came true and the powers of the Kshetra Paalakar were transferred to a nearby stone. The stone can still be seen today and is worshipped as such.

Jwaala Narasimhar

The shrine to Jwaala Narasimhar in the temple prakaaram is quite famous too. The Lord is supposed to be in his Ugra Swaroopa and thirumanjanam is performed everyday with waters, curds, butter, honey etc. to soothe his anger and cool him down. A big opening is provided right above Narasihma’s head, for him to vent his anger out.

The Kothai shrine is probably the most celebrated one at the temple. Unlike in all other Kshetras, including her birthplace Sri Villipuththur, the Utsavar Aandaal is found to be in a seated posture. Also, it was here that she prayed the Lord to bless her endeavor to attain him as her husband and tried to bribe the Lord with pots of Butter and Akkaravadisal.

நாறுநறும்பொழில் மாலிருஞ்சோலை நம்பிக்கு நான் 
நுறுதடாவில் வெண்ணெய் வாய்நேர்ந்து பராவிவைத்தேன் , நூறு தடாநிறைந்த அக்காரவடிசில்சொன்னேன்,
ஏறுதிருவுடையான் இன்றுவந்து இவை கொள்ளுங்கொலோ! 
-ஆண்டாள் நாச்சியார் திருமொழி  

“To the Lord of Maaliruncholai, surrounded by fragrant flowers,
I offer by word of mouth, a hundred pots of Butter,
And a hundred silver pots of Akkara Vadisal have I said.
Will the Lord, whose wealth multiplies every day, come and accept (thieve) these offerings today”
-Aandaal Naachiyaar Thirumozhi

Kothai eventually observed the Thiruppavai Nonbu and married Ranganaathar. She finally merged with the Lord at Sri Rangam, thus not being able to fulfill her promise to Azhagar. Shri Ramanujar, knowing about this unfulfilled promise, went on to provide the dishes to Azhagar on Aandaal’s behalf, and thus earned the title of Anna (Elder brother) from Kothai herself. To this day, every year, on the 27th day in the Tamizh month of Margazhi, Azhagar is offered piping hot Akkara Vadisal on behalf of Aandaal, and just like she sings in the 27th verse of the Thiruppavai, it is distributed and shared joyously with the devotees.

கூடாரை வெல்லும் சீர்க் கோவிந்தா! உன் தன்னைப்பாடிப் பறை கொண்டு யாம் பெறு சம்மானம்
நாடுபுகழும் பரிசினால் நன்றாக
சூடகமே தோள் வளையே தோடே செவிப் பூவே
பாடகமே என்றனைய பல்கலனும் யாம் அணிவோம்
ஆடையுடுப்போம் அதன் பின்னே பாற்சோறு
மூடநெய் பெய்து முழங்கை வழிவாரக்
கூடியிருந்து குளிர்ந்து ஏல் ஓர் எம்பாவாய். - 

"Oh  Govindha ! You have the benign supremacy of winning over Your opponents.
We shall get the drum from You ,the sakthi to sing eulogies about You.
Thus, we get the reward of great eclat and glory of all the worlds. 
With bracelets,shoulder ornaments ,ear-studs and rings, ornaments in the form of flowers, 
anklets and many other ornaments shall we adorn ourselves
And we will wear new clothes, and later eat food prepared using milk 
with sumptuous ghee that is flowing so much as to spill over up to our elbows 
We shall ever be united and thus become cool in heart and stay joyous, Oh Damsel" - Thiruppavai

Apart from this yearly treat of Akkara Vadisal, and the regular Perumal Koil Puliyodharai, Sakkarai Pongal and Vadai, Azhagar Kovil is also famous for its Dosas. It is a strange prasadam that is not offered in any other temple. Every year, before harvesting their crops, the farmers in the villages surrounding Azhagar Kovil offer a certain portion of their harvest to Azhagar as a mark of their gratitude for the bountiful harvest. The grains that are offered by the farmers are ground along with cumin, pepper, curry leaves, asafoetida, ginger and other spices into a flour that is fermented and then made into hot Dosas dripping with ghee. These Dosas are offered as Naivedhyam at the Saya Raksha Pooja and then distributed to the devotees.

Ruins of the Naaga Fort
The entire temple is surrounded by the ruined fort of Naagapuri. The locals believe that this city was ruled by Uloopi, the Naaga princess who married Arjuna, and gave birth to Aravaan (Yet another interesting story here!!!). Naaga worship is still done in areas surrounding the temple, with great respect and devotion.

The present day temple, is said to have been built by Malayathvaja Pandian and his successors. with   continued patronage by the Chozhas, the Hoysalas, the Vijayanagar Kings and the Nayakkars. Though the Pandya Kings swore their unflinching devotion to Somasundara Perumal of Aalavaay Nagaram (Madurai), they always had a soft corner for this sacred Vaishnava  spot. The temple once had large lands, from which it drew a sufficient income to conduct festivals on a grand scale. Thirumalai Nayakkar, a staunch Vaishnava ruler of the Nayakkar Dynasty, also showered the temple with lands and gold. The Mani Mandapams (Bell Towers) that we can see today, dotting the path to Azhagar Kovil from Madurai, were built by him. Every day when the Saayarakshai Pooja (Evening Prayers) started at the temple, the bell at the temple would toll loudly. This ring was taken up by subsequent men at the Mani Mandipams, who tolled their respective bells, until the sound reached the Nayakar Mahal. When he heard the bell ring, it is said that, Thirumalai Nayakkar would leave all his work, turn in the general direction of the temple and offer his humblest prayers. Such was his devotion.

Much of the temple's riches were lost when Hyder Ali attacked the temple in the 1750's and carried away most of the precious jewels and stones. However, Hyder was opposed by Yusuf Khan (the famous Maruthanayakam), who retrieved some of the lost jewels and presented it back to the temple. Unfortunately, the temple was never able to recuperate from that blow, and presently it is but a shadow of the prosperous, thriving pilgrimage center it had once been.

The main festival at the temple is, of course, the Chithirai thiruvizha, held in conjunction with the one at the Meenakshi-Sundareshwarar temple in Madurai. There are also large scale poojas on Ekadashi, Raama Navami, Purattasi Saturdays and other important Vaishnava sacred days.

To many  pilgrims the major attraction of the place is not as much as the temple as its doors. No visitor to Azhagar Kovil would leave the gigantic, sandal-smeared, ever-closed main doors of the temple unnoticed. Especially not when you have nine-feet-long swords lying by it.

The story behind these closed doors… Coming up in the next post.

செஞ்சொற் கவிகாள்உயிர்காத்து ஆள்   செய்ம்மின்திருமாலிருஞ்சோலை  வஞ்சக்கள்வன் மாமாயன்   மாயக்கவியாய் வந்து என்  நெஞ்சும் உயிரும் உள் கலந்து   நின்றார்ஆர் அறியா வண்ணம் என்   நெஞ்சும் உயிரும் அவைகண்டு   தானே ஆகி நிறைந்தானே! – நம்மாழ்வார் திருமொழி  

“He enters the lotus heart of the poet  and rules his tongue

 So doing, The Lord of Thirumaaliruncholai, makes him sing.

He is the deceitful thief, the greatest of all tricksters,

Who came as the masterful mystical poet and then

He merged with my heart and soul, indistinguishable from the other.

And without anyone noticing what was going on,

He stole my heart and soul from me and with those,

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