I’ve been married into the Srirangam clan for eight years now , but this was the first year I visited my “pukkagam”, on the occasion of Vaikunta Ekadesi, the most important of all spiritual practices of our sect and in particular, of Srirangam.
The trip was almost not to be. The tickets were bought a few months earlier, the kid had worked herself into frenzy, and I was looking forward to a break from routine. But the day before departure, dude was assigned to co-chair a conference at work, the kid’s milk tooth, hanging by a thread, not only refused to fall off, but throbbed enough for the kid not open her mouth, an event unheard of, from the moment she had lisped her first “appa” at one. My neck was all bunched up thanks to bad pillows, the heavens threatened to open up a deluge and in general, life was not conducive to travel at that point. But by evening, three of the four problems were solved - the dentist extracted the offending incisor, ibuprofen dullened the nerves, and the skies, although still dark, exhibited restraint. So, leaving dude to his fate, the kid and I packed our bags and set on our first sojourn together, alone.
It never fails. On school day mornings, I have to pry open the kid’s eyes with surgical tools to wake her. Yet, every single day at Sriragam, the kid was up before the sun. Someone needs to study this phenomenon scientifically and formulate a law or something.
Srirangam was crowded, as expected. On the first day, we visited the temple, and after paying an obscene fee to escape the queue that would take hours to reach the destination, set eyes on the reclining 6-ft tall (long?) deity, who, as convention goes, was attired in a dress made of pearls. The “urchava moorthi” (henceforth refered to as “Rangu”) was dressed as “Mohini”, which wasn’t as exotic as I had imagined it to be. My m-i-l agrees that this year’s “Mohini Alankaram” was less impressive than usual.
Pearl-decked Ranganthar (picture from here)
The second day was Vaikunta Ekadeshi. Conventionally, people stay up all night at the temple praying, and before dawn, follow the deity across the threshold of Vaikunta Vasal (“gates of heaven”). We skipped it because it involves being jostled in crowd at dead of night. But at dawn, we saw Rangu in his “Rathnangi” (clothes made of precious stones – diamonds, rubies, emeralds, pearls etc.) being borne on a palanquin, flanked by the Alwars, up and down the sandy ground, sometime steady, sometimes with a lilting walk called “Vaiyali”
I was brought up in the other Sri Vaishnavaite bastion - Triplicane. Growing up watching Lord Parthasarathy (“Pachu”) through all his urchavams, one fact struck me as very weird about Srirangam. Pachu never leaves his abode without his consorts (ubaya naachiyaar), while Rangu is always alone, his consort in Her own sanctum, never to join the Lord in his sojourns. But I guess it is all these cultural differences that add colour to the show.
Pachu with his consorts
The next day of our stay was “Dwadashi”. The more pious Srivaishnavaites fast all day on Ekadeshi (some don’t even sip water), and on Dwadashi, consume a feast at dawn. The food comprises specific dishes – gooseberry, agathi-keerai (a form of spinach), aviyal (a mixed vegetable stew) and so on, a healthy, yet delicious combination that is supposed to cleanse the system. While we didn’t observe the fast, we chose to enjoy the feast and that too, at the temple. So we were up at 6.30 AM at the temple, seated before a big plantain leaf, over which was served the feast. I have never imagined that I could eat a full four-course meal at 6.30 in the morning, but eat, I did, with not a morsel left on the leaf at the end.
There is another, less known but lovely temple in Sriragam – the Kattazagiya Singar temple. The Lion God with his consort in his lap is an imposing sight. There was a cute practice I noticed. All deities are covered with woolen caps and bankets in the evenings and early mornings. Narasimhar was wrapped in red woolen shawl and cap and looked like a cross between the Disney’s beast and Santa Claus. It was apt, given the season and my own perception of Narasimhar as the bestower.
The kid, with her “archeologist” aspirations, nagged grandfather until he took her to Rock Fort, where she took pictures of the thousand year old Pallava sculptures, paintings and inscriptions with plans to study and understand them. If she holds on to her aspirations, I suspect she’ll find much success in her chosen profession.
Sculpture at Rock Fort, clicked by kid
Inscriptions at Rock Fort, clicked by kid
Painting at Rock Fort, clicked by kid
The trip was a blessing for me. Not only for the mortal break it offered from routine (the kid was entertained, fed and cleaned by the many doting grandparents and grand uncles & aunts), but also for the spiritual experience. In the humdrum of daily existence, I ignore the spiritual part of me, and a break like this, once a year, makes me dip into it and rejuvenates me for the rest of the time spent enjoying my duties – a small bhakthi yogam to energise the karma yogam, if I may be arrogant enough to believe that THAT is what I am doing.