Of Figs, Water and Pilgrims

“Things can change in a day.” These are words from Arundhati Roy’s prize-winning novel, ‘God of Small Things’. This was what came to mind at the end of day on 5 July 2019. In the morning, some of us received messages about a festival and the idea of going on a pilgrimage which I came to know quite simply as ‘Athi Varadar’. By the end of the day, a whole load of people at 7C Life had signed up to make this pilgrimage.

 

In the coming days, I did some research to figure out what this pilgrimage was all about. I learnt that ‘Athi Varadhar’ is named after a deity in a temple in Kancheepuram. Nine-feet long, this deity is made out of wood from a fig tree and submerged in a tank for 40 years at a time. There are two theories behind the history of Athi Varadar. One is steeped in mythology and the other is utterly secular.

 

In the first, Lord Brahma wanted to conduct a yagam (ritual of offerings to a sacred fire to celebrate the Divine) in the Athi (fig) forest. He did not extend an invitation to Goddess Saraswathi. Infuriated, the Goddess ran as the Vegavathi River and interrupted the yagam. Taking pity on Lord Brahma’s plight, Lord Vishnu decided to help and appeared in the middle of the flood in His resting form, thereby, stopping the flow of the river. The Goddess relented and diverted the flow of the river. Lord Brahma carved the deity out of a fig tree to honour this event. Unfortunately, the heat from the sacred fire was too much and instructions were given to immerse the deity in a tank of water. Thereafter, once every 40 years, a pooja would be conducted during which Lord Vishnu was said to grant all boons (varathar means granting of boons). Hence the name Athi Varathar.

 

In the secular version, during the Mughal invasion, in order to protect the deity, the temple authorities of the Varadharaja Perumal Temple decided to hide it. They created a secret underground place inside the temple tank and placed the deity there. In time, those who knew the location of this deity passed away, taking the secret of its location with them to their graves. Then, one day in the 17th century, 40 years after it was first hidden, while cleaning the tank, workers found it again. Thereafter, this deity is brought to the surface every 40 years and a pooja is done for 48 days.

 

Here are the stories, in their own words, of two pilgrims to this holy place in the city of Kancheepuram, India.

 

Shreen’s Journey

When the plan was first made, it was a workday and I was excited. However, since the dates chosen were already booked full with meetings at work, I could not see myself as part of this trip. A day later though, when I made up my mind to go on the trip, all meetings were automatically re-scheduled. I didn’t do a thing to reorganise them.

 

With that, I began to prepare for this pilgrimage. Seeing pictures and videos of the crowds who were arriving in throngs to see Him, never did I imagine that I would also be one of them, to be blessed to see Him, and that too with our Guru.  The idea would be to include a few other temples in this journey as well.

 

From an initial group of 10, it quickly swelled to 26 people altogether. Though a large group, it was a blessing to have each and every one of them. We cared for each other. There were so many witty moments that we laughed throughout the journey.

 

We left Kuala Lumpur on 23 July 2019. By the evening of 28 July, we were in Kancheepuram. At 3 am, we set off from our hotel towards the temple which was a 5-minute walk away. The whole place was buzzing with a carnival-like atmosphere. People were wide awake and walking about as if it was mid-day. We joined the queue with the rest of the crowd as it snaked slowly towards our destination.

 

At one point, we were blessed to see a calf suckling from a cow. SwamiGuru explained that it is very auspicious, as we were looking at Lakshmi Kadaksham. We had, effectively, received the blessings of Lord Vishnu even before seeing Him.

 

And when we finally saw Him at around 7.30am, it was simply amazing. Those few moments were peaceful and calm and felt like time had stood still. It was as though we’d stepped into a different world – at once superb, beautiful and serene. A spectacular end to our journey to visit temples.

It took us nearly 2 hours to walk back to the hotel, as all roads were diverted, even for pedestrians. The whole of Kancheepuram had been transformed into a sea of walking masses, moving slowly towards the temple.  

 

When we touched down in Kuala Lumpur in the early hours of 30 July, we were a family of tired but happy individuals. It was a journey full of significant moments for each of us, which will never be forgotten. Thank you, HH SwamiGuru and 7C, for giving us yet again a beautiful and blessed experience.

 

Vishnu Meets Lord Vishnu

I received a phone call from a colleague about a spiritual journey to India. I was overjoyed as I have always been intrigued with the spiritual side of India. I remember that somewhere along the way, HH SwamiGuru said that Athi Varathar is the trigger for all of us to join this trip, but the blessings each of us receives will be unique and varied.

 

Armed with information that the premises of the Devaraja Perumal temple would be super crowded, we booked a hotel within walking distance of the temple grounds. Our trek to temple started early at 3.00am to catch the first Dharshan at 5.30am.

 

We were all barefoot and the men were clad only in vesthi and shawls. As expected we were greeted head on by a mob of people. I have to applaud the law enforcement authorities for a wonderful job of crowd control. We were divided by rudimentary wood fences and moved in groups. I would call this the first phase.

 

The second phase was the 8km walk in zig-zag fashion. Finally, we reached the grand hall where Athi Varathar was kept and worshipped. The moment I reached the front door, time froze. We were not allowed to go inside the hall, but were allowed to see the deity from the threshold of the temple. Gleaming black, He was dressed from chest to toe in silk garments. There were huge garlands around his shoulders. Surprisingly while the rest of the crowd was being pushed and shoved to move along, not a single person touched me when I was before Him. It was truly a blessing that He wanted me to be there at that point of time to receive it. I said a prayer, offered my gratitude and moved on feeling overwhelmed and overjoyed.

 

As our trip came to an end, I felt comforted when I recalled a statement that has long been made by the elders: A person will achieve Moksha if he receives the darshan by vising this temple and having sight of Athi Varathar.

Aneeta Sundararaj

Aneeta Sundararaj is a freelance writer who contributes stories and articles to many publications, both online and offline.