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A festival that marks the birth of the Ganges

3 May, 2018 10:45 AM
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Deities from 12 Vaishnavite shrines in Kumbakonam congregated for the Garuda Sevai on Akshaya Trithiyai Day

It is 6 a.m. on the Akshaya Tritiyai Day (last Wednesday), when the Ganges is believed to have emerged on earth with Garuda playing a crucial hole. In view of this, Garuda Sevai is celebrated at various Vaishnavite shrines on this day.

At the Sarangapani temple in Thiru Kudanthai, Soundararaja Bhattar who has been in this devotional service for three decades was working on the Garuda Sevai alankaram. At the nearby Ramaswamy temple, Chakravarthi Bhattar had almost completed the alankaram and was awaiting the arrival of the huge floral garland from Srirangam to give the finishing touch. By 7 a.m., Pattabhirama Bhattar had Lord Chakrapani sporting a majestic look with Garuda draped in a beautiful bright green silk vastram.

The famous TSR Big Street in Kumbakonam, where the centuries-old 12 Garuda Sevai utsavam unfolded later that morning, wore a festive look. A grand pandhal was erected in front of the Ahobila Mutt. By 7.30 a.m., devotees began to gather on either side of the street to witness the utsavam.

The whole stretch on the TSR Big Street got charged up with devotional cheer signifying the entry of the first Lord of the morning. Within the next half hour, the other deities from various Vishnu temples in Kumbakonam had congregated at the far West end of the Big Street.

Back at the Aravamudhan Divyadesam, scholars were rendering Prabandham verses of Thirumangai Azhwar on Thiru Kudanthai. At 9.30 a.m., led by Nammazhwar, Thirumangai Azhwar and Thirumazhisai Azhwar, Lord Sarangapani made his way out of the rajagopuram. He was stationed alongside Chakrapani in the front row with Athi Varaha Perumal and Rajagopalan right behind them.

It has been the tradition for a century that Lord Sarangapani is flanked by deities Chakrapani and Ramaswamy. But on that day the ritual got delayed and the idol of Lord Rama reached a little late. It was found out later that a minor pay dispute with the Sri Patham Thangis was the reason for the delay. Finally, after 11 a.m., Lord Rama took up his historical position alongside Lord Sarangapani.

Eight two-year-old G. Kunchithapatham, who has witnessed the Garuda Sevai for over seven decades, remembers the Garuda Sevai from the later half of the 1940s “I was all of 10 then. It was a festival that everyone in the town looked forward to. Garuda Sevai as such is special and when 12 deities from different shrines come together for the Garuda Sevai darshan at one place, it is divine. It was with great joy that all of us used to gather at the Western End of TSR Big Street to watch the 12 deities. In those days, the Lords used to congregate early in the morning around 7 a.m. and provide darshan till 2 p.m.”

Historically, it has been a festival hosted by the shop keepers of TSR Big Street. Seventy three-year-old V. Kannan, a jewellery shop owner, has been an integral part of this festival for over 50 years. He says, “Devotees from the nearby villages used to arrive early in the morning to witness this grand event, special to Kumbakonam. Since the early 1960s, we have been distributing panagam and buttermilk to everyone who visit. As a school boy, I remember watching the grand preparation on the Big Street with great interest. The ground work used to start a month ahead of the festival. The entire street used to have a huge pandal decorated with plantains and coconuts.”

As he was sharing his experiences the deities, having provided darshan to the devotees, began their return journey to their respective abodes.

A century earlier, five of the 12 Garuda Sevai Lords used to go to the banks of the Cauvery after providing darshan on TSR Big Street to rest after spending the first half of the day in the hot Chitrai Sun. These are the five ancient Vaishnavite Lords of Kumbakonam that also make the trip for the teertavari utsavam on Maasi Magam. Tents used to be set up on the banks of the river and prasadam used to be distributed late in the evening.

Due to paucity of funds, the post Garuda Sevai exercise was restricted to a trip to the Rajagopalan temple on the Bazaar Street and this went on for about two decades. Around 60 years ago, this too came to a halt.

Vaishnavite Scholar V.S. Karunakaran Swamy has now revived a part of that tradition with Lord Sarangapani making his way on a palanquin to Rajagopalan temple after the Garuda Sevai. There he spends the entire evening listening to a devotional rendering of Koil Tiruvoimozhi before returning to his abode after 9 p.m. Karunakaran Swamy is hopeful of reviving this ritual fully. “We have started with the revival of Lord Sarangapani’s trip. We are hoping that next year we will be able to include Lord Chakrapani in this camp and Lord Ramaswamy in the near future.”

Karunakaran Swamy had also organised the renovation of the Rajagopalan temple a few years ago, including the installation of an integrated idol for Nadathur Ammal and his disciple Vedanta Desikar. During the annual Brahmotsavam in Maasi, Nadathur Ammal and Desikar accompany Lord Rajagopalan during the procession.

An interesting feature of the new temple tower is that the life story of Nadathur Ammal has been sculpted in the front with the life story of Krishna on the back. Also sculpted are the seven Azhwars who extolled Lord Aravamuthan of Thiru Kudanthai.


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