With the mighty Lord walking on the blessed soil in Prasanthi, it is perpetual festivity in this holy township, blessed by His most sanctifying presence!
Adding to this festive glory we often witness fresh hues of cultural and spiritual traditions taking the centre-stage in Prasanthi in His immediate physical presence. Sri Alwarula Bhakti Samrajya Mahotsavam held from July 14 to July 18 was the latest in this series depicting the story of love, devotion and surrender of the Alwars to Lord Almighty. As the word meaning Alwar suggests, meaning one who loves God, they exemplified through their illustrious lives the very word ‘Love for God’ in its fullest sense.
Alwars were Tamil poet saints with ancient Dravidian Culture of south India who lived between sixth and ninth centuries and espoused devotion to Lord Vishnu through their compositions singing love and surrender to the Lord. They come from all walks of life and all strata of society and were born in different part of the country. They have revitalized the Indian religious milieu, sparking a renewal of devotional worship throughout the subcontinent. Travelling from place to place, from temple to temple, they composed exceedingly beautiful poetry to their Divine Beloved, Lord Vishnu, as an expression of their love for the Divine.
This saintly order begins with three principal Alwars (collectively called Mudhal Alwars) who were not known to be born from any human being. Those Alwars are: (i) Poigai, (ii) Bhoodath, (iii) Pey, and others after them are (iv) Thirumazhisai, (v) Nammalwar (vi) Madhurakavi, (vii) Periya, (viii) Andal, (ix) Thondaradippodi, (x) Thiruppan, (xi) Thirumangai, (xii) Kulasekhara. Among all the twelve Alwars, Andal was a woman who happened to be a step-child of Periya Alwarwhom he found in the basil garden (tulsi udyan) of Sri Villiputtur temple in Tamil Nadu. The Alwars claim different social background as some of them were Brahmins, others were either kshatriya, or of low social order and two were from royal lineage whereas others were from low to poor income family. Except one Alwar, Kulasekhara, who was from Kerala, all others were from Tamil Nadu.
Each one of these Alwars have telling tales of their devotion to Lord Almighty and the festivity in Prasanthi Nilayam witnessed exposition of these rare glimpses in a nutshell, presented by learned scholars on every evening, from 14 July to 17 July, in the immediate Divine presence. Vidwan Nidumamidi Srikanta Rao from Bangalore, Sri Medasanimohan and Sahithya Shiromani Samudrala Dr. Lakshmanaiah, both from Tirupathi, were the chosen scholars who spoke on the interesting lives of this great lineage.
It is believed that the first three Alwars were born most mysteriously and were found as infants in the lap of Nature. Poigai Alwar was found in a lotus flower in Kanchipuram, Bhoothath Alwar in a flower in Mahabalipuram while Perialwar made his entry in Adi Kesava Perumal Temple in Mylapore.
There is a beautiful story that illustrates the trio’s (initial alwars) Divine Romance with Lord Vishnu, who is often referred to as Perumal.
It was day time but the rain clouds have overcast the sky and cover of darkness spread all around. The torrential rain began beating the earth. Wandering Poigai found out a small hiding place which was fit for one person to lie down. He had just occupied the space that Boodath, coincidently arrived there looking for a shelter. Poigai accommodated him by sitting, as only two persons could be accommodated by sitting. In the meanwhile, under strange coincidence, Pei also came soliciting against the heavy downpour. He was also accommodated as all the three preferred to stand because the space was too tight to accommodate three sitting persons. The darkness had become denser and inside the small room they were not able to see each other. In the meanwhile, they felt that some fourth one also forced his way among them.
In the lightning that flashed across, the trio could see the fourth person who was exquisitely charming and they felt as if overpowered with a sublime, divine feeling. The trio could immediately realize that the fourth person was none other than Lord Narayana Himself huddling among them.
Poigai, wishing to witness the charming divine effulgence again and again, instantly composed hundred songs wishing the earth to be a big pot full of ghee of ocean where the sun could be the burning wick. Bhoodath also sang another hundred songs imagining to light the lamp constantly through ardent love for The Divine. The third one, Pei Alwar sang another hundred songs where he could describe the enchanting charm of the divine face and described the association of Narayana equipped with sankha and chakra (conch shell and disc), and His divine consort Goddess Lakshmi.
Andal, the bride of Lord Rangamannar
Another interesting story is about the only one Lady Alwar, Sri Andal. As Sita was found by King Janaka, while tilling the land for performing a yajna, Vishnuchitha (a great vedic scholar, poet, Vishnu devotee also known as Periyalwar found the divine child under a basil plant while he was tending his garden in SriVilliputhur. He brought her up in simple and godly surroundings natural to a pious, vedic, person. The child prodigy thus fostered lovingly grew into a beautiful maiden and became an embodiment of love for Bhagawan Sri Krishna.
Being a devotee of "Sri Vatapatrasayee", the presiding deity of SriVilliputhur, Vishnuchitha would weave a garland of basil leaves daily and keep it sacredly rolled in a flower basket so that he may, after attending to his other course, take the garland later to the temple for offering to the Lord. The child “kodai”(Andal) in her profound innocence would take out the garland daily without her father's knowledge, adorn herself and look into the mirror to satisfy herself whether she was suitable bride to the Lord and then would remove the garland and replace it in the basket in its original form. This was going on for days and without actually knowing that her daughter had adorned the garland around herself, Vishnuchitha would offer this to the deity who wore it beatifically.
One day to his surprise, Vishnucitha saw the girl wearing the garland before he could take it to the temple. He was shocked for he considered this as a great defilement. He remonstrated the girl for this act. He fasted that day and did not offer the garland and was all repentant. At night, the Lord appearing in dream asked Vishnuchitha as to why he did not offer the garland for the day. The Lord further revealed that He is ever eager to have the things touched by His devotee. “Think not Andal kodai to be a mere mortal” were His final words!
To his wonder Vishnuchitha found that tulsi wreath worn on the previous day by Andal had not faded, but was as fresh like a freshly made one. Thereafter, he offered the garland to the deity after being worn by Andal. The Lord continued to give His bliss of ineffable “darshan”.
When Andal attained her marriageable age, her father was worried to find a suitable match for her. But, the divine child was not ready to marry anyone except Lord Krishna.
Therefore, Vishnuchitha narrated all the Kalyana Gunas of all one hundred and eight Sri Vaishnava Kshetras in India, so that she may for herself choose the deity. When she heard of the beauty of Lord Sriranganatha, tears of joy came over her and her heart prayed to HIM to come and accept her in wedlock.
At this, Vishnuchitha, knowing not what to do, meditated invoking The Lord. Sri Ranganatha spoke to him in a dream: "Do not hesitate to offer your daughter to Me, for she is Bhudevi herself." Simultaneously the Lord sent officials of Srirangam to go to SriVilliputhur and brought Andal in a palanquin in all royalty.
The whole route was decorated on either sides with flowers and wreaths of finely weaved green saplings. As Sri Andal entered the inner shrine of Sri Ranganatha, the magnetic beauty of the Lord instantly attracted her and she merged in the eternal lustrous light.
Another Alwar, Kulasekarara, who was a ruler in Kerala had a great passion towards listening to epics and related stories. He would often entertain exponents to get to listen to such stories again and again.
During one such occasion when a war scene was explained wherein Lord Rama was caught surrounded by the opposing demons, the Alwar became emotional as if Rama was going to be harmed. To fix the situation he asked the army to be ready to fight to save Lord Rama. Subsequently, realizing the emotional state of the King, the Pundit was asked to narrate the remaining part of the story, wherein Lord Rama wins the battle heroically, that pacified the king’s emotion. This serves as a classic example of the emotional devotion of the Alwars towards the Ultimate Divinity.
While light was being thrown into these illustrious life stories of devotion, dedication and surrender, every morning and evening, the main dais, the Seat of The Lord in physical, witnessed rituals to Lord Vishnu. The stage had a big statue of Lord Vishnu accompanied by statues of Lord Ranganatha, Lord Ganesha, Sri Garuda (Vishnuchittha or Periyalwar was regarded as an incarnation of Garuda) and Sri Andal along with all the other eleven Alwars. Lord Vishnu is often referred to as Alankara Priyaha Vishnu, and this function that had a direct bearing on that Lord, brought the best of decor at the main venue. Entire Mandir including the dais was nicely decorated with big hoardings, flower buntings, billboards displaying details on various Alwars etc. Deities onstage were draped in colourful royal costumes, as Divinity “deserves”, and the main idol of Lord Vishnu would adorn changed décor themes, namely, Mohini Thirukkolam, Vaikunta Narayana Alankaram etc. every day.
Maha Sudarshana Homam
A Maha Sudarshana Homam, a fire ritual aimed at world peace, was conducted on the third morning and it turned out to be a grand spiritual spectacle for the thousands assembled in the Sai Kulwant Hall.
This homam is done towards Sri Chakkarathalwar, who is also known as Sudarshan Alwar, represented by the discuss held in the hands of Lord Vishnu that helps protecting His devotees.
On the 17th July morning, while sacred Vedic hymns rendered the air bringing soothing, holy touch to many an ear assembled in the Sai Kulwant Hall, the centre of main activity turned out to be on an elevated platform turned mandap (covered structure with pillars), in the centre down the stage, facing the original Seat of The Divine! There was an elevated platform that had all the paraphernalias related to the morning rituals, including eighteen Kalashas placed reverentially for worship along with a Sudarshana Yantram, apart from having a sacred fire pit for the proposed Maha Sudarshana Homam. Nicely decked up, showing up with a riot of floral decor, quite pleasing to eyes offering a visual treat, the special seat of worship had the touch of grandeur and could be seen by everyone present in the hall without any exertion. The elevated platform also had two ramps on either sides, facing ladies and gents, to facilitate Bhagawan to get onto the venue.
After an hour long initial rituals related to the homam as the Maha Sudarshana Homam went on to reach the concluding part, Bhagawan arrived onstage officiating the Maha Poornahuthi. As He sat facing the sacred pit, priests got the sacred offering blessed by The Divine, and as the chanting went on, these sacred offerings were made into the sacred pit officially marking Maha Poornahuthi.
Sudarshana Moola Mantram chanting for 10000 times had been going for the previous two days, chanted by fifteen participating priests, and the ritual to follow was an offering to the idol of Sudarshan Alwar. The double faced statue had both Sudarshan Alwar and Narasimha Swami, two in one, facing opposite to each other. As Bhagawan took His seat, facing upfront, down the stage, the rituals continued with sacred bath offered to the Alwar, using the eighteen kalashas, that were being worshipped during the previous day and the next morning. One after one the priests took these kalashas to get them blessed by Bhagawan before offering the same, giving the Lord a sacred bath, in the immediate Divine presence of The Lord of all Gods! These eighteen kalashas, named after eighteen selected names of Lord Vishnu, namely, Kesava, Madhava etc. contained waters from selected holy rivers across India.
After the rituals "Vastram" was offered to the Alwar, before he showed up on the specially erected dais facing the Seat of The Divine! Bhagawan sanctified the 'abhisheka theertham' (holy water offered to the Lord) with His Divine touch and even sprinkled the same onto some of the priests before asking them to sprinkle the same to other priests and officials present near the dais.
Tamarind Rice, Sweet Pongal and Curd Rise were offered to one and all as prasadam marking the auspiciousness of the occasion.
Sri Sathya Sai Sathya Narayana Vratham
When the first four days were reserved for the above rituals as well as Alwar stories, the grand finale had something unique in store. In the morning the regular one hour Veda chanting was followed by a forty minute bhajan session, after which Pushpayagam (Pushpabhishekam) to Lord Vishnu, the main Idol on the dais, was performed to the holy chants of Vedam. Over twenty two varieties of flowers were used for this abhishekham that lasted for more than half-an-hour.
Vishnu Alankara Priyaha…true to this saying, this final morning, Sai Kulwant's main stage, the dais, wore a thematic costume, symbolising and illustrating the special ritual for the day, Pushpabhishekam. It was a riot of flowers and colours everywhere, a feast not alone to the human lenses but to hearts and souls as well.
The final celebration on the final session was Sri Sathya Sai Sathya Narayana Vratham attended by a whopping 1108 couple. The Vratham is normally conducted for all-round family prosperity.
Elaborate arrangements were done in organizing the whole of the affair to make it a grand success. And in the Sai Kulwant hall seating arrangements were done so meticulously that each couple was allotted special blocks with defined numbers.
The function began at 1600 hrs. with Vidwan Nidumamidi Srikanta Rao, master of ceremonies, explaining step by step instructions, in Telugu and English, for the couples to follow. First part of the function, main rituals, lasted for 55 minutes upon which Sai Gayathri chanting went on, invoking Bhagawan. After the final rituals Sathya Narayana Story followed, wherein, the first four chapters of Bhagawan's Life Story were narrated in english, lasting for almost half-an-hour.
Sumptuous prasadam, Tamarind Rice, Sweet Pongal, Kesari Baath and Bobbattu were distributed to the entire assemblage including all the participants.