A group from Past Forward at the Kanchi Varadarajaswami temple in January 2018

Lord Atthi Varadar is here to bless us, emerging once in forty years from His usual place of stay – the cool confines of the Ananthasaras tank in the KanchiVaradarajaswami or Hastigiri Temple.  This holiest of holies is one of the most exalted shrines of India. The Lord’s range of devotees here is wide and varied. They include Thirukacchi Nambi who performed the service of fanning the deity, Sri Ramanuja, the greatest of the Vaishnavite preceptors and also Robert Clive, who offered gemstones in thanksgiving for his life being spared in battle. The shrine is praised in numerous verses and not surprisingly also greatly celebrated in music. It is also no wonder that the best-known celebration of the shrine, the Garuda Seva is mentioned in several of the compositions.


Bhoothathazhwar, one of the earliest of the 12thVaishnavite saints, sums up all the legends associated with the temple in his verse Atthi Ooraan – “He of Atthikshetra, He travels on the Garuda and reclines on the gem studded Sesha. He is the sacred fire and the Vedas and is Lord even to He who swallowed the great poison, He is our Lord.” Two other Azhwars namely Peyazhwarand Thirumangaiazhwar have composed on the Lord here. Sri Ramanuja’s prime disciple Kuresa created the Varadaraja Sthavam.


Swami Vedanta Desika (13th/14th centuries)’s Adaikkalapathu and Varadaraja Panchashath are verses in praise of the deity. His Hamsa Sandesam, structured on the lines of Kalidasa’s Megha Sandesam, has Rama requesting a swan to carry his message to Sita, after Hanuman’s return. The work describes the route the bird needs to take to reach Lanka and several verses are on Hasthigiri. In one he sings of the dust raised by Lord Varada as He moved about on various vahanas. In another he asks the swan to fan the Lord, a hint at Thirukacchi Nambi’s service.


Purandara Dasa (1484-1564), the Pitamaha of CarnaticMusic has come to this temple. “I have seen Achyutawho is Kariraja Varada in the Punyakoti vimana of Kanchi,” he declares in Kannara Kande Achyutha Nathat is variously sung in Dhanyasi and Varali among others. King Shahaji (r 1683-1712) of Thanjavur was an early composer in the Carnatic style. A song of his, in the shrngara theme and set in raga Ghantaravam, is dedicated to Varadaraja. A contemporary of the ruler was ‘Margadarsi’ Sesha Iyengar, the prefix being conferred because his model of composing is what the CarnaticTrinity and others followed. His Vandeham KarishailaNivasam (Jujavanti) is in Sanskrit and mentions apart from the Garuda Seva the Ananthasaras tank and the devotion of Thirukacchinambi.


It is interesting that all of the Carnatic Trinity visited and sang on Lord Varada. If Syama Sastri (1762 -1827) composed a varnam in his favourite Ananda Bhairavi, Tyagaraja (1767-1847) sang of being blessed to see the Lord in Garuda Seva in his Varadaraja Ninnekori(Swarabhushani). He says the Devas were circumambulating the Lord and He appeared like the full moon surrounded by the stars. Tyagaraja wonders if it is possible to describe the scene. Using an equally rare raga as Swarabhushani is Muttuswami Dikshitar (1765-1835) in his Gangatarangini song Varadaraja Avava. Another song of his is in the nottusvara format and set in Shankarabharanam. A third song, VaradarajamUpasmahe in Saranga is clearly spurious, for it has errors in prosody. Dikshitar also mentions the Lord at Kanchigranting special darshan during Garuda Seva to Doddacharya of Sholinghur in his song on the latter shrine Narasimha Agachcha (Mohanam). Doddacharya, who lived after Vedanta Desika, wrote VaradarajaPanchakam, which describes the Garuda Seva, complete with mention of jostling crowds, in five verses.


By far the most comprehensive description of the Garuda Seva is in Walajahpet Venkataramana Bhagavatar’s(1781-1874) composition Kanulara Konti (Dhanyasi). The composition has eight charanams of which only the last is usually sung but the rest are worthy of a study for their lyrical beauty. In the anupallavi the composer says he saw the Lord in his dream radiant like the full moon (it is significant that the same idea repeats in his Guru Tyagaraja’s song also). He then goes on to describe the Lord as He moves on Garuda to the GangaikondanMandapam in Kanchi where the great bhagavatas tie anklets to their feet, strum the tambura and led by Venkatadri, dance in ecstasy, all the while chanting the name of Hari. It is an unparalleled word portrait.


KV Srinivasa Iyengar and his brothers Tiger Varadachariar and ‘Puliyodarai’ Krishnamachariyar,composed some songs using the Tyagaraja mudra, as their tribute to the bard! One among these is VinatasutaVahana in Harikamboji. It is a beautiful word picture of the Garuda Seva and a worthy tribute to Tyagaraja and the brothers’ talents.


Strangely, no song mentions Atthi Varada.

You may want to read this article too – Doddacharya, Dikshitar and the Kanchi Garuda Seva

You may also want to see my video on the Kanchi Varadarajswami Temple on YouTube


This article appeared in The Hindu dated July 19, 2019