Athi Varadar, the deity striding TamilNadu like a colossus
The Athi Varadhar vaibhav, held once in 40 years is underway in Tamil Nadu. The media hype around it made it into a mega-event, catching the government and district authorities, unawares.
In a state, where every street in every town is home to at least 2 or 3 shrines of varying size and shape, it does not come as a surprise to see the frenzy and furore over the Athi Varadar vaibhavam [festival] at the Devarajaswamy temple [also known as the Varadaraja Perumal temple] in TamilNadu’s Kanchipuram, some 70 km from Chennai.
The festival is unique … it happens once in every 40 years, when the idol is brought out from its resting place in the temple tank for darshan. This year the Athi Varadar was unveiled to the devotees on July 1; it will be open to worshippers till August 17, in a 48-day season.
People have been lining up in throngs for a brief glimpse of the deity, who is believed to have the power to grant his devotees’ requests.
The crowds have become unmanageable – recently there were reports of a stampede, and several people have died; though the government has stoutly defended the arrangements and said the deaths were not stampede-related, the reports have put it on the defensive.
The state government and the district authorities appear to have failed to gauge the religious fervour that the Athi Varadar would generate; after all, the last such event 40 years ago passed off without controversy.
But the media hype around the event has been enormous; add to this word of mouth – ‘Have you been to see the Athi Varadar?’ is a common topic of discussion – and what you have is a mega-event, as Dr. Uma Vangal, Fulbright scholar and visiting faculty at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai, points out.
For to those unfamiliar with the subject, the Athi Varadar is a 9-foot idol, made of wood from the fig tree [athi is fig in Tamil] raised from his slumber in the temple tank every 40 years for public viewing in the temple complex, which dates back to the 12th century AD. The temple is one of the 108 ‘divya desam[s]’ in the Vaishnavite tradition.
Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswamy’s government, facing flak over the poor arrangemens, has now ‘announced that it plans to shift the idol to ensure a safe and pleasant darshan.’ He said the government was holding talks with the gurukkals [priests] to agree on a solution.
The rush has been exacerbated by a slew of VIPs making a beeline to the temple. TN Governor Banwarilal Purohit, Durga Stalin, wife of the DMK leader, and Rajathi Ammal, mother of the DMK MP Kanimozhi, were all said to have had a darshan of the deity.
It didn’t help matters when a reputed Madurai gangster and don, Varichyur Selvam, had darshan as a VIP; he is reportedly close to several local political leaders. TN Chief Secretary K. Shanmugham, who visited Kanchipuram on Sunday along with DGP J.K. Tripathy, said VIP entry would be done only during lean hours to ease the pressure. He did not specify the hours.
Locals have been complaining about the difficulties faced by them because of the influx and the inadequate measures. They say cars with VIP stickers are clogging up the roads and parking spaces. Such has been the phenomenon this year that the railways have been running special trains to the town.