By S. Neeraj Krishna – The Weekly – Great Journey – Adi Sankara – Little history, strong beliefs (http://week.manoramaonline.com/cgi-bin/MMOnline.dll/portal/ep/theWeekContent.do?contentId=10650635&programId=1073755753&tabId=13&BV_ID=@@@&categoryId=-169761)
Myths and realities: The Adi Shankara temple maintained by the Sringeri Mutt in Rameshwaram / Photo by S. Neeraj Krishna
Rameshwaram-Srirangam-Kanchi: There is a historical core to Shankara’s travels through some of Tamil Nadu’s holiest towns
Empty boats float like enlightened souls over the Palk Strait as we cruise on the 2.3km Pamban bridge across it, linking the Indian peninsula and Rameshwaram island in Tamil Nadu. Adi Shankaracharya had crossed the strait to worship Lord Shiva in Rameshwaram, his first stop as he embarked on a missionary tour across India.
There are no physical evidences of Shankara’s visit to Rameshwaram, but his biography, the Shankara Digvijaya, notes that he prayed at the temple here and also encountered Shaivites who were following the Shakta tradition, which allows indulgence in liquor and meat.
Shankara “entered into a heated debate with these Brahmanas of Sakta persuasion, silenced them in argument for the good of the world, and made them accept the right code of rituals that he formulated,” wrote Madhava Vidyaranya, the 12th pontiff of the Sringeri Sharada Peetham in Karnataka.
Not sure if they are descendants of the Shakta cult, but until recent times it was common to see sadhus with matted hair and scruffy beards—some even wearing old Ray Ban aviator glasses—roaming the streets here, high on liquor.
However, of late, the police and civic authorities have been putting such vagabonds into rehab homes, after giving them a haircut and shave, says a police officer. Today, more cows, considered sacred, roam the streets in Rameshwaram, one among the Char Dhams or the four holy centres of Hinduism.
The Char Dhams, which were declared by Adi Shankaracharya, make a square. Badrinath in the north and Rameshwaram in the south lie on the same longitude, while Dwaraka in the west and Puri in the east lie on the same latitude.
Furthermore, at the Adi Shankaracharya temple maintained by the Sringeri Mutt here, a centuries-old Shivling is placed in front of the idol. Some people believe that Shankara installed the Shivling here.
The link between Shankara and Rameshwaram is further underlined by the tradition that only Maharashtrian Brahmins, who have obtained deeksha or consecration from the Sringeri Sharada Peetham, can become priests of the Ramanathaswamy Temple, says Srinivasa Raghavan, an 82-year-old lawyer and power agent of the mutt. He adds that besides the priests and the Hindu kings of Nepal, only Sringeri Shankaracharyas have the privilege of entering the temple’s sanctum sanctorum.
Next, I head to Srirangam, in Tiruchirapalli district. The sprawling Sri Ranganatha temple here is perhaps the largest functioning Hindu temple in the world, covering 156 acres. The temple, the second most popular Vaishnavite shrine in south India after Tirupati, is known as the Bhooloka Vaikunta or Lord Vishnu’s abode on earth.
It is widely believed that Adi Shankaracharya installed a talisman called Janakarshana Yantra to attract pilgrims to the temple. Similar to another belief that he installed a Dhanakarshana Yantra, a talisman to attract wealth, in the Tirupati Balaji temple, the richest shrine in India.
However, the Janakarshana Yantra is not visible in the temple, nor are there any inscriptions or plaques taking note of the event, explains T.S. Rangarajan, Sarvadhikari of the Sringeri Mutt in Srirangam. “But Shankara’s composition in praise of the lord here, Sri Ranganatha Ashtakam, indicates that he had indeed visited the temple,” adds the Sanskrit scholar. Incidentally, the first authentic compilation of Shankara’s works, the Shankara Granthavali, was published from Srirangam in 1910.
Though most manuscripts and rare documents have been sent to Sringeri for preservation, the mutt in Srirangam has a vintage library, with books and magazines that are more than a century old. “Public’s interest in the material here has been steadily declining,” notes Rangarajan, as he locks the library and heads to the adjoining Adi Shankara temple where old women and men, mostly Brahmins, wait to chant bhajans.
Immersed in puja preparations are two boys with vibhuti or sacred ash smeared on their foreheads, arms and chest. Narayan Balaji, 13, and Manikandan, 11, are students of the Vedapaathshala run by the mutt.
“There are seven students in the current batch,” says Manikandan, who has been learning Yajur Veda for three years. “Before and after classes, we help the priest with the pujas.” Of late, notes Rangarajan, more students emerge from economically backward families.
My last stop in the erstwhile Chola-Pandya territory is Kanchipuram, 60km from Chennai. The town, known for its silk industry, is one of the seven Mokshapuris (holy spots of salvation) in India. It is also home to the famous Kamakshi Amman temple, considered one among the 51 Shakti Peethas in India.
According to legend, the goddess here was in ugra bhava or in a state of fury, and it was Adi Shankaracharya who transformed her into a benevolent mode by reciting verses and installing a Sri Chakra Yantra, a talisman involving complex geometrical patterns, which is believed to radiate positive energy.
“There is a general tendency to associate temples to Adi Shankara in some way or the other,” opines Dakshinamoorthy Shastrikal, one of the four main priests of the temple. “I am not sure if the story about Adi Shankara and the Sri Chakra are true. It is believed that the goddess had always been benevolent.”
The priest’s brother, Kalyanarama Shastrikal, chips in that a more credible legend is associated with another Kamakshi Amman temple in Mangadu, 30km from Chennai. “It was there that Adi Shankaracharya installed a Sri Chakra made of herbs to spread positive energy; it is still preserved there.”