Srirangam Gateway to Heaven Published in The Times Of India National Edition; Date: Dec 17, 2010; Section: Editorial; Page: 22

To devotees, particularly Vaishnavites, the Ranganathaswamy temple at Srirangam near Trichy in Tamil Nadu is their sacred gateway to heaven.

    Among the 108 temples in south India that are of utmost importance to Vaishnavites, Srirangam tops the list. Here, Vaishnavai saint Godha Devi is believed to have merged with the idol and attained salvation. According to legend the idol rose up from the celestial Milky Ocean. It is a large, monolithic black statue of Vishnu, reclining on Adisesha, the divine serpent. It was received by Brahma and left in his custody till Vishnu as Rama gave it to Vibheesana, the noble brother of the slain demon king Ravana.

    Vibheesana wished to carry it back to Sri Lanka. Rama told him that it was not to be placed down under any circumstances. Vibheesana needed to rest and perform his ablutions. He found a little boy and asked him to hold it. When he came back he found that the boy had placed the idol down and it was rooted to the spot. An angry Vibheesana chased the boy who was actually Vinayaka.

    The idol lay there for ages, deep in the forest, covered with vegetation, till a prince of the Chola dynasty, Dharma Varma, stumbled upon it and built a shrine to protect it. During the Muslim invasion, temple priests erected a wall and hid the idol and fled with a smaller deity. For 50 years, they moved from place to place and finally hid it in a ravine at Tirupati, another major Vaishnavite pilgrimage destination. Once the invaders left, the priests returned to Srirangam and reinstalled the idol. Since then subsequent kings of the Chola, Pandya, Vijayanagar and Hoysala dynasty from the 10th century onwards, have made significant additions to the temple. Today, the Srirangam Ranganatha Swamy temple is spread over 156 acres, making it the largest functioning Hindu temple in the world.

    Vaikuntha Ekadasi is the most important festival here. Hindus believe that the doors of heaven remain open throughout that specific day and a visit to any shrine of Vishnu this day ensures unfettered entry into heaven. At Srirangam temple the Paramapadha Vaasal or Sorga Vaasal, the Gateway to Heaven, is thrown open on Vaikuntha Ekadasi day at 4:15 a.m. for darshan. Busloads of devotees descend on Srirangam and wait for hours to get a glimpse of the Ranganatha idol. Preparations for the Vaikuntha Ekadasi here commence in October itself when the first of the 47 pillars of a grand mandapam (stage) is erected in the presence of shloka-chanting priests. Festivities begin well in advance, lasting nearly a month.

Most festivals coincide with seasonal changes, thus providing a strong market for the agricultural and horticultural offerings of that season. To the residents of Srirangam, Lord Ranganatha is a live entity. They address him in the first person; they visit him as they would visit a family member. When they enter the temple, it is with a sense of ownership coupled with an unshakable faith that He is there! It is as though they have made the journey from the temporal to the spiritual, a hallowed journey that infuses them with extraordinary strength to face life’s challenges.

    Today is Vaikuntha Ekadasi. 


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