Abodes of Vishnu - Divya Desams

By editor - 15.10 2015

Divya Desams refer to the 108 Lord Vishnu temples that are mentioned in the works of the Tamil Alwars. Divya in the Tamil language indicates "premium" and Desam indicates "land" or "place" (temple). 

Of the 108 temples, 105 are located in India, one in Nepal and two outside of the Earthly realms. The Divya Desams are revered by the 12 Alwars in theDivya Prabandha, a collection of 4,000 Tamil verses.

The alwars or Alwars (meaning ‘those immersed in god’) were Tamil poet saints of south India who lived between the sixth and ninth centuries A.D. and espoused ‘emotional devotion’ or Bhakti to Vishnu in their songs of longing, ecstasy and service.  The devotional outpourings of  the Alvars, composed during the early medieval period of Tamil history (6th-9th centuries A.D.) helped revive the Bhakti movement, through their hymns of worship to Vishnu and his Avatars.

Some of the most well-known Divya Desams are:

1. Badrinath Temple (Badrinath, Uttarakhand)
2. Tirumala Venkateswara Temple (Tirupathi, Andhra Pradesh)
3. Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Srirangam (Near Trichy, Tamilnadu)
4. Dwarakadheesh Temple (Dwaraka, Gujarat)
5. Kesava Deo Temple (Mathura, Uttar Pradesh)
6. Parthasarathy Temple, Triplicane (Chennai, Tamilnadu)

The Alwars:   Sri Vaishnavism is one of the   pre-eminent traditions of Hinduism. An unbroken lineage of teachers, (the Acharyas) and a wealth of literature in Tamil and in Sanskrit and theVishishtadvaita philosophy form the backbone of  the Sri Vaishnava religion. Twelve saint (poet) devotees  - the great Alwars lived their lives dedicated to expressing their devotion to MahaVishnu - considered to be the supreme manifestation of Divinity in the Vaishnava system of beliefs..  These saints composed verses in chaste tamil,  and revitalized the religious spirit of the region, sparking off a renewal of devotional worship in what is generally referred to as the Bhakti movement. The first of the twelve, Peyalwar, Bhootattalwar and Poikaialwar lived in the first half of the first millennium CE. 

The Paasurams: Srivilliputtur in southern Tamilnadu,  is home to Perialwar, and his foster  daughter Andal; the works of Andal are very well known to the tamil world. The Tiruppaavai hymns written by Andal (a manifestation of the mother Goddess) are chanted in congregations throughout Tamilnadu during the cold month of Margazhi, in the cool pre-dawn hours, in temples as well as in the streets that surround temples. The 30 hymns constituting Tiruppavai have been recorded by several artists, and the national radio station All India Radio (used to) broadcast(s) a hymn each day throughout the month of Margazhi. Also composed by Andal is 'Vaaranam Aayiram' (Kanaakkanden Tozhi), describing Andal's dream of her marriage to Narayanan (Vishnu). This work is chanted during Sri Vaishnava weddings. A popular version of Vaaranam Aayiram sung by S. Janaki hit the charts in 1990. 

Amalanaadipiraan, a decad of 10 verses composed by Tiruppaanaalwar ofUraiyur, describing   his ecstasy upon seeing the image of Ranganathar at Tiruvarangam, is held in great reverence. Tondaradippodialwar has composed several verses in praise of Ranganathar at Srirangam. The most prolific poets of the Alwars were Nammalwar and Tirumangaialwar (8th - 9thcentury CE). The collection of Nammalwar's works is referred to as Tiruvaimozhi.

The compilation of these verses is the revered Naalayira Divya Prabandam. Credit for this compilation goes to Nadamuni (923 - 1023 CE), who upon hearing Nammalwar's verse 'Araavamude' being chanted at Kumbhakonam, researched into and compiled the works of all of the Alwars. The lineage of spiritual leaders of the Sri Vaishnava way of life, held these works in the highest regard, considering them equivalent to the Vedas. The Alwar paasurams therefore have been chanted in temples for centuries together (in a manner similar to that of chanting the Vedas in sanskrit).

The tradition of Arayar Sevai involving the expressive recitation (enactment) of the paasurams originated during the period of Nadamuni, at Srirangam. This tradition exists even today at Srirangam, and atSrivilliputtur and Alwar Tirunagari (and at Melkote in Karnataka). The descendants of the family of Nadamuni are the torchbearers of this tradition.

Divya Desams:  The verses of the Alwars, speak of the glory of Vishnu, of instances from the puranams. of the devotion of the Alwars and  of the glory of the temples (and locales)  enshrining Vishnu (which they had visited). The entire decad of verses commencing with Amalanaadipiraan praises Ranganathar at Srirangam. Some of these verses only refer to (or address) temples in which Vishnu is enshrined as in the case of Nammalwar's hymns referring to the deity enshrined in Srivaikuntham in two verses in a decad of verses dedicated to Tiruppulinkudi.   Pillaipperumaal Iyengar's work Tirupati Andadi captures 108 of the shrines, mentioned in the works of the Alwars. These shrines are hailed as Divya Desams, hallowed by the hymns of the saints.

History of patronage: These shrines have been held in reverence for centuries. In Tamilnadu where 84 of these shrines are situated,  the Pallava rulers (as in Mahabalipuram, Nandipuravinnagaram), and the Chola emperors (10th through the 13th centuries) provided for the construction (in stone),  expansion and upkeep of these shrines through generous endowments. The Pandyas who followed continued this tradition. It was under the rule of the Vijayanagar emperors that shrines such as Srirangam,Tirukkachhi and Tirupati received the greatest extent of royal patronage. The Nayaka rulers of Madurai continued this glorious tradition after the Vijayanagar rulers.

The shrines: 47 of the 108 Divya Desams have been addressed only by Tirumangaialwar and 18 only by Nammalwar. While 2 are addressed only by Tirumazhisaialwar, 1 by Kulasekharalwar and 1 by Perialwar, the remaining 39 are addressed by hymns composed by more than one of the saints. In combination with the other saints, Tirumangaialwar has addressed 83 of the 108 Divya Desams and Nammalwar 35.  While 247 verses are addressed to Srirangam - 202 are addressed to Tirupati,  128 to Azhagar Koyil and only 7 to Kanchipuram (Tirukkachhi Attigiri). The celestial abodes Tirupparkadal (The Milky Ocean) and Paramapadam (Vaikuntham) get 51 and 36 verses each.

Geographic distribution: 40 of the shrines are located in the fertile Chola kingdom and 22 are in Tondainaadu - around Kanchipuram and Chennai. 2 are in Nadu Naadu (Tiruvahindrapuram and Tirukkovilur) and 18 are in Pandyanaadu. 13 of the shrines are in Malainaadu, of which 11 are in Kerala and 2 are in Kanyakumari district; therefore the total number of Divya Desams in Tamilnadu is 84. 11 Divyadesams are in Vada Naadu, or the northern lands - of which two, Tirupati and Ahobilam are in Andhra Pradesh. 7 of these 11 are in Uttar Pradesh (such as Mathura,  Ayodhya ,Badrinath etc.). , 1 in Nepal and 1 in Gujarat. Two of the Divyadesams -Ksheerasaagaram and Vaikuntham are celestial abodes.

Thus, 106 temples have been addressed by the Tamil Alwars, who were pillars of the Sri Vaishnava tradition that was to evolve in Tamilnadu. The contrast in the nature of these temples is stunning, given the diversity in the Indian subcontinent. Even a virtual visit  to these 106 shrines across the nation, is quite an experience, and is illustrative of this contrast, given the difference in the nature of temples in the various regions such as the Kaveri basin,  Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, the Tirunelveli region, the Gangetic plains and the Himalayas.

State of these temples: Some of the Divya Desam shrines are grand monuments such as the Ranganathar Temple at Srirangam, Naachiyaar temple at Srivilliputtur, thePadmanabhaswamy temple at Tiruvanandapuram and theVaradaraja Perumaal temple at Kanchipuram, visited by thousands.   Badrinath, the northernmost of the Divyadesams is a shrine venerated throughout India. Tirupati (Tirumala) is the most visited of these 108 Divya Desams, and is held in great regard by pilgrims all over the country. Tiruvallikkeni a well visited shrine and a prominent landmarks in the modern city of Chennai, attracts thousands of devotees during the Vaikuntha Ekadasi festival in the month of Margazhi.

Some of the Divya Desams in Tamilnadu,  stand as grand monuments gracefully located away from the beaten track  (Tirukkovilur, Sri Vaikuntham for example). Three of the Divya Desams are sub shrines in the prakarams of other Divya Desams. The Tiruoorakam (Ulagalanda Perumaal Koyil) houses the Divyadesams Oorakam, Neerakam, Kaarakam andKaarvaanam.  Two of the Divyadesams are subshrines in other temples.Nilattingal Tundam is a shrine to Vishnu in the inner prakaram of the grandEkambreswarar temple at Kanchipuram, while Kalvanoor is a shrine to Vishnu in the Kamakshiamman temple at Kanchipuram.Tiruchitrakootam, is located within the grand  Nataraja temple complex at Chidambaram.

Iconography: While in Saivite shrines, it is the Shivalingam or the   non-anthropomorphic form that is enshrined in the innermost sanctum, it is the iconic form of Vishnu that is center of reverence in the 106 Divya Desams. Vishnu is represented usually in one of  three postures - reclining (Sayanamor kidanda kolam) as in Kumbhakonam, seated posture (irunda kolam) as inTirupperai, or standing (ninra kolam) as in Tirupati (Tirumala).

Worship protocol: While in all of the Divya Desams in Tamilnadu (with the exception of Nilattingal Tundam,  Kalvanoor, Tiruvaattaru andTiruvanpatisaaram) the Vaishnava Agamic (Pancharatra or Vaikanasa) protocol of worship is followed, the Kerala Tantram is followed in the Divyadesams in Malainadu. Worship services at Badrinath follow a protocol established during the period of Adi Sankaracharya.

Festivals: Most of the Divya Desams in Tamilnadu follow an elaborate tradition of festivals. The Margazhi festival, involving the recital of the Alwar hymns - and the climax of the festival on the day of Vaikuntha Ekadasi are traditions which have sustained for several centuries, enriching the cultural life of the tamil region. The annual festival at the Kallazhagar temple in the month of Chittirai, coinciding with the Bhramotsavam at theMadurai Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple imparts a festive look to the entire region, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the state.

The Saivite Nayanmars lived roughly during the same period as the Alwars. While Karaikkal Ammaiyaar and Tirumoolar lived in the first half of the first millennium CE (the first of the Alwars are said to belong to the same period), Appar and Sambandar the foremost of the Tevaram saints lived in the 7th century. (Tirumangaialwar belonged to the 9th century  while ) Sundaramurthy Nayanar lived in the 9th century CE.  The Tevaram hymns were rescued from obscurity and set to music by Nambiandar Nambi during the rule of Rajaraja Chola I, roughly during the same period in which the Alwar Paasurams were compiled by Nadamuni. 275 Shiva temples in the Indian subcontinent have been glorified with at least a decad of 10 Tevaram verses (patikam) each of the Nayanmars (275 Tevara Paadal Petra Stalams) , while 249 (others) have been addressed (referred to) by the Tevaram (249 Tevara Vaipputtalams). Please visit the Abodes of Shiva for more information on the Nayanmars, the Tevaram hymns and these shrines.