by Sampatkumara Ramanuja Dasan
Located 10 km from Nagapattinam in the town of Nangoor is the serene temple of Vishnu as Vaikuntanatha Perumal, Sri Vaikunta Vinnagaram.
There was once a great saint by name Gautama Maharshi. Many disciples came to the acharya in pursuit of spiritual knowledge. Among them was Uttanka Muni, who was exemplary in his devotion to Gautama Maharshi. Uttanka did the household work for Gautama, helped him prepare for the sacrificial rites and knew exactly what his guru needed at the right time. His knowledge of the Vedic scriptures was outstanding and the other disciples went to him for guidance. Gautama Maharishi had never had such a sincere and dedicated student before.
Uttanka and his classmates completed their education. All his classmates left the hermitage (ashrama) but the guru loved Uttanka dearly and wanted him to learn more about the subtle science of Godhead and did not permit him to go. Year after year new students came, they graduated and left the hermitage in their independent search for knowledge, but Uttanka stayed back as he was hesitant to hurt his guru and wanted to serve the lotus feet of Gauthama Maharishi.
As years passed by, Uttanka became old. He was unable to carry the load of firewood required for the sacrifice, his back ached and his hair began to turn white. One day when he was unable to do the household chores due to his declining strength, he came to his guru Gautama in frustration and poured his heart out.
“Acharya, Your Divine Grace did not allow me to leave the ashrama for all these years. Now, I am old and unable to take care of your household chores. I am unhappy that I could not see the world as other disciples did.”
Gautama Maharishi replied, “My son, I kept you here because of my love for you. But if you wish to go, you have my permission and my blessings. With the power of your penance in serving me, you will become a young man again and I shall give my daughter to you in marriage.”
Immediately, Uttanka regained the looks and strength of a young man. He was very grateful to his guru. He married Gautama’s daughter and was ready to lead his independent life.
Before his departure Uttanka wanted to pay tribute (gurudakshina) to Gautama. The sage said, “You have served me with devotion for all these years. No other tribute is necessary.” Then Uttanka went to Gautama’s wife and requested her to ask for something that she had wanted all her life.
After repeated coaxing, Gautama’s wife said, “Uttanka, if you insist, I want the earrings worn by King Saudasa’s wife. I have heard so much about these earrings that I yearn for them in my dreams.”
Uttanka promised to get the earrings. He knew that it was not an easy task and he would face many dangers. So, he asked his wife to stay with her parents while he set out in search of the earrings. Uttanka was confident that his sincere penance to his guru would help him in his challenging task.
When sage Gautama Maharishi heard that Uttanka had left on a dangerous endeavour, he was concerned and enraged. He told his wife, “You should have not asked for the earrings, my dear. A wife of a saint must learn to live in simplicity and devoid of pleasures like gold. Uttanka will face many dangers that may even threaten his life.” Gautama’s wife regretted her request, but it was too late. Uttanka had already left on his quest, eager to serve his gurupatni (wife of guru).
On the quest of the earrings Uttanka had to pass through dense forests. King Saudasa was living in this forest. He had annoyed Vasistha Muni (a brahmarishi), and was cursed by the sage to lead the life of a cannibal.
Uttanka came to Saudasa’s abode. As soon as Saudasa saw Uttanka, he attacked him. Uttanka stopped him by saying, “Oh king, wait! I have come on a mission for my guru. Know for a fact that it is against dharma (righteousness) to injure someone who is on such a mission. I promise that I will offer myself to you after I have completed my mission.”
Saudasa inquired what the mission was about.
“I have come to beg for your wife’s earrings.” Saudasa was taken aback. He admired the courage of Uttanka, in approaching him, a cannibal. He said, “Go to my wife and tell her that I would like her to give the earrings to you. This good act may reduce my life of suffering as a cannibal.”
Uttanka went to the queen with Saudasa’s message. The queen immediately parted with her earrings with the hope that her husband would benefit by her good deed.
When Uttanka examined the earrings, he could not find anything special about them. Out of curiosity, he asked, “What is special about these earrings?”
The queen said, “This is a very special ornament from the planet of Indra. The wearer will be free from hunger and thirst and will be protected from all dangers.”
The queen further warned, “Oh great sage, it is my duty to warn you against the Nagas (serpents), who have a fancy for these earrings for a long time and will steal them at the first opportunity. So, guard them well. Hide them in the folds of your deerskin and never part with them. They may use any tactic to get the earrings.”
Uttanka thanked the queen and assured her, “I shall protect them with my life, for this is for my acharya’s wife.” Then he left and came back to Saudasa as he had promised. He requested the cannibal to spare him until he had handed over the earrings to his guru’s wife. Saudasa agreed.
Uttanka then added, “You helped me in getting the earrings and in fulfilling my promise to my guru’s wife. Your good deed will reduce the tenure of your life as a cannibal. Hence, I have also been of help to you. By helping each other, we have become friends. The scriptures say that one should not eat the flesh of a friend. So you would surely not like to eat me?”
Saudasa was struck by Uttanka’s logic, and could not disagree with him. There was even the possibility of leading a normal life soon! Uttanka quickly departed before Saudasa changed his mind.
On the way back to Gautama’s hermitage, Uttanka felt tired. So he tied the deerskin which was encasing the earrings, on the branch of a tree and lay down to rest in its shade. Unfortunately, the deerskin slipped off and fell on the ground. A naga was waiting for this opportunity. It quickly picked up the earrings and sneaked away. Uttanka saw the naga slipping away with the earrings and chased it. The naga disappeared into an anthill. Uttanka started digging the anthill with his staff. He continued to dig for several days without food or water. He was determined to give up his life in the search of the earrings rather than return to his guru’s hermitage empty-handed.
An old man suddenly arrived on the scene and asked, “What are you doing, young man?”
Uttanka explained, “A naga stole the celestial earrings that I was carrying for my guru’s wife and went into this anthill. I am trying to find the naga.”
The old man said, “You must be joking! The naga may be hidden thousands of miles deep in the soil. It may take your entire life to dig with your staff which can hardly make a pit in this hard soil.”
“I prefer to die here rather than face my guru’s wife without fulfilling her wishes. I am so devastated with my carelessness”, said Uttanka, sorrowfully.
The old man was none other than Indra, king of the demigods. Appreciating the determination of Uttanka, Indra assumed his real form and asked Uttanka to strike his staff onto his weapon by name Vajra (Vajra ayudha or the thunderbolt is the weapon of Indra, made out of bones of a Maharishi). Uttanka did as he was told and his staff was energised. The energised staff accelerated the process of digging into the anthill.
Uttanka soon tunneled into the kingdom of the Nagas. It was huge and well protected by the inhabitants. Uttanka was puzzled. “How can I search this place and where can I look for the naga who stole the earrings?”
Suddenly he saw a horse standing before him with blazing fire around him. Uttanka, overcome by awe, did not move. The horse spoke, “Do not be afraid, Uttanka. I am Agni (god of fire). You have served me well at your guru’s hermitage. I am very pleased with you. (Agni is one of the best friends of a brahmana who is strict with his religious duties. Agni could come to help whenever such a brahmana is in trouble). Blow at me hard and I will emit smoke that will choke the Nagas. They will come to you for rescue. Then, you can ask the naga king to return the earrings.”
Uttanka did as he was told and in no time the entire Naga kingdom was filled with smoke. The nagas could not breathe and they were all forced to come out of their homes. They bowed before Uttanka. Uttanka asked the nagas to return the earrings. The nagas realized that they had to choose between their lives and the earrings. And of course, they chose to save their lives and quickly returned the earrings!
Uttanka returned to Gautama’s ashrama and gave the earrings to Gautama’s wife. Everyone was very happy at Uttanka’s safe return. Gautama and his wife showered their blessings on Uttanka. Uttanka fulfilled his obligation of giving gurudakshina and was finally free to lead his own life.
During a conversation between Indra and Lord Krishna, Lord Krishna appeared distracted. When Indra enquired about it, Lord Krishna replied that he was thinking about a sage named Uttanka who was meditating upon Him in the desert. A few days before, Lord Krishna had granted him his Vishvaroopa darshana (His universal form). He also granted Uttanka a boon that He would bring him water whenever he was thirsty. At that moment Uttanka was thinking about Lord Krishna, as he was thirsty. Lord Krishna told Indra that he was considering giving him amritha (divine nectar). Indra was worried that Lord Krishna was being a bit hasty. He wanted to test if Uttanka is worthy to receive the amritha. Lord Krishna was confident that Uttanka, being an enlightened soul, would definitely pass the test. Indira requested that he be allowed take the amritha to Uttanka. He also told Lord Krishna that he would be taking the amrith, wearing a disguise.
Uttanka was in the desert meditating upon Lord Krishna, when he heard a sound which he assumed is the sound of Lord Krishna’s anklets. However, when he opens his eyes he sees a chandala. (A chandala is the keeper of cremation grounds. He usually appears as someone who has not taken a bath for many days, and wears a necklace of skulls. He is always in the company of a few dogs). When Uttanka saw the chandala who was in reality Indra, he felt repelled by him. He tried to move away from him as the chandala offered him some water. He told the chandala that he would not accept water from a person of lower caste. Suddenly, the chandala vanished and Lord Krishna appeared. Uttanka was surprised. Lord Krishna explained to him that the chandala was Lord Indra in disguise, and that Uttanka who was such an enlightened soul, should have known better than to discriminate.
Lord Krishna however kept His promise to Uttanka and told Uttanka that whenever he is thirsty, a rain cloud would appear over him and he would get water. Till today the rain clouds that appear over the desert are referred to as Uttanka clouds.
Sage Uttanka requested the Supreme Lord to grant him darshana in the form of Vaikuntanatha in the company of His three consorts. The Lord asked Uttanka to go on a pilgrimage to South India and reach the town of Nangoor. Uttanaka di das he was instructed and upon reaching Nangoor he saw Svethakethu.
King Swetakethu belonged to Ikshvaku dynasty which Lord Sri Rama chose for His incarnation. He loved every one and was a living example of honesty and integrity. He and his wife had a passion to visit Vaikunta to have the darshana of Lord Vishnu. As a king, he completed all his political duties and prepared for penance with his queen Damayanthi. They prepared a fire around them, stood looking at the sun and began a severe penance. Days passed. Narada Maharishi appeared before the king and asked him to take guidance from Uttanka Maharishi. Thus all four of them did penance to the Supreme Lord.
The Supreme Lord granted them darshana of His Vaikuntanatha form, seated on Adisesha along with His consorts Lakshmi Devi, Bhoomi Devi and Nila Devi. The four of them were in ecstasy. This is how He appears in Vaikuntha Vinnagaram.
The temple of Vaikunta Vinnagaram is in a very serene and pristine village. The temple is of a modest structure and there is only one shrine in the temple, that of Vaikuntantha under the Ananda Satya Varthaga vimana.
The major festival of this temple is the 11 Garudaseva festival, when the Supreme Lord along with the Deities of the 11 divya desams of Thirunangoor is carried on a golden Garuda vahana. Other festivals of the temple are the Pavitra Utsava, the swing festival, Vaikunta Ekadashi festival etc.
Thirumangai Alwar sings about Vaikuntanatha of Vaiukunta Vinnagram:
The Supreme Personality of Godhead, who split open the broad chest of Hiiranya out of love for Prahlada; who churned the milk ocean and got nectar out of love for the devas; who is like a dark cloud showering blessings on all—happily resides in Thiru Vaikunta Vinnagaram—where there are forests of jasmine creepers, champaka and kadamba trees having flowers spreading their aroma everywhere; where there are ponds in which fish jump and play.
Our Supreme Lord resides happily in this divine temple—He who split open the chest of Hiranya with His sharp nails; He who took the most fearful Narasimha avatara that all the people were afraid to look at while all the devas and danavas stood aghast on seeing His form. This divine temple called Sri Vaikunta Vinnagaram is rich in Vaidika brahmanas who are adept in teaching Vedic scriptures, in chanting them and in singing hymns with seven swaras and who have excellent gunas. Oh! My foolish mind! Why don’t you worship Him?—asks Alwar.
He keeps all the worlds – oceans and everything else to protect them from being destroyed by pralaya. He is mudalvan (sarvakarana, primeval) who removed the curse of Shiva when he roamed with a skull stuck to his hand, by pouring the sweat from His chest. He is the one who resides in Thiru Vaikunta Vinnagaram—where there are forests full of blooming trees like champaka, kadamba, betel leaf creepers, areca nut trees to which bees come and drink honey; where the thick forests imitate the darkness caused by rain clouds so that the peacocks are deluded that it is going to rain and they dance in joy. There are fertile red paddy fields on all sides enhancing the richness of the city.
Sri Rama cut off the nose and ears of Shoorpanaka, the sister of Ravana—and made her run crying loudly to Lankapuri (situated on the top of a mountain) causing the great war in which the wicked people were killed. He resides in the divine temple Thiru Vaikunta Vinnagaram—where there are spears (to ward off evils) placed on the top of big mansions that pride the bottom of the clouds causing the downpour of pearls that lie scattered on the balcony. This speaks of the wealth of the city.
The Lord who cut off Ravana’s ten heads and twenty arms with His matchless Kodanda bow and fierce arrows in order to save Sit; He, with great anger, destroyed Lankapuri and the rakshasa clan. He resides in Thiru Vaikunta Vinnagaram, where there are red paddy fields, where lotuses and champaka flowers grow as weeds and where in the muddy water variety of fish live. The city is famous for the Vaidikas who read, teach and follow Vedic life.
The Supreme Personality of Godhead killed Putana who came disguised as a uttama kula sthree (aristocratic woman) in order to kill Krishna. But Krishna killed her by sucking her life out of her and made her die in her natural form of a demon. It is He who broke the deep rooted maruda trees and kicked Shakatasura to death. This Supreme Lord resides in Sri Vaikunta Vinnagaram—where brahmanas who are great Vedic brahmanas chant four Vedic scriptures,, read and give discourses on the itihasas and puranas; possess great qualities like patience, etc. and are always kind and philanthropic.
Sri Krishna killed two asuras with one stroke by throwing Vatsasura (calf demon) on kapittasura (tree demon); ate lot of butter etc. till He felt satisfied. But ate all the worlds, seas, mountains etc. as if not satisfied. He resides happily in this divine temple called Sri Vaikunta Vinnagaram—where there areca nut trees, coconut trees, betel leaf creepers, paddy fields, sugar cane fields. All the crops grow profusely since plenty of water irrigates the fields.
The Supreme Personality of Godhead has long arms in which He has sharp and effulgent chakrayudha that killed Narakasura; He has such great compassion and love towards Mahalakshmi and Shiva that He gave His chest to her and one side of His body to him. He is the chief of the eternal residents of Vaikunta, who resides in Thiru Vaikunta Vinnagaram , where the farmers hastily build a mud bund to prevent the honey flowing like river from the nearby fields of lotus and sengazhuneer from entering in their lands and flooding their fields. In such a wealthy and beautiful city is this divine temple where He happily stays for the sake of His bhaktas.
Our Lord who lies on the milk ocean is worshipped by the devas and rishis who come there, offer fragrant flowers at His lotus feet and pray ‘Oh! Our excellent leader and Lord! You bless us’. He resides in Thirunangoor where there are paddy fields in which fish jump and play; there are streets where ponds are built to rear fish; where there are tall buildings from the top of which one can see the bottom of the moon when he wanders in the sky.
Thirumangai Alwar, the chief of Thirumangai, also called Parakala, has sung ten songs in beautiful Tamil, on the Supreme Personality of Godhead who holds panchayudha, (shanka, chakra, gadha, sword and a bow) in His hands; who is very beautiful with lotus-like eyes; who resides in Sri Vaikunta Vinnagaram in Thirunangoor which is a coastal city where ships are seen sailing in the sea. Those who read these songs will be the kings of this earth.