On Narasimha Jayanti this year, I drew Sri Yoga Narasimha of Thirukkadigai / Ghatikaachalam or Sholingapuram as the temple town is more commonly known as today.
I thought it would be nice to document some thoughts on how the final image came about and the pasuram that inspired it. Hence this blogpost.
மிக்கானை மறையாய் விரிந்த விளக்கை
என்னுள் புக்கானைப் புகழ்சேர் பொலிகின்ற பொன்மலையை
தக்கானைக் கடிகைத் தடங்குன்றின் மிசையிருந்த
அக்காரக் கனியை அடைந்துய்ந்து போனேனே
mikkAnai maraiyAi virindha viLakkai
ennuL pukkAnai pugazhser poligindra ponmalaiyai
thakkAnai kadigai thadankundrin misairundha
akkarakaniyai adaindhuyindhu ponEnE!
- Thirumangai Azhwar
“The supreme One, who glows brilliantly as the light of all vedic wisdom, entered my heart and He, magnificent as a golden mountain, stays atop the Kadigai hill. Sweeter than the sweetest fruit, sweeter than the definition of sweetness, He is my sole refuge.”
For many years now, on Narasimha Jayanti, I have always started with the idea of drawing this pasuram. But I always hit a roadblock. Maybe I didn’t understand enough the depth of these words. Even now I’m not sure, but I’m thrilled this sprang out of me this time. The translation is not the best, so I decided to write the original pasuram to make up for it and have a more rounded experience.
Commentaries on this pasuram and name “Akkarakani” are poetic and many scholars in their discourses describe it so beautifully.
Imagine sowing a small rock of sugar and watering it with honey. From the seed grows a magnificent tree that flowers and gives rise to the “sugar-fruit”, or in Tamil, “Akkara-kani”. Imagine how sweet this fruit must be if it grew from sugar itself! Such supreme sweetness seems to be beyond our perception. What’s more, the lord of Sholingar is sweeter than this imaginary fruit! This idea in itself is probably packed with the greatest spiritual wisdom, but what’s amazing to me is how Thirumangai Azhwar uses this name, to give even the layperson access, a window to the Truth and quite literally, a taste of the divine.
If Nammazhwar wanted to drink Him up as Aara-amudhu (the insatiable nectar, Aaravamudhan of Thirukkudandhai, present-day Kumbakonam), Thirumangai Azhwar revels in the divine sweetness of Akkarakani.
If you look at the bottom right, you would notice a small bee. It might be a small creature, but to me it is an important element of the image. The bee or an insect as a metaphor has been used in spiritual lore for eons by devotees, preceptors and poets. The tiny winged creatures are attracted by fragrance, color and light.
In a different pasuram on the same kshetram and deity, Pey Azhwar refers to Thirukkadigai Sholingapuram as a beautiful place with expansive orchards with winged beetles swarming all over the place, presumably being attracted by the Fruit sweeter than sugar, the lord “Akkarakani”, possibly an allegory for devotees flocking for a glimpse of the divine.
Sri Adi Shankara in the closing lines of the Lakshmi Nrusimha KarAvalamba Stotram likens himself to a bee that drinks deeply from the lotus of Sri Narasimha’s feet.
I came across a Pahari painting from the 19th century, of Hiranyakashipu brandishing his sword at the pillar Narasimha would emerge from. Interestingly, there’s a bee that hovers around the pillar, attracted by the sweet fragrance emanating from Vishnu. While this is an imaginary scene and does not feature in the Bhagavatam, it is an example of how the artist uses the bee metaphor to indicate the presence of God amidst evil, although not visible to the eye, at least not yet, per the scene.
Even in the Bhagavatam, Prahlada himself likens his father to a nocturnal moth being fatally attracted by a huge flame that is Narasimha as soon as He emerged from the pillar.
These are only a few examples from the endless sea of devotional poetry. But all of these verses and ideas coming together around the time of Narasimha Jayanti this year only strengthened the conviction in me that they all pointed to this particular pasuram by Thirumangai Azhwar, extolling the yogic state of the lord at Thirukkadigai, going on to experience Him in fragrance and flavor as “Akkarakani”.
The sthalapuranam says the saptarishis prayed for a darshan of Narasimha on this hill. The lord did appear, granting them darshan in His yogic state for a kadaigai (Tamil) or ghatika (Sanskrit) a period of time equalling 24 minutes. This is how the hill got the name “Thirukkadigai” or “Ghatikachalam”.
As always, the lord is accompanied by Sri Mahalakshmi. In this sthalam, she goes by the name Amritavalli or Amritaphalavalli as is the case in many other Narasimha kshetras. Interestingly, this name contains yet another reference to nectar and fruit!
The word amrita suggests immortality or no fear of death. Every time Hiranyakashipu tried to get rid of his son Prahlada for worshipping Sriman Narayana instead of him, the boy was miraculously saved. It is the Mother Amirtavalli, Expeller of the fear of death, the driving force of compassion in the lord that saved him. Prahlada knew the supreme Truth even when he was a fetus in his mother’s womb. How could anything harm the boy who had no fear of death?
When Narayana finally did appear as Narasimha, it was not for the primary intent of saving Prahlada, but to prove the boy’s words true that He was indeed in that particular pillar that Hiranyakashipu mockingly pointed at. When Narasimha was on a rampage even after Hiranyakashipu had been killed, it was the divine Mother who turned the ferocious form of the lord into compassion incarnate.
In my view, it is impossible to think of Narasimha without thayar. Especially if He wants to go by the title "Akkarakani" lovingly given by His devotee :). In this image, Her presence is subtly represented by a lotus on His chest. But Her compassion can only be felt, rather than seen. It is this bhava, the idea of viewing Narasimha and feeling the presence of “Sri” that I have attempted to convey in this painting.
The cherry on top (!) at a personal level for me is, this very form of the lord at this sthalam is my kuladeivam, deity central to worship in my family over generations. Like the joy and a comforting sense of relief felt by someone who recognizes the familiar face of a loved one in a massive crowd of strangers, my experience of visually depicting what the deity, the story, the sthalam mean to me has been blissful.
All my gratitude goes towards the holy feet of Thirumangai Azhwar whose gem of a pasuram continues to illuminate minds centuries later.