Bhadrachalam: A tale of a man, a mountain and supreme devotion

Sri Sita Ramachandra Swamy temple, BhadrachalamWe love visiting Indian temples, whether living or historical (and sometimes, as at Pattadakal in Karnataka, it’s a bit of both). So we were looking forward to spending some time at the Sri Sita Ramachandran Swamy temple in Bhadrachalam – but we had no idea just how much time we’d end up spending there.

Shortly after our arrival, we decided the town itself was so pleasant and relaxing (and our hotel was so good), we would stay on for a total of 11 days. Because the hotel is just literally steps from the temple, we woke up around 4:30 every morning to the sound of drums, cymbals and bhajans, as the temple priests started their daily puja schedule. Some mornings we actually made our way over to the temple shortly after 4:30. We’d walk to one of the tea shops surrounding the temple, imbibe a tiny (3-ounce) glass of tea each, and then enter the temple by either the front or back stairs.

Each time we arrived at the temple, we’d offer an initial pranam (a bow or prostration) to the deities at the front entrance, then walk around the inside of the temple’s perimeter walls, offering more prayers at the different shrines. As we walked, we quickly discovered a series of large color illustrations ranged high around the perimeter walls. Underneath each picture was text in both English and Telegu, telling the story of the temple. We walked around and around, reading these episodes day after day, until we felt we had some idea of the temple’s story, which is really a series of several stories.

Maha Vaggeyakara Sri Bhadrachala Ramadas by Dr. Nookala Chinna SatyanarayanaWe finally discovered an English-language book about Gopanna (a.k.a. Ramadas), the builder of the temple, at the temple shop, and that gave us more information. We’ve been very careful about buying things on our trip (we already have too much stuff!), but this book was one of only 1,000 printed, and the only one available in English, so we knew we’d never find it anywhere else. And it’s a good read.

We were lucky to receive another book as a gift from one of the priests at the temple. This priest is the brother-in-law of the man who owns the Srinidhi Residency, the hotel where we stayed while in Bhadrachalam. The priest had obviously taken note of our daily presence at the temple, and our deep interest in its history and rituals.

Telegu book

The book contains the same illustrations we were perusing every day, plus more that aren’t displayed on the perimeter walls. The book’s text is Telegu with no English translations, so we can’t actually read it. But because we spent so much time learning the story from the English captions around the perimeter walls, and we had our English-language book about Gopanna/Ramadas, the illustrations are a real help. I’ve photographed some of the illustrations in the book for this blog post.

I am fascinated by the intertwining stories of the temple at Bhadrachalam. There’s the story of Rama and Sita, and their relationship to this place. There’s the story of Dammakka, a woman whose devotion to Rama and Sita inspired the building of the temple. There’s the story of Gopanna, also known as Ramadas (servant of Rama), who got the temple built (and suffered for his efforts). And finally, underpinning all the other stories, is the story of Bhadra – a man who was once a mountain, and who desired to become a mountain again to express his devotion in the most fundamental way possible: by bearing the weight of the god he adored.

Rama, Sita and the Bhadra

Sita_Rama_exileIf you’ve read the Ramayana, or seen its stories acted out in theater or film, you know that Rama, a prince of Ayodhya, is married to Sita, and has a younger brother called Lakshman, who is the epitome of brotherly devotion. Rama’s father’s second wife demands that Rama’s father banish him so that her own son can gain political ascendancy. So Rama, Sita and Lakshman leave their palace home, and go into hiding in the forests of southern India to stay safe from harm.

It’s helpful to know that in Hindu tradition, Rama is an avatar, or emanation, of the god Vishnu. Vishnu is one of three main gods, and is the preserver. (The other two are Siva the destroyer and Brahma the creator.) So he is both a mythological figure and a god, in the way that so many Indian gods are. The stories about the gods in human form make them much easier to relate to.

Divine_vaikuntha_feelingAnyway, to get on with the Bhadrachalam story: During their forest exile, Rama and Sita find a rock that offers them rest and comfort. As they relax on the surface of the rock, they get not just a rest, but also “that divine vaikuntha feeling,” as the English text in the temple reads.

“Vaikuntha” is a place of bliss, purity and goodness, a kind of heaven whose residents feel such love for Vishnu, and such total satisfaction in serving him, that there is no need for anything else. So in resting on the rock in the forest, Rama and Sita are filled with a divine feeling of bliss.

Sita_Rama_BhadraThat’s because they are resting on no ordinary rock, as it turns out, but on Bhadra – a devotee of Vishnu in his emanation as Rama. Bhadra’s love for Rama is so great that he desires nothing more than to provide a place for Rama to rest himself, or to step with his divine feet.

Here’s where the story gets really interesting, and a bit circular. Bhadra is both a person and a rock (in fact, “Bhadra” means stone or rock in Telegu, the language of Bhadrachalam and its state, Andhra Pradesh). He is a rock whose devotion to Rama is so intense, he is promised a human rebirth; and he is a person whose devotion to Rama is so intense, he is granted existence as a rock, so he may forever be a locus for Rama-worship.

Beseeching_for_a_sonNow we come to the story of how Bhadra is born as a human. Meru and his wife, Menaka – a divine couple – pray to Vishnu to give them a son. Actually, Meru is a holy mountain, but in this story, he is in his human form, and so is Menaka.

Vishnu grants Meru and Menaka their wish, and their son is born. Bhadra is an unusual child; while other children play normally, little Bhadra sits in meditation.

Little_Bhadra_meditating

Narada, a celestial sage, sees Bhadra and comes to tell his parents that their son has a great mission to fulfill. Now Bhadra begins to get instruction from Narada on the qualities of Rama.

Bhadra’s desire to be united with Rama intensifies, and he begs his parents to let him go into the forest to do tapas, or spiritual practice, in the forest. He persists even as apsaras (fairies) try to distract him, and as others try to dissuade him. (I’ve forgotten the name of the being with the sword in the right-hand picture.)

Eventually, Bhadra’s penances become so intense, the gods beg Vishnu to intervene.

Beseeching_Brahma.jpg

Vishnu, taking the form of Rama with Sita and Lakshman accompanying him, hurries to Bhadra to grant his desire to see Rama in physical form.

Bhadra Rama Sita Lakshman

Bhadra finally gets his wish: to see Rama in physical form. He then begs Rama to put his sri pada – his holy footprint – on Bhadra’s head, so that he may be forever united with Rama. Rama grants Bhadra his desire, and Bhadra at last becomes what he was, and what he desired to be once again: a holy mountain where Rama, Sita and Lakshman will reside forever. The idols that manifest from the mountain top – Bhadra’s head – are said to be the same ones that are worshipped in the inner sanctum at Bhadrachalam.

Bhadra Sri PadaBhadra reborn as mountain

Dammakka: her vision and devotion

About 350 years ago, Bhadrachalam wasn’t a town. It was just a hill by the Godavari, surrounded by forest and small villages. The area was ruled by the kingdom of Golkonda (present-day Hyderabad).

Dammakka dreamingDammakka was a devotee of Rama living in a village called Bhadrareddypalem. Her devotion was intense, and one night she dreamed of Rama, who told her there was a representation of himself, Sita and Lakshman on the top of the hill near her. Dammakka was determined to find this idol, so she searched for it until she spotted it, hidden inside an anthill. She fetched water and washed the idol until it emerged from the anthill, and she began to worship it daily.

Eventually, Gopanna, a tehsildar (land tax official) serving the Golkonda ruler Abul Hassan Tani Shah, came to visit Bhadrachalam in his official capacity, and Dammakka pleaded with him to build a temple for the idol she worshipped. Gopanna was, at that time, enforcing a tax on Hindus that was apparently intended to get them to convert to Islam. Funds_for_templeThe Hindu subjects of the kingdom were, of course, angry about this tax, so Gopanna decided to use part of the taxes he was collecting to build a temple around the self-manifested idol of Rama, Sita and Lakshman that Dammakka had discovered. He also used some of these funds to make beautiful jewels for adorning the deities. Essentially, Gopanna became an embezzler in order to build a temple for Rama.

Gopanna becomes Ramadas

Gopanna_tortureEventually, of course, Abul Hassan Tani Shah discovered that Gopanna had used the wealth he collected as taxes to build the temple on the hill at Bhadrachalam. He imprisoned Gopanna, and told him he had 12 years to return the money, or he would be killed. Gopanna couldn’t return it, of course, so he remained in prison (at Golconda, near Hyderabad), and endured whippings while in prison.

Gopanna was a serious Rama devotee, and composed many hymns while in prison. He is remembered today not only for building the Sri Sita Ramachandra Swamy temple, but also for his devotional compositions.

Riding_to_Gopannas_rescueRama_Lakshman_pay_12_lakhsRama and Lakshman saw that Gopanna was suffering in prison, and that he was indeed in danger of being killed. So they took on the form of soldiers or warriors, and appeared to Abul Hassan Tani Shah with the wealth that was owed to his government. I’ve read different amounts, but it seems it was about nine lakhs of rupees, or 900,000 rupees – an incredible fortune. Rama and Lakshman produced the wealth in the form of real gold coins, which stunned Abul Hassan Tani Shah into not only immediately releasing Gopanna from prison, but also re-appointing him to his official position.

Once Gopanna was freed, it seems that all was sweetness and light. Abul Hassan Tani Shah accepted Gopanna/Ramadas’ elevated status as a devotee of Rama; the temple and its religious rituals flourished; families of Brahmins were appointed to be priests to the temple; and even the Muslims acknowledged the holiness of the place and the devotion of Ramadas.

Our experience of the Sri Sita Ramachandran Swamy temple

The Sri Sita Ramachandran Swamy temple is situated high on the hill, with steps leading up to both the front and back entrances. The main part of the temple is contained by high walls. The insides of these walls hold a variety of small shrines, a small museum, some storage areas, and at one end, a raised stage-like area where the deity is worshipped daily. There is a long covered porch forming an L with the stage, with stepped seating so you can watch the puja. Alternatively, you can sit with the priests on the ground, directly in front of the stage. Inside the perimeter walls, and off-center, is a small temple housing the principal deity of Bhadrachalam – the self-manifested trio of Rama, Sita and Lakshman.

Early mornings in the temple have their own flavor. There aren’t nearly as many worshippers as there are later on, say around 8:00 or 9:00 AM, after people have had time to eat, bathe in the river and make their offerings. When you go early, you see a few priests and temple helpers cleaning the various shrines around the temple of yesterday’s flowers and offerings, anointing the idols with fresh scented water, decorating them with flowers, and ornamenting them with vermilion and turmeric. I wish I could share photos with you of all this activity, but neither cameras nor mobile phones are allowed inside the temple.

Our early morning visits were fairly brief – perhaps 30 minutes. We’d often see the deity taken out of the central temple, processed around the temple, and then put back for a day of darshan (visits from devotees). In the evenings, we’d return to the temple for longer visits. As in the morning, we’d enter and make a pranam, visit the bhadra stone, and then circumambulate the inside of the perimeter wall, reading the illustration captions (again) and talking through the stories between us, while visiting the shrines around the perimeter. Then we’d settle on the steps by the “stage” area and see what there was to be seen. Some evenings, there were long bhajan sessions, with the priests taking it in turns to sing beautiful solos to the accompaniment of drums, harmonium and wind instruments.

One evening, there were two groups of dancers, all women, and all visiting from the same locality, I think. One group was dressed in gleaming green-patterned saris, while the other wore purple-and-gold saris. The women danced in two separate circles, using sticks to beat out a rhythm and leaning in and out of the circle in rhythm with their beat, slowly circling. There was one priest who danced inside the circle of purple-and-gold dancers, jumping and singing with a look of great joy on his face. This particular priest also sang bhajans during some of the evenings we were there; he had a beautiful voice.

The evenings when there was a lot of activity were long; we’d often stay over an hour, just sitting and listening and watching. Other evenings, there was just the normal nightly worship of the deity, and then the return of the deity to the inner temple where it lives. This transfer of the deity is accomplished by transporting it on a litter borne by priests, to the accompaniment of loud music played by more priests.

I mentioned the bhadra stone earlier. It’s a piece of the rocky hill on which the temple is built, and two of the minor shrines were built either side of it. Pilgrims entering the temple make an offering at the first shrine, then lay their hands and heads on the bhadra stone. I did the same every day. I hesitate a little to say this – I don’t want to sound credulous, nor to seem as if I’m appropriating Hinduism. But when I pressed my hands to the stone, and leant my head against it, I could feel a kind of vibration. Whether the stone seems so alive because of the Bhadra himself, or because of all the devotion of so many people, it affected me every time I visited. On the two separate days we were gone all day for visits to Parnashala and the Papikondulu Hills, I needed to visit the temple at night before we went to bed, to touch the bhadra stone and press my head against it. This made each day complete.

Curious to read more? Here are some resources

Maha Vaggeyakara Sri Bhadrachala Ramadas by Dr. Nookala Chinna SatyanarayanaI’m most indebted to the book Maha Vaggeyakara: Sri Bhadrachala Ramadas, by Dr. Nookala Chinna Satyanarayana. Maha Vaggeyakara means “great composer” or “great lyricist.” Gopanna, or Ramadas, is remembered not only for building the temple at Bhadrachalam, but also for the many hymns he composed. These hymns are the primary subject of Dr. Satyanarayana’s book, but it also retells the story of how the temple at Bhadrachalam came to be, with a lot of interesting historical context around the rulers of Golkonda, whom Gopanna served in his official capacity as tax collector.

As I said earlier, just 1,000 copies of this book were printed, so the chances of finding it aren’t great,  unless you visit Bhadrachalam and go into the bookstore at the south end of the temple’s grounds. So here some other resources I consulted to understand the Bhadrachalam stories better.

http://www.bhadrachalarama.org/templehistory.html

http://www.thehansindia.com/posts/index/2015-03-28/The-glory-of-Bhadradri-Rama-temple-140724

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sita_Ramachandraswamy_temple,_Bhadrachalam

http://www.tirthayatra.org/bhadrachalam/

https://www.outlookindia.com/outlooktraveller/ot-getaway-guides/bhadrachalam_godavari_temple_town/

I learned something interesting along the way: Bhadra had a brother, Ratnakara, who also manifested intense devotion to Vishnu, this time in the form of Sri Veera Venkata Satyanarayana (rather than in the form of Rama, the manifestation Bhadra worshipped so intensely). Ratnakara also desired to become a mountain and perpetually worship god, so there’s a temple in Andhra Pradesh on top of Ratnagiri, the mountain that Ratnakara became. The Sri Satyanarayana Swamy temple has a similar story behind it of a devotee dreaming that there was a hidden idol on the hill at the village of Annavaram. The temple standing there now was constructed in 1933 and 1934, and restored in 2011 and 2012. If you want to learn more, go to http://annavaramdevasthanam.nic.in. As for me, I now have a new destination for our next visit to Andhra Pradesh.

Sri Sita Ramachandra Swamy temple, blessed by all the deities
Sri Sita Ramachandra Swamy temple, blessed by all the deities. Illustration from the back cover of the book given to us by one of the priests at Bhadrachalam.

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