History of Athi Varadhar:
Athi Varadharaja is one of the 4 Brahma Kararchita Varadaja moorthies (idols). The idol was carved out of an Athi (fig) tree by the celestial architect, Lord Vishwakarma, during the Kritha Yuga. It was the main deity or Moola Moorthi in the Garbhagruha until the early 16th century. As there were threats from Muslim invasions to the valuable idols, it was decided to immerse the Athi Varada inside the Pushkarani or temple tank. It was done in secret so that only one family was aware of the hiding place.
For nearly 4 decades, there were no idols in the garbagruha of the temple and neither was any pooja performed in the temple. After a while, the two brothers who were the caretakers of the temple and under whose watch the idol was submerged, passed away. Forty years later, their two sons made efforts to bring the idols back to the temple, with the intention of resuming the poojas once more. They took the help of a Madwa to bring the Utsava moorthies from Udayar Palayam forest and installed them inside the temple.
However, they were unable to find the Athi Varadhar, so the authorities placed a statue created from stone from Pazhaya Seevaram, a place around 30 kms away from the temple. This idol is called Devaraja Swami and it is also known as Athri Rishi Kararchita moorthy. The idol resembled Athi Varadharaja and was found in a mountain called Padma Giri in Pazaya Seevaram. Here, three rivers (Payasvini, Vegavathi and BahuNadhi) meet to form a Triveni Sangamam. The idol was then brought to Kanchipuram and installed there as the presiding deity inside the garbagruha after which regular poojas commenced once more.
Around 1709, due to certain obscure reasons, the Pushkarani was drained and the Athi Varadharaja was found lying in it. The authorities then resolved that the idol should be taken out every 40 years for a 48-day pooja, after which it would be immersed in the pond for the next 40 years. This decision was taken because the Kaliyuga pooja for Varadharaj is done by sesha devuru. As Anantha Sarovara has sesha devaru sannidhana , it was felt that the deity should be immersed in the temple pond. Athi Varadhar was first taken out in 1939 and then in 1979. As forty years have passed since then, it was taken out again, with the event taking place on July 1, 2019. This year, during the Brahmotsavam, the temple authorities will decide the date on which “Athi Varadar" should be brought up again 40 years hence, ie., in 2059.
Legends behind Athi Varadhar
The idol of Athi Varadhar is nine-feet long and it was made from the divine fig tree, (botanical name, Ficus Racemosa Linn). Legend says that once, Goddess Saraswati and her husband, Lord Brahma, had a misunderstanding. The angry Goddess took away Brahma’s divine wand. In order to retrieve it, he performed an Aswamedha yagna in the Athi (fig) forest, which is now Kanchipuram. With the help of the Asuras or demons, Saraswati turned into the Vegavathi river and tried to disturb the yagna. At that moment, Lord Vishnu came out of the holy fire as Athi Varadhar. He pacified Saraswati and the yagna resumed. The celestial architect, Viswakarma, then carved from a fig tree, the idol of Athivaradar who decided to stay in Kanchipuram on top of the Elephant Hill.
Another legend says that Lord Brahma performed the Yagna to free himself of a sin in Satya Yuga. supposedly, the statue of Varadar emerged from the sacred fire. Lord Brahma worshipped the idol. It was being worshipped by the public too until one day (in Kali Yuga). On this occasion, Brahma was performing another Yagna. The yagna fire somehow damaged Varadar’s idol. To protect the idol and ensure that everyone worshipped him till the end of time, Lord Vishnu said that the idol should be placed in a silver casket and immersed in the temple tank. But it would be brought out once in forty years and be worshipped for 48 days after which it would be immersed in the pond again.
How Athi Varadar got his name?
“Athi” is the wood of the fig tree. It is believed to be water-resistant and hence the years of immersion in water does not seem to have damaged the idol in any way. In Hinduism, the tree, called udumbura, in Sanskrit, is used for certain reasons. In the Atharva Veda, the tree is described as one which bestows prosperity and defeats enemies. Its leaves are used in many havans.
In the name ‘Varadhar’, “ Varam” is the Tamil word for ‘boon’. Hence, the Perumal at this temple Perumal got the name “ Varadar”, which means a ‘boon granting person’ while the suffix “ dar” is a honorific suffix. In this year 2019, during the Brahmotsavam, the temple authorities will decide on what date “Athi Varadar" should be brought up outside the temple tank.
Why Athi Varadhar is Special?
The uniqueness of Athi Varadar is that his darshan happens only once in four decades. It is also worthy of mention that Kanchipuram is a very holy city for Hindus and people believe that anything they do here is equal to doing it a thousand times.
The amazing thing is that while temple antiques, 20–100 years old, are not being maintained properly, athi varadhar’s idol has remained well-preserved for more than 3 Yugas.