The four sacred abodes
Our ancestors gave prominence to four abodes, namely Koil or temple (the mere word would only mean Srirangam), the divine mountain Tirumalai, Perumal Koil (of Devaperumal or Varadaraja at Kanchipuram) and the shrine at Tirunarayanapuram. A devout Srivaishnavite never forgets to remember these four abodes, after his daily twilight prayers.
Each of these four shrines has a speciality about the deity adorning it. At Srirangam, the deity’s walk (nadai) is eye filling. Tirumalai is famous for its dal paste preparation fried in oil (vadai). Perumal Koyil is known for the deity’s umbrella (kodai) and Tirunarayanapuram, for the Lord’s diamond headgear (vairamudi).
The Loftiness of Perumal Koil
Perumal Koil impresses everyone coming to Kanchipuram. The town is named after KA or Brahma who worshipped the Lord here. Swami Desika, in a verse in Hama Sandesam, elaborates on the popularity of the Lord among the celestials. At the time when He is taken round the town in a festive procession, His vehicle changes depending on the importance of the day. It is Eagle on one day and Elephant on another day. The Lord happily rides a Horse on a subsequent day. The palanquin-bearers here are known for their fast-paced steps. Carrying the Lord on their shoulders, they briskly walk, leaving a trail of dust heading towards the sky. And it is believed the celestials bow down and pay respect to the cloud of dust charging towards them.
Sri Ramanuja and Kanchi
We know that Sri Ramanuja, born in SriPerumbudur, first learnt the basic sastras and some glimpses of Vedanta from Yadavaprakasa. When there were differences of opinion about interpretations and contents of some texts, SriRamanuja decided to part ways and while doing so, was met with threats of death and destruction. It was this Lord Devaperumal and His Consort, who, disguised as a hunter couple, saved Sri Ramanuja when he was returning after a holy piligrimage to the north. Again it was this Lord who, through Tirukkacchinambi, revealed the sacred six instructions to Sri Ramanuja, which prompted him to write his commentary on Brahma Sutras. Kanchipuram is the spirutual fountainhead from which Sri Ramanuja emerged.
The Sacred Number Twenty Four
The festivity linked with this Lord, riding the Eagle here, is something special and azhwars have sung many verses hailing this grand occasion. There is, however, another speciality about this shrine. The number twenty four is spirutually linked with this place, more than any other holy place. The umbrella to the Lord here is twenty four cubits long (a sub-unit of yard, called jaan in tamil); the kind of fireworks used during days of festivity are twenty four in number; the divine flag mast has twenty four shields; the tank here has twenty four steps; walls surrounding the temple have twenty four layers and the steps leading to the Lord from the foot of the hill are twenty four. Thus, everything here is associated with the number twenty four. We know that Srimad Ramayana has been composed in 24,000 verses. That is in keeping with its base, the Gayatrimantra, that has twenty four letters. Every thousandth verse in Srimad Ramayana starts with a letter of the mantra and that is the way the poet Valmiki designed it. People believe that the moving force behind the twenty four lettered mantra and 24,000 verses of Srimad Ramayana is Devaperumal and hence the holy bondage with twenty four has been extended even to His Kanchi shrine.
Appeya Dikshita, an Advaitic scholar has pertinent things to say about the twenty four steps between the Lord and the foot of the hill here. He knew the glory of Sri Swami Desika and had the utmost respect for him. He has hailed Sri Swami Desika’s works in many slokas and one such verse links twenty four philosophies that enable a seeker to reach the holy abode of Sri Vishnu namely Vaikuntha with the twenty four steps here. Vedanta deals with these twenty four steps in detail. They are prakriti, mahat (mahan), ahankara, five elements namely sky, wind, fire, water and earth, five senses of action, five senses of knowledge, five subtle elements (tanmatras) and mind. These are the constituents of the body of Jivatma.
So, anyone wishing to cross the unending ocean of births and deaths to the safe hands of the all-powerful Godhead should first learn to cross these twenty four steps. This is the message being conveyed by the designers of this holy shrine who have linked the number twenty four with many divine things here. Thus, Kanchi has a very special place in the spirutual life of a Srivaishnava.