Article by Sri Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore
We saw in the first part of this article as to how the Lion saved the elephant from a certain death. We shall see in this piece how the elephant became worthy of being saved by the Lion.
This happened more than half-a-century ago, in the 1950s. The scene was North India. When the Sri Matham travelled in those days, it was by conventional modes of transport available then, consisting mostly of bullock carts. While in transit, Srimad Devanarvilagam Azhagiyasingar would be borne by devoted carriers in a palanquin on their shoulders, while the Pallakku of Dolai Krishnan and Sri Malolan would follow. Then would come the bullock carts carrying the kainkarya paras, their families, the various paraphernalia constituting the dismantled silver mandapam, articles and vessels required for the daily thiruvaradhanam, supplies of provisions, etc. In short, it was a small city on the move and the retinue consisted of no less than 18 vehicles (mostly carts). The rear was brought up by the Mutt Elephant, reminding one of Sri Valmiki’s words, Prishttata: tu dhanushpaani: Lakshmana: anujagaama ha, describing how the ever-alert Lakshmana protected the divine couple Sri Rama and Sri Sita Devi from the rear during their jungle travels, with bow and arrow at the ready. The elephant was no less than Ilaya Perumal, for it was trained superbly in the kainkaryam of Malolan and was a symbol of His bounties. Despite its size, girth and weight, it was an extremely docile animal, devoid of all beastly traits through its continuous kainkaryam to Malolan. Here again it was comparable to Lakshmana—despite its beastly birth, it was endowed with kainkarya lakshmi, just like Rama’s beloved brother, whom Valmiki describes as Lakshmi Sampanna: (endowed with the bounty of Rama Kainkaryam) despite being a jungle dweller with absolutely nothing to his name and with the role of a humble servitor.
However, people who travelled in the bullock cart immediately prior to the elephant were always terrified of the animal, for it would playfully extend its trunk and pull out straws from the thatched roofs of the bullock carts.
Travel in those days took place mostly by night, one of the reasons being the punishing heat prevailing during day. Further, it was convenient to travel at night, so that it would cause no delay in the rituals and worship to be performed at various times of the day. And Srimad Azhagiyasingar was a stickler for punctuality: he was insistent that all kainkaryam should be performed in time and by the persons specifically earmarked for the same. He would brook no delay in the schedule and servitors would sometimes be levied fines ranging from half-a-rupee to five rupees, for even minor transgressions. Srimad Azhagiyasingar ran a tight ship, with absolutely no wasteful expense being incurred on any count: he was extremely insistent that Sri Malolan’s bounty should be safeguarded zealously and all effort made to increase it.
The lead palanquin bearing Srimad Azhagiyasingar would be borne by a devoted band of bhogis who considered it their privilege to carry the Pontiff on their muscular shoulders. The palanquin that has had the good fortune to carry generations of Acharyas of Sri Ahobila Mutt has a hoary history of its own and is no less than 600 and odd years-old.
Mukunda Deva Raya was a king of a state in the north of India, who had been dethroned by muslims and was living in exile. One night, Sri Lakshmi Nrisimha appeared in his dream and advised him to seek refuge at the lotus feet of Sri Adivan Satakopa Jeer, the founder of Sri Ahobila Mutt, who was then on a tour of the north. The king immediately did as he was told and was blessed by the Jeer with Pancha Samskaaram and Bharanyaasam. The same day, the usurpers of his throne came running to him and recounted a strange phenomenon—ferocious lions kept repeatedly appearing in their dreams and exhorting them to restore the kingdom to its erstwhile ruler. Frightened for their lives, the occupation army ran away immediately and Mukunda Deva Raya regained the throne. Convinced of the divine powers of the Jeer, the king submitted to the Jeer eighteen types of musical instruments, an elephant, horses, broad umbrellas, fans made of deer hair, etc. The most significant of his offerings was a grand palanquin made of ivory. The king seated the Jeer in the palanquin and carried it around the town in a procession, supporting one of the sides himself, thereby exhibiting his devotion to the Jeer.
Coming back to our story, the retinue was led by Srimad Azhagiyasingar, with one of the servitors holding a flaming torch walking alongside, both for providing light and as a token of respect for the Pontiff. Security men on horses would ride up and down the caravan periodically, ensuring safe transit for Sri Malolan, His servitors and His bounties.
This happened on a full-moon night, with the Moon’s rays bathing the entire path in a pleasant glow. The caravan was moving at a fast clip so as to ensure timely arrival at the next place of camp. Somewhere midway in the line was the bullock cart containing the articles essential for Malolan’s thiruvaradhanam. The elephant was keeping pace with the party at the end, ambling along effortlessly, with its giant torso moving from side to side. The mahout seated atop the elephant, having wrapped himself from head to foot in a sheet to insulate himself against the cold and insects, had fallen asleep in the cradle-like movement provided by the pachyderm’s gait.
The mahout woke up suddenly from his deep slumber. He couldn’t for the moment divine what had caused him to come awake. He realized presently that the elephant had stopped moving and this was what had disturbed his beauty sleep. He also found that the caravan had moved quite far ahead, with the chimney lamp burning below the last of the bullock carts at least a furlong away. The mahout wondered what had caused the elephant to stop and gave the command to the animal to move forward. However, nothing happened and the colossus stayed rooted to earth. Repeated instructions did not make any difference and it was as if the elephant had gone deaf.
The mahout then got down to investigate. He checked the ground in front of the elephant, found nothing strange and went around the animal, checking the environs to see whether something had caused the beast fright or annoyance. However, he could find nothing out of the ordinary. All around him, the night was peaceful and pleasant, filled with the normal noises of nocturnal insects. When he could find no apparent reason for the elephant’s stoppage, the mahout again issued a sharp command for the animal to move forward and repeated it thrice, all to no avail—the elephant had made up its mind not to budge. Annoyed at the animal’s apparently willful disobedience, the mahout rapped it sharply with the goad on its leg, hoping that the resultant pain would make it shed its sloth and resume its walk. Though the elephant did shake its leg sharply, indicating the pain inflicted by its trainer, it remained rooted to the spot.
The mahout was puzzled. Though it had grown into a colossus now, it was but a baby when it arrived at Sri Matham and right from then had been under his care. It was the most docile and disciplined of animals, carrying out the commands of its guide with alacrity, performing its duty at the time of Visvaroopam with pleasure and dedication and waiting patiently for the ultimate reward of the golden Sri Satari being placed on its head by the holy hands of Srimad Azhagiyasingar. Hence the mahout found the elephant’s sudden intransigence strange and inexplicable. He decided to investigate more thoroughly and went under the elephant to see whether there was any injury to the hind legs which had halted the animal.
It was then that he found a white object right below the elephant’s underbelly. When he looked closer and picked up the object, he found it to be a silver vessel which gleamed and shone in the moonlight. On closer examination, the mahout could recognize it as a vessel used in the thirumanjanam of Sri Malolan. (Known as the Soma Sutram, it is the silver platform on which moorties are placed during the ceremonial bath). Puzzled as to how this valuable vessel was lying on the ground, the mahout ran to the cart occupied by the Paricharakas and showed them his find. The Paricharaka Swamis were flabbergasted at the mahout’s tale of finding the Somasutram on the road. Obviously, in the last minute hurry of closing down camp at the previous place, this had been omitted to be packed in its proper box, put in a gunny bag and just kept loosely in the bullock cart carrying the articles of worship. With the continuous movement of the cart and the jerks due to the potholes in the road, it had worked itself loose from its wrapping and eventually fallen on the road.
The Paricharakas were extremely relieved at the vessel being providentially found, for it was an indispensable item in the thiruvaradhanam, quite valuable and its absence at the next day’s Abhigamanam would have invited severe strictures from Srimad Azhagiyasingar, with resultant ignominy for the persons responsible for its safekeeping. The Paricharakas were hence extremely thankful to the mahout for his timely discovery and restoration of the article.
When he turned, the mahout found that the elephant was right behind, having covered the furlong or two from the place it had halted to the present location of the bullock cart. The animal, with its sharp eyes, had espied the article lying on the road from a distance and had halted immediately upon passing it and tried to draw the mahout’s attention to the fallen object. Since the dense mahout had not divined the actual reason for its stoppage, the elephant had refused to budge from the spot, hoping that at least eventually the mahout would find the silver vessel of Sri Malolan. Though only an animal, it had very much recognized the Soma Sutram as belonging to the Sri Matham and its Supreme Deity Sri Malolan and had decided to ensure its restoration to the appropriate authority, before moving from the spot. In the process, it had tolerated with equanimity the insults heaped on it by the mahout (who had wrongfully diagnosed indiscipline to be the cause of the aberration) and also the sharp rap on its knee, which must have been quite painful.
When the matter was mentioned to Srimad Azhagiyasingar in the morning, he was extremely moved at the kainkaryam the elephant had performed, braving all pain and punishment. He said, “We credit this wonderful animal with only five senses (iyndarivu): it has however acted in a fashion much superior to its six-sensed human counterparts. Having grown on a daily diet of Sri Malolan’s prasaadam, the elephant has performed exemplary service to the Deity.” Srimad Azhagiyasingar was especially kind to the elephant that day, placing the Sri Satari lovingly on its forehead and personally feeding it a bunch of bananas offered earlier to Malolan.
This incident remained etched forever in the Pontiff’s broad and merciful mind. When he observed his final Chaturmaasya Vratam at Rishikesam, Srimad Azhagiyasingar called the kainkarya paras and told them to bring all the animals then in the service of Sri Malolan—the bullocks drawing the carts, the horses, the elephant, the cow present during Visvaroopam and a few sundry others and asked all of them to be bathed in the Ganga. Thereafter, he conferred the ultimate benediction by performing Bharanyasam for them at the lotus feet of Sri Malolan, as a reward for the various services they had performed to the Sri Matham and Malolan, braving rain and shine.
This beautiful incident was narrated by Sri Thiruvallur Swami, the acclaimed Aradhakar at Sri Matham and one steeped in Acharya Bhakti.
Article by Sri Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore