About the Author
A multilingual and widely published scholar in the field of Vaisnavism, Dr Vanamala Parthasarathy previously served as Deputy Director, Ananthacharya Indological. Research Institute for Post-Graduate Studies, Mumbai University. Now resident in Bangalore, she continues to guide Mumbai University students working towards their PhD in ancient Indian culture.
She has regularly presented papers at national and international seminars and her articles have appeared in prestigious academic journals including the Journal of Asiatic Society (Bombay), Journal of the Institute of Asian Studies and Journal of the Oriental Institute (Vadodara). She has also written for periodicals such as Tattvaloka, Bhavan's Journal and Nrsimhapriya. Her well-received book, 'Open the Door, Jnanesvara!', published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, was an English translation of the Marathi abhangas of Muktabai, the lady saint from Maharashtra. Her second book, "Garuda - Past and Present (A Bird's-Eye View of South Indian Traditions)" is based on her research project "Garuda and His Unique Position", which was undertaken through a grant from the Ministry of Human Resources Development. Dr. Parthasarathy graduated from Madras University. She received a B.Ed from the University of Bombay and an M.A. in History, standing first in the Order of Merit, from Marathwada University. She received her PhD from Mumbai University for her thesis "Evolution of Rituals in Visnu Temple Utsavas (With Special Reference to Srirangam, Kanci and Tirumalai)", undertaken with a UGC fellowship.
A Bird'S Eye View
Garuda often identified as Vedic Suparna is indeed a celestial bird of great significance and enormous importance in Hindu Mythology and Art. He has a noteworthy position especially in the traditions from South. Known as Periyatiruvati (Peryatiruvadi) (literal translation: 'Big Sacred Feet'), but can be rendered as 'senior blessed servant' in Tamil Srivaisnava parlance, he has also come to be regarded as a Nityasuri (eternally liberated soul) of Visnu in Vaikuntha constantly attending on Him. The Epic Mahabharata in its Adiparvan (Mbh. I. 29.12ff) describes the manner in which Garuda came to occupy the position as the emblem on Visnu's dhvaja (flag) and as His vahana. Garuda goes to fetch amrta from the celestial abode to release his mother Vinata from slavery to Kadru, the other wife of Kasyapa. He meets Visnu on the way. Garuda does not drink the amrta himself, which pleases Visnu who asks him to choose two boons. Garuda seeks permission to remain above Him and also for freedom from old age and death even without amrta. Garuda in turn asks Visnu to choose a boon and Visnu makes him His vahana (1. 29.12- 16). Thus the background of Garuda- Visnu association is well established in Mahabharata.
Garuda has evolved into a multi-faceted personality over the years. He shows his prowess in a number of mythological episodes, and he has also come to be known as a Vedasvarupi (Embodiment of Veda). The Vaisnava Agamic tradition makes him the amsa of Sankarsana whose attributes are bala (strength) and jnana (knowledge). His privileged status has prompted the traditional narratives on the lives of Alvars and Acaryas such as Arayirappati Guruparampara-prabhavam (AGP) of Pinpalakiya Perumal Jiyar (about 13th century A.D) and Divyasuri Caritam (DC) of Garudavahana Pandita (about 15th or 16th century A.D) make Periyalvar his amsa. Maturakavi Alvar and the Acarya Empar, the disciple of Ramanuja are traditionally also regarded as his amsa. In addition to this Appullar the maternal uncle of Vedantadesika who initiated the latter into Garuda-mantra, is also regarded as amsa of Garuda. Such an evolution perceived in his status certainly speaks for itself the greatness Garuda acquired in the South especially among the Srivaisnava community.
While there has been an age-long animosity between Garuda and Nagas they are both brought together to serve Visnu. Reconciliation is sought even in his visual representations where he is adorned with snakes. At the same time it is the mantras addressed to him, which removes the snake-poisons. The peculiarity of this attitude is reflected in the observance of Garudapancami in the South, which is celebrated on the same day as Nagapaincami when Nagas are worshipped.
The temple traditions from South accord great importance to Garuda-sevai when the deity mounts the Garuda-vahana. Throngs of devotees gather to witness this great spectacle. There are temples in Tamil Nadu among the hundred and eight Divyadesas where one gets to see nine and eleven Garuda-sevais simultaneously namely at Tirukkurukur (Alvar Tirunakari) and Tirunan-kur respectively. The Garuda-sevai of Varadaraja of Kancipuram is very well known.
The Sthalapuranas of some of the Divyadesas in Tamil Nadu assign Garuda an important role. There are some interesting representations of Garuda in Tamil Nadu, which will be discussed later. Suffice it to say that Garuda has gained a unique position in the temple traditions in South.
In the field of performing arts in the gamut of ragas in Carnatic music there is one known as Garudadhvani and the saint composer Tyagaraja (1767-1847 A.D.) from Tamil Nadu has composed two krtis (compositions) in this raga.This raga is considered auspicious and played on occasions like the important ceremony like mangalyadharana (the tying of the yellow thread with the 'tali', the symbol of marriage) at the time of marriage; at the time of samproksanam of the temples the sound created by the big bells is Garudadhvani.
In Kerala they perform the story of Jimutavahana, the play Nagananda and here in Garuda has a very significant role to play. It is interesting to note that the great exponent of Kathakali dance, Ramgopal used to perform the role of Garuda in the Kathakali style and it became very famous.
While the title indicates that the focus would be on Tamil Nadu, it should be borne in mind prior to independence the Madras presidency included some of the Telugu speaking areas which are included in the present state of Andhra and some of the Divyadesas are situated in those parts, for instance Tirumalai and Ahopilam (Ahobilam). Similarly there are Divyadesas which come under Malainttu Divyadesas as per the traditional reckoning but presently belong to the state of Kerala. Even here Tiruvanparicaram in Karnataka is one such instance where Garuda is supposed to have crowned the deity with the kirita he retrieved from Virocana, son of Prahlada. The festival commemorating the crowning is known as Vairamuti-sevai and is very famous and popular. On this day the Lord is seated on Garuda- vahana. With this brief introduction it is integral to present the background research studies that have been carried out on the topic of Garuda in a direct or indirect manner, though I cannot claim the picture would be exhaustive. Which is in Malainttu Divyadesas is in Tamil Nadu. Hence a rigid demarcation between the existing Southern states is not being followed whenever some interesting information on Garuda needs to be introduced. On occasions even if the temple does not come under the category of Divyadesas but nevertheless important from a Srivaisnava point of view wherein some interesting feature about Garuda is noticed, it will be included. Melkote or Tirunarayanapuram in Karnataka is one such instance where Garuda is supposed to have crowned the deity with the kirita he retrieved from Virocana, son of Prahlada. The festival commemorating the crowning is known as Vairamuti-sevai and is very famous and popular. On this day the Lord is seated on Garuda- vahana. With this brief introduction it is integral to present the background research studies that have been carried out on the topic of Garuda in a direct or indirect manner, though I cannot claim the picture would be exhaustive.
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