The mystic and the Muslim princess

The mystic and the Muslim princess

Siriperambudur. The name rolls off your tongue, just like those incandescent hymns composed by the Alwars who held the key to a faith that is older than the hills. Today, the casual tourist driving past this small temple town in Tamil Nadu may be attracted to the memorial of a modern day martyr who made the place infamous after his assassination there 27 years ago.

But, this year, we remember another martyr who walked these streets ten centuries ago. He was a remarkable man who founded a spiritual order with no frills or fantasies, yet has millions of followers around the world. His name was Ramanuja, and he was born in this unpretentious hamlet where time has stood still these last 1,000 years. There is no memorial to tell us that such a man lived here.   

Ramanuja’s life is fascinating. It is not the life of a cold, orthodox ascetic; someone with whom you cannot relate. He was all too human with human failings. He may have been the accidental founder of an ecclesiastic order which offered new insights into the relationship between the human and the divine. Yet, he was not your distant philosopher. Nor a man who traded religion to politics.  

Ramanuja was a very down-to-earth seer. Among the many legends surrounding him, there is one story I like best. It is associated with a temple in Karnataka where his dearly loved Cheluva Narayana resided. The small idol of this deity was taken out in a magnificent procession on all the streets of the temple town once a year. The festival attracted pilgrims from all over the country.

Ironically, it also attracted a Mughal emperor in far off Delhi who entered the temple with his troops one day and carried away the idols — including the small “cheluva pillai.” Ramanuja was heart broken and decided to travel to Delhi on foot to plead with the emperor to return the idol to its rightful place. He was shocked to find it stashed among the toys of the young Mughal princess. Seeking permission from her emperor father, he carried it back to the temple once again.  

But the story does not end there. The little princess followed her favourite toy all the way from Delhi to be barred entry to the temple because she was a Muslim. Only Ramanuja saw in her a rare devotee. He took her inside where she collapsed at the feet of her favourite deity.

Today, a thousand years later, visitors to the temple in Melkote are greeted at the entrance by a statue of Bibi Nachayyar installed there by Ramanuja himself. Offerings made by devotees reach the sanctum sanctorum only after they are offered to the Bibi first. That is the magic of Siriperumbudur — and Ramanuja.