Generally most people consider Srirangam or Tirupati to be the most important centres of Sri Vaishnavism in South India. But mention the name of Melukote and, unless you are a follower of Ramanuja, you may never have heard of it. Yet Melukote is considered to be one of the most important holy places to Sri Vaishnavas; so much so that in his last instructions, Ramanuja told his followers that they should all endeavour to take up residence in Melukote. Thus, Sri Vaishnavas believe that the quintessence of all the divya-deshams (holy abodes of Vishnu) is to be found here. In the Kashi-mahatmya, Lord Shiva refers to Melukote as kshetra-raja – the king of all holy places and it is also known in the Puranas as Dakshina Badari – the Southern Badarinatha.
Melukote’s Ancient History
Melukote is 32 miles from the city of Mysore in Karnataka and is situated 3,589 feet high above sea level. The town’s origins go back to hoary antiquity and it is referred to by many names in the Puranas such as Narayanadri, Vedadri, Yadavagiri, Yadavadri, Yatishaila and Tirunarayanapuram.
In the Matysa Purana it is said that Lord Narasimha came to Melukote after killing Hiranyakashipu and was requested by the Devas to stay there for a while to bless the people.
In Treta-yuga it is said that Dattatreya taught the Vedas to his disciples here and also accepted tridandi-sannyasa at this place.
In Dvapara-yuga both Krishna and Balarama would come here with the Yadava Dynasty. The Matysa Purana tells how after Jarasandha was defeated seventeen times, Krishna wanted to spend some time in a quiet place and decided to come to Melukote.
In ancient times Melukote was also home to many great sages such as Prahlada, Shandilya, Ambarisha, Maitreya, Vishnu-chitta and Sanata-kumara.
The Temple of Tirunarayana
There are two main temples in Melukote – the temple of Tirunarayana and the temple of Yoga-Narasimha. The temple of Tirunarayana is situated at the end of the town. The temple complex is square and dates back to about 1000 years, although there is reason to believe that an older shrine existed here much earlier.
The main Deity in the temple is Tirunarayana. He stands six-feet high holding conch, disc-weapon and club in three hands. His bottom right hand is lifted in abhaya-mudra – the sign of benediction for all His devotees.
The Puranas narrate how Brahma propitiated Lord Narayana and requested Him to provide him a Deity for his personal worship. Narayana manifested the Deity of Tirunarayana and Brahma worshipped Him regularly. Brahma later gifted this Deity to his son, Sanat-kumara who had a strong desire to worship Tirunarayana. Later, Sanat-kumara installed Tirunarayana in Melukote.
However, over time and as Kali-yuga progressed, Melukote fell into ruin, the temple was lost and the Deity of Tirunarayana was buried in the earth. When Ramanuja came to Melukote in 1099, he had a dream in which the Lord told him to uncover Him from the ground. Aided by his disciple King Vishnu-vardhana, Ramanuja discovered the Deity installed Him and reestablished His worship in what is now the present temple.
Although the main Deity was established Ramanuja also wanted an utsava-murti (processional Deity) in the temple. Previously the temple had an utsava-murti named Rama-priya, but the Muslims had stolen it when they had pillaged Melukote many years before and taken it to Delhi. Ramanuja and his followers journeyed to Delhi, approached the Sultan and requested him to hand over Rama-priya. The sultan was impressed with Ramanuja’s personality and knowledge and proceeded to show him many Deities that he had stolen during his raids into South India. Yet Ramanuja was not interested – he specifically wanted Rama-priya and went on to describe the Deity to the sultan. The sultan replied that this Deity was in his daughter’s quarters and she was very attached to Him. The sultan joked with Ramanuja and said, “Call your God and if He comes out, you can take Him!”
In a loud voice, Ramanuja called out, “Rama-priya! Come to me!” Immediately, from the room of the princess, the Deity came running out and jumped onto the lap of Ramanuja. The sultan kept his promise and Ramanuja took the Deity back to Melukote. But knowing how much the sultan loved his daughter and how much she was attached to Rama-priya, Ramanuja knew that the sultan would send soldiers to bring back Rama-priya. Thus, Ramanuja and his disciples kept off the main roads and did not stop anywhere. Just as Ramanuja has anticipated, the sultan and the princess along with his soldiers tried to catch up with Ramanuja, but when they came to the borders of a rival king, the sultan and his infantry were forced to turn back. His daughter however continued alone and finally arrived in Melukote. When she came to the temple she was forbidden entrance by the priests due to her Muslim birth. Ramanuja however, understood her devotion to Rama-priya and allowed her access. When she entered the shrine the doors closed by themselves and she merged into the Deity of Rama-priya. Ramanuja had a small deity of the princess installed at the feet of Rama-priya. The deity of the princess is called Bibi Nacciyar
However, the story of Rama-priya again goes back to the time of Brahma. After gifting Sanat-kumara the Deity of Tirunarayana, Brahma once again approached the Lord for a Deity. This time the Lord manifested a Deity from His own heart. This metallic Deity was called Cheluva-Narayana (‘Beautiful Narayana’). He was smaller than Tirunarayana and was accompanied by His consorts Bhu-devi and Sri-devi.
In Treta-yuga, Lord Ramachandra gave away all his possessions to those who helped Him defeat Ravana. Rama gave Vibhishana His worshippable Deity of Ranganatha and so He had no Deity to worship. In order to facilitate Him, Brahma donated Cheluva-Narayana to Lord Rama. Rama was very attached to the worship of these Deities and so Cheluva-Narayana become known as Rama-priya (‘He who is very dear to Rama’). Rama’s son Kusha inherited Rama-priya and gave Him to his daughter Kanaka-malini when she married into the Yadava Dynasty. Rama-priya finally came into the possession of Krishna and Balarama in Dvapara-yuga.
When Balarama was performing pilgrimage during the Kurukshetra War, He came to Melukote and was struck by the beauty of Tirunarayana. When He returned to Dvaraka, He told Krishna about the beauty of Tirunarayana and declared that the Deity was identical to Rama-priya. Krishna wanted to see for Himself and so the two brothers travelled south to Melukote with Rama-priya. When They arrived, Krishna agreed that the two Deities were exactly the same and both Krishna and Balarama decided to leave Rama-priya in Melukote as the utsava-murti for Tirunarayana. From then on, members of the Yadu Dynasty would come to Melukote to worship Rama-priya. Thus Melukote became known as Yadava-giri – the mountain resort of the Yadavas.
The Yoga-Narasimha Temple
As one gets close to Melukote, one cannot fail to notice the shape of the gopuram of the Yoga-Narasimha Temple atop of the highest hill in the town. Typical of many South Indian temples, in order to get to this shrine, one has to climb a steep hill. The 360 weathered granite steps leading up to the temple are flanked either side by plumaria trees inhabited by Rhesus monkeys.
The Tenth Chapter of the Naradiya Purana narrates how Prahlada came to Melukote in order to meet Vishnu-chitta, a great ascetic who had rejected all sorts of boons that the Devas had tried to tempt him with. They both stayed here for some time and the Lord eventually appeared to Prahlada in a self-manifest Deity form of Yoga-Narasimha which Prahlada installed on the hilltop.
The cave where the Deity of Yoga-Narasimha is said to have manifest is below the temple and if one wishes to see it, one can ask one of the priests.
When the Lord takes the form of Yoga-Narasimha, He sits in the utkutika-asana wearing a yoga-patta – a belt encircling His back and legs and tied in a tight knot. His two upper hands hold sankha and chakra and his lower hands rest on his knees. In this form the Lord is in a meditative, benign mood. He is seated in yogic posture, instructing His devotees that they should perform yoga in order to attain Him.
There is a local story that when the ruler of Mysore, Hyder Ali, was passing through Melukote with his army, his war-elephants suddenly became seriously ill. Some of the Hindus in his retinue suggested that if he prayed to Yoga-Narasimha, the elephants would be cured. Accordingly, Hyder Ali prayed to the Deity and soon after the elephants were back to normal. To show his gratitude, Hyder Ali gifted a large leather drum to the temple. Since that time, this drum is sounded everyday when the Deity is offered naivedya (food-offerings).
Ramanuja in Melukote
The great Vaishnava saint Ramanuja came to Melukote in 1099 when he fled from Tamil Nadu due to the persecution of the Shaivite King Kulothunga Chola. When he arrived he was in disguise, dressed not as a sannyasi, but as a householder, lest the spies of Kulothunga discover him. Safe under the royal patronage of his disciple King Vishnu-vardhana, Ramanuja donned the robes of a sannyasi again and continued to teach his philosophy of Visisthadvaita (qualified non-dualism).
When Ramanuja arrived in Melkote it was a shadow of its former glory. It was a temple-town, but the temples were in disrepair and the brahmanas were eking out a living doing other professions. Ramanuja’s presence in Melkote helped to revitalize the town. He reestablished the original Deities, built new temples, trained priests, established festivals and employed people of all castes in temple activities. Ramanuja’s organization and management breathed new life into Melkote.
Ramanuja spent twelve years in Melkote and before leaving the residents requested if they could make a deity of Ramanuja. This is one of three deities made of Ramanuja during his lifetime, the others being in Sriperumbudur (his birthplace) and Sri Rangam. At the end of his life, Ramanuja called his followers around him and told them:
kutim krtva tasmin yadu-giri-tate nitya-vasatih
“You should build a cottage on the outskirts of Yadu-giri (Melukote) and always reside there!”
Ramanuja also composed the following shloka to emphasise the importance of Melukote to his followers:
sri-ranga mangala-manim karuna-nivasam sri-venkatadri shikharalaya kalamegham sri-hasti-shaila shikharojvala parijatam srisham namami shirasa yadu-shaila dipam
The Lord of Sri Rangam is like an auspicious gem and is the abode of all compassion. The Lord of the hills of Venkata is as resplendent as a dark raincloud. The Lord of Sri Hasti shines like the parijata flower. The Lord of Yadu-shaila is the Lord of Goddess Sri and a beacon of light.
Other Places of Interest in Melkote
At the foot of the Yoga-Narasimha Temple one can find the Kalyani Tirtham – a large tank which, according to the Puranas, was formed from a drop of sweat of Varaha when He carried the presiding deity of the earth, Bhu-devi. It is also stated that the holy River Ganga comes to reside in the Kalyani during the month of Phalguna (February-march). Around Melukote there are more than sixty holy kundas, each one with a story attached to it. The most famous are the eight Asta-tirthas. During the month of Karttika, devotees go on procession to these eight kundas with the shoes of the Deity. At each kunda, the priests immerse the shoes into the water amidst the recitation of Vedic hymns and the devotees follow suit by jumping into the waters to get the blessings of the Lord.
There are also seven ksetras (holy places) within the vicinity of Melukote –Paridhanashila Kshetra, Yoga-Narasimha Kshetra, Jnanashvata Kshetra, Tarkshya Kshetra, Nayana Kshetra, Varaha Kshetra and Sita-Aranya Kshetra.
Festivals in Melukote
There is a festival almost every month in Melukote and they are all celebrated in a grand fashion. For sake of brevity we will name only a few of the major festivals –
Kotharotsva – This festival is held in January and runs for ten days. Rama-priya is taken procession through the streets and stops at every doorstep, every day to receive offerings of flowers.
Vairamudi – This is the most famous festival in Melukote and it draws almost 400,000 people to this small town every year. It is held between February and April. Rama-priya is taken on procession and adorned with the vaira-mudi – a diamond studded crown. Legend has it that the crown was stolen from Narayana, while He slept in His abode by the demon Virochana, the son of Prahlada. Garuda went to retrieve the crown and fought with Virochana until he finally recovered it. On his way, Garuda saw young Krishna playing with His friends in Vrndavana. Because it was midday and the sun was very hot, Garuda protected Krishna with his wings and placed the crown on Krishna’s head. The residents of Melkote claim that Krishna later presented Rama-priya with this same crown.
Punarvasu Utsava – This festival, celebrated in June commemorates the arrival of Ramanuja in Melukote. Because Ramanuja was in disguise and wearing white cloth, the deity of Ramanuja is dressed in white on that day.
A visit to Melukote is a wonderful experience. It is a town steeped in history, tradition and culture, surrounded by grand vistas and beautiful flora and fauna. And for those who are devotionally inclined it is a mystical experience never to be forgotten.