The Mystic Chera king

[This article first appeared in the Sunday edition of Deccan Herald. My interest in the Divya Prabandhangal was picked when I recorded the CD “Saranagathi” which presented thirty of Kulasekhara Alwar’s verses in thirty different ragas]

I may appear crazy to others but it is they who are really crazy. Yes! I am madly in love with my Lord! – [In Tamil “Peyarai yenakku yaavarum yaanum oru peyanai evarkkum idhu pesi yen” ]

Were these the words of a madman?  They form one of the 105 quatrains (pasurams) of Kulasekhara Alwar’s Perumal Tirumozhi that speak of his love for Lord Ranganatha of Srirangam. Kulasekhara, was a Chera king who ruled over present-day Kerala in the 9th century AD.

Beginning in the 7th century, the Bhakti movement centered around Lord Vishnu saw a resurgence in South India. Twelve poets, collectively called the Alwars, over the span of two centuries, created an exquisite collection of hymns, collectively called the “Divya Prabhandham.” These hymns are known for their evocative lyrical content and high emotive appeal. Allegorical and set in first person, the hymns convey the poets’ intense feeling of bhakthi towards the Lord.

The ninth of the twelve alwars, Kulasekhara Alwar, whilst still engaged in matters of state, showed great interest in spirituality. Several tales, possibly apocryphal, talk of his intense love for his Lord. Once when listening to a narration of the Ramayana at court the king, was so caught up with the story that in an emotional outburst, ordered his troops to prepare for the battle against Ravana! Only when the narrator brought the story to an end with Rama’s victory did the king heave a sigh of relief.

Another story speaks of how his single-minded focus on serving Lord Vishnu alarmed his courtiers, who felt he was ignoring royal matters. In an attempt to discredit the priests that the king patronized, they charged the priests of stealing the temple jewels. The king in an effort to disprove their suspicions declared that he would place his hand in a pot of poisonous snakes. “If I am bitten, then what you say would be true. If my faith in the priests of Vishnu is justified, I will not be harmed.” It goes on to say how the king was unscathed, after subjecting himself to this test with a pot of poisonous snakes.

Kulasekara eventually renounced his royal responsibilities and proceeded to Srirangam, the bastion of Vaishnavism. It was here that he composed his most famous work the Mukundamala (“garland of hymns for Mukunda”) and parts of the Perumal Tirumozhi. The latter part of his life was largely spent in Tirupati. The threshold at the sanctum sanctorum of the Lord Balaji Temple in Tirupati is known as the “Kulasekhara padi” – a tribute to this philosopher king’s desire to serve the Lord, if only as an inanimate object in his temple! 

Though Kulasekhara Alwar is believed to have died young, before he reached his 30th birthday, he lives on in the regular chanting of his Perumal Thirumozhi in temples throughout South India. In the first week of March, this mystic king’s birth anniversary, under the Punar Poosam star,  is being celebrated by the Hindu Vaishnavite community all over the world.

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