Tales of Sri Rama, fresh water and the accumulation of knowledge
Picture from Wikipedia (contributor: Srihari Kulkarni)
The Sri Kodandarama Swamy Temple in Vontimitta looms right up in front of you on the road from Kadapa to Rajampet as it curves to the right. You can tell at first glance that this is an ASI notified property with a fence around it, maintained grounds and the small, blue, trademark 'protected monument' sign posted on the periphery.
It is a warm December afternoon when we visit, and all is particularly quiet at the temple. The shrines are closed in preparation for a lunar eclipse due to start in a few hours. A couple of sadhus engage in conversation, supine. It is hard to tell if what they are engrossed in discussing is secular or spiritual, but one of them breaks into song at some point, adding a pleasant dimension to the muted atmosphere. Some ASI staffers cluster around a desk placed at a far corner of the parikrama and are busy in their own conversation and business. I walk over and make cursory enquiries with them about buses to Rajampet and beyond and they, in turn, inquire about where we are from and what we are here to see or do.
The towering eastern gopurum (one of three), soars several hundred feet high and shimmers in the afternoon sun. The main mandapam, built in the Vijayanagara style, is immensely impressive and ornately carved. Scenes from the Ramayana adorn the pillars and panels. The monolithic, cut-away, corner pillars are spectacular. We do not, unfortunately, get to view the images of Sri Rama, Lakshmana and Sita because the santum is closed - but we learn that they are carved from a single rock and are said to have been installed by Jambuvantha the bear warrior, who assisted Sri Rama is his search for Sita in Lanka. This is also, we learn, the only temple of Sri Rama without an accompanying image of Hanuman, although there is one in a separate shrine close by. Something on the ASI sign outside the eastern gopurum speaks of the shape of an ancient flying craft that is visible over the shikhara - but we can't figure out what it refers to.
Place legends inform us that during his exile from Ayodhya in the Treta yuga, Sri Rama spent time here (which was part of the region known as Dandakaranya). On one occasion, in order to quench Sita's thirst Sri Rama and Lakshmana each shot arrows into the ground producing springs of fresh, clear drinking water which now supply the two temple tanks. There are other legends about the place that have to do with the life-giving appearance of drinking water as well. Vontodu and Mittodu two inhabitants of the area (some versions suggest they were thieves!) are believed to have quenched the thirst of the early Vijayanagara ruler Bukkaraya the First. He was so pleased with their service that he named the place after them, the place name contracting to Vontimitta in time. Vontimitta is also interpreted to mean 'single hill' which might refer to a nearby hillock or perhaps even a single hill that the temple was built out of rock from. There are stone inscriptions by the eastern gopuram, in telugu dating from the mid-1500s in Vijayanagara times.
As we wander around, a chance encounter with Veena Raghavacharyulu, the young pradhan-archak of the temple adds a certain quality to our short visit. This erudite young man received his BA in Sanskrit Studies from Tirumala before being appointed to his current duties. He lives with his family in the archetypal Brahmin way, in a simple, organic dwelling located just beside the main temple. He is warm and greets us with praises of Sri Rama - the 'ideal man' - and the sthalapurana of Vontimitta. He then shares with us a prescription for the 'accumulation of knowledge' (attributed to the Shankaracharya), an approximate translation of which might run thus:
"Just as a honeybee flies from flower to flower collecting honey, the curious seeker of knowledge must gather the good from every single individual she or he encounters. The seeker must also gain the best from every bird, animal and creature existing in nature. The honey bee flies without any fear of disappointment from flower to flower, whether of mango, neem or tangedu irrespective of how much nectar each of these may contain, collecting and distributing the nectar for the benefit for others. Along these lines the seeker must gather knowledge from nature, from religious texts - the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Bhagavatas, the Upanishads, the Vedas, the 18 Puranas and from philosophical works such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, the Koran and the Adi-Granth of the Sikhs, and like the honey bee transmit this to others"
The liberal and universal nature of this message and Raghavacharyulu's humane disposition are heart warming and we spend a few minutes in conversation with him, greet his elderly mother-in-law, accept a gift of a small photograph of the images in the sanctum sanctorum - which we have missed seeing, and then take his leave. He inquires about our gotra (something we, unfortunately, have limited knowledge and appreciation of) and offers to perform a small puja to remove any grahana-dosha on our behalves
It seems fitting that Vontimitta with its tales of Sri Rama and Jambuvantha was home to the 16th century Telugu poet and sahaja-kavi Bammera Pothana, known for his translation of the Bhagavata Purana from Sanskrit to Telugu and Vavilakolanu Subba Rao, the 19th century saint-poet known as "Andhra Valmiki" for translating Valmiki's Ramayana into Telugu. The house where Subba Rao lived is now a simple ashram and a large sign welcomes travelers to come and stay. And only a few kilometres from Vontimitta on the road to Rajampet is Tallapakka, the home of the great Annamacharya, the 15th century poet-composer who continued the tradition of the Vaishnavite Alwars, composing over thirty thousand songs (samkeertanas) in praise of Lord Venkateswara at Tirumala.