Vaikunta Ekadashi festival at Srirangam temples and and others

Ranganathaswamy temple, Srirangam

Among the festivals associated with Vishnu temples of Tamil Nadu and elsewhere, Vaikunta Ekadasi  is a prominent one and this annual festival falls in the month of December or January. Ekadashi day is an auspicious one and lots of people visit the local Sri Vishnu  temple for the Lord's blessings. Among the Vishnu temples of south India, Vaikunta Ekadashi celebration at Srirangam Ranganathar temple is quite popular. This year it was celebrated on 8 January 2017 with devotion and dedication. This famous and largest temple is the foremost of the 108 ‘Divya Desams’ also known as ‘Bhooloka Vaikuntam’.

At Srirangam temple, it is a 20 day festival  divided into two parts: pagal pathu (morning part 10 days) and Ira pathu (night part 10 days). The highlight of this festival is on the day of Ekadashi,  Vishnu as Lord Ranganatha (Utachava Murthy) or Namperumal  adorned with an armor of  dazzling gems (rathnaangi)  is, in a procession, brought to the Thousand-Pillared Hall from the Garbagraha - sanctum sanctorum through the northern gate known as Paramapada Vaasal, the gate to Vaikuntha / heaven. The interesting fact is this particular gate soorga vaasal  is opened once in a year, only on the Vaikunta Ekadashi day. Rest of the year it remains closed to be opened only next year. The traditional belief  has been that anybody who goes through this paramapada vaasal will be free from  his sins and  released from the bondage - cycle of birth and death  and will  enjoy eternal bliss in the heavenly abode.

This year on  8th January, Namperumal (utchavar / procession deity) wearing ‘Rathnangi’  exited the  Srikovil / sanctum sanctorum in ‘Simha Gadhi’ in the early morning hours.  Through the Raja Mahendran Tiruchutru, Kulasekaran Chutru, The idol  was taken to the ‘Vraja Nadhi Mandapam' adjacent to the ‘Paramapadha Vaasal’.  Here the deity was kept for about 30 minutes while Veda Pandits were chanting and reciting mantras from the Vedas.

With the opening of paramapada vaasal at 5 am Ranganathar   emerged in the midst of a huge  surging crowd of devotees in the  rear,  chanting  'Govinda' and 'Ranga' and passing through the gate.

Ariyar sevai, Srirangam temple, Tamil Nadu. puliyogare travels

With this exciting event, followed by Arayar Sevai in the Thirumamani Asthana Mandapam’, the festival  had come to an end. Arayar Sevai is a  traditional Tamil performing art form, rendition of  ritual singing and enactment of  hymns of the Divya Prabandham. Performed only by hereditary performers, Araiyar sevai is generally performed  with religious fervor  only inside the temples before the procession deity (Utchavar). On the Vaikunta Ekadashi day, Arayar Sevai is an important part of the event.

As this great event fell on Sunday, the number of pilgrims to this temple was more than unusual a couple of days before the main event. The whole day devotees patiently waited in long lines, then  prayed to lord Ranganatha and passed through the paramapada vaasal in the hope this year  their wishes would be fulfilled through god's grace. In the afternoon, the crowd inside the temple had begun to swell considerably. On Saturday, 10th day of pagal pathu, Namperumal appeared in Mohini Alangaram.

Several LED and LCD television sets were installed by the temple authorities on the temple premises for the benefits of countless  devotees to view the opening of the paramapada vaasal and God's exit through it, etc. This year around 4,500 police personnel were on duty by the state government  to control the crowd, etc., due to threats from terrorists and anti-social elements. Security cameras were installed at innumerable places to avoid untoward incidents.

Thirumala-Tirupati Temple:

Likewise, at the world famous Tirumala Venkateswara Temple, Andhra, one of the richest temples in the world,  this year Vaikunta Ekadashi was celebrated with bakthi.  Thirumala temple has a special entrance called Vaikuntha Dwaram  around the Garbagraha - the sanctum sanctorum  and this gate  is opened only on Vaikunta Ekadashi.   It is believed that any person who passes through this `Vaikuntha Dwaram' on this particular day attains salvation. As part of this festival, golden chariot (Swarna Rath)  with utchavar idol was pulled around the temple.
Large crowd at tirupathy, Vaikunta Ekadashi. India TV

This year for Vaikunta Ekadashi, the arrival of pilgrims to this hill temple was just overwhelming and it included countless  VIPs, political leaders, industrialists and others. 

At least 300,000 devotees normally would visit the hill temple on the Ekadashi day and amazingly half of the visitors would take the 11 km route - long steep flight of steps as part of their prayer. Devotees would be allowed into the temple in the small hours beyond midnight before the main event. The entire temple 

wears a festive look with  beautiful illumination, flower 
decorations of different shapes and sizes,  using tons of flowers.
On this auspicious  occasion, the idol of Lord Venkateswara 
would be adorned with precious ornaments, including golden
‘Peethambaram', After midnight the Vaikunta Vaasal (paramapada vaasal), around the sanctum,  would be open and the devoteees in thousands, after intense prayer, would come outthrough the vaukunta Dwaram / paramapada vaasal. It would remain open till following day -Dwadisi for the benefit of the devotees. 
The doors are opened once a year only on Vainkunta Ekadasi day, the priest said, adding, the Vaikuntam Passageway remains open on Dwadasi day on Monday too for benefit of devotees.

The Margashirsha shukla paksha ekadashi in lunar calendar is known as a 'Mokshada Ekadashi'. It is observed with special prayers, yagnas,  religious discourses and speeches at many Vishnu temples across India.

Kumbakonam temple:
In the famous temple city of Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu at the popular Sarangapani temple in the heart of the city, the Brahmostchava festival commenced with temple flag hoisting (Kodi Yetram) on 6 January 2017. It is a long drawn festival and on the Pongal day 14 January 2017 there will be Ther ottam (Chariot procession. As part of  Vaikunta Ekadashi, here in the early morning around 4 AM   the procession idol (Utchavar)  entered the prakara (corridor). 

An important fact about this Vishnu temple is, unlike many  Vishnu temples, this one does not have paramapada vaasal or soorga vaasal.  So, there's no opening or closing of soorga vaasal ritual here; the reason being, this temple itself is considered Bhoologa Vaikuntam . The belief is that Perumal appeared in this temple in his chariot directly from Vaikuntam and later stayed here. To mark this,, the Srikovil, Garbagraha (sanctum) is adorned with stone images of elephant and horse. 

This temple is the 3rd of the 108 Divya Desam shrines dedicated to

Sri Vishnu next to Srirangam and Tirupati and was glorified by seven Azhwars - tamil  saints who also performed  Mangalasanam  here.