The Sage who Went South

Indian Mythology 19 Comments

First Published in Sunday Midday, Jan 2009

The Vindhya mountain range is still waiting for him to return. But he will not return for if he does then Vindhya will once again raise his head in pride and block the path of the sun. There is another reason why Agastya went south in the first place.

It is also said that once all the Rishis from all over the world went North to hear Shiva reveal the secret of the Veda and the Tantra. This caused the earth to tilt and so Shiva asked Agastya to go south and restore the balance of the earth for the spiritual weight of Agastya was equal to the weight of all the other Rishis put together.

Agastya had two fathers, the Vedic gods, Mitra and Varuna, and one mother, the nymph, Urvashi. He never wanted to marry and have children. But he was haunted by the vision of his ancestors hanging upside down over a bottomless abyss. There they would stay, they howled, until he married, fathered children and helped them be reborn.

And so after crossing the Vindhyas, Agastya asked a king for his daughter’s hand. The king, who lived in the region of Vidarbha, however was childless. “I give you the daughter I do not have,” said the king. So Agastya said, “You will soon have the daughter you do not have now but will soon give me.” Agastya then created a woman with his magical powers using the most beautiful parts of the birds and beasts of the forests. Since this woman was created by the loss (lopa) of the most beautiful features (mudra) of animals, she came to be known as Lopamudra. She was given to the king who then gave her in marriage to Agastya.

Lopamudra followed her rather short and stout husband dutifully but requested that he treat her as a princess that she was. “Approach me in clothes that are beautiful on a bed that is comfortable in a house that is prosperous.” Agastya, being an ascetic, had no access to such clothes or bed or house. So he went to other kings and sought gifts that would enable him to please his wife.

One of the kings he visited was a demon called Ilavala. Ilavala had a brother called Vatapi who could change his shape and become a goat. Ilavala would cut and kill this goat and serve the meat to guests. As soon as the guest ate the meat, he would chant a hymn that would bring his brother back to life in the guest’s stomach. Vatapi would then bore his way out of the guest’s body, killing the guest in the process. When Agastya sought gifts from Ilavala, he said, “Sure, but first you must eat.” Agastya could not say no but one bite of the food being offered and he knew mischief was afoot. Agastya ate the food quickly, then rubbed his stomach and burped loudly before Ilavala could chant the magic hymn. When the hymn was finally chanted Vatapi did not emerge much to Ilavala’s surprise. “Your brother, I fear, has been digested,” said Agastya with a smile, “Now, where are my gifts?”

Agastya’s amazing digestive ability led him to drink all the waters of the oceans enabling the Devas to find and kill Asuras who had hidden underwater. Later, he urinated out the water, and this, say some, is why the sea is salty.

On his journey south, Agastya carried a pot of Ganga water. When this pot was placed on the ground in South India, Ganesha, in the form of a crow, some say a rat, caused it to tip. Water flowed out of the pot and turned into the river Kaveri.

To remind him of the Himalayas, Agastya also carried with him two hills from the North. These were hung from two ends of a stick balanced on the shoulder of a Rakshasa called Hidimba (a style of transportation called ‘kavadi’). In the South, one of the hills became extremely heavy making it impossible for Hidimba to carry it further. On investigation, Agastya found a boy sitting on that hill. “These hills remind me of my home in the North,” said the boy. Agastya realized the boy was Kartikeya, the son of Shiva, who angry with his father, had moved south. Agastya asked the Rakshasa to plant the hill in the South wherever the boy asked him to. That hill is now called Palni in Tamil Nadu and is the sacred shrine of Kartikeya locally known as Murugan.

Agastya and Lopamudra are associated with hymns found in the Rig Veda. Both are said to have popularized Lalita Sahashranama, the 1000 names of the Goddess. Agastya is renowned in the South as the father of Siddha, the southern form of Ayurveda. He is also associated with occult arts of architecture and forecasting as well as formulation of the Tamil language. Even today a mountain peak between Tamil Nadu and Kerala associated with rare medicinal herbs is called Agastyamalai, or Agastya’s hill, a reminder of his presence in and contribution to civilization in South India.

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  • ASHA

    The Sage who Went South

    Dear Mr.Devdutt

    The story that is mentioned about Agastya is the who has written everyones forecast on the palm leaves ? Is he the same u r talking about?

    What did Ilavala do – Did he give the gift to Agastya or punished him ?? Am keen to know more about Agastya.

    Can you please give some more details.

    I like your articles a lot. Have written to you before.

    Thanks a lot.


  • Usha

    Dear Devdutt,
    I wrote to you many a time after reading this piece that i chanced to read on my journay from Mumbai to delhi. I thank the rajdhani people for giving me Mid-day. Anyway, I am fascinated by your articles. you have wonderful knowledge of mythology. Fantastic!
    Yes, in childhood we used to enjoy the concept of Agasthya drinking the sea and then passing it out. Does this have any symbolism? Or say, symbolic value?

    • I don’t think so…..Sages are associated with anti-water, anti-fertility behavior….until they are forced to get married.

  • Savita

    To add to the Agastya story, Bali (Indonesia) has a strong tradition that Agastya visited the island. I even visited a “Agastya’s Cave” there.

  • Ramesh Subrahmaniam

    Dear Dr.
    As far, Agastya Muni”s connection with Tamil Language is concerned, His disciple, ” Tholkappiar” was the person, who wrote the grammar of Tamil Language namely, ” Tholkappiam”. Secondly, only after Vathapi/Ilvalan incident, it is told that Rishis and Brahmins stopped eating meat. But I feel that Probably because of Jain/Budhdhist
    influences, Meat eating was stopped by Brahmins.

    • Great thoughts….

    • Prasanna Rao

      Yoga teaches vegetarian diet for the control of mind. Yoga is more than 15000 years old. Brahmins and Jains are influenced by Yoga. Hence they are vegetarian.

  • Some more trivia –
    Two hills in northern Karnataka represent Ilavala and his brother Vatapi. The town named after the hill came to be called Vatapi and was the capital of the Chalukyan empire. With time, this became ‘Badami’ and today is famous for it’s cave paintings and sculptures.

    Also, the Pallavas who won Chalukyas in a battle, brought back an exquisite idol of Ganesha, later named ‘Vatapi ganapati’. This majestic idol, with the trunk twisted to the right side (left is the norm) came to be installed in the Thiruvarur temple complex. Widely extolled by numerous tamil poets and carnatic composers, the name ‘Vatapi’ in tamilnadu triggers an instant association with Ganesha.

  • Also,
    On the route to Kedarnath, after Tehri, one encounters the Agastyamuni town. I guess this place too should have some associations with the sage.

  • Pooja.N

    CAn you pls elaborate on the anti-fertiity behavior of a saint.the article on agatsya is very enlightening.HAve our saints lost celibacy after marriage.If yes then does losing celibacy not affect any rules or norms of sainthood?

    • Sex for procreation without passion or attachment was considered celibacy. But I don’t know if there are any norms of sainthood? Married men like Eknath and Tukaram were saints.

    • Here I feel Pooja, that you are confused with the “Saints” of the west and that of the east. There never was, in my opinion, a “holy man” in any of the cultures of the world until “Baudhic” thoughts stepped in and created rift between people. You can see Agastya as an ordinary man, just that he’s done his duties well – and hence a great man. Say like our dad, grand-dad, etc. If he did not marry, it was his choice, and is he married, it was his choice. Whether he married or not, one can be great, just that his characteristics may differ before and after wedding. I feel that when one is a bachelor, he is eccentrically powerful (very spiritual I feel), but again rules have exceptions. And when one is married, his power is concentrated on the family, descendants, etc. the power is still there, but the focus of power is in a different area. DISCLAIMER: I am a bachelor, who’s somehow avoided marriage so far, and have not been haunted by bad thoughts about my ancestors. In fact, I’ve done my job well so far, that I feel they are happy too. And I feel I’m an eccentric spiritual too :)

      • Jyoti Iyer

        He he! I liked the last part of your comment…

  • Rashmi

    Tyagaraja Keertanam – Vatapiganapatim hum…..I was 10 years old when I first learnt this Keertanam and heard this story of Agastya Muni…

    thank you!

  • molly menon

    Dear Devdutt

    I was Initiated by Agasthya Rishi two years back at Agathiyar Gnana Peedam,
    Subsequently on a visit to kalyana Theertham, Agasthya Rishi gave me HIS blessings .When pictures of mine were taken there near the Chandan Malai, a Column of light was seen falling on my head and passing through me., finally moved from that spot all the way to where the Statues of HIS and Lobamudra were placed and that Jyoyhi was showering on them .All this on broad daylight ..noon around 13.30 hrs..Amazing ..! I had posted all these on to my Fb posts .This happened on Feb 2013.

  • Raghu H N Varma

    Please delete false statement in your post .Actually agastya drank all waters of sea ,as requested by gods.but after gods killed all demons who were under sea,gods requested agastya to put water back to sea,but agastya told them that he had digested water .so fill it in another way like rain etc.
    The sea water is salt becauce during churning of ocean by gods and demons for ambrosia(amrutha),sea water was very disturb by heavy waves.agastya came to drank water of sea,but he raged by this waves of water and cursed sea to unfit for drinking .so sea water is salt.

  • bhupinder gupta

    do agaytiar , murgan , rama , and others good respected and decent peoples were and are really good , More than 99 % of peoples, gods ,souls had been inocents ,had not beenvictims . if polatictics , conspirancies , crimanilites ,some wrong
    traditions and some wrong rules of few from the ancient times would had
    not been made.
    and peoples are beaten very badly and broken and even buried alive by the great gods and goddesses and great humans gods like murgan bhiraspaty ,bharama , dakshina moorty , narayanan , and many power full and great gods and humans .

    crores and crores of peoples are being killed ,destryoed in such a way no one can find out , and given different shapes and made to bad brains and minds ,
    genetical deshaped and disorded to lusty and bad brains and bad minds .
    are made from single soul to multy humans souls to suffer and painful
    creatures to never become humans and buried alive under earth and even
    killed into stomaches and made to toilets and throughn into hells like