Of late, wandering around Tamil Nadu seems to have become a hobby of mine. And who can blame me – with a rich heritage and dozens of stunning temples, it would take months to even cursorily pass by just the major sites. Some time around the Gregorian New Year, I had felt the call of Thillai Koothan; with that as the primary target, I persuaded my friends into a trip into Tamil country.
Chidambaram is a small and rather unimpressive town with a population of about 60,000 not more than 15 kms inland from the Coromandel coast. It is about 235 kms south of Madras, the state capital, and connected by road as well as by rail. Though Tamil Nadu generally has fairly good albeit narrow roads, the roads on the approach to Chidambaram are quite rough. Anyone planning to drive in should factor in at least an extra hour to hour and half for the last 40 kms or so. The nearest airport, for those coming in from afar, is Tiruchirappalli, about 150 kms away; this, however, does not spare you from the last stretch of bumpy roads unless rail is availed.
Historically, Chidambaram has gone through three names – its ancient name was Thillai, after the mangrove trees of the Excoecaria Agallocha species that grow in the area. The second name, Puliyur or Perumpatrapuliyur, has mythical origins: it is said to derive from Vyagrapada, one of the two saints – the other was Patanjali – who came to Thillai to witness Shiva’s cosmic dance and to pray to him on the banks of a nearby lotus pond. Puliyur means ‘tiger town,’ after the saint whose name meant ‘tiger-footed.’ The third name and by which we know the town today, Chidambaram, means ‘ocean of consciousness.’ Chit means consciousness in Sanskrit and ambaram means ether. However, the scholarly consensus does not accept such a simple translation. It is argued – with some justification – that Chidambaram is a Sanskritised version of the Tamil name, Chittrambalam, which means the ambalam (or stage) placed at a lower pedestal (Keezh Ambalam). The ancient Tamil lexicon, Divakaram, defines Tiruchitrakoodam (the Vishnu Shrine within the temple complex) as Thetri Ambalam. Tamil scholars opine that this refers to the Vishnu shrine being present at a higher pedestal (Maettu Ambalam), while the Nataraja shrine was called the chittrambalam (the Keezh Ambalam).
Chidambaram, if not ancient, is still an old town. The first mention of a settlement in the vicinity is found in the 7th century collection of devotional poems to Shiva, the Tevaram, by the Nayanars: Appar and Sambandar identify the cult of a local dancing god in Chidambalam to Shiva. The nearby goddess cult of Perambalam was also subsumed into the legend of Chidambaram and cemented in the 12th century work, the Chidambaram Mahatmyam.
Thillai Nataraja Temple has five sabhas and at least nine kalyanis. At the centre of the temple is the chit sabha with its golden dome, where Nataraja is depicted performing the ananda tandava. In the ardha mandapam of this shrine are shown Vyagrapada and Patanjali, and a sanctum is also present for Shiva’s consort, Parvati. As is the case with most South Indian temples, every minute detail of a temple, from the number of pillars to the depiction of the primary idol, has meaning. The ananda tandava is one of the many forms of Shiva’s cosmic dance, its main disposition in this instance, as the name suggests, being joy. Hindu myths say that Shiva was wandering around a forest called Daruvanna as a bhikshatana with Vishnu as Mohini. The rishis were enamoured by Mohini while their wives became love-sick for the bhikshatana. When the rishis realised what had happened, they were furious and they sent a tiger from their sacrificial fire against the bhikshatana. Shiva just laughed and killed the tiger, tearing off its skin to use as a makeshift sarong. Enraged, the rishis sent poisonous snakes against the man who had enchanted their wives. Again, Shiva just calmly took the snakes and wrapped them around his arms and waist as ornaments. Next, the rishis use black magic to create a fierce dwarf, Muyalaka, and order him to slay Shiva. However, he is dispatched without much effort too. Finally, the rishis send their sacrificial fire itself to burn the intruder. Shiva calmly takes the flame upon his left hand and begins to dance atop the slain demon-dwarf with a smile upon his face. Realising their folly, the sages fell to the floor before Shiva. This is why the Nataraja in the temple is shown performing the ananda tandava.
It is not clear when the temple was originally built; all we have now are records of renovations and expansions by later emperors of the Pallava, Chola, Vijaynagara, and Nayaka dynasties which still puts the temple at around 800 years old. However, it is believed that the temple was first built by King Shwetavarman in the 6th century when he was cured of leprosy by bathing in one of the ponds in the Thillai vanam. Today, that pond is the Shivaganga kalyani.
From a distance, the Thillai Nataraja Temple’s four gopura are the most visible sights, of course. They are all later additions to the temple and scholars date them to the 12th century at the earliest. The first thing one sees upon entering the temple is the exquisite miniature sculptures of the 108 karanas in the Natya shastra. These adorn all the entrances to the temple and cannot be missed. Such numerous depictions are found only in five of Tamil Nadu’s temples that I can recall. It is only appropriate that Chidambaram be one of those temples for all dance is supposed to have originated from Shiva’s tandava and the Thillai Nataraja Temple is one of the most important Shiva temples that carries a prominent depiction of Nataraja. However, it is not Shiva but a woman, accompanied by two musicians, who performs the karanas on Chidambaram’s gateways.
Directly in front of the chit sabha is the Kanaka sabha where most of the daily rituals are conducted. The Nritta sabha is in the form of a chariot and said to commemorate Shiva’s victory over the three aerial cities of Tripura. The wheels of the sabha are the sun and the moon, the car of the chariot is Prithvi, Brahma took on the role of the charioteer, Mount Meru is the bow, Vasuki the bowstring, and Vishnu the arrow released by Shiva to destroy Tripura. According to lore, Shiva defeated the goddess Kali in a dance competition in this sabha. after a fierce duel with a powerful demon, Kali could not calm down. Shiva challenged her to a dance to direct her energy and while dancing, performed the urdhva tandava. This reminded the warrior goddess of her true form, the peaceful Parvati, and she took control over herself. The Deva sabha is generally closed to the public though it may have once been used as an audience hall for visiting kings. The Raja sabha is a thousand-pillared hall that is actually ten short of reaching four digits; it is probably among the later additions and is used only during the rathotsava where Shiva and his consort, Shivakamasundari, are worshipped.
After the staggering beauty of the temples at Madurai, Tirunelveli, Thirukkurungudi, or even the temples of Kanchipuram, the Thillai Nataraja Temple of Chidambaram was slightly disappointing. The temple complex still sits over 40 acres but the scale of the temple is smaller and it lacks the exquisite figurines, musical pillars, and other features we take for granted in major Tamil temples. Yet what the temple lacks in imperial grandeur is compensated for in the beauty of the idol of the main deity, the Nataraja form of Shiva.
Nataraja faces south at Chidambaram. This is not done for any deity except Shiva since the south is considered inauspicious because the cardinal point is the abode of Yama, the god presiding over death. Shiva faces south to signify his conquest over Death. While the Nataraja is sakala thirumeni (manifest deity) of the temple, right in front of him is the sakala-nishkala thirumeni (aniconic) form in the shape of a spatika (crystal) lingam. It is believed to be a fragment of Chandramaulishwara, the crescent that adorns Shiva’s head, and installed in the temple by Adi Shankaracharya. In the same shrine, next to the Nataraja is the nishkala thirumeni, the formless ether, symbolised by an empty chamber whose entrance is covered by a red-and-black curtain with a yantra on it. Behind the curtain is a string of 51 golden Aegle marmelos leaves, more commonly known as bael. The curtain is parted slightly at each puja – there are six per day – so that devotees may glance at the formless lingam through a latticed window. This is the Chidambara rahasyam, or the secret of Chidambaram.
The temple at Chidambaram is one of the pancha bhootha sthala, one of the five Shiva temples each of which has a lingam manifested in one of the different prime elements of nature; Chidambaram holds the akasha lingam. Finding a mention in the Tevaram, the temple is a paadal petra sthalam. The Thillai Nataraja Temple is also one of the pancha sabhai, one of the five temples where Shiva is said to have performed his cosmic dance. Each of these temples have at least an ambalam or sabhai that holds a Nataraja but Chidambaram is the only temple in the world that has Nataraja as the primary deity. Chidambaram’s ambalam is known as pon-ambalam (gold hall). Yet another specialty of the temple is is that it is one of the aadhara sthala, the physical manifestation of Tantric chakras associated with human anatomy, and Chidambaram represents the ajna chakra. Little wonder, then, that Chidambaram has not developed into a tourist spot and pilgrims are left to themselves…though not in peace for the crowds are truly Indian in size and nature! Furthermore, only Hindus are allowed into the temple. Photography is not allowed within temple premises.
Interestingly, the Thillai Nataraja Temple also contains a shrine for Vishnu and is one of the 108 divyadesams. It is difficult not to chuckle at occurrences such as this given the animosity between the Shaivites and Vaishnavites. Ekambareshwar Temple in Kanchipuram is also such a dual shrine where the Vishnu shrine has been placed such that worshippers cannot avoid a pradakshina around the primary Shiva lingam to get to it. Govindaraja Swamy, as Vishnu is called at the Chidambaram temple, has his shrine right in front of the chit sabha and is reclining on Ananta with his feet towards Nataraja; the shrine is also higher than the chit sabha. There have been many disputes between the Vaishnavite priests and the Dikshitars, the priests officiating over the rituals for Shiva, some of which have even gone to court. Apparently, the shrine was moved outside the temple premises during the reign of Kulothunga II in the early to mid 12th century but was returned to its present location by Krishnappa Nayak in the mid-1500s.
The Dikshitars are a group of Shaiva brahmins who follow Vedic rituals to worship Shiva and not agamic practices like the Shivacharya brahmins. Their rituals are apparently based on the works of both Bauddhayana and Patanjali. Legend has it that the Dikshitars were brought from Kailasa to Thillai by Patanjali for the specific purpose of maintaining the Chidambaram temple. Once, Brahma requested 3,000 Dikshitar priests to perform a Vedic ritual at his abode. When they were done, they returned to earth but to their dismay, found that one had gone missing. At this point, a voice from the chit sabha called out that Nataraja himself was the last of the Dikshitars. Today, they are about 360 in number.
The temple opens at six o’clock in the morning and remains open until noon when it closes for a siesta. It reopens at 5:00 PM and closes at 10:00 PM. It is best to get to the temple as it opens and catch the first puja around 7:00 AM when the priest goes to the Palliyarai to bring the deity to the sanctum sanctorum. During the second puja, a ruby Nataraja is also anointed and the burning of camphor before and behind the idol accentuates its translucence. The last puja of the day, the arthajaamam, starts around 9:00 PM and is conducted with greater fervour for the belief is that all the deities of the temple gather around the chit sabha and the divine forces are concentrated in the Nataraja before he retires.
The religious importance of Chidambaram made it a very attractive target for invaders. The Thillai Nataraja Temple was brutally ransacked by the forces of Malik Kafur in the early 14th century and desecrated again by the British, French, and the Islamic rulers of Mysore who used the temple premises as barracks and the prakara as fortifications.
Hotels should not be difficult to find in Chidambaram unless you show up during a festival. There are only a few hotels in town given the small population but they are mostly decent and there should be no trouble in securing basic amenities such as clean sheets, hot water, and air conditioning. Tamil Nadu has three seasons – hot, hotter, and hottest – and the best time to visit for tourists is December or January. Be warned, though, that the sun can be quite sharp even in those months.
We had gone to the Thillai Nataraja Temple at the crack of dawn but were done only by late morning. After a quick breakfast, we pushed on to Darasuram, about 75 kms southeast of Chidambaram. No more than a large village of about 13,000 people, Darasuram is famous primarily for its famous Airavateshwara Temple. Despite being added to the list of UNESCO Heritage Sites in 2004, the temple remains off the beaten track for most tourists. Airavateshwara Temple is one of the four great imperial Chola temples, albeit the smallest of them.
We chose to visit Darasuram after Chidambaram because the Airavateshwara Temple, unlike others on our itinerary, was not a functioning temple. Sure, there is an aarti at certain times of the day but there were no rituals performed at the temple that would mark this temple as functional. Largely, this meant that it would remain open in the afternoon for us to visit.
Airavateshwara Temple was built by Raja Kambeera Mamannan, also known as Rajaraja Chola II, in the mid-12th century when he moved his capital from Gangaikondacholapuram to Palaiyarai, renaming the town Rajarajapuram. Over time, the name evolved to its present form. The temple was also called Rajarajeshwara but had been renamed by the 15th century. Dedicated to Shiva, the deity here is known as Airavateshwara because of a legend that tells how Airavata, the chief among Indra’s elephants, was granted relief from Durvasa’s curse: the poor thing had lost its white colour and was restored to its former beauty by bathing in the sacred waters of this temple. Similarly, Yama also bathed in the waters of the Airavateshwara Temple to escape from a rishi‘s curse that caused a burning sensation all over his body.
Airavateshwara Temple is a small structure by any stretch of imagination. Its vimana rises barely 85 feet and the entire complex can be contained in a couple of acres. The main mantapa does not even have a circumambulatory path. Nonetheless, Airavateshwara Temple is one of the most exquisite temples for my money. It contains dozens of spectacular and intricate sculptures, some betraying Pala influence as well. Of particular note are the Vishnudurga, Dakshinamurthy, and Ganga figurines. There is also a panel of miniatures depicting the lives of the 63 Nayanars in great detail. There is a clear theme to all the engravings and miniature sculptures in the temple – music and dance. The temple has three main mantapas, the mukha mantapa depicted as a chariot with wheels and stone horses, the maha mantapa, and the ardha mantapa. Shiva’s consort at this temple is known as Periya Nayaki Amman which was probably part of the temple but now stands alone as a detached temple. Outside the eastern entrance is a large Nandi, behind which are a set of musical stone steps; these steps have now been sealed off in a metal grill to protect them from local children.
The temple at Darasuram was never a focal point of religious practice or debate as Chidambaram was but royal patronage ensured it remained active. As the other Great Chola temples attest, it had become common practice to build royal shrines. While it may be a stretch to say that the Chola emperors sought to elevate themselves and their ancestors to quasi-divine status, the builder’s mark on these temples is unmistakeable. The four Great Chola temples are probably the only ones in which the central vimana towers over the gopura.
To escape the Tamil Nadu sun – yes, even in January! – we found a nice shady and windy spot in the prakara of the Airavateshwara Temple for a short snooze. After all, that was one of the purposes of the colonnaded halls! It is incredible how cool the corridors were, with plenty of shade and wind tunnels. In fact, I have half a mind to go around Tamil Nadu taking an afternoon nap in all the major temples…I should probably get an extra thread for this achievement 😀 We left Darasuram for Tribhuvanam around 4:00 PM after the aarti.
The treasures of Airavateshwara Temple, Darasuram
Tribhuvanam is about eight kilometres from Kumbakonam and is the site of the Kampaheshwara Temple, built by Kulothunga Chola III in the late 12th century. Also one of the Great Chola temples, it is the newest of the four with its vimana rising to about 120 feet. The main mantapa is built like a chariot with events from the Ramayana decorating the temple walls. A rare appearance of Sarabeshwarar, the lion-man-eagle rupa Shiva took to pacify Narasimha, can also be found at the Kampaheshwara Temple. Legend has it that Shiva cured the kampa (quaking – epilepsy?) of a king who was haunted by a brahmarakshasa because he had accidentally killed a brahmin. The more prosaic reason, however, is that the temple was built to commemorate Kulothunga Chola III’s military victories against the Hoysalas, Vengi, and probably the Kakatiyas.
We reached the temple as it opened for the evening and there was not too big a crowd. Oddly, there were even fewer tourists present than at Darasuram; I suppose with Thanjavur so close by, it would take only a real South India aficionado to discover the smaller Chola temples. As a functioning institution, Kampaheshwara Temple follows strict hours and closes in the afternoon – tourists would be well advised to plan accordingly. With the sightseeing at Tribhuvanam done, we called it a day and headed to Thanjavur for the night. Good accommodation is available much closer in Kumbakonam but it made more sense with our itinerary to get closer to our next morning’s destination.
There is no mention of Thanjavur in the records until the 4th century. The name is thought to have been derived from an asura by the name of Tanjan who was killed by Neelamegha Perumal, a local deity considered an avatara of Vishnu. Another theory is that the original name was Thanseioor, meaning something to the effect of ‘rice paddy between rivers,’ no doubt indicating the settlement’s position in the Cauvery delta and its chief crop. Thanjavur, simplified to Tanjore by the British, has been an important city since about the 9th century. It has been ruled by several Hindu dynasties and was even the capital of the Chola empire for about 150 years towards the end of the first millennium. About 340 kms from Madras by road and 60 kms from Tiruchirapalli Airport, Thanjavur is well connect by road, rail, and air.
The Brihadeshwara Temple of Thanjavur is one of the most famous temples of Tamil Nadu. Completed in 1010 by Emperor Arulmozhivarman, commonly known as Rajaraja Chola I and arguably the greatest of the Chola emperors, it is the oldest of the great Chola temples. With a soaring vimana of 216 feet, the Brihadeshwara Temple is also the largest of the Great Chola temples. Everything about the temple is grand: the kalasha at the top of the vimana is a single rock that weighs 80 tonnes, and a 20-tonne monolithic Nandi, albeit replaced by the Nayakas in the 16th century, faces a 3.7 metres tall lingam. The dwarapalakas of the garbha griha are 18 feet tall themselves. It is the first all-granite temple in India, though a facade of softer rock that was more amenable to sculpting was also created. To this day, the Brihadeshwara Temple stands as the tallest temple in India.
Like most big temples in India, Brihadeshwara Temple has also seen several additions by later rulers; the shrine to Shiva’s consort, Brihannayaki, was added by the Pandyas, the Subramanya shrine was constructed by the Vijayanagara rulers, and the Vinayaka shrine – truth be told, a bit of an eyesore in the midst of stone opulence – was contributed by the Marathas. The Nayakas added several paintings over the original Chola murals.
Rajaraja Chola I died shortly and several unfortunate occurrences are said to have plagued the royal family. A superstition took hold that any king entering the temple through the grand main entrance – the Keralantaka Vayil – would soon lose his crown if not his life. When the Nayakas conquered Tanjore they had a 18-foot fortified wall with a 15-foot moat built around the temple. This wall enclosed the main entrance, thereby blocking it for royal or public use. Later, the Marathas, who succeeded the Nayakas, broke down the part of the wall blocking access to the main entrance and built a torana in front of the main entrance which was thrown open, once again, for public use. Rajaraja Chola’s son, Rajendra Chola, inexplicably moved the capital from Thanjavur to Gangaikondacholapuram and had a Brihadeshwara temple built there. It is one of the Great Chola temples, though not as magnificent as the original.
There is a lot to see at the temple, even if it is not so ornate as the one at Darasuram. The brihad-lingam, with its tripundra of vibhuti and a red tilak, looks divine. The most striking feature of the temple, however, is that the vimana is hollow. Some say that the column of air above the lingam that such a structure allows is the ‘true’ lingam, or rather that the air lingam is the manifestation of the highest brahman. Nowhere else has this been replicated and if this is a valid interpretation of Rajaraja Chola’s intent, it is a welcome metaphysical facet to the temple that is otherwise more a testament to an emperor’s ego than any spiritual inclination. Yet, to be fair, temples did not serve purely religious functions back in the day; they were active in welfare, education, and health. A royal shrine can still be important in the lives of the local population.
Since we had all been to Brihadeshwara Temple before, we spent about an hour and a half there. I hesitate to venture how long others might need for it depends on how they define ‘seeing’ a temple. Some treat it as a surgical strike – darshan and out, while others like to wander, look at the sculptures, paintings, and wonder about the sthalapurana. At all the three of four Great Chola temples that we visited, there was little by way of information signposts and there were no guides save at Brihadeshwara. Tourists would have to to their homework before they come or arrange for a guide from their hotel or travel agency. For all its enormous tourist potential, India remains a primitive backwater.
Chola political influence extended into Southeast Asia and it is natural that their cultural influence would follow. The principles of many of these temples can be seen in Hindu and Buddhist shrines all over Cambodia, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Of course, the Cholas were subject to external influences as well. The Pala style is particularly visible in some of the later temples. The Palas were a Buddhist dynasty in Bengal that flourished from the 8th to the 12th centuries and Chola contacts with them, either through warfare or through trade routes, brought many Pala sculptors and architects south into Tamil Nadu in search of patronage. Perhaps the clearest indication of this flow of talent can be seen in the way some of the statues are finished – Pala artisans used a softer stone, or covered a semi-finished hard stone with softer material like terracotta, and gave a smooth, shiny appearance to their figurines. Cholas, on the other hand, finished their work in the same hard stone. This meant that the end product lacked the polish and finesse of comparable Pala work though there were just as spectacular in terms of artisanal skill that went into the creation.
The sights at Brihadeshwara Temple, Thanjavur
Our next stop was Srirangam, a small island surrounded by the Cauvery and the Coleroon. Its Sri Ranganatha Swamy Temple, one of the 108 divya desam, is not only the largest temple in India at 156 acres but the largest functioning temple in the world and among the most sacred shrines for Vaishnavas. No one really knows when the temple was first consecrated but the earliest inscriptions come from the 10th century, making it at least 1,100 years old. Tradition has it that it is one of the eight swayambhu kshetras of Vishnu. Its mention in the Tamil epic, the Silapadikaram, speaks to is further antiquity as does its inclusion by the Vaishnavite mystics, the Alwars, in their 5th-8th century poetic compositions known as the Divya Prabandham. The legend of Ranganatha Swamy is similar to that of Ravana and the Vaidyanath jyotirlinga in Deoghar, though perhaps without the sense of impending doom. In this case, Rama had given the idol of Vishnu he personally worshipped to Vibheeshana to take to Ceylon as a token of appreciation for his help in the war against Ravana, his own brother. The only condition was that the statue should be set down anywhere before its final resting spot. However, the Ceylonese king had to set the idol down on the banks of the Cauvery where the Ranganatha Swamy Temple is because of an utsav proceeding through the area. When the procession had gone by, Vibheeshana tried to lift the idol but to no avail – it had become firmly entrenched into the ground. A temple was built on the spot but over time, was lost to nature. It was rediscovered by a Chola king many years later.
The temple has seven prakaras with 21 gopura, its perimeter being slightly over four kilometres. The gopuram on its southern wall rises to about 240 feet, making the Ranganatha Swamy Temple the tallest temple in the world. Given the sprawl of the temple premises, it is quite possible that the entire town once lived within its walls. Hundreds of inscriptions have been found on the temple walls and pillars. Together, they give historians a fairly decent picture of the social, economic, and political conditions of the time. The substantial royal patronage that flowed to Srirangam documents the growth in wealth and influence of the temple. It is worth noting that though the Cholas were Shaivites and the squabbling between the different mathas had started in their time, they continued to support all dharmic institutions within their realm.
Srirangam changed hands many times over the centuries. The Cholas, Ordras, Hoysalas, Pandyas, Vijayanagara, and the Nayakas all ruled over the city and made generous additions to the temple. However, Srirangam also felt the love of the Muslim invasions, first in 1311 and then again in 1323. The town fell under Islamic rule in 1331 and was liberated only in 1371 when Kumara Kampanna Udaiyar of the Vijayanagara Empire defeated the Muslim ruler of Madurai, Sikhandar Khan. Hindus under this Islamic rule were cruelly repressed as the chronicles of Ibn Battuta and others reveal.
The armies of Malik Kafur, Ulugh Khan, and the Madurai Sultanate stripped the temple bare; its coffers and granaries were plundered as were the ornaments of gold and precious stones. Gold was peeled off domes and pillars and golden statues, ornaments, and vessels were carried off. Some commanders used the temple premises as quarters for their soldiers and garrisoned on the island. To give some idea of the wealth Srirangam possessed, the donations of just one king – Jatavarman Sundara Pandya – should provide a glimpse. Inscriptions tell us that the king offered many tulabharas worth of gold, silver, and jewels to the temple. He is said to have covered the Ranga vimana with gold and built three additional golden domes. Jatavarman gifted garlands of pearls and emeralds, a crown of jewels, a golden ship for the Teppattirunal, golden vessels, and made several infrastructural additions to Srirangam. It is to the Vijayanagara kings and generals to whom most of the credit for restoring the temple to some semblance of its former glory goes. They donated gold, silver, jewels, and art generously, even entire villages as devadana. The Nayakas added the paintings on the walls and ceilings in the 16th century. The armies of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan also came by Srirangam but the damage was not as severe this time. The thick walls of the temple attracted British and French forces to use the buildings as barracks as well. The temple is now under the mismanagement of the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments Board.
Not all of Srirangam’s wealth was lost through plunder. Some of it was simply stolen. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Orlov’s diamond, a 189.62 carat stone mined in Kollur but now owned by Russia’s Diamond Fund. Though the details are sketchy, it seems the jewel that was the tilak on Ranganatha. was stolen in 1747 by a French soldier who had pretended to be a devotee. I suppose the hostility towards non-Hindu visitors is a little clearer now. On a side note, I wonder why none of India’s nationalist rabblerousers ask Vladimir Putin for the diamond back as they heckle David Cameron for the Kohinoor.
|This is a cavalryman carved into one of the pillars of the 1,000 Pillared Hall built by the Vijayanagara kings; the same sculpture is photographed from the right, front, and left. Notice the fine details of the carving in the third picture.
When you walk into the temple, it feels like you have walked into a small town. Between the prakaras, there are entire houses, shops, food stalls, and flower vendors. There are great crowds at Srirangam, so be prepared to wait for at least an hour in the queue for darshan. There are faster queues for ₹50 and ₹250 which might suit out-of-town tourists better. On my first pass through the temple a few years ago, it took a good four or five hours to see the temple but this time, we took just three hours. Non-Hindus are allowed up to the second prakaram but no further and photography is prohibited in parts of the temple. There are several mantapas and shrines and what makes them interesting rather than repetitive is that they were added over the centuries and show different artistic influences. For example, there is a thousand-pillared hall (which is missing some 40 pillars) that was built in the Vijayanagara style with plenty of horses on their rear legs at the base of the pillars and there is the Garuda mantapa which was added by the Nayakas.
You can purchase a ticket for ₹10 to climb up to the roof from where you can see all the gopura unhindered. Be warned, though – the roof can get pretty hot! Though the rajagopuram, the tallest of them all, was added only in 1987, the rest of the 20 gopura were built between the 14th and 17th centuries. One can only assume from other temples in the state that older gopura were pulled down by invaders in an effort to bring down the entire temple. It goes without saying that visitors should check the temple timings if they want a darshan – as a functioning temple, it closes in the afternoon and timings during festivals may vary.
Srirangam’s name is even more famous because of its association with Ramanuja, the great 11th century Vaishnavite philosopher, theologian, and leading proponent of vishishtadvaita. Ramanuja renounced his worldly life and came to Srirangam to meditate on the scriptures. Over his lifetime, he wrote several books expounding his theories, the most famous of which is the Sri Bhasya. Hymns from his Gadhya Trayam are still recited in the temple. During his time in the Ranganatha Temple, Ramanuja is said to have implemented several reforms in administration and temple affairs. His scholarship made Srirangam the epicentre of vishishtadvaita scholarship and Hindu A shrine to the acharya is found in the fourth prakaram and the thaanana thirumeni – symbolic body – is ritualistically coated with saffron and camphor every six months. In fact, a large part of the temple grounds are dedicated to the growing of saffron to be used in this ceremony. Ramanuja was the only person to be interred inside the Srirangam temple, probably owing to the belief that he was an amsha avatara of Adishesha, and his mula vigraham is constructed over his relics. I have heard some tour guides say that the Ramanuja shrine contains the actual embalmed body of the acharya and if you look closely, it is possible to see his nails. This is complete hogwash as anyone with a basic science degree can tell you – the exposure to the elements, particularly water, would have destroyed any mummy in the 800 or so years the thirumeni is supposed to be.
Bassorilievi on the pillars of the Sri Ranganatha Swamy Temple, Srirangam
Our last stop of the trip was the Jambukeshwarar Akilandeswari Temple in Thiruvanaikaval. A paadal petra sthalam and a pancha bhoota sthalam – jambu lingam – it is an important temple from a religious viewpoint and is believed to have been built by Kochenga Chola, making it approximately 1,800 years old. Unfortunately, we were out of time for this trip and we stopped by only for a darshan of Akhilandeshwari. Hindu mythology tells the story of how Parvati once mocked Shiva’s penance for the betterment of the world. Miffed, Shiva condemned his wife’s words and told her to leave Kailasa and do penance. Parvati, in the form of Akhilandeshwari, left Kailasa and came to the Jambu forest where she proceeded to make a lingam out of water from the Cauvery and meditate upon it under a Venn Naaval tree. When at last Shiva was satisfied, he appeared before Akhilandeshwari and gave her the Shiva gnana. Since she took the teachings facing east, her statue faces east in the temple and Shiva faces west. The priest conducting the midday puja to Shiva wears a sari to symbolise Akhilandeshwari praying to Shiva.
The temple is not a small one though just after Srirangam, it feels puny. Nonetheless, it has five prakaras and is said to have a rare depiction of Kartikeya with a demon under his foot. Sadly, there is little more I can tell of this temple except that it is in my list of places in Tamil Nadu to visit soon. This was a short trip, over a regular weekend rather than an extended one, and we packed in a fair amount of sightseeing even though we promise ourselves each time to set a more relaxed pace next time! I guess it is the excitement of seeing the marvellous buildings and sculptures that numbs us to our fatigue.
Most of the temples I have visited are from approximately the same period, between 800 and 1200. The last temple that we did not see was quite the lesson in its unusual statue of Kartikeya. I have an eye for the Nataraja and the Mahishasuramardini, and variations in their posture leap out to me. The variation is insignificant among Chola temples of the medieval era but when comparing temples of an earlier age or a different location, it is remarkable to see how strong Chola influence was in the arts and the gradual standardisation of deity postures. Even at Mahabalipuram, Mahishasura is shown running away from Durga rather than under her feet; at Cave XVI in Ellora, Mahishasura looked more like a man with odd martial headgear than a buffalo as he came to be represented. Skanda went atop a peacock, Mahishasura went under Durga’s foot, and the Nataraja evolved in several ways too. Perhaps these are obvious observations to those well-versed in Indian art history but to me, not even an amateur, they are profoundly interesting.
If you are truly interested in Indian art and architecture, the only way to visit South Indian temples is two or three days at a time. That should allow for about six temples; any more, in my opinion would simply result in temple fatigue, where all the sculptures begin to appear similar and the finer points are entirely missed. I realise this is not very helpful for anyone outside the four southern states of India, but that is just how it is. I remember how, on one of my 15-day trips through Spain, all the churches started to look alike after about the eighth day…and those are rather simple structures in comparison to temples like Airavateshwara. One option is to break the pattern with something completely different like Rajasthani forts, the ruins of the Indus Valley Civilisation, or scuba diving in the Andamans. However, this luxury puts tourist budgets under much stress.
The temples could have been cleaner, as I have said many times before, but travelling with friends from the region immunises you from the woes of ordinary tourists. The general impression that I got from Darasuram and Thanjavur was that a lot of work remains to be done in making these places tourist-friendly but until then, I suggest everyone find a knowledgeable Tamil friend or three – there is no better way to travel that South Indian state!
A few photographs from our Tamil walkabout: