Adi Kesava Perumal

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The Adi Kesava Perumal Temple is a Vaishnava temple dedicated to Vishnu in the form of Adi Kesava Perumal and his consort goddess Lakshmi as Mayurvalli Tayyar, in Mylapore, the heart of Chennai and the capital of Tamil Nadu. The temple is built in typical Dravidian architecture with a high gopuram at the entrance, a low vimana of the main deity and other subsidiary shrines, mandapams and other structures in two prakaras. The temple is believed to be the birthplace of Pei Alwars, one of the first three Alwars, or the third Alwar. The temple is located at Kesava Perumal Street, Mylapore, Chennai.

The Age of the Temple

There are various estimates of the age of this temple, depending upon various different criteria. The traditional Hindu method says that the temple was constructed in the Dwapara Yuga. The scholarly estimate of the place is not very clear but it is considered to be the birthplace of Pei Alwar, the third Alwar and his age is estimated to be 713 CE. This indicates that the temple could also be of the same age. However, this is the estimate of the temple institution and not of the actual architectural structure.

The present architectural structure of the Adi Kesava Perumal temple is not very old. It is only about 300 to 400 years old as the temple was relocated from its original location during the 16th century, when the Portuguese had arrived in India and had wreaked havoc on the Hindu temples, culture and population on the coastal regions of India. They destroyed many ancient temples along the cost of India such as the Sun Temple of Konark, which received terminal damage after the Portuguese destroyed it.

Similarly, the Portuguese destroyed temples in Tamil Nadu too. This is not the place to go into the Saint Thomas Church vs. Kapaleeswarar Temple dispute, but suffice to say that during the 16th century, the Christians destroyed the ancient Kapaleeswarar Temple and built in its place what is now the Saint Thomas Cathedral. The Kapaleeswarar Temple was then relocated to another place.

The story is that the place to which the new Kapaleeswarar Temple was relocated to was the original place of the Adi Kesava Perumal Temple. The Adi Kesava Perumal Temple had also been destroyed by the Christians by that time and after the Kapaleeswarar Temple had been relocated to its place, the Adi Kesava Perumal Temple was relocated to its present place. That is why the present temple is not much older than 350 years or so. The main shrines inside of Adi Kesava Perumala and the Tayyar shrine have the same age. The temple gopuram at the entrance is even newer in origin and is just sixty years old. It was built after Bharat's independence.

Dravidian Temple Architecture

The temple is built in classical Dravidian Hindu temple architecture with the typical elements that are common in Tamil Hindu temples. The Dravidian style of architecture, standardized during the reigns of the Pallava and Chola dynasties have some common features or architectural parts which differentiate them from temples of other regions and styles.

The Tamil Nadu temples are built in the constituent parts of prakaras and gopurams. Prakaras are the square or rectangular courtyards that are concentric. Most temples in Tamil Nadu have more than one courtyard while the Great temple at Srirangam, Tiruchirapalli has seven concentric courtyards.

These courtyards have stone wall boundaries on all sides with gates at their centers. These gates are called gopurams. Sometimes one gate is built higher than the others and sometimes all four gates at four cardinal directions are of the same height, like at the Meenakshi temple, Madurai. Though the gopurams are just gates, they too have vimanas or superstructure of their own. These vimanas have many talas, though they are decorative and have no entrance. As the Hindu temple evolved in Tamil Nadu these vimanas became higher and higher and many of them have as many as eleven talas.

The courtyards hold many shrines, mandapams and other structures. The free standing pillared halls are frequently found in the Tamil Nadu temples. The basic feature which distinguishes the temples of Tamil Nadu and Kerala from other regions in India, is that a temple in Tamil Nadu is constituted from many different free standing constituent parts and is not a continuous whole as a Chalukya or a Hoysala temple of Karnataka is. The other temple undertaken for this study in Karnataka is architecturally such a composite whole.

Temple Kalyani is an integral part of any temple anywhere in India, even though in the north its tradition is now lost, but in Tamil Nadu its importance is even more. Almost every great temple celebrates float festival in these temple Kalyani, or temple tank in which the Utsava Murti of the main deity is taken on the shoulders of the priests and the devotees or in a floating vahana and the focus of the temple shifts for some time to the centre of the tank in which the Utsava Murti stays for awhile.

There are many subsidiary buildings in great temples like temple kitchen, storage, dwellings for the priests and the other temple attendants, temple shop etc. The Ranganathar Swamy temple, Srirangam, Tiruchirapalli has even national banks and ATMs within the official premises of the temple!

Architecture of the Temple

The Adi Kesava Perumal Temple is built in an area of 1.5 acres. It has two prakarams or precincts. The plan is rectangular and the temple is surrounded by a 10 ft high wall. The vimanas of the gopuram is of five tiers and depicts the Vaishnava mythology with many avatars of Vishnu and the story of Sage Vikhanas. The inside of the gopuram is also sculpted with low relief sculptures depicting the ten avatars of Vishnu, the twelve Alwars, scenes from the epics and other celestial creatures, attendants of the deities etc.

The main shrines in the temple are:

  1. Adi Kesava Shrine – The shrine of the main deity, the sacred center of the temple.
  2. Mayurvalli Tayyar Shrine – The shrine of the goddess Mahalakshmi, called Tayyar in Tamil.
  3. Alwar Shrines – The shrine of Pei Alwar, one of the first three Alwars along with the shrines of the other alwars. There is a separate Andal shrine too, who was the only female among the twelve Alwars.
  4. Kondandaramaswamy Shrine – The shrine housing Rama, Sita and Lakshman, in the form of Kodandaramaswamy.

Apart from these shrines, there is Garuda mandapam in front of the Adi Kesava shrine, which is not a complete shrine in itself, but nevertheless qualifies as such for all practical purposes. As the devotee enters the temple, before the Garuda mandapam there is the Dhwaja Stambha in the Dhwaja mandapam. Before it there is the Bali Pitha.

In front of the Kodandaramaswamy shrine there is Anjaneya mandapam housing Hanuman. There is also the shrine of Narasimha in the form of Yoga Narasimha. In the north side of the temple there is Vahana mandapam where the temple vehicles are kept.

Another special mandapam within the temple is the Kalyana mandapam which is used for many purposes in the temple, but especially during the festivals. All kinds of ceremonies etc. take place in this mandapam. Veda Paranayam, the recitation of the Vedas is also done in this mandapam.

The Kalyana mandapam also has the Yaga Shala, or the Yajna vedi, the fire altar in which the fire sacrifice is made. Unlike temples which follow the Panchratra mode of worship or Agama, the Vaikhanasa temples continue the Vedic tradition of offering fire sacrifices with the recitation of the Vedic mantras. This Yaga Shala is used for this specific purpose. There is also a sacred pipal tree in the precincts of the temple. The sequence of structures from the entrance is: main entrance (gopuram); bali pitha; dhvaja stambham; Garuda mandapam; ardha mandapam leading to the main shrine; main shrine dedicated to Adi Kesava. The shrines of the two Alwars are on the lateral sides of the central shrine, on the two sides of the mandapam. The shrine of the goddess is to the right of the main shrine.

The Description of the Deity

The temple is dedicated to Adi Kesava, a form of Kesava. The word Kesava means the god who killed the demon Kesi – hence Kesava. The deity is called Adi Kesava because it represents not just the historical figure who killed the demon Kesi, but the eternal and timeless form of Vishnu, or the Supreme Consciousness.

According to an alternative Vaishnava interpretation, the word ‘Kesava’ is interpreted as the one who is the head of Brahma and Shiva.

In the temple, he is standing erect and holds Shankha in his upper right hand; chakra in his upper left hand; while his lower right hand is in abhaya hasta; and the lower left hand is in kati hasta which is also called as katyavalambita pose. The abhaya hasta symbolizes protection. The deity is giving protection to the devotee. The katyavalambita pose is a relaxed pose but which also symbolizes that the deity will deliver the devotee from the bonds of illusion. The image is built in granite like all other images of the temple. There is no image of either Sridevi or Bhudevi with Kesava. The goddess has a separate shrine in this temple.

The goddess, Mayurvalli Tayyar, in her own shrine is sitting in padmasana pose. The upper hands hold nilotpala flower. The lower right hand is in abhaya hasta and the lower left hand is in varada hasta. Varada hasta symbolizes offering, welcome, charity, giving, compassion and sincerity. Mayuravalli means, with the eyes of a peacock. Hence the goddess is called the goddess with the eyes of a peacock. She is also called thus because the area in which the temple currently stands, Mylapore is the ancient Mayurapuri of the Puranas and it was named so because there were many mayuras (peacocks) in the region.

Kodandaramaswamy means Rama with his bow, which is called his bow. This is the usual way in which Rama is depicted in the south. In this temple too he is depicted as such. He holds the kodanda or the bow in his left hand and the arrow in his right hand. He stands with three bends in the body, in the tribhanga posture. He wears a kirita mukuta, as Rama was a king. It is believed that while Rama was returning to Ayodhya, after defeating demon Ravana, he made a sojourn at this place.

Sita stands on the right of Rama. She stands in the sambhanga posture, or with no bend in the body. She wears a karanda mukuta. She holds a nilotpala flower in her left hand and the right hand is handing down freely. Lakshman stands to the left of Rama. His height is lesser than that of Rama but he is shown in almost the similar way in which Rama is showed.

Hanuman in the Anjaneya mandapa has his right hand on his mouth, as a token of loyalty and his left hand hanging down freely. The image of the main deity, Adi Kesava is said to be ancient and original. During the Islamic invasions under the Madurai Sultanate and the attacks by the Portuguese, while the temple structures could not be saved due to their immovability, the temple idols were saved by sometimes taking them to a secret location and sometimes closing off the garbha-griha with a temporary wall. This is the reason that many ancient dhruva beras, the primary image of the deity in the garbha-griha survived.

Sthala Puranam

The Adi Kesava Perumala Temple has a very interesting temple legend. During the Samudra Manthan, when Lakshmi came out of the churning of the ocean, Vishnu instructed her to go to the ashram of Sage Bhrigu as his daughter. She then went and started living in the ashram of Sage Bhrigu as her daughter. She was known as Bhargavi, the daughter of Sage Bhrigu. It is in this form that she was offered to Lord Vishnu in marriage by Sage Bhrigu. Hence, Lord Vishnu married Bhargavi, the daughter of Sage Bhrigu.  This is the place where it seems to have taken place.

As is usual in Hindu mythology, the Sthala Puranam is not very much concerned with the exact geographical location of a specific historical event. Instead it pertains to the essence of a spiritual secret which is conveyed through a fantastic Puranic lore. This is also true about the present temple.

But this is not where the Sthala Puranam of Adi Kesava Perumal ends. This temple prides itself over the fact that it is the place where Lord Shiva absolved himself of Brahmahatya, the crime of killing a Brahmin, when he had cut off one of the heads of Brahma. This is how the story goes.

Once while Shiva was sitting on Mount Kailash, Brahma came and failed to wish him and give him due respect. Brahma had developed ego and started thinking that the world that he had given birth to was real. In other words, he had started believing in his own Maya and that is why in order to destroy that ego of Brahma, Shiva cut off one of his five heads. Brahma then repented, acknowledged his ignorance and the mistake of believing in the illusory world and forming a Linga started worshipping Lord Shiva. He was then absolved of his papa (पापम्) of believing in Maya.

It is believed according to the Sthala Puranam of the Kapaleeswarar temple that the place where Brahma worshipped Shiva was Mylapore, which is why the temple is situated there. The world ‘Kapaleeshwar’ is made of two words, ‘Kapala’ + ‘Eeshwar’, which means the god who holds the severed head of Brahma in his hands.

The way in which the Sthala Puranam of Kapaleeswarar temple is connected to the temple legend of Adi Kesava Perumal temple is very interesting. It is said that after killing Brahma, severing off his fifth head, Lord Shiva incurred the papa of killing a Brahmin and much as he wanted he could not shake off the head of Brahma from his hands. It is then that he left to wander as a sadhu, a wandering mendicant, to atone for the papa of killing a Brahmin. According to various legends he holds the skull of Brahma as the begging bowl in his hands, or alternatively he cannot shake off the head of Brahma from his hands.

This form of Shiva is called as bhiksatan-murti and is a very popular theme with the artists and sculptors in south India. The bhiksatana murti can be found on all major Shaiva temples of antiquity including the Kailashanatha temple, Kanchipuram, Brihadeeswarar temple, Thanjavur, Airavateswar temple, Darasuram etc.

Some stories tell that it is at Varanasi that Shiva got absolved of his papas of Brahma Hatya, the sing of killing a Brahmin. But the Sthala Puranam of Adi Kesava Perumal says that it was at the Adi Kesava Perumal temple that Shiva got absolved of his papa. When he came here the head of Brahma disappeared on its own and he got liberation from the papa that he had accrued.

According to Garuda Purana, it was goddess Mahalakshmi who was residing at Mayurapuri. When Shiva came to Adi Kesava temple to ask for alms, goddess Mahalakshmi ran to give him alms and at her touch, the head of Brahma disappeared and he was absolved of his papas. It is at this juncture that Lord Vishnu appeared and married Mahalakshmi.

The temple legend also says that Shiva in Bhiksatana Murti had acquired a skin disease at the killing of Brahma and he cured it by bathing in the Chitra Pushkarini of Adi Kesava Perumal temple, the sacred temple tank which is built in the Ishana Kona of the temple.  The temple legend claims that it was the grace of Adi Kesava, Lord Vishnu which made it happen.

The story is a depiction of how the sacred geography of India is recreated. A story which was famous about Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh is recreated in Tamil Nadu. It is also a story of who space is made sacred by the Sthala Puranam. How the temple legends interact with each other and maintain a dynamic balance between the Shaiva, Vaishnava and other sects.

The legend of Kapaleeswarar and Mayurapuri is mentioned in Brahmanda and Garuda Purana. Thus this temple finds mention in the Puranas. The temple authorities claim that in the third chapter of Garuda Purana and the first chapter of Brahmanda Purana, the temple legend is to be found.

The temple is not one of the 108 Divya Desams, but its glory is connected to Sri Parthasarthy Swamy temple at Triplicane which is a Divya Desam. It is believed that once a small rivulet ran from one temple to the other and at the either ends of the rivulet were the temple ponds of the two temples under discussions here. Clubbed with the Parthasarthy Swamy temple at Triplicane, the Adi Kesava Perumal Temple, Mylapore is believed to be a Divya Desam.

The temple tank Chitra Pushkarini or Chitra Kulam also has a legend of its own. Once the moon god, Chandra committed a papa and thus got a blemish. He wandered from place to place in search for the absolution of his papa and he found it in the temple tank of Adi Kesava Perumal temple, where he bathed and his blemish got removed. That is why it is called the Chandra Pushkarini. Over the ages it became Chitra Pushkarini or Chitra Kulam.

The temple is also said to be the birthplace of Pei Alwar who is believed to be born on a flower inside the temple tank of Adi Kesava Perumal. He is also considered to be an incarnation of the sword of Vishnu, the sword called Nandakanam.

Worships Offered

Daily Sevas

The worship is offered to Adi Kesava, six times a day starting from 06:30 in the morning to 08:00 in the evening. It is called Nitya Shada Kala Aradhana – the worship that is offered six times a day.

  1. Vishwaroopa Puja     – 06:30 AM
  2. Ushathakalam         – 08:30 AM
  3. Kalasanthi             – 11:30 AM
  4. Saya Rakshai         – 06:00 PM
  5. Ardha Jamam         – 07:30 PM
  6. Sayana             – 08:30 PM

Each worship is offered in three steps:

  1. Alankaram (decoration);
  2. Naivedyam (food offering) and;
  3. Deepa Aradhana (waving of lamps).

The worship is offered to both Sri Aadi Kesava Perumal and his consort Sri Mayuravalli Thayar. During the worship, the priests recite the mantras of the Vedas and as prescribed by the Vaikhanasa Agama which the temple subscribes to.

The priest tells that the peculiar thing about this temple and some other Vaikhanasa Vaishnava temples is that they offer bilva patra to Mahalakshmi. Bilva Patra is generally offered to Lord Shiva. But the temple priest tells the story that in order to appease Vishnu, Lakshmi did penance in a forest of bilva and hence they are very dear to her. On every Friday in the special worship offered to her, bilva patra is offered. Every day in the morning a Yajna is performed in the Yaga Shala in the Kalyana Mandapa in the temple. Brahmins of any sect can recite the Vedas in this Yajna. Even Shaiva Brahmins recite the Vedas in the Vaishnava temples and vice-versa. However, Divya Prabandhams, the divine songs sung by the great Vaishnava Alwar saints are only to be sung by the Vaishnava priests.

Processions and Monthly Festivals

The processions of the deity are taken out around the temple on various occasions at weekly, monthly and yearly frequencies. Every Friday the procession of the goddess Mayuravalli Tayyar is taken out. The processions are taken out on many other festivals all across the year. In the weekly and monthly festivals the procession is taken out of the Utsava Murti in a Palki. However, in the yearly and major festivals the procession is taken out in the temple vahana. The procession is taken around the temple and involves the local community which lives in the streets around it. The temples of Tamil Nadu thus are an integral part of the social and spiritual life of the people.

There are five major monthly festivals which are celebrated in the temple. They are called Paksha Sevas or Panch Parva Utsavas.

  1. Masa Pravesha – the beginning of the month
  2. Poornima – the full moon day
  3. Shukla Ekadashi – the eleventh day of the waning moon
  4. Krishna Ekadashi – the eleventh day of the waxing moon
  5. Amavasya – the no moon day

Apart from this temple processions are taken out on the days of the Nakshatra of the particular deity of the temple like at Ardra, Mula, Shravana Nakshatra or at the Nakshtra of the Alwar saints. Ardra Nakshatra is the Nakshtra of Ramanujacharya.

  1. Mayuravalli Tayyar on Uthiram star
  2. Aandaal on the Pooram star
  3. Rama on Punarpoosam
  4. Poigai Alwar on Thiruvonam
  5. Bhoothathalwar on Avittam
  6. Peialwar on Sadayam

Yearly Festivals

There are many yearly festivals which are celebrated around the year.

  1. Brahmotsavam – The grandest festival is the Brahmotsavam which is celebrated in the month of Phanguni in March-April, coinciding with the month of Phalgun in the north.
  2. Navaratri – Navaratri, just like in north India, is also celebrated in this temple, in the honour of Mayuravalli Tayyar, the great goddess.
  3. Theppotsavam – One of the greatest festivals that are celebrated here is the Theppotsavam or the Float Festival. It is celebrated every month as well as once every year in the grandest float festival which is celebrated in and around the month of February. The main deity Kesava, Tayyar and Kodandaramaswamy are taken out on temple processions on different days. The temple Kalyani plays a central role in the float festival in which the deity is taken to the center of the tank in a mandapam where festivities take place.
  4. Vasantotsava – Vasantotsav is also celebrated in the month of February
  5. Podai Utsava – It is the great summer festival.
  6. Agneya Marga Utsava – It is celebrated for 21 days in the month of December, ten days before Vaikuntha Ekadashi and 11 days after it.
  7. Appai Masam – Ten day festival for Pei Alwar in the months of October-November. On the third day of Aippasi the three important Alwars are worshipped and Keshava Perumal, who adorns the Garuda Vahanam, is accompanied by the three Alwars.

Many times during the year some festivals clash. So when the weekly festival is to be celebrated the daily worship takes a back seat. When a monthly festival occurs it takes precedence over the weekly festival. Similarly the yearly festivals take precedence over the monthly festivals and the Brahmotsavam takes precedence over every other festival. The priest tells that in bigger temples like the Tirupati temple, all pujas go on simultaneously as so the manpower and resources are available, but not in every temple.

Other Particulars

The temple has a flower garden which provides flowers to the temple. Vrikshi and Nadyavarta flowers are used in the temple. The temple also has a Goshala of its own. There used to be a Vaishya community called Chettiyas who donated many jewels to the temple. The temple also has its own musician community called Nadaswaram, who are the only community which can play music on special occasions in the temple. The temple is a great center for many Prayaschittams. People come to this temple to offer Prayaschittam; and also pray for having children or for a good bride and groom.