Srirangam

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Srirangam Temple

Srirangam, also known as Thiruvarangam is one of the foremost among the 108 Vaishnava temples. It is situated 10kms from Tiruchirapalli district in Tamil Nadu. Here, Vishnu in the form of Sri Ranganatha is seen reclining on the coils of Adisesha. A temple in tamil is called 'koil'. However, among the Vaishnavas, the common noun koil is an invariable reference to the temple of Srirangam. Such is the vital position occupied by this temple within the tradition of Vaishnavism. This temple is also one of the Pancha Ranga kshetras, the other four being, Adirangam (Mysore), Appalarangam (Thiruper), Chaturtharangam (Kumbakonam) and Pancharangam of Indalur/ Mayavaram.[1]

Introduction

Deities in the Indian culture are eulogized by various names. Mahavishnu in each of the temples dedicated to Him, is attributed a specific name and so, is his consort Mahalakshmi given a unique name in each kshetra. In Srirangam, also referred by-several names like Koil, Peria Koil, Tiruvarangam, Bhuloka Vaikuntham, Bhogamantapa and Namarangam, Mahavishnu is fondly referred to as Namperumal, our friend, philosopher and guide denoting the Lord's universal compassion. While the utsava deity of the Lord is known as Azhagiya manavalan (one of enchanting beauty) as His charm attracts all.[1] Not just the deities, even the gopurams (vimanas) ie. the conical structure that is erected towards the sky are also called by specific names. Each temple also has its own pushkarini (pond). And it is mostly, geographically, situated in the vicinity of a river.

The Alwars or saint-poets of the Vaishnava tradition are known to have sung hymns in praise of Vishnu residing in each of these 108 temples. That is also what makes these 108 temples very pivotal and sacred in the Vaishnava tradition.

Srirangam at a glance [1]

Vishnu is referred to as Sri Ranganatha, Peria Perumal, Nam Perumal
Lakshmi is referred to as Sri Ranga Nacchiar, Peria Piratti
Kshetra is A Pancharanga Kshetra
Vimana is referred to as Pranavakara Vimana
Pushkarini is referred to as Chandra Pushkarini
Vrksha is referred to as Punnai
River in the vicinity Kaveri, Kollidam and Vedashrngam
Hymns by Alwars 247
Location of the temple 10kms from Tiruchirapalli

Location

Srirangam is an island where the two rivers Kaveri and Kollidam encircle like a garland. It is about 31 kms long and 13 kms broad. And the Ranganatha temple stands on the western part of this island. Located in the picturesque island of palm and plantain trees, with acres and acres of fertile land, makes Ranganatha temple a terrestrial paradise.This holy shrine is also called as antyarangam as it lies encircled by the river Kaveri.[1]

History

Vaishnavism believes eight Vaishnava temple idols to be Svayam-vyakta (self-manifest forms of Vishnu) And Srirangam Ranganatha temple is considered foremost among them. It is said that the actual shrine arose out of the ocean. However, the temple itself has a traceable history. It finds mention in the Silappadigaram (One of the 5 great epics of Tamil Literature).[1] The text in Silappadikaram reads,

"After several days' journey, they (Kovalan and Kannagi) reached Srirangam, where the river (Kaveri) was hidden by the city." (Silappadikaram, Nadukankadai).[2]

Silappadikaram also relates that Ranga reclined in a thousand headed serpent couch. Therefore it is clear that Srirangam existed when Silappadikaram was composed. The place also finds a mention in Kovil Ozhugu (a chronicle written in the 11th Century)[3].

According to Prof. S. Narayanan, it can be deduced from the well preserved inscriptions that this temple enjoyed the patronage of almost all the famous ruling dynasties of South India; that rich endowments were made to the temple by the Cholas, Pandyas, Hoysalas, Vijayanagar Nayakas, Pallavas and Marathas. Itihasas like Ramayana and many puranas like Padma purana and Bhagavata purana also refer to the glory of this kshetra. However, it was during the Vijayanagara rule that the temple attained its pinnacle of glory.

13th Century was a crucial period in the history of the temple. During the invasion of Malik kafur's army in 1327, the deity was taken round the entire southern districts - to Azhagar koil near Madurai and from there to Kanyakumari and then to Kerala on its way to Satyamangalam, Gingee, Tirupati and Melkote before it was redeemed back to Srirangam. It was Swami Vedanta Desika, one of the greatest vaishnava acharyas who shifted the deity to Melkote and then to Tirumala. Finally, it is said that two Vijayanagar generals brought the Lord back to Srirangam. This is reinforced by Vedanta Desika's praise of them engraved on the walls of the temple.

Prof. S. Narayanan says,

"Very few temples in the country have so much religious, architectural and historical splendour as Srirangam temple. Even the architectural features of the temple demonstrate that the present temple was not the work of one dynasty but has gone through the centuries from modest beginnings."

The handiwork of several dynasties collectively constitutes the massive temple complex.

One case worth mentioning here is of the Mottai Gopuram. It originally, had just two tiers and was left incomplete by the Nayakas of Vijayanagar dynasty. The construction to complete this structure commenced in May 1979 at the instance of 44th jeeyar (pontif) of Ahobila Mutt who was then 87 year old and was completed in 1987 in a record time of eight years. It is mentioned that despite his advanced age, the sanyasi went up the temple tower block almost daily to supervise personally the work in progress.[1]

Structure

The 7 Prakara Structure at Srirangam[4]

The Srirangam Ranganatha temple is known as a Sapta Prakara Sthala. The Ranga vimana embellished with gold stands as a pranava (Aum) encircled by the sapta prakaras. There are in all 21 towers in the temple forming entrances and is encircled by high walls and is dressed in stone and lime. Out of the 21 towers, 7 are on the southern side, 6 are on the north side, 4 are on the east and 3 on the west. The twenty-first tower is the sanctum of Goddess Ranganayaki. And to the right of Thayar sannidhi (Sansctum of the Goddess) is the shrine of Mettu Azhagiya Singar. Here, Lord Narasimha is seen pulling out the entrails of Hiranya and wearing it as garland. The towers are full of myriad sculptures of figures, processions, musicians playing different instruments, beasts and demons, couples in fond embrace, elephants, horses, dancers, devotees and brave warriors. The ceilings and pillars are also lavishly decorated with superb carvings. The walls are ornamented with gold paintings depicting 108 divya desas. As they are labelled in Telugu it is inferred that they may have been presented by the Nayaka Rajas of Tanjore. Also, the Garuda image at the entrance, hailed as Periya Thiruvadi is the biggest one of its kind. While the thousand pillared hall of the temple erected by Dandanayaka and Perumal Devan during Vijayanagar rule, is supported with 951 monolithic pillars. However, during the construction of this mandapa the place was attacked by an enemy and was therefore left incomplete. Even the Rajagopuram that is 236 feet high is the tallest one in the whole of Asia and the tallest temple tower in the world. The temple has 56 sanadhis (sanctum sanctorums) and is so big that a devotee without a proper guide will get lost at some point. The temple also once upon a time consisted of nine holy theerthas (holy ponds) and 34 Nandavanas.

It is believed that the seven prakaras are symbolic of the seven worlds. The four vedas and shastras are the sthupis. The 24 pillars represent Gayatri mantra. The four sides of the sanctum are guarded by Narayana, Napinalina, Nagasayana and Narasimha. Also, at the northern entrance in the third circuit is the paramapada vasal or Vaikuntha Vasal, a most sacred spot. Every year on the Vaikuntha Ekadashi day this entrance assumes special importance and devotees who pass through this channel are believed to enter heaven.[1]

Pranava Vimana

The sanctum sanctorum of the Srirangam temple has a golden dome for its roof called the Ranga Vimana shaped like the first primordial sound Aum of the Vedas, called Pranava. The vimana is supported by the hood of Adishesha. The origin of the Ranga Vimana can be traced back to the beginning of creation when Lord Vishnu first created Brahma and initiated him into the Pranava and asked him to meditate on that along with the word Hari. Brahma started meditating on the pranava and as a result the four Vedas, the Gayatri mantra and several living beings appeared. Thereafter, Lord Narayana appeared before him and initiated him into Ashtakshara mantra Om Namo Narayanaya. Subsequently owing to Brahma's tapas, there arose from the Milky Ocean the divine Ranga Vimana shining with the celestial effulgence in which Lord Ranganatha in yoganidra was reclining on the serpent Adisesha. Also the inmates of Sri Vaikuntha, Lord Vishnu's heavenly abode, were present. Brahma prayed to Lord Ranganatha to remain in the Vimana forever and the lord granted his wish. Ranga vimana is also the name given to a special chariot for Vishnu carried by Veda Murthis on their heads.[1]

Nandavana

The flowers and garlands that adorn the deities of the Srirangam temple are special. At one point of time this temple is said to have had as many as 34 nandavanams, thanks to the bountiful Kaveri and the Kollidam. And the garlands made from the flowers of these nandavana alone adorn the presiding deity Sri Ranganatha and his consort. The garlands are made of white and red flowers and leaves, making it a colourful spectacle; truly a vanamala, a favourite of the Lord.[1]

Legends

There are many interesting legends enumerated with regards to the temple of Srirangam. Some of them are as follows.

Sriranga sthapana

According to the Brahmanda purana, long long ago the murthi of Sriranga Perumal (the lord of Srirangam) along with the Ranga Vimana emerged out of Ksheerabdhi (the milky ocean). This was in response to a severe penance of Brahma for thousand long years and more who worshipped the Lord in Satyaloka. From Brahma subsequently the idol was passed on to Ikshvaku, the son of Manu and was being worshiped as the family deity of that dynasty till the time of Sri Rama. After the conquest of Ravana, out of great affection for Vibhishana, Sri Rama then handed over the idol and the vimana to Vibhishana. Vibhishana intended to take the Lord and the Vimana to his kingdom Lanka. However, while he was carrying them, he placed the two on the ground between the two rivers at Srirangam in order to complete his evening prayers. But to his utter grief, Sri Ranganatha installed himself at that very spot and was immovable, settling there permanently and the Vimana could not be lifted. Both the Lord and the Vimana were to remain forever on the banks of river Kaveri. Vibhishana was crest fallen at this. However, the Lord assured him that he would always look southward towards Sri Lanka lying on his serpent couch. This event is believed to have occurred in the tamil month of Panguni and this is celebrated in all grandeur as Adi Brahmotsava in Panguni month at Srirangam.[1] [3]

Sriranga Vaikuntha

It is believed that the river Kaveri is the very same river Viraja that eternally flows in Vaikuntha and Srirangam is considered as a heaven on earth - Bhuloka Vaikuntha. Hence, it is foremost among the 108 divya desas, the last one being Vaikuntha itself.[1]

Raja Dharma Varma, one of the early Chola rajas, was the first devotee who had the privilege of constructing a temple around the vimana. He constructed a huge temple at the spot with a Gopuram, Pushkarini, Mantapas and other structures as laid down in the Agamas.[3]

However, according to a legend, huge floods of the two rivers in the vicinity devastated the country side and the idol of Sri Ranga got submerged. The entire temple was covered with sand and the overgrowth around it hid it completely from outside view. As a result, the Sriranga temple on the river bank was forgotten. However, a devotee used to regularly sing the hymns of Sri Ranga at this place and a parrot used to listen. Even after the temple was engulfed, the parrot, true to its nature recited the hymns daily. A descendant of Dharma Varma, called Kili Chola, accidentally reached the spot at the riverbank during one of his hunting sojourn and was astonished at what he heard and saw.[1] [3] The parrot recited the following hymn,

कावेरी विरजा सेयं वैकुण्ठं रङ्गमन्दिरम् । स वासुदेवो रङ्गेशः प्रत्यक्षं परमं पदम् ॥

विमानं प्रणवाकारं वेदशृङ्गं महात्भुतम् । श्रीरङ्गशायी भगवान् प्रणवार्थप्रकाशकः ॥[3]

kāverī virajā seyaṁ vaikuṇṭhaṁ raṅgamandiram । sa vāsudevo raṅgeśaḥ pratyakṣaṁ paramaṁ padam ॥

vimānaṁ praṇavākāraṁ vedaśr̥ṅgaṁ mahātbhutam । śrīraṅgaśāyī bhagavān praṇavārthaprakāśakaḥ ॥

Meaning: What Viraja is to Vaikuntha, is Kaveri to Srirangam, Srirangam is Vaikuntham itself, Ranga is Vasudeva, the Vimana is Pranava and it is Ranga who propounds the Pranava.

Also, the same night, the supreme Lord Ranganatha appeared in the Raja's dream and informed him of the Vimana buried under the sand dune. And like a true devotee, the Raja excavated the divine treasure and also renovated the temple. Thus, a shrine rose into being, Srirangam flourished and the Chola Raja came to be known as Killi Cholan. Even in sangam classics we find the name of Killi Cholan.[1]

Identifying Ranganatha

Once there was confusion about the identity of the original idol of the Lord. At that time, it was left to the washerman engaged in temple services to identify the right deity. Water after ablution of the two idols was given separately to the washerman. He on tasting, in great joy went on uttering 'this is our Perumal, this is our Perumal'. He is said to have identified the lord by the smell of butter sticking on the butter thief (Krishna). The washerman who could thus distinguish the deity was named as Iramkolli meaning 'water taster'.

Nacchiars

According to tradition, Lord Ranganatha has five consorts - Ranganayaki, Andal, Chozhakulavalli, Cherakulavalli and Biwi Nachiyar.

  • An interesting incident recorded during the period of Nanda Chola is that the Raja once found in his lily pond a heavenly female child floating on a lotus. He took it as a gift from the Almighty and named her Kamalavalli as she was found on the petals of a lotus flower. When she came of age, she met Lord Ranganatha and immediately fell in love with him. The Raja Nanda Chola consummated her marriage to Ranganatha with great pomp. When the heavenly born daughter was taken inside the sanctum, it is said that she merged with the Lord in a blaze of light. In commemoration of his daughter's marriage, Nanda Chola then constructed two temples, one for Kamalavalli and the other for Azhagiya Manavala at Uraiyur.
  • It was at this temple that unable to bear the pangs of separation from the deity, a Muslim princess Bibi is believed to have breathed her last. She attained salvation and merged with the Lord at Srirangam. And hence, till date she is worshipped as Bibi Nacchiar or Tulukacchi Nacchiar. And everyday prasada seva of roti and butter is offered to her.
  • Even, Chola Kula Valli, daughter of the Chola Raja Dharma Verma and Chera Kula Valli, daughter of Chera Raja Kulasekara are believed to have attained eternal bliss at this temple.
  • A Lady at Karambanoor, staunch devotee, would not touch food without worshipping Manavala Perumal. During Muslim invasion, when the deity was taken away from Srirangam, she followed the camp soldiers and became their camp follower. Once she reached Delhi with the Moghul soldiers and managed to locate the deity in the bedroom of the princess, she returned to Srirangam and narrated to the chief priest the whereabouts of Manavala Perumai. For this act of steadfast devotion, she was rightly named Pinsendravalli (the lady who followed the idol). Kodavar's son who brought back the idol to Srirangam was named as Thiruttazhvarai Dasar and the troupe of dancers who helped in reverting the deity were named as Isai Ariyum Perumal Kootattar (the troupe which brought back the lord with music).

Dhanvantari

The shrine of Dhanvantari (the celestial physician) is a special feature of Srirangam not found in any other temple. The legend goes thus. Once when Lord Ranga was afflicted with severe cold and cough after consuming Jambu fruits with curds, it was the physician Dhanvantari who prepared a mixture and cured the Lord and naturally a shrine was built for him.[1]

Azhwars and Acharyas

The temple of Srirangam is sanctified by eleven of the twelve Alwars including Andal. The only exception being Madurakavi Alwar for whom there was no other god other than Nammalwar, his acharya.

  • Andal would not think of anyone other than Ranganatha to wed. It was her childhood desire and dream to marry Lord Ranganatha. She could not imagine anyone other than the unchallenged Master of the Cosmos as her lord, least any other mortal. She wished to marry the only Purushottama exalted in the Purusha Sukta. The Lord, the Paratatva, the root cause of the universe, answered her prayers and it was at this temple that she merged with Lord Ranganatha in the sanctum sanctorum
  • In honour of the devotion of Sri Kulasekhara Alwar, there is a step in front of the Moola Vigraha. This is called Kulasekhara Padi. It was here that Nammalwar's magnum opus, the Tiruvaymozhi attained the exalted status.
  • It is said that at this temple Thirumangai Alwar recited the Tamil Prabandams to God's satisfaction and immense joy. Since it was his earnest desire and cherished wish that Prabandam should also be recited along with the Vedas on Ekadashi day during bright Margazhi. The Lord who is the nectarine essence of all Vedas immediately obliged and established the practice of reciting both the Tamil Prabanbams and the Sanskrit Vedas. This is followed till this date during Adhyayanan Utsav, preceding and following Vaikuntha Ekadashi.
  • Sri Ramanuja spent his last twenty years at Srirangam. His Brindavanam is inside the temple on the east. Just as a Raha rules his country, Ramanuja controlled this temple and hence was rightly called Yathiraja-Raja of ascetics. Ramanuja is so inseparably linked with this temple that he is enshrined in Vasanta mandapa and his image has been sculpted and kept for all to worship at the Udayavar sannidhi.
  • It was at this temple that Lord Ranganatha asked Manavala Mamuni to chant Thiruvazhmozhi. It is said that the Divine Couple regularly enjoyed the recital. It was again at this Divya desa that Lord Ranganatha as a young boy stood before Manavala Mamuni with folded hands engrossed in his poetic recital. It is believed here that the Tulasi-wreathed Lord himself performs the rituals of Manavala Mamuni every year.
  • This was were Swami Desikan composed his Paduka Sahasram, the highest seal of his genius. A special shrine for Swami Vedanta Desika exists facing the Thayar Sannidhi.
  • Nampillai, a great Vaishnavite scholar and seer, discoursed on religious themes to groups of devotees at Srirangam. It is believed that the Lord regularly attended all his lectures and an intimate temple servant ordered him to go back to his rightful place, the sanctum sanctorum. Till today this incident is narrated to all the devotees.
  • The great Tamil poet, Kamban chose this temple to inaugurate his lyrical masterpiece famously acclaimed as the Kamba Ramayanam. It is said that Kamba Ramayanam was read out by Kamban before a panel of scholars and Lord Narasimha gave his approval with a big roar of joy.[1]

Festivals and Seva

"Srirangam is one of the few temples in South India that has festivals to honour its Lord and his consorts throughout the year. A grand total of, approximately, three hundred and twenty two festivals take place annually at the Srirangam temple. To enjoy all festivals of this renowned temple one has to sojourn at least one whole year.", Prof S. Narayanan.

  • It is said that once, the Raja of Vijaynagara, his spouse, son and daughter-in-law arrived late to witness a festival. When the Raja wanted the festival to be reenacted, he was asked to come next year. That was the famous Padi Etra Sevai, the Lord's enchanting return to the sanctum climbing the steps  A festival in the tamil month of Panguni, on full moon day when the Moon is in conjunction with the star Uthara. This is of a special significance as far as Srirangam is concerned because on this day both the Lord and his Consort are seen on the same throne. This rare sight of the heavenly couple is said to have sent Sri Ramanuja into emotional raptures who immediately composed and presented Saranagati Gadhya. And the very next moment he also performed Saranagati and took refuge at the lotus feet of Divine Couple.
  • Likewise, a farmer, after his first successful crop, is said to offer the grains first to the Lord of Srirangarn with the words, Tiruvarangam Periya Koil. They believe that by this, their offering will be returned multifold by the Lords grace.
  • The Srirangam temple follows Sri Ramanuja sampradaya in every letter. Especially, Vaikuntha Ekadashi day reaches the apex of its glory in this temple.
  • Interestingly, Sriranga Nachiar (the consort of the lord here) is known as Paditanda patni (the chaste lady who never steps beyond the threshold). Therefore, all the festivals are conducted at the Nachiar sannidhi adjacent to Vasanta Mandapam.
  • Araiyar Seva at this temple is very famous and a specialty. There is an interesting tradition about the procession of the idols known for its captivating and bewitching gait. As per tradition, a group of devotees known as Sri Padam Thangis are only permitted to render Suprabhata to the Lord and it is their prerogative.[1]

References

  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 Prof. S. Narayanan (April 2004), 108 Temples of Azhvars, Volume 1, Maharashtra: Sri Ramanuja Mission.
  2. V.R.Ramachandra Dikshitar (1939), The Silappadikaram, Madras: Diocesan Press.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 T.S.Parthasarathy (July, 1954), The Koyil Olugu, Tirupati: Tirumalai Tirupati Devasthanams.
  4. dharmatoday.com