By Amrita Ramaswamy
Brahma-Svaruupe Shruti-Muurti-Ruupe |
Shriirangga-Ruupe Ramataam Mano Me|
Meaning: Adi Shankara says in this compostition that his mind delights in the divine form of Lord Ranganatha, a form absorbed in Bliss and immersed in His Own Self. A form embodying the essence of Brahman and the essence of all the Shrutis (Vedas). A form that is cool like the moon and having exquisite beauty;
(Few verses from an Octet in praise of Lord Ranganatha – composed by Adi Shankara)
_ _ _ _ _ _
Though South India is especially abundant in ancient temples of very captivating architecture, detailed research on some of the temples have not been brought out so far to the public view. Sanctified by traditions, history and Vaishnava saints and religious heads, the Srirangam Temple of the Lord Ranganatha, a form of Vishnu, carved out a niche for itself and is the most famous amongst the galaxy of shrines.
The Ranganathaswamy Temple is located at Thiruvarangam, popularly known as Srirangam, in the Tiruchirapalli District of Tamil Nadu, and the temple is one of the most beautiful and considerable shrines in South India dedicated to Lord Ranganatha, an avataram (form) of Lord Vishnu. It is the largest functioning Hindu temple anywhere in the world! Surrounded by the two rivers, Cauvery and Kollidam, this shrine has a historical past of a great kingdom and a civilization dating back to thousands of years.
The Srirangam Temple and the Tamil Nadu region have a very rich history. For example, the rule of the Pallavas was marked by creating a religious foundation where they further strengthened Hindu institutions in Southern India, more particularly in the Carnatic region. The Cholas also reigned for hundred years over the Coromandel Coast and the more significant part of the Eastern Deccan, where they helped advance Hindu Culture. The history of the temple and the region, both good and bad, can’t be forgotten ever since this temple had gone through many challenges during various invasions. The perpetrators disregarded the rich religious significance of this temple and used it for their selfish interests. Having survived the repeated and intolerant assaults, the shrine is a popular tourist and pilgrimage location, attracting visitors from all over the world. Archaeological inscriptions found in the temple date back to the 10th century AD, and it was under the influence of the Chola, Pandya, Hoysala, and Vijayanagara Empires. This temple’s history dates back even further as a temple at Srirangam is mentioned numerous times in the Sangam Era Tamil literature, which date as far back as the 6th century BCE. Great care is taken at all times to maintain and continue the traditional customs of this religious shrine.
Bearing a beautiful Dravidian style architecture, the Srirangam Temple is surrounded by seven massive walls called ‘prakarams’ with a length extending over 6 miles. It consists of 21 Gopurams, 50 shrines, 39 pavilions, and the 1000 pillared hall (aayiram kaal mandapam). Besides this, the temple houses several shops, restaurants, and flower stalls situated in the outer courtyard. There are three inner enclosures taken together with the Arya-Bhatta and the paramapada gates defining the south-north axis. There are Mandapams (pillared halls) present too. Several shrines with reincarnations of Vishnu exist along with a shrine to Goddess Ranganayaki. This temple is built in the Sapta-Prakaram formation, which consists of a temple centered settlement pattern that comprises sapta (seven) concentric rectangular enclosures or prakarams formed by thick and substantial earthwork walls that run around the sanctum in which the deity presides.
Traditions at the Ranganathaswamy Temple include Vaikuntha Ekadasi, a renowned festival at this shrine that is celebrated with gaiety and pomposity. The paramapada vasa (ultimate destination gate) is opened during Vaikunta Ekadasi and entering this holy gateway, especially on Adhyayana Utsavam, is said to ensure entry to heaven. Besides, a gold ornament cleaning festival takes place annually. It is celebrated in Aani, the Tamil month of June-July where the deities are brought in chariots adorned with gold and silver. Brahmotsavam (Lord Brahma performed this celestial ceremony to Ranganatha) is another unique tradition of the Ranganathaswamy Temple, which lasts for three full days where sacred offerings are made to the deities. A parade (purappadu) is taken out in the evenings, and Lord Ranganatha is taken to a garden just parallel to the temple on the second day. On the third day, the deity is taken in a palanquin to a village on the opposite shore of the Cauvery River.
Among the several literary compositions on Sri Ranganatha, the Paduka Sahasram is one of the most revered poems comprising 1,008 verses that praise the Padukai (Holy Footwear) of Sriman Narayana (Lord Ranganatha). The Padhuka Sahasram, a magnum opus, was composed by Swami Vedanta Desikan, a Vaishnavite scholar, philosopher, logician, and a poet. The psalms in Paduka Sahasram praised the sandals that Lord Ranganatha wore in a thousand verses. There lies an interesting story behind the Paduka Sahasram. Swami Desikan was challenged by one of his contemporaries to write a 1,000 verses sloka on ANY subject of his choice in ONE NIGHT, and the winner would receive the title Maha Kavi (Revered Poet). Swami Desikan was not interested in receiving a claim for an accomplishment nor was he in the competitive spirit. Under the deluge of dilemma, he accepted this challenge upon the command of Lord Ranganatha to compose an accolade on his Anantha Kalyana Gunams (limitless auspicious characters). Therefore, Swami Desikan chose the subject of the sandals of Lord Ranganatha of Srirangam and created the 1,008 verses celebrating their magnificence. The competitor chose the theme of the Paadha Kamalam of Sri Ranganatha and barely completed 300 verses during the course of the night and quit. The next morning, Swami Desikan presented to Lord Ranganatha his work that was entitled “Sri Ranganatha Paduka Sahasram”. This was done at the temple, and he was honored by the erudite scholars and devotees assembled there. Most importantly, Swami Desikan received the blessings of Lord Ranganatha himself. An example of the first sloka (verse) in the Sahasram: “Sriranga PruthvIsha CharaNatrANasheKharA: Jayanti Bhuvana grANa padapankaja rENava.” The Prasthava Paddhathi means “Great men bear on their heads, with a great relish, the Paadu of Sri RanganAtha (the Lord’s Sataari = Nammazhvar). For this reason, they shine dust from their feet being potent enough to grant protection (and salvation, too) for all the worlds.”
Invasions & Resistance
The Ranganathaswamy Temple went through challenges from various invasions. Around 1327 CE, Malik Kafur, the general of Alauddin Khalji, the Sultan of Delhi, invaded Srirangam. Despite their efforts, citizens were unable to stand up against the powerful aggression of the Delhi Sultanate. The religious heads in Srirangam discussed what actions needed to be taken regarding the impending invasion, and a decision was made to divide into various groups for several covert tasks. One group under the leadership of Sri Pillailokacharya was to take the deity of Lord Ranganatha (Namperumal, a beautiful idol) in a covered palanquin and leave the temple before the invasion. This main idol was hid for several years in various locations, including the Tirupati Temple. The second group was to erect a stone wall in front of the sanctorum to save the inner temple from desecration. Another group fled with Goddess Ranganayaki (Lakshmi).
Sri Vedanta Desikan traveled with one of the groups and wanted to get hold of doctrines that held the teachings of Sri Ramanuja. In Samayavaram, a village a few miles away from Srirangam, the Delhi Sultanate army attacked and killed many in the group. Sri Vedanta Desikan concealed himself and his sons during this attack. Amidst corpses, they passed the night, and he took the boys and moved away unnoticed in the northwestern direction. After a journey of several days, they reached Sathyakalam, a remote village in the Karnataka region, where he stayed for several years. Swamy Desikan composed the Abheethi Stavam, a prayer on Lord Ranganatha himself where he hoped that the army of the Muslims and Yavanas would leave Srirangam.
Eventually, despite the plunder and attack on the Srirangam Temple, the main deities were saved, and the Vijayanagara Empire later defeated the rule of the Sultanate to free Srirangam. Swami Desikan composed two beautiful verses in Sanskrit to celebrate the return of Lord Ranganatha to Srirangam following the ousting of the Sultanate.
“AnIya neelasrnga dhyuthirachithajagadhranjanAdh anjanAdhrE:
samstThApyAm sarOjOdhbhava iva kuruthE sAdhuCharyAm saparyAm.”
This translates to “GopannAryA, the mirror of reputation, brought back Ranganatha from the Anjana mountain [Tirupathi Hills] which describes the world with the charm of the blue mountain peaks, worshipped him.”
Sacrifices During The Resistance: Vellai
The word Vellai in the Tamil language means white, but it also represents the name of a devadasi (a professional dancer) who sacrificed her life to protect the Namperumal idol of the temple.
In the year 1323, the Delhi Sultanate forces from the north of India invaded the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple. They looted the temple’s precious jewels and gold ornaments. It is said that they carried away precious jewels and gems in 20 bullock carts. However, due to the quick presence of mind, the main Namperumal idol was not pillaged. Why? Partly because of Vellai, otherwise known as Vellayamma.
It is said that to distract the sultanate forces from searching for the idol and to give time for Pillai Lokacharya to take it to safety, Vellayamma, a devadasi, danced for hours entertaining the sultanate army chief and his army. Towards the end, she lured the army chief to the top of a gopuram (temple tower) and pushed him down to death. To avoid the consequences, Vellayamma jumped to her death and sacrificed her life for Lord Ranganatha and Goddess Ranganayaki.
Later, Kumara Kampana, a prince of the Vijayanagara Empire, defeated the Sultanate forces. He named this temple gopuram in Srirangam after Vellayamma, hailed her sacrifice, and painted it white in her memory. Till date, the gopuram distinctly stands out among the 21 gopurams of the temple for its color and is still called Vellai Gopuram.
Srirangam is indeed the Divya Desam (Holy Shrines of Lord Vishnu) celebrated by the AzhwArs Saints through 247 pAsurams of the NaalAyira Divya Prabhandham. This is where AndAL, Kulasekhara AzhwAr, Tondardipodi, ThiruppAnAzhwAr, YatirAjar joined the Lord. AndAL and ThiruppANAzhwAr merged with the Lord in person; the rest ascended to Sri VaikunTam at this Divya Desam. Periya Nambi, ParAsara Bhattar, Pillai LokAcharya and many other AcharyAs were born here. AcharyAs like NathaMuni, AalavandhAr Swami Desikan, MaNavAla MaamunigaL and others lived here and offered their worship to Sri RanganathA and His PaadhukhAs. Suffice to say, the Sri Ranganathaswamy temple remains as a shrine to be remembered for its respectable works towards Hindusim and undergoing immense torture from outside forces.
[https://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/5894/#:~:text=Situated in an ethereal setting,Desams dedicated to Bhagwan Vishnu.](https://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/5894/#:~:text=Situated in an ethereal setting,Desams dedicated to Bhagwan Vishnu.)