Thursday, April 23, 2020

Srirangam and Thanjavur

Srirangam, Thanjavur

and 

Nearby Places


In February 2020, I had a unique opportunity to attend a winter school organized at Srirangam in Tamilnadu by Bhaktivedanta Instinstite, Bangalore. The winter school took place during 7 to 9 February and I was invited as one of the speakers. I started from Goa on the night of 5 February and after a change of flight in Bangalore around midnight, I reached Srirangam in the morning of 6 February. The winter schools was starting on the next day. Therefore on 6th, I visited the main temple in Srirangam which is the Ranganath Swamy temple and rested in the afternoon. The winter school started early in the morning on 7th Feb. In the 3 days of winter school, after attending different talks throughout the day, we would spend some time in the evenings visiting different places. Following is a brief account of my visits to some of the holy places in and around Srirangam.

Ranganath Swamy Temple, Srirangam


The town of Srirangam is located on an island formed on the holy river Kaveri. The river separates into north and south branches, creating an island on which one of the largest temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu stands. The deity of Lord Vishnu here is known as Ranganath Swamy. The deity originally appeared before Lord Brahma and it was subsequently handed down to Raghu dynasty on the Earth. Lord Rama gave this deity to Vibhishan who put this deity at Srirangam. Currently, this deity is present inside a  huge temple complex surrounded by seven walls and twenty one gopurams. The temple encompasses almost entire town of Srirangam. 

On the first day of the winter school, we visited the Ranganath Swamy temple in the evening. There was long queue and everybody waited for almost one hour to finally get darshan of the Lord. The deity is beautiful and huge. It is difficult to see the full form of the Lord in one glance due to the huge size. Lord reclines on Ananta Shesha and faces the south direction. The deity of Lord Ranganath is accompanied by Bhu Devi and Nila Devi. After taking darshan of Lord, we visited some of the other shrines  present inside the temple complex. These included the temple of Lakshmi Devi and Samadhi of Shri Ramanujacharya. There, a story of how Lord Ranganath planned to bring Ramanujacharya from Kanchipuram to Srirangam to fulfill the instructions of Yamunacharya was discussed. Our devotee guide explained this story in the most enjoyable manner. After spending some time in this way, our first day of winter school was concluded.

Shri Jambukeshwara Temple, Srirangam


On the second day of winter school, 8 February 2020, when all the invited talks were over in the late afternoon, we boarded buses and smaller vehicles to visit some of the important temples in and around Srirangam. The first temple visit was to Shri Jambukeshwara temple which is dedicated to Lord Shiva and Parvati. This temple is located near the Ranganath Swamy temple. The temple is surrounded by a huge wall and the area is quite large. On the way into the temple, we see an image of Shiva Lingam drawn on the roof of a small stone structure. The specialty of this image is that it can be always seen to be pointed in the direction of the seer. The passage ways of the temple are surrounded by huge and beautifully carved stone pillars. The room where Shiva Lingam is situated is a very small. The priests were allowing only 5 to 7 people at a time to come inside, have darshan of the Lingam and perform puja. Inside this small room, a large size Shiva Lingam is situated under a Jambu tree in a pond of water created by a natural water spring. Therefore, this Lingam is known as Jambukeshwara as well as Appulingam, the form of Shiva representing the water, one of the five pancha bhoota elements. The shrine of Parvati in her form of Akhilandeshwari is present in the other part of the temple complex. Lord Shiva, being pleased by the penance of Parvati, blessed her at this place. This temple is built around 2500 years ago by the Chola king Kochengat who in his previous birth of a spider worshiped Lord Shiva.

Lakshmi Narasimha Temple, Srirangam


The next temple to visit was the Lakshmi Narasimha temple which is situated around 2 km towards the east of the Ranganath Swamy Temple. The temple houses a deity of Lord Narasimha with Lakshmi Devi sitting on his lap on the left side. The Deity is in sitting position and around 6-7 feet tall. This temple was not as crowded as many other temples in the area and everyone had a nice and peaceful darshan of Lord. The priest showed the deity with a ghee lamp and offered puja on behalf of devotees. This temple is older than the Ranganath Swamy temple. The deity of Lakshmi Narasimha is self manifested and it is known by a special name Kaatu Azhagiya Singar. The place where the temple is situated was a forest in ancient times. The devotees, rishis and their families living in this forest were troubled by the attacks of elephants and other wild animals. Instead of using their mystic powers to stop these attacks, they prayed to Lord Narasimha for protection. Lord along with Lakshmi Devi appeared here and devotees constructed temple for Him. The wild animals slowly stopped coming in the forest and Lord stayed at this place on request by His beloved devotees. As this area was once very inaccessible, the utsava deity of this temple is traditionally kept at the Ranganath Swamy temple. Lord Ranganath visits this temple every year on the day of Vijaya Dashami on his horse and performs the pastime of killing a hunter.

Pundarikakshan Temple, Thiruvellarai


Next, we again boarded the vehicles and visited the Pundarikakshan located at a nearby place named Thiruvellarai. This is one of the oldest temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu. The temple is originally built by King Shibi, who ruled the earth much before Lord Rama. The architecture of the temple is also quite different. After we enter the outer wall decorated with gopurams, we enter the inner wall and then the main building of the temple can be entered from a door which leads to a stone staircase. After climbing the stairs, we get the Darshan of the deity of Lord Pundarikakshan. The deity is huge and it is in standing position and the Lord is decorated with very big eyes having a shape of Lotus petals. Because this deity self manifested on a hill, the temple is build around the hill itself. The brief history about this temple is as follows. 

When King Shibi decided to come to south India to defeat some demon kings such as Ravana, he faced an army led by a White Boar at this place. When the king started chasing the boar, it went around the huge ant hill and disappeared. The king found Markandeya Rishi near the ant hill who told the king that the boar was Lord Vishnu in the form of Varaha. Rishi also asked the king to unearth the deity of Lord from the hill and build a temple. When King bathed the ant hill with milk, the deity of Lord Pundarikakshan appeared. Lord then instructed King Shibi to return to the North and promised that He will defeat Ravana in his incarnation as Rama.

Appala Ranganath Temple, Koviladi


Next, we visited the Appala Ranganath Temple which is situated on the banks of Kaveri river at a place called Koviladi. This temple has beautiful Gopurams on the outer wall. Inside, we climbed some steps and entered an inner hall where Lord Vishnu in his reclining posture on Ananta Shesha is present along with Bhu Devi and Kamala Devi. The deity is as big as that in the Ranganath Swamy temple at Srirangam. But here, Lord holds a pot in one of His hands and His other hand is pointing towards heavens. The deity is very beautiful and this temple is very peaceful with comparatively less visitors. Lord appeared here to King Upamanyu who was previously cursed by sage Durvasa and had lost his physical strength. On instruction of Durvasa, King Upamanyu was feeding one lakh pilgrims every day at this place. One day, Lord Vishnu appeared at the place in the form of an old brahmana and ate all the food prepared for the day. King humbly asked the brahmana if he needs anything more. Brahmana then replied that only Appam prepared with sweet and butter can satisfy Him. When King presented the pot of Appam, Lord was very satisfied and freed the king from the curse. As a result the Lord became known as Appala Ranganath or Appakudanthan. 

After taking darshan, we performed Kirtan in the courtyard of the temple and one of the participants in the winter school demonstrated a Bharata Natyam dance. After the performance, one of the priests of the temple served a special Appam prasadam offered to Lord. After staying in the temple for some more time, we returned to our rooms and rested for the night.

Brihadeshwara Temple, Thanjavur


On the third day of the winter school, 9 February, there were no talks and we boarded the vehicles early in the morning and started for Thanjavur. By 8:30 AM, we reached Brihadeshwara Temple at Thanjavur. This temple is a fort surrounded by large walls and a moat. Very high gopurams provide the entrance to a very large temple complex. Inside, there is one of the biggest deity of Nandi. In front of Nandi, there is a main temple hall with very high and articulate pillars. At the end of the hall sits a 29 feet high Shiva Lingam known as Brihadeshwara. It is said to be the biggest Shiva Lingam. On both sides of the Lingam, there are structures on which priests can climb to make offerings. The temple is built by a Chola king Raja Raja 1. The temple construction was completed in 1010 AD and many other additions and renovations have taken place later. The temple complex is very huge and has other shrines dedicated to Lord Ganesha, Subramanya, Parvati and Chandeshwara. Many other temples in south India are styled after this temple. Thousands of tourists were present in the temple. Due to limitation of time and large area of the temple complex, we could not visit every shrine in this temple.

Shri Veera Narasimha Temple, Thanjavur


Our next destination was Shri Veera Narasimha Temple situated on the banks of Vennar river towards the North of Thanjavur. This area consists of three temples dedicated to Lord Vishnu and together they are considered as one divya desham in Shri Vaishnava tradition. The presiding deities in these three temples are Lord Neelamegha, Lord Manikundra and Lord Shri Veera Narasimha. This is known as Parashara Kshetra after sage Parashara who performed penances here. The sage was troubled by three demons named as Thanjaka, Thandakan and Tharaka who were having the boon of immortality by Lord Shiva. The sage prayed to Lord Vishnu to chase away these demons. Lord Vishnu assumed three different forms to defeat the demons. In his form of Lord Shri Veera Narasimha, He defeated Thanjaka demon who had the form of an elephant. When Lord was about to kill the demon, the demon learned his lesson and begged forgiveness. The demon was excused by the Lord and on his request, Lord stayed at this place in the deity form. The other two demons were killed. The other two temples are very close to this temple towards the West. The deity of Lord Narasimha is 10 to 12 feet high and He is accompanied by Shri Devi and Bhu Devi on His sides. Priest offered worship to the Lord on behalf of all the participants. A separate shrine dedicated to Mahalakshmi is also present in the temple complex. After taking darshan, we took breakfast under a tree present in the courtyard of this temple. Everybody was experiencing a spiritual joy in this temple.

 

Shri Tyagaraja Temple, Tiruvayaru


Our next destination was the temple of Saint Shri Tyagaraja located on the northern bank of Kaveri river at a place known as Tiruvayaru. Tyagaraja is considered as a chief proponent of Karnatic type of Indian classical music who wrote twenty four thousand compositions during his lifetime. He was also a great devotee of Lord Rama. Most of his compositions are dedicated to Lord Rama. This temple is a place where Lord Rama along with Lakshmana gave darshan to Tyagaraja. Also, at this place, Tyagaraja entered his Samadhi alive. In this temple, we see a deity of Tyagaraja along with Shiva Lingam made of crystal. We can also see the deity of Lord Rama worshiped by Tyagaraja and his descendants. There are smaller shrines dedicated to Lord Ganesha, Anjaneya, Narada and Tumburu. The temple has a hall where devotees can sing devotional songs in dedication to Tyagaraja. Many artists come here to sing the compositions of Tyagaraja. After taking darshan, we performed Kirtan in this hall for 15 minutes. One of the descendants of Tyagaraja family explained that chanting the holy name of Lord Rama was the most important activity in human life. Tyagaraja himself demonstrated that by his own example. Everyone felt very fortunate after visiting the temple of such a great saint and musician.

After visiting the temple of Shri Tyagaraja, we went back to Srirangam and took lunch. After Lunch, the winter school was concluded. Due to this event, I not only got a chance to visit these wonderful places but also could reconnect with my friends and well wishers at BI, Bangalore. After spending some time with my friends, I said my good byes and left for Trichy airport aroud 4 PM. On my return journey, I changed a flight at Bangalore and reached Goa in the midnight. Due to enlightening sessions by invited speakers as well as visits to holy places and temples, the winter school 2020 at Srirangam is the most memorable event of 2020 so far.

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