The morning had disappeared while we had rushed through temples. The evening had yet to arrive, but we knew it would disappear just as soon. The afternoon, meanwhile, had to be whiled away. What could we do, once lunch was taken care of? Head to the hills, of course!
Tirunelveli, nestled in the Western Ghats, is the land of the sage Agasthya. He came here to maintain the balance of earth while the world headed to Kailas to witness the divine marriage of Shiva and Parvati. To recompense the sage for missing the event, he was given a divine vision of the marriage right here, in the mountains. There are many sites associated with the sage in this region, and we spent our afternoon at one of them – Agasthiar Falls. These perennial waterfalls are a big draw in these mountains, and you can count on seeing a crowd there at any time of the day, throughout the year. In spite of the crowds, the lure of the waterfall was too great to resist, and we spent quite some time, cooling off. Climbing up higher, we arrived at another shrine near a spring - the Kalyana Teertham, one supposed to depict the exact site where the sage had his divine vision. The temple, however, was closed, since the priest was off for lunch. We, therefore contented ourselves with the view.
|Agasthyar and Lopamudra..at the Kalyana Teertham|
Driving further along, in the mountains, we arrived at the Sorimuthu Ayyanar Temple.
Sorimuthu Ayyanar Temple
|Entrance to the Sorimuthu Ayyanar Temple|
Ayyanars are local guardian deities, and this one is among the more popular ones. Believed to be a form of Ayyapan, or Dharma Sastha, this is said to be the place he first came to, as a young man, to learn martial arts. The temple is relatively simple, but built on the rocks on the riverbank, the view is superb!
|View from the Sorimuthu Ayyanar Temple|
By now it was almost 4 PM, and we rushed down the mountain, to Papanasam. The Lord made us wait a little bit more, and you too will have to wait a little longer to read about this temple, since this is also part of the circuit of 9 temples known as the Nava Kailasam which I will be writing about later.
Mannarkoil Rajagopalaswamy Temple
|The gopuram of the Mannarkoil temple, showing the Lord in standing posture with his consorts, and Kulashekara Alwar on the side.|
Our next halt was at the Rajagopalaswamy Temple at Mannarkoil. A narrow road, passing between ancient, decrepit houses led to the temple, and there was hardly anyone around. The main sanctum depicted the Lord standing, with Bhudevi and Sridevi. Then, the priest directed us to a flight of steps on one side of the sanctum, and we climbed up the Ashtanga Vimana to the first floor, where in a small shrine, the Lord can be seen in a sitting posture. The priest now directed us to yet another, and narrower flight of steps, to the shrine right at the top, where the Lord was seen, in his sleeping posture.
|View from the top of the Ashtanga Vimana of the Mannarkovil Temple|
These two floors once were covered with ancient paintings, but during the renovation, most of them seem to have been lost, for bright new paintings now adorn these walls. If I was disappointed with the paintings, I was fascinated by the view from the top, as well as a wooden panel on the ceiling, depicting the signs of the zodiac.
Once we clambered down the precarious steps, we did the pradakshina, marveling at the intricate beauty of the temple. There are many sculptures here, each one more beautiful and interesting than the other. There are a set of miniature carvings depicting the Ramayana, for instance, but my attention was captured by a beautiful set of stone sculptures of the Dashavatar – the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu. Firstly, it is rare to see Dashavatars in sculpture form in temples. They are usually carved on pillars, or in stucco on the spire. Besides, the depiction here was extremely interesting – the first two avatars, Matsya and Kurma, usually depicted in anthropomorphic form, were here depicted just as animals – a fish and a tortoise respectively. Further, the 10th avatar – Kalki, was shown in Yoga mudra! I was about to click a photograph, when the priest intervened and stopped me. However, you can see photos of the Dashavatar here and here.
While most temples have stories associated with the gods, the most interesting one here relates to a king who became a saint. Kulashekara Alwar was once a king, somewhere in present day Kerala. Later in his life, he was blessed by Lord Vishnu, and he renounced his kingship to sing hymns in praise of the Lord. His travels across the region, visiting various temples, eventually brought him to Mannarkoil, and he stayed back, offering his prayers, as well as his service to Lord Rajagopalaswamy. It was here that he finally merged with the Lord. The temple has a separate shrine for the saint, and unlike most other such shrines, it has its own flag post and Bali Peetham, which are usually only meant for deities. Besides, in commemoration of the saint and his greatness, the temple is named Rajagopalaswamy Kulashekara Perumal Temple.
By the time we left Mannarkoil, we were in high spirits, excited for the next temple on our list – Sivasailam. Sadly, it seems the Lord there wasn’t ready to see me yet, for our driver hopelessly lost his way! Eventually, after much arguing, trials with the mobile GPS and some help from villagers who took pity on us, we found ourselves back on the road, heading to Tenkasi instead!
Tenkasi – the word literally means ‘Kasi of the South’. This is one of the largest cities in Tirunelveli, and the temple of Shiva as Viswanathar is an impressive one. The legend of the temple goes back seven centuries, to the time of King Parakrama Pandyan, who wanted to visit Kasi. The Lord appeared to him in a dream, and asked him to follow the ants and build a temple to him where the trail ended, instead of spending time making the long journey to Kasi. The King awoke, and found an ant trail leading to the river. The trail ended on the riverbank, where the king found a Swayambhu Linga, and he built the temple to house it.
There are quite a few interesting facets of the temple. To begin with, as you enter the temple through the main entrance, you feel a gust of wind, almost pushing you inside. It is believed that the temple was built this way, with even the wind wanting you to rush to see the deity! Whether or not that is true, there is no doubt that while the road outside was clammy and still, the steps near the temple, and the huge courtyard inside, with well-kept lawns, had a pleasant breeze blowing. The lawns were filled with people, probably locals, enjoying the breeze and some valued family time! It was terribly tempting to simply sit down and relax, but we had lost too much time anyway, so we rushed to the temple.
Another interesting thing about this temple is the placement of the shrines. While the Lord and his consort are usually seen in adjacent sanctums, here, the sanctum of Muruga or Karthikeya comes between that of his parents – Lord Shiva as Viswanathar and Parvati as Ulagamman. This arrangement, usually depicted only in sculptures or bronzes, is called Somaskanda (Sa-Uma-Skanda, or Shiva, with Uma and Skanda).
Our final destination for the day was the one I had most looked forward to. Unfortunately, our driver’s unfamiliarity with this area led to more delay, and by the time we reached Kuttralam, it was dark.
Kuttralam / Courtallam
Kuttralam is most well-known for its waterfalls. However, the temple here, as well as the Chitra Sabhai, the hall of paintings, are both, just as interesting as beautiful. It is said that Sage Agasthya came here during his travels in the south, and found a Vaishnavite shrine here. Denied entry since he was a Shaivite, Agasthya changed his garments, and appeared as a Vaishnavite. Now welcomed into the shrine, he prayed to the Lord, who changed his form to a Lingam, shocking everyone but Agasthya. Since the huge Vishnu idol turned into a smaller Lingam, the Lord is called ‘Kuttralanathar’ – the one who became short! The temple itself is in the form of a conch (though this is not really obvious), adding to the belief that this was once a Vaishnavite shrine.
The story goes on further, with the Lord, due to his change in height, having a terrible headache. The sage, it is said, bathed him with 64 herbs and oils from the mountain, and his headache was cured. To this day, devotees apply oil and bathe in the waterfalls near the temple, when there is enough water of course. We visited in May, when the water level was low, though there was a slight flow. Please excuse the photo quality. It was dark, and I barely managed to click a few pics.
The most interesting thing about Kuttralam (or Courtallam as it is sometimes spelled), is the Chitra Sabhai. This is the dance hall of Nataraja, and is counted among 5 such special halls, along with Chidambaram, Madurai, Thiruvalangadu and Tirunelveli. Each of these 5 halls is decorated in a particular way – Thiruvalangadu is the Rathna Sabhai, the hall of gems, At Chidambaram is the Kanaka Sabhai, the hall of Gold, at Madurai, the Velli Sabhai, hall of Silver, and at Tirunelveli, it is the Tamira Sabhai, the hall of copper. All these are precious metals and gemstones. However, the one here, at Kuttralam, is the Chitra Sabhai – the hall of paintings, which is considered just as precious! Unfortunately, due to our delayed arrival, this had closed. The Lord, it appears, wants me to visit again, at leisure!
And with that, our first day’s Temple Run came to an end. We returned to our hotel with mixed feelings – satisfaction, excitement and happiness over the temples we had seen, and disappointment towards those we had missed. We had sent our driver off with a flea in his ear, and called up the agency to send us another one the next day. As we turned in for the night, we wondered, what Day 2 of our Temple Run would bring!
This post is part of my series on my #summertrip 2015, and I hope to take you along with me as I recount stories from my month long trip, which took me across the country. To get an idea of all the places I visited, and what you can hope to read about, click here.
- Our Tirunelveli Temple Run