Tirunelveli and the Thamirabarani River are intricately linked with Sage Agasthya. This is one of the reasons the river here is considered as sacred as the Kaveri, or even the Ganga. Most temples here are on the river bank, or somewhere near the river, including the Nava Tirupatis, which we visited earlier on this trip. However, the temples most entwined in myth with the river as well as the sage are the Nava Kailasam.
Long, long ago, it is said, that the sage and his disciple were meditating on the riverbank. The sage was happy with his disciple, and wanted to help him along on his path to salvation. Picking up nine flowers that he had offered to the Lord, he dropped them in the river. He then asked the disciple to follow the flowers, and, wherever one of them washed up on the bank, to install a Shiva Lingam and worship it as Kailasanathar – the Lord of Mount Kailas. Finally, once he had worshipped all the nine lingams, he was to bathe at the confluence of the river with the sea, and he would attain the lord. The disciple followed his guru’s words to the letter, and eventually attained liberation.
|Kailasanathar - Shiva with Parvati, seated on the Rishaba Vahana, as he appeared to sage Agasthya|
The nine lingams thus installed, have, over the centuries seen good and bad times. They have been here since the time of Agasthya, standing alone in the forest. They have seen temples built around them, and at one time, must have been epicenters of worship. Yet, they have also experienced decay and neglect, for they were somehow forgotten over time. The ever-turning wheel of fortune, however, brought the temples back to the limelight, and now, once again, people like us go in search of them. Somewhere along the line, probably in an attempt to popularize them, the temples have also come to be associated with the Navagrahas, the nine planets. This seems to have been a good idea, for most people do visit with the hope of turning their lives around, by placating the planets!
Some of these temples are beautiful, but in a bad shape, needing maintenance, while others have been renovated rather gaudily, with no trace of the original structure being seen. Very little is known of the temples or their history, except in the case of Papanasam, which is the most well-known, and the biggest in this circuit. I will, therefore, begin with Papanasam, and then talk about the other temples in the order we visited. I would also like to clarify that we couldn’t do all these temples in a single day, and visited them over 2 days, to fit in with our schedule and plans. Besides, some of these temples are barely open for an hour each in the morning and evening, and we had to do some criss-cross travelling to make it to the temples in time. I have mentioned the timings as far as we were able to ascertain, to help you plan your trip.
Papanasam is where the Thamirabarani falls from the mountains and flows on land. The sage is said to have had his vision of the divine marriage of Shiva and Parvati atop the mountain, but the temple dedicated to that vision is here, at the foothills. In the sanctum, the Lord is seen in his Lingam form as Kailasanathar, and behind, on the wall, he shows himself, mounted on his Rishaba Vahana, with Parvati by his side. Also in the shrine are the Sage, with his wife Lopamudra, bowing down before Him. The lingam here is said to be made of Rudraksha beads, so he is also called Rudrakshanathar. Among the Navagrahas, he represents Surya, the Sun God.
The temple at Cheranmahadevi was the first one we visited among the Nava Kailasam Temples. Hidden amidst farmlands, the temple was deceptively small. Right outside the main gopuram was a huge ant hill, over 5 ft. high, and it was evidently in worship, covered with turmeric and kumkum. It was only when we entered the temple that we realized it was quite big, and at one time, must have been an impressive one. Now, part of it has been renovated, and some old sculptures have been placed on the outer path. Among them, we noticed a stone sculpture of Brahma, and even one of a mongoose! I wonder where they figured in the original temple! The Lord here is Kailasanathar again, and he represents Chandran, or the Moon.
Srivaikuntam is most popular for its Vaikunthanathar Temple. However, right next door, is the Kailasanathar Temple, which is equally important, and just as beautiful. This was the first Shiva temple we visited on our second day, and I was struck by how beautiful and grand the temple looked. The Lord is, once again, Kailasanathar, and here he represents Saturn or Shani. One of the interesting things about the temple is the shrine to Bhootanathar, who is made of wood, and is beautifully carved. He is believed to be the caretaker of the temple, and at one time, the keys of the temple used to be left with him at night. While this practice is no longer followed, he still takes precedence during temple festivals as the main caretaker of the temple.
I have already mentioned the story of Thenthirupperai in the Nava Tirupati post. The Kailasanathar temple is located very near the Vishnu temple, and this one too, is an ancient shrine, recently renovated. While the Lord here is once again Kailasanathar, here he represents Budhan, or Mercury. One of the most interesting things about this temple are the Navagrahas – the nine planets, some of which appear on horse chariots, instead of their own vahanas! While the Sun is shown with his usual 7 horses, Guru (Jupiter) and Sukran (Venus) are seen with 8, and Chandran, the moon, is seen with 10 horses!
Another story associated with the temple is a more recent one, from the British era. It is said that the local collector once arrived here and asked for a tender coconut. The local farmer refused to sell him one, saying that the tender coconut was only meant for the Lord. The collector insisted, asking if his tender coconuts had horns on them, and the poor farmer finally yielded, under pressure, and fear of recrimination. When the collector took the coconut, he found it had three horns! At once, he realized his mistake, and offered worship at the temple, and dedicated a small amount for the worship every day. The coconut is still in the temple, in the shrine of the goddess!
Rajapathy was one of the most disappointing temples, architecture-wise, on our entire trip. The temple had been recently renovated, and there was no trace at all of the original shrine. Though sad, it was understandable, considering that the ancient temple here is said to have been washed away in a flood, and was in ruins. Further, the Lord here, Kailasanathar, representing Kethu, is said to have wheels etched on 4 sides, but the lingam was covered, and we couldn’t see that either. It is also believed that an even more ancient temple lies below this, under the lingam, but that is something we will never know about.
Another interesting thing about the temple are the Navagrahas, which aren’t in their regular forms, but depicted as Lingams!
The ancient temple to Kailasanathar at Serndapoomangalam, near Keezhaatur, was one of the most beautiful ones we saw on the Nava Kailasam circuit. The temple was deserted when we visited, and the caretaker came running when he saw us, and did the puja. This was one of those temples where weeds have grown all over the place, yet they don’t distract from its innate beauty. As we went around the small prakaram, we noticed that like at Rajapathy, the Navagrahas here were represented as Lingams. As in many of the temples here, the outer corridor had figures of the Saptamatrikas as well as the Nayanmars in stone. However, I was most fascinated by the figures on the gopuram. I was only able to capture the gopuram from two sides. While one had a beautiful image of Vishnu seated on Adishesha with Bhudevi and Sridevi by his side, flanked by images of Shiva as Gajasamharamurthy, and another of Shiva dancing, balancing on his hand! On another side, are images of Brahma, while the third side has an interesting figure mounted on an elephant, which I thought was Indra, but apparently is Kubera, with his two wives. Apart from this, the gopuram also has images of Narasimha, and Shiva, seen in the dual form of image as well as lingam.
It is at times like these, when I wish we left temples alone. They are so much more beautiful before they are renovated!
This temple is supposed to be the last one in the Nava Kailasam circuit, where the ninth flower given by Sage Agasthya washed up. The name of the village, Sernda-poo-mangalam, literally means “the place where the flowers were finally collected”. Here, the Lord is considered to represent Sukran, or Venus.
We arrived at the Kodaganallur Kailasanathar temple amidst pouring rain, and found the main door closed and the priest fast asleep. While we hesitated to wake him up, and wondered what to do, our driver had no such qualms. He shouted out and rattled the wooden door, and roused the poor man, who fumbled for the keys. Bleary eyed, he opened the door for us, explaining that the temple was supposed to open only half an hour later.
Thankfully, it was only the outer door which was closed. The door to the shrine was wide open, and we had a peaceful darshan. The Lord here represents Sevvai, or Angarakan, the planet Mars. Very interestingly, this tiny temple was one of the few which had photos available for sale!!
The Kailasanathar temple at Kunnathur, like the one at Kodaganallur, is a small one, compared to all the other seven shrines. Here, the Lord is also called Kodha Parameswarar, and this is the name you see on the board outside the temple. The Lord here represents Rahu, and the lingam here has the figure of a snake on it.
“Eight temples done, just one to go!” was the thought in all our minds as we set out towards Murappanadu. The temple timings as they had been mentioned on the net, had been just like all the other temples. Our driver, however insisted, that the priest had changed, and the new one only came to the temple for half an hour every day. He had recently brought another family here, and found it closed. He therefore had kept this temple to the last, so we could make it in time, before the priest left. Unfortunately, we got stuck in a traffic jam, and our visit to this last temple was truly a race to the finish line!!!
The priest was still around when we rushed out of the car. He was sitting peacefully on a stone bench outside the temple, throwing stones in the river. When our driver walked up and asked him to open the temple, he beckoned to a little girl, handed over the keys, and motioned to her to open the temple for us.
Kailasanathar in this temple is also a representation of Guru, or Jupiter, and the temple is an impressive one. Sadly, it was already dark, and the temple wasn’t well lit enough for us to appreciate the finer details. The priest didn’t come in while we were there, so we satisfied ourselves by saying all the prayers we could think of, and thanking him for allowing us to complete the circuit, having His darshan at each one of them.
Completing the Nava Kailasam circuit gave us a sense of satisfaction, we shall not easily forget. Each one of them is beautiful, with something or the other standing out. Sadly, they need maintenance, and restoration, not renovation. I could almost imagine how beautiful the temples would have been, on the riverbank, with their delicate sculptures and detailed architecture. Today, however, we only get a glimpse of that beauty!
If you wish to plan a trip to the Nava Kailasam temples, do check out the website. It is practically the only resource available: http://navakailasamtemples.tnhrce.in/index.html
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