A Srirangam Saga

  1. social {

margin-bottom: 8px; opacity:0.65; filter:alpha(opacity=65); /* For IE8 and earlier */ }

  1. social:hover

{ opacity:1.0; filter:alpha(opacity=100); /* For IE8 and earlier */ } div .plusone, .twitter, .fb-like { font-size: 1px; display: inline-block; } div .fb_reset { display: inline; }

February 23, 1997

Walking down the corridors of Sriranganathaswami temple at Srirangam, one would discover apocryphal stories getting unravelled, at every point. The Lord, endowed with human traits, and considered by the people as their own child “Ranga”, resides here. This ancient island town on the banks of the Cauvery throbs with life perennially and is a home to many peace-loving residents who seem to be a member of one huge family.

“The people of this town treat Ranganatha like their own child,” said my host L. P. Sampath as we sat on the ancient thinnai of his house near the entrance of the Srirangam temple. Before us, a seemingly endless stream of freshly bathed men, women and children walked briskly past. Some held flowers in their hands, others baskets. But most of them were empty handed. They were just going over to say good morning to their beloved Ranga before they began their day.

The temple of Sri Ranganathaswami at Srirangam is an ancient one. But then, almost everything in Srirangam is ancient with a continuing, traceable history to establish antiquity. Even the house in which we sat, once belonged to a zamindar who housed his two ranis in it. A descendant of his, who was a famous musician, invited music luminaries like Veena Dhanam and Madurai Mani Iyer to perform in the very hall in which we now slept. Down the road was a matam established by the great Vaishnava philosopher Sri Ramanuja in the 12th Century. The jeer of that matam still lived there. Beside it were houses which once belonged to Parasara Bhatta and Vyasa Bhatta, descendants of Koorathalwar, a contemporary of Ramanuja. And their descendants still lived in them.

No one really knows when the Srirangam temple came into being. The actual shrine is supposed to have risen out of the Paarkadal (Ocean) itself as a result of Brahma’s penance. According to legend, Ikshvaku, a descendant of Surya, the Sun God, who was appointed to take care of the daily worship, is supposed to have kept it in his capital, Ayodhya. His descendant, Sri Rama presented the shrine to Vibishana when he attended his coronation. When Vibhishana, who was carrying it back on his head to Sri Lanka, rested briefly at Srirangam, the shrine got rooted there. Sri Ranganathaswami, the legend goes, then appeared before him and said he wished to stay on the banks of the Cauvery. He however promised the disconsolate Vibhishana that he would always lie facing Sri Lanka. Vibishana, it is believed comes even today to pray at the temple.

The temple does have a traceable history which is quite awesome. It is mentioned in the Silappadikaram as well as in the Nalayiradivyaprabandham which date back to the third century. Koil Olugu, a chronicle of the temple, written around the 11th Century attributes the construction of one of the enclosures to Tirumangaialvar, who is supposed to have lived there during the seventh century. Periyalvar, whose adopted daughter Andal was an ardent devotee of Ranganathaswamy, has also described the temple in his verses. Outside the main temple there is a small shrine supposed to have been built on the spot where Andal became one with the Lord.

Of course the most famous resident of the area, whose life and work have been well-chronicled is Ramanujacharya. He was born in Sriperumbudur around the year 1137 and spent the early part of his life in Kanchipuram. He came to Srirangam as a young sanyasi and was responsible for completely revamping the administration of the temple. Religious persecution compelled him to flee from Srirangam at the age of 80. With his band of devoted followers, he wandered all over the South before settling finally in Melkote in Karnataka.

Jatavarman Sundara Pandya 1, a Chola king who reigned during the 13th Century was responsible for enlarging the temple and for covering the Lord with sumptuous gold and jewellery. According to temple chronicles, he once had two boats built on the Kaveri. In one boat he sat on the back of an elephant and in the other he poured jewels and gold till it sank to the same water line as the first. He donated all this treasure to the temple. This king, known as Hemachatina Raja or the king who covered the temple with gold, is said to have built and covered many of the main sanctuaries in gold and even built a jewelled arch to cover the Lord.

Malik Kafur who caused the collapse of the Pandya dynasty in the 14th Century, raided Srirangam and carried away most of its treasures. Ten years later, Mohammed Bin Tughlak turned the temple of Srirangam into a fort. The priests of the temple took the Uthsavamurthy of Ranganathaswamy and whatever vessels and jewels they could save and fled. The idol of Thayar was buried in the Temple courtyard itself.

For over 50 years, the Uthsavamurthy, lived in exile. The temple functionaries managed to keep the Mulavars (main idols) safe by building a wall over them. The Uthsavamurthy is said to have travelled all over India and was finally kept at Tirupati, apparently hidden in a ravine. When peace returned, since the old idol could not be found, a new one was installed. The wall protecting the Moolavar was removed.

However, a couple of years later, suddenly the old idol resurfaced and there was a controversy as to which was the original one. A blind washerman, it is said, identified the true idol by the fragrance of kasturi which lingered on its vestments.

In Srirangam, myths, legends and history are inextricably blended into apocryphal stories which the residents tell you as you walk down the corridors of the enormous temple. At one spot, for instance, there are five strange holes drilled into the solid stone floor, in front of a pair of elegantly carved feet.

Once, the story goes, Ranganatha decided to dress himself as Thayar and appear before his devotees because he wanted to understand why people only appealed to him through his wife. As he came down the corridor, dressed like a woman, Thaayar is said to have stood in that corner of the passage hidden by the wall. As he neared, she inserted her fingers into those holes for grip and bent to peer around the wall to watch him coming.

The Lord of Srirangam has been endowed with some very human traits, which make it easier for the devotees to identify with him. During the Panguni Uthiram festival, for example a unique quarrel is enacted every year between him and Sri Nachiyar (Thayar) at the Woraiyur temple close by. According to legend for weeks before this day which had been fixed for their marriage, Sriranga was nowhere to be seen. Sri Nachiyar, heard stories of his wandering around, meeting other women and so, when he finally appeared on their wedding day, she became very angry and threw out all the fruit and butter and eatables prepared for the feast. He, however, finally pacified her and convinced her that he had only gone hunting and that the scratches on his back were made by a wild animal.

Unlike some other temple towns, Srirangam in throbbing with life right through the year. Trichy being within easy commuting distance makes Srirangam a desirable place to live in. Families like those of Rangarajan, the veena maestro attached to the temple have been able to keep alive the family tradition without compromising on their education or outside careers, even while living in Srirangam.

Rangarajan’s family has been playing for the Lord for 43 generations. Every morning Ranganathanswamy is woken up by a male member of the family playing the veena. During Uthsavams, several of them walk in front of the deities with their veenas strapped across their bodies almost like guitars, playing and singing. Rangarajan himself retired as the principal of a college in Trichy. His four sons were educated there and all of them live and work in close by places.

Narasimhan, a direct descendant of Vyasa Bhatta, is a school teacher. In his ancient house stands a shrine which almost looks like a miniature temple. Here he keeps some idols which he says have come down to him from his famous ancestor. His 13-year-old son Senthamaraikannan has already gained mastery over complicated sanskrit slokas. Narasimhan who visits the temple several times a day, is confident that his only son will keep the family tradition alive.

Surprisingly, for a religious centre which has no other industry, Srirangam has not stagnated. Some years ago, the later Jeeyar of the Ahobila Matam decided to complete a gopuram which had been left unfinished by previous builders. He succeeded in collecting the enormous resources and manpower required for this project and constructed the elegant new gopuram at the entrance of the temple before he passed away.

Over the past few years, some apartment complexes have also come up on the banks of the Cauvery which flows on either side of this small island town. Retired government servants, senior citizens whose children have settled abroad and others wishing to settle in this peaceful religion oriented community live here. R. Rajagopalan, who retired from the P & T department last year finds life at Srirangam very peaceful and surprisingly busy. Although he had a house in Madras, and has lived all over the country, he preferred to settle here with his wife Indra who is a veena teacher. Both of them visit the temple several times a day.

L. P. Sampath, who was himself once working for a multinational bank and also has a house in Madras finds him inexplicably attracted to Ranganathaswamy. “I came here four years ago,” he says. “I have no roots in this area. Yet I cannot leave. He is holding me here.” The temple which forms the social as well as religious hub of the township is full at any time of the day or night. “We all keep meeting each other in the temple,” Sampath says as we walk down a dirt road and he waves out to some young men wearing traditional top knots and playing cricket. “Everyone knows everyone else here. It is like one huge family. You cannot get this feeling in Madras.”

But Srirangam is no idyllic community uncontaminated by the outside world. As we sat in a friend’s house watching cable TV and a totally urban-oriented discussion on ostentatious display of jewellery and lavish weddings, the discussion turned to Srirangam. “All these exist in Srirangam too,” said a young bride-to-be. For the young, the “one huge family” atmosphere can be uncomfortable. Apart from the fact that they have no privacy and no outlet for their youthful interests, they have to keep within some traditional bounds which they find archaic and inconvenient.

And so, as in other such communities, the young migrate, leaving the older ones to hold onto the roots and keep them nurtured. But, as resident put it, ultimately many of them return, having experienced the outside world and got fed up of it. For, the attraction of Ranga is quite formidable.