At the stroke of dawn, Alamelu Sarangapani has a quick cup of coffee, finishes her morning ablutions and makes her way to the Ranganatha Swamy Temple at Srirangam, with a small container of ground rice paste with which she will draw intricate patterns on the ground, outside as well as inside the temple precincts. Alamelu has been doing this ever since she came to Srirangam as a young 18 year old bride – she is 62 years old today. Karunakaran sits patiently against a pillar at the East entrance of the temple with his registered guide identity card pinned to his shirt, waiting to guide pilgrims through the Ranganatha Swamy temple. This is the only world he has known and has wanted to know since the age of nine, when he first visited the temple with his father. There are many more like Alamelu and Karunakaran in the temple town of Srirangam whose life and livelihood is inextricably linked to the temple. The temple is their gateway to heaven.
South India is synonymous with Tamil Nadu and Tamil Nadu immediately throws up images of temples. It is the one state, where, from times immemorial, temples have been the raison d’être of towns. The Dravidian culture of Tamil Nadu has taken birth and flourished in these temples, and continues to do so even today. Tamil Nadu is home to eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, of which three are temples and the other five are rock temples! The temple, its legend, its lore, its rituals, its festivals and everything associated with it goes to construct a matrix around which the whole town functions.
In Hinduism all creation begins and ends with the Holy Trinity, Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the protector) and Shiva (the destroyer) and Hindus are broadly divided into Shaiviite (followers of Shiva) and Vishnaviite (followers of Vishnu). The Vaishnavites hold Lord Vishnu to be supreme while to the Shaivaites, Lord Shiva is primus inter pares. 108 temples in the south of India are of utmost importance to the Vaishnavites and Srirangam tops this list. It is here that one of the foremost Vaishnavaite Saints, a lady at that, called Godha Devi is believed to have merged with the idol and attained salvation.
Srirangam is a mere 8 kilometres from Trichy, a major district of Tamil Nadu.
It is not very difficult to identify or locate temple towns in Tamil Nadu. Those travelling by road, cannot miss the huge advertisements bearing vividly coloured images of the deity of the particular temple while those coming in by train are treated to similar advertisements (though on a smaller scale) along the railway lines as they near the station in question. This is temple art of a different kind! If you miss these, you can always look for the ceremonial tower or gopuram of the temple, which, in the case of Srirangam, can be seen from miles away, as it is the tallest in Asia.
Srirangam is replete with lore and legend. The idol, said to have risen from the celestial Milky Ocean, is a huge, monolithic black statue of Lord Vishnu, reclining on a couch made by Adisesha, the Divine Serpent. The idol was received by Lord Brahma and left in his custody, till Vishnu, in his incarnation (avatara) as Lord Rama gave it to Vibheesana, the noble brother of the slain demon king Ravana. Vibheesana expressed the desire to carry it back to Sri Lanka. The Lord told him that it was not to be placed down under any circumstances, for if it was placed down, it would be immoveable from that spot. Vibheesana did keep it down in order to perform his ablutions and sure enough the idol remained rooted to the spot. It lay there for ages, deep in the forest, covered with vegetation, till a prince of the Chola dynasty, Dharma Varma stumbled upon it and built a shrine to protect it.
Today, the Srirangam Ranganatha Swamy temple is spread over 156 acres, making it the largest ‘functioning’ Hindu Temple in the world.
It has seven concentric walls and as many as 21 gopurams or pyramidal towers – a sight that no temple guide will leave out. In fact, it is mandatory to scamper up a floor to a broad terrace from where you can count the gopurams – all 21 of them. The main Gopuram or the Rajagopuram rises to an astounding height of 236 feet (72 metres). It is the tallest in Asia. The ramparts of the temple are decorated with stone pillars embellished with intricate carvings of mythological figures and designs. There is a corridor with a thousand pillars (and every pillar is a masterpiece) that culminates in a hall, which was meant to be the venue of concerts and dance performances. Looking up at these intricate forms, the mind boggles as to how sculptors captured such minute details, like the intricate folds of the garments, the design on an ornament, the plume of the bird or the detail of a horse’s hoof on rock and stone, at a time when there was no electricity, no machine and no automation. It is sheer poetry. In fact, when Karunakaran showed us the huge eagle Garuda on whom Lord Vishnu rides, all we could do was to look up in awe and marvel at his size and detail!
The Srirangam temple is defined by its festivals. There is a festival in each and every month of the Hindu calendar! In fact, the number of festivals in this temple outnumbers the normal average across other South Indian temples. Utmost importance is placed on the conduct of these festivals as per the tenets prescribed by the Vedas and Agamas (Hindu scriptures). During these festivals, the deity is carried around the town in elaborate chariots which are pulled by the devotees or carried by them on their shoulders. The effort is the offering and the opportunity to do so, is regarded as a privilege. During Vasanthotsavam, a festival meant to herald spring, the processional deity is installed in the temple garden for nine days, so that He can enjoy the flowers blooming. The festival of lights between the months of November and December coincides with the onset of winter. Hundreds of lamps are lit inside and outside the temple and the temple treasurer reads out the accounts of the temple to the Lord. Vaikuntha Ekadasi, falling between the months of December and January, is the most important festival in Srirangam. Hindus believe that the doors of heaven remain open throughout that specific day and a visit to any shrine of Lord Vishnu on earth, on that day, ensures entry into heaven. Bus loads of devotees come from far and near and wait for hours to get a glimpse of the main idol. Preparations for the Vaikuntha Ekadasi here commence in October itself when the first of the 47 pillars of a grand “mandapam” (stage) is erected in the presence of the priests rendering sacred chants. Each festival at Srirangam is a vision of ceremonial splendour. The deity is bedecked in the choicest of silks and adorned with the most beautiful flowers, after a ceremonial bath with milk, honey and sandalwood.
Temple festivals are the main drivers of socio economic growth in temple towns. Every festival is an expression of splendour and gaiety and unleashes a frenzy of activity. Most festivals coincide with seasonal changes, thus providing a strong market for the agricultural and horticultural offerings of that season. Not only do the people of that town come out in full attendance, but there is also a sizeable influx of devotees from other towns, pushing up at once the demand for various services. The police force is out in full strength despite the all-is-forgiven mood pervading the town. Women from orthodox families (and there are still quite a few of these) who are meant to stay indoors, have the sanction to step out in their finery and go about the town. Bazaars, selling everything from a pin to an elephant, spring up around the temple. Business is brisk because it is almost mandatory to shop after visiting the temple. Shops in temple towns are veritable treasure troves. Look patiently. You could probably pick up some rare books and antiques at throwaway prices, as the owners of these heirlooms are quite ignorant of their value! But there are also the unscrupulous who cheat the gullible.We happened to run into one such character named Sridhar, an antique shop owner, who warned us ominously that if we did not take home a particular idol, our children would fall prey to the evil eye of our enemies and come to grievous harm!