<trip report> Srirangam's got soul

#1 Oct 3rd, 2012, 22:43
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Over the last few years I have had the opportunity to visit some of the major temples of Tamil Nadu and I'm recounting some experiences from memory here. I’m not Tamil, do not speak the language, and am only moderately familiar with the legends of the Hindu pantheon and yet, every single one of these visits was nothing short of amazing. The way I see it - the temples of Tamil Nadu are more than just houses of worship - they are an open air art gallery, a study in architecture, a congregation and a bit of a social club, shelter for the mendicant, a place to shop, a place to submit to the divine and above all, a feast for all the five senses sometimes at the same time.

Of all the temples that I have visited till date in Tamil Nadu, none have moved me as much as Srirangam – the great Vaishnava shrine situated near the modern city of Trichy or tiruchirappalli (known as Trichinopoly to the British). I had heard a fair bit about the temple and on two previous occasions – in 2005 and then again in 2012 had seen the gopurams from afar but could not visit the temple for want of time.

21st September 2012.

As a rough work week in the office approached its closure, I made a quick plan to not fly back from Chennai on the Friday evening (as I usually do) to New Delhi. Instead, I would get onto an overnight bus to Trichy from Chennai and come back during the day on Sunday to Chennai to board the flight. Fellow Indiamikers PMVelu and Prasannasankar had assured me that the NH-45 is ‘a smooth road’ and there’re plenty of overnight buses available on the route. I booked an e-ticket on a KPN travels bus (Rs 680/-; 6 hours) – the departure time was mentioned as 11:15 pm at my chosen boarding point of Perangalathur, a suburb of Chennai.

I reached the Perangalathur bus station, around 11 pm facing a crowd of buses that would put a crowd leaving a cricket stadium to shame. On the six lane highway there was an additional service lane that could accommodate two buses abreast – and this entire width of the road was blocked with buses!

KPN travels counter, situated under the tin shed that qualified as the Perangalathur bus station building, was crowded with anxious travelers checking for availability and expecting help to board their bus as a lean workforce tried their best to provide them with information and assistance. I learnt that the printed boarding time is from Koyambedu (the central bus terminus of Chennai) and due to a traffic jam in the city my bus wouldn’t arrive before quarter past twelve (‘at the minimum sir’).

I went out a little deflated and as attempts at small talk with the other possible co-travelers failed, I watched the last well-lit restaurant under the tin - shed close for the day as well. The side walk was a bit dug up (on account of some reconstruction perhaps) and there were no benches at all. So I did what I could do – I found a few blocks of concrete and sat down on one of them with my large bag by my side.

I had waited for well over an hour when the bus arrived and I was promptly showed the way by a very helpful staff member (a boy in his teens) who also collected my ticket. The bus was chock full of snoring passengers, who perhaps were returning to their home town for the weekend and would be back on Monday morning in Chennai. I was further impressed by their service when the boy also handed over blankets to each passenger. The blankets were of varying age and mixed parentage – some deep blue while others were golden brown. Yet, they came in very handy as early as a half hour later when the driver and the conductor completely forgot that they were transporting people and not the catch of the day. I wrapped the blanket tightly around my head and chest and arms to avoid hypothermia and I’m sure I was knocked out and not fell asleep for the next several hours.

22nd September

It was half past five in the morning when the bus was on the outskirts of Trichy and suddenly the lights were switched on as the conductor announced ‘tiruvarangam’ …. I had no time to react or recall that Tiruvarangam is another name of great temple of Srirangam.
I was able to ask the driver only as he was pulling out of the stop - ‘Rangathaswamy kovil-a?’ in my best fake Tamil accent. He muttered something that was not very pleasing (going by his expression he was happy to see the slow north Indian off his bus) and brought the bus to a quick halt. I was disgorged abruptly with my bags landing with a loud thud on the tarmac next to a petrol pump. The curious onlookers (yes, even at that hour there were curious onlookers, Tamil Nadu wakes up notoriously early) were helpful and suggested that to get to East Chitra Street the best option would be to take a bus as it would be cheap.

So I paid the first auto driver who was kind enough to stop to deposit me and my bags to ‘Sri Renga Pilgrim house’ - my chosen hotel whose name I was able to dig out from an older thread by Snonymous. The driver was pleased enough with the sixty rupees for the two kilometer drive to actually lift my bag and place it inside the reception area. I had spoken with Radha, the proprietor of the hotel couple days in advance and they had kept a room for me. She was not there at that time and instead there was an old man in a lungi who spoke no Hindi or English and a girl who sounded like a boy and understood English. Her name was Tara.

I was given a room on the ground floor for eleven hundred rupees and asked to sign in (they have twenty four hour check out so it seemed a good deal to me). The lungi wearer turned out to be a fairly aggressive character and asked for fifteen hundred (four hundred being the deposit) – a point I countered by speaking loudly in English that I will check out the next morning. Neither party understood each other but a ceasefire was achieved when I paid the eleven hundred rupees in advance. The room was a bit small and since there was no power at that time, I wasn’t able to get any sleep. I asked Tara for ‘tanni’ (water in Tamil) and her response was an indifferent wave of the left hand towards some pitchers where they stored it. Clearly there would be no room service.

Frustrated, I washed my face and without so much as a change of shirt, grabbed the camera and walked out the door into the early morning light hoping to get to the temple quickly. I just decided to walk in the direction of people who looked like they may be headed to the temple.

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There were ladies washing the front area of their houses and making ‘kolam’ or Rangoli (in north Indian parlance). I had read earlier that Srirangam comprises seven Prakarams or concentric walls and that the street that I would be staying on is somewhere in the middle. I had further read that many of the houses are old houses belonging to Brahmins and they are well preserved. Quite a few of them have been converted to pilgrim / tourist accommodation such as the one below:

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Some others belong to residents who are not involved any quick money spinning venture and yet, their sense of self-worth is evident by the daily cleaning of the front area and a new kolam every day.

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A few others have fallen into a state of disrepair as patrons no longer throng the premises or perhaps due to the want of funds from the funding agency. The choultry shown below (or Choldari: a building where rooms and food are provided by a charitable institution) was probably constructed in the late 1930s and now appears to be a defunct building. Raja Bahadur Sir Bansilal Motilal Charitable trust was founded in the year 1933 with a grant of Rs five hundred thousand and built many temples over the state of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

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As I was walking past this, I was trying to get my bearings about as Dharamshalas or Choultries are usually very close to the temple premises. Sometimes, in case of a large complex, they may be located within the premises itself.

I walked until the intersection of the South Chitra street and South gate street and on my left there were two gates (as seen below) - one made of stone (likely a chola era structure) and the other a larger gopuram with more modern elements incorporated.

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As I turned right I noticed a flower shop with symmetrically arranged plates each bearing a coconut, a pink lotus, some basil leaves, two green plantains and some red flowers. Towering at the end of the street to my right was a gopuram leading to another and to the left of the plates and facing me was a man only half clad in a traditional ‘veshti’ – the mark of Vishnu (the traditional Iyengar Brahmin caste mark) illuminating his forehead.

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It was here that it dawned upon me, that I was inside the temple already. I looked up again to soak in the sight of the gopuram and more flower shops with earthen lamps full of solid ghee (too early in the morning for it to melt) even as the earliest visitors to the temple rushed about on foot and a few on motorbikes.

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This entire living, breathing, complex complete with the shops, with people going about their daily lives, the goats and cows, the flowers and the trees, was within the seven prakarams.

Finally, I had reached the great temple of Srirangam!

I smiled.
#2 Oct 3rd, 2012, 23:06
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  • JuliaF is offline
#2
A great start Vaibhav! I love the way you told the story of realising that you were actually inside the temple complex, and interspersed it with the photos of the table of coconut, lotus flowers etc and then looking up at the gopuram.

Looking forward to more!
#3 Oct 4th, 2012, 02:19
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Wonderful writing and photos. I am soaking up the atmosphere of Srirangam. I particularly enjoyed the bit where you haggled over the hotel price. Yes, the photos are great, but we don't really need them with such vivid descriptions.
#4 Oct 4th, 2012, 14:00
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The man in the veshti saw me grinning like an idiot and with a wave of his hand suggested that I should leave my shoes at his shop. That sounded uncomfortable since the waking up world was passing by well shod and I could see the gopuram on the right was a bit of a walk. So I asked if I could continue to wear them a bit longer and he replied in fluent English ‘only if you’re buying the offering from here you may leave the shoes here. So the offer to be the custodian of shoes was dictated by pure economics. “No need then”, I said to him (and to myself) and continued. The next man on the street was much more charitable and expected nothing in return for a photograph. He happily posed with his merchandise – lotus flowers and plenty of basil leaves in the bucket.

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I reached a beautifully decorated gopuram called Renga Renga gopuram – renga being a name of the preserver of the hindu trinity – Vishnu. From the point onwards no traffic was permitted and a large peripheral wall painted in alternate candy-cane stripes of white and red stretched out on either side. An officious policeman stood at the gate busily directing people to use the left half for entering and the right for exit. His handlebar moustache belied his helpful demeanor when he very politely directed me to use the shoe-stand to the right of the gate. “It is free, sir!” How can you dislike a town if the policeman is actually trying to help you and save you a buck!
Opposite the renga-renga gopuram, there was further evidence of continued patronage of the temple during the Raj and by wealthy benefactors from as far north as my home state of Rajasthan. The Raibahadoor Bansilal Abirchand Dharamshala was constructed in 1922 and was very much operational.

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On the opposite corner there is a state bank of India building and next to it is the Bangur dharamshala which is a part of a chain of dharamshalas (quite a few of them operational in the state of Rajasthan). I wondered if they had an HHonors program or if they just say ‘Belcome back to the Bangur’s’, so I walked in to explore a bit. A signboard behind the caretaker’s desk read ‘Pilgrims are allowed to stay a maximum of three days’; pointless to ask about the frequent flyer program then.

Walked back to the gopuram and deposited my shoes at the shoe stand - received a token and walked inside the gate and then turned around to soak in the vividly decorated sight. The renga renga goupuram is festooned with all the avatars of Vishnu, with lord Rama lifting his bow – Gandeev, Rama’s consort Sita, Vishnu’s vehicle Garuda and many other gods, all very lifelike.

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Lowering down my gaze, I noticed two beautiful niche sculptures on either side of the entrance with their hands folded in the Namaste gesture.

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Right behind me was a stone mandampam with the four pillars each bearing a stone sculpture in high-relief. I walked backwards a few steps and noticed the sculpture on the left pillar - it was likely was the great Vaishnava saint Ramar or Ramanuja (this was explained to me later by an unofficial guide who was himself confused whether it was Ramanuja or another Alwar saint, I think the latter).

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All of them were positioned to pray in the same direction – the direction that I had my back to, so I turned around. At this point, a voice beckoned ‘Sir, are you a Hindu?’ I looked to my right and noticed a door that could be approached from a short flight of stairs and sitting on those was a man in a longer dhoti. "Then you must come inside and take darshan" - the voice continued to boom from inside the door and greedy for more photographs I walked inside to see a priest sitting on a chair turning his beads. He wore large black rimmed spectacles, a gold plated watch, a cotton veshti covered his legs and an angvastram was positioned on his left shoulder. He looked like someone who commanded respect and the look was further reinforced with the gigantic mark of Vishnu on his equally gigantic forehead.

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He beckoned me to look around. The temple was very plain and I had no idea what to look around for or take pictures of so I thanked him for asking me inside and was about to leave.

Sensing my departure, the priest asked in a voice much lower than his previous call, “Sir, please do not mistake me but seeing that you are a Hindu, I hope you have had a good look at this temple of our lord Perumal”.

I nodded my assent.

“Sir, then please tell me why should our lord Perumal’s devotees like your good self be forced to visit only in the day time?”
He continued to speak so that the confusion written on my face would quickly clear.

“Sir, as you see, there is only one tube light in this temple near the lord (there were eight others, I counted). Hence the devotees like your good self-do not want to visit this temple after sunset – they all stream past it and go straight inside, sir. Sir, as you are a Hindu, I am not ashamed to ask you for just rupees three hundred for the repair of that tube-light near the lord’s statue.”

These words channelized the divine force inside me immediately - the spring in my step was back! I sprung backwards and scooted through the main door to bathe in the divine light bestowed upon mother earth by the sun-god.

Back at the mandapam I noticed several sculptures of Vishnu adorning the lintel level of the next mandapam – Vishnu sitting on top of the sheshanag (the large serpent with five heads), Vishnu sleeping on Sheshanag, Lord rama along with Sita, Lakshmana (who is also an incarnation of Sheshanag) and Hanuman.

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Something must be said about Sheshanag - the divine serpent that Vishnu is always portrayed with. Shesha means 'that what remains' indicating the timeless nature of the serpent. Vishnu sometimes lies down on Shesha-shaiya (or the bed made of shesha) and at other times, he is protected from the elements by the five heads of the shesha. Shesha comes from a very well known mythological family - his younger brother Vasuki formed the cord with which the devtas churned the divine ocean in search of 'amrit' - divine elixir. Vasuki finds a place in buddhist mythology as one of the naga kings as wel. The one younger still, Airavata was actually not a snake but an elephant who was the vehicle of Indra, the king of gods and the most powerful god of Vedic times (before the emergence of Saivism and Vaishnavism). The one younger to Airavata was called Takshaka, a king of the nagas and after whom Taxila or Taksh-shila (the ancient university town near the Indus) was named.

The light was indeed beautiful and and I noticed that the mandapam entrance rested on four sculpted pillars that were put in place by the Vijaynagar kings (after the demise of the chola empire). These pillars are unique and there’re two places where I noticed them, one was here and the other was near the east gate. Each pillar shows a warrior riding a mythical animal called a ‘Yali’. A guide in Dharasuram (the smallest of the great living Chola temples) had described the Yali to me thus – it is a mixture of five animals – face of a lion, ears of a pig, hind of a cow, tusks of an elephant and I’m pretty sure there was a goat in there somewhere too.

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This form of Yali here at Ranganatha was a bit different as it has a horse’s body, the lion’s face and the elephant’s tusks. I didn’t mind the two missing animals as it was still a very spectacular sight.
#5 Oct 4th, 2012, 14:11
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Vaibhav

Your travelogue is reassuring for somebody like me who always feels a little out of place and awkward when visiting temples. We Yorkshiremen must be born with an inner "divine force". We all react rapidly to the sight of a collection box.

Don't let TD discourage you about the photos. They enhance the prose and are in no way superfluous. Keep 'em coming.
#6 Oct 4th, 2012, 14:20
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As usual nice detailing, almost pictured through words with all required information too.

Enjoying this temple tour a lot, vaibhav.
aamar payer tolai sorshe...(I have wheels under my feet)
#7 Oct 4th, 2012, 14:31
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Very Very Nice Travelogue Vaibhav.

Enjoyed reading it.
#8 Oct 4th, 2012, 14:43
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Quote:
These words channelized the divine force inside me immediately - the spring in my step was back! I sprung backwards and scooted through the main door to bathe in the divine light bestowed upon mother earth by the sun-god.
#9 Oct 5th, 2012, 00:32
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I walked inside the large mandapam (covered pillared courtyard) and guessed that the opening on the other side was well over one hundred feet further. I felt a bit disoriented by the assault on my senses with smells of camphor, incense, turmeric, clarified butter, joss sticks, fresh basil leaves all being offered to the many deities that inhabit niches and pillars of the Sri Rangathaswamy Kovil (or the temple of the lord ranganath) by the pilgrims that strutted about me, rushing form one deity to another. The entire temple is made of granite and the core is now over a thousand years old. The cool granite under my bare soles combined with the effect of the sweet smells made for a very relaxing atmosphere.

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The entire complex is over 156 acres if you include the market streets through which I had just walked. The inner area which is accessible only on foot measures over 40 acres from the renga renga gopuram to the north goupram in the north and from the west wall to the Vellai (pretty) gopuram in the east. There are supposedly a total of twenty one gates or Gopurams – I recall seeing more than ten gates big and small. To the devotees of Vishnu, the middle one of the hindu triumvirate, this temple is the first amongst equals. To a Tamil Iyengar Brahmin – the followers of vaishnavaite faith – the mention of the word ‘kovil’ or temple brings about memories of this very landmark. No wonder that the first event of the day for locals is a visit to the temple and it was buzzing with activity.

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Immediately inside the mandapam area on the left side lays the temple of Venugopal (a name of Krsna) or Venugopal Sannidhi. From this point onwards, I could notice more and more faithful performing acts of worship completely unmindful of my poking lens. Near the sannidhi, women were busy paying obeisance to Ganesha for prosperity and to Lakshmi for wealth on the two pillars.

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I walked a bit ahead and to the right was a sight most unusual. It was Srirangam’s version of the make-a-wish fountains from other parts of the world or perhaps the equivalent of the lattice in Ajmer Sharif dargah where the faithful tie a thread when they make a wish. Here, they locked a metal lock on the canopy and then lit a little earthen lamp at the base of the pillar and anointed the deity with vermillion and offered basil leaves, lotus flowers and plantain fruit.

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I was looking dumbfounded at the faith of hundreds of devotees – trying to imagine what kind of wishes would be locked up here – a new car, a new house, a spouse perhaps? And these were only the unfulfilled ones - once the wish is fulfilled the devotees would come back to unlock it. It was then that I noticed that a few of the locks were old, dozens of years old perhaps – steel with rust and brass with patina indicating the wish never came true. It suddenly made me very sad that sometimes such faith goes unrewarded.

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It was all quite enchanting except I was beginning to wonder about the absence of priests in this part of the temple. No one had asked me for money for about fifteen minutes now. No one attempted to instill the fear of god in me, ask me about my religion (non-Hindus are forbidden to enter the innermost prakarams and foreigner’s camera tickets are priced twice that of Indians). I finally spotted one priest and asked if I could take pictures here to which he nodded in assent. Well, the immediate area didn’t have much to photograph for most of the pillars were plain but I did get an answer to my question as to why the priests were not bothered about stopping me or asking me for any repair funds - they were busy counting the winnings of the previous day.

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I continued my journey northwards (towards the inner prakarams) and didn’t stop at the next gopuram as I probably would come back later (or so I said to myself). The mandapam beyond this point is called the Garuda mandapam and it was a darker place still. I took almost a minute to adjust to the light and viewed the chart in front (I couldn’t take a photo of it). Ahead of me was the back wall of the Garuda (mythical eagle avatar of Vishnu) temple with a clear sign ‘no photography and videography) and to my left was another perumal temple (perumal being the Tamil name for Vishnu). Over the years, I’ve followed the simple philosophy of asking the priest before I take a photo inside any temple, of any faith. So here, near the gates that said ‘hindus only permitted’ I asked the priest the same as the black stone sculptures on the left wall were notably graceful (see below).

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I was able to take a single shot of the priest posing next to the door when suddenly I felt a sudden rise in the pressure on my right temple – the camera was being pushed to the left by a force unseen and my right foot was nearly off the ground. A voice boomed ‘no photo!’ I nearly lost my balance from the sudden hard slap he had delivered to my camera.

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Regaining composure, I tried to reason a bit with the offending party that his co-worker had permitted but he was in no mood to relent. For a moment, I was completely taken aback but then I shook it off and walked out of the enclosure down the flight of stairs and into the Garuda mandapam. Behind open doors stood a statue of Garuda well over twice my height with the head of an eagle, the body of a man and the wings on the back of an eagle again (similar to angel wings though). It was resplendently painted in beautiful maroon with a yellow beak, large black saucer round eyes, hands adorned with gold plated armbands (representations of snakes ) folded in the ‘namaskar mudra’ in the direction of the lord of the universe – Sri Ranganathaswamy.

It was yet another pretty sight that I was not allowed to photograph. Turning back, I noticed that either pillar in front of the Garuda statue held a life size Alwar (Azhavar - learned tamil vaishnavite scholars) statute finished smoothly in granite. The artificial yellow light could not dull the beauty of these thousand year old black granite sculptures. So, in a flash and without using any I snapped up a photo and sauntered away before the priest could catch me.

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#10 Oct 6th, 2012, 14:02
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These last several minutes of attempting to evade the authorities had left me a bit rattled and hence the next two sights were rather welcome. The first was the temple elephant! Elephants have been employed in all major temples of south India as they are thought to represent Ganesha – the elephant headed god. The drill is simple, you as a devotee show up with some plantain fruit or bananas and provide it to the beast who in turn raises his trunk and places it gently on your head blessing you.

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Depending on the mood of the animal he may caress you a little too lovingly and I’ve seen one extreme incident of a very happy animal (he was swaying sideways) picking up a man’s shoulder bag! There was an elephant here and he did look happy enough to accept what was given to him and quickly deposit it with his minders who sat about chatting. Then he’d bless the devotee and be given a small treat at the end.

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This is what modern India has been ignoring all these years - ancient India's answer to toll evaders on our newly built expressways. Think of it, is anyone in their right mind going to tell a grown up elephant that they dont have change? Before you'd realize what's happened, the ticket collectors trunk would have reached inside your car, taken the payment and told you off with a nudge ... brilliant!

Moving ahead I saw what I was hoping to see for some time – something to eat! Freshly prepared ‘pongal’ was being dished out in Styrofoam dishes from a giant vat by a gaggle of helpful volunteers. Pongal is a dish made by taking lentils and rice in a cooking pot or a pressure cooker, adding black pepper, ghee, some dry fruit like cashew , some other spices and first submerging the unsuspecting mixture and then boiling it into submission till it forms a gooey shapeless mass. This dish, starchy and immediately satisfying, usually served as breakfast in Tamil Nadu is a bit like porridge in consistency but distinctly Indian in taste and flavor. Mesmerized, I couldn’t help but stand there breathing in the appetizing smell and taking pictures.

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I raised my gaze up from the treasure-pot to realize that to get one of those Styrofoam dishes would involve going back half a furlong to the back of the queue – a task not very welcome but I just did it anyways.

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The queue moved surprisingly fast and I had a palm sized plate full of pongal and settled down under the covered mandapam – sitting on the raised platform cross legged, barefoot and eating with my fingers.

Having regained some strength, it was time to restart the photo expedition and soon I met a group of Sabarimala temple devotees. They were all clad in black lungis and wore multiple bead necklaces on their person. It was an interesting connection that brought them to Srirangam. Sabarimala is the most famous abode of Ayyappan – a god born of the union of Shiva and Vishnu (through Vishnu’s only female form – Mohini). Thus Srirangam Island that houses the largest Vishnu temple as well as a major Shiva temple (Jambukeshwara) was akin to coming to their deity’s parents houses. They were quite happy to be there at that time.

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I was thirsty and looking for drinking water spied a gate in the wall that led to an opening outside the wall and yet enclosed by another wall. It was here that I noticed the signs of what Srirangam would have been like during medieval times and later – a fortified wall. Apparently Srirangam Island’s location, set at a lower elevation than the city of Trichinopoly and surrounded by two rivers – Cauvery and Kollidam (or Coleroon) made it very susceptible to invasions and it had indeed seen many over the last millennium. I do not know with certainty who built this wall but it appeared to be an eighteenth century or later fortification to me – perhaps a British era relic? (It turned out after reading that these are fifteenth century kitchen stores!)

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Ahead of me and to the left of these fortifications was a small temple with a priest who stood covering his right breast with an oversized silver bustier (see below). I walked up close to realize that this breast-cupping was unintentional and that he was merely holding a silver chalice on his chest waiting for the next devotee to show up.

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He was quite friendly and described that this temple belonged to Ranganayaki or Lakshmi – Vishnu’s faithful consort. The silver chalice, topped with a replica of sandals, was called ‘charanpaduka’ (or foot-sandals) of the lord and were used to bless the devotees. Shortly thereafter he obliged me with a demonstration.

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The faith of the devotees knew no bounds and it was manifest in this gentleman walking throughout the temple on one foot. He came near the Lakshmi temple and here we see him turning around to go back!

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I walked back to the same place where I had obtained the excellent pongal from and spotted a sight I’m not likely to forget for a while. Between the pongal queue and me stood a woman of perhaps seventy gently caressing a cow’s behind. I stopped dead in my tracks as after several strokes, with deep reverence writ large on her face she bowed down and touched the beast’s rectum with her own forehead! I just had to find out more and thought I’d talk to the priest holding the reins of this cow. There was a startled look on his face as he saw a tall, fair north Indian with a camera walking towards him. ‘No photo, no photo!’ As he flailed his arms wildly I hoped he wouldn’t let go of the nylon harness rope as the holy cow would have made it straight for the pongal pot thwarting my chances of a second helping. Luckily the cow was surrounded by too many devotees; some were anointing their own foreheads with the turmeric that marked the cow’s body while others were leaving ten rupee notes on its back.

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Yadavji, the priest explained to me that the cow (referred to as ‘Ko’) is held in great reverence by all as she is the first every morning between men and beast to be allowed to visit Sri Ranganathaswamy. Per hindu mythology all the three hundred and thirty million gods reside inside the stomach of the cow.

The next enclosure did not permit photography – I was lucky that Yadavji was able to explain to the policeman on duty on my behalf that he should allow my camera. They usually insist that people leave it in a deposit room near the renga renga gopuram and that would have been a long walk back and forth indeed. Standing inside the inner sanctum’s mandapam, I looked around to come to terms with a lovely golden glow created by lamps filled with ghee reflecting against a large gold plated flag pillar (dhwaj stambh). I looked around and any thoughts of taking a surreptitious photo perished under the priests’ steely gaze.

In front of the flag pillar and the lamps were bamboo fences erected for crowd control and the entrance to the sanctum sanctorum. Inside these doors Lord Ranganatha lay supine on the coiled serpent sheshanag while his faithful wife Ranganyaki massaged his ‘lotus feet’. It is said that the statue is adorned with gold and the eyes are made of diamonds – the most famous of which is now in the Moscow kremlin – the Orloff diamond.

A massive crowd neatly partitioned in two queues, each coming out the main door and running on either side parallel to the wall perpendicularly ahead of me waited patiently to view this divine splendor. The queue on the left cost rupees fifty to join while the one on the right was free; I didn’t count the signboard that read ‘rupees two hundred and fifty for special darshan’ as a queue as there was only an idle priest under that signboard looking in my direction with an expectant gaze not unlike the tractor beam in a star trek episode.

Flying out of range of the tractor beam, I went around the sanctum, first to the left and guessed it would be an hour’s wait here and then back to the front and along the queue on the right. This one coiled itself mirroring the sheshanag only several feet inside the wall all the way along the front and the side walls, and then turned right at the back wall and then turned right again to come back all the way near the point where it started. Here, men squatted eating peanuts, women combed their hair and some tended to their babies as they cried and occasionally kicked their mothers who in turn alternately cajoled and slapped them back. It wasn’t a queue; it was a scene straight out of an Attenborough film of a refugee camp and I wasn’t ready to join one. So I discarded the desire for divine presence and quickly stepped out of the prakaram for some fresh air.
Last edited by vaibhav_arora; Oct 15th, 2012 at 14:55..
#11 Oct 6th, 2012, 14:26
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  • theyyamdancer is offline
#11
I love the photo of the hopping devotee.

Excellent descriptions, Vaibhav, really vivid and humourous. All of life is there inside the temple.
#12 Oct 14th, 2012, 22:44
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As I left the innermost prakaram, I turned left and didn’t venture towards the pongal serving area, the highlight of my trip so far, ignoring the soft whisper from my stomach to go for second helpings. I continued to walk along the enclosure wall and as I approached the corner I felt there was sand under my feet. “I surely didn’t walk enough to hit the beach already”, I said to myself. A quick look down and around confirmed the initial feeling, there indeed was sand under my soles, and it felt so nice and so cool that I wanted to keep walking here forever. I turned left as the enclosing walls directed me to and man was the sand hot here! I had to quickly run to the shadow of the wall to my right. I looked around and noticed a stooping lady walking calmly on this inland beach – “that’s true faith, you nonbeliever”

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My head hanged in shame and under the weight of the camera strap, I clicked a photo and continued onwards towards Sri Ramar Sannadhi (temple of Sri Rama). The Rama statue was resplendently reflective, made of black granite stone and about ten feet high. It was decorated with pure gold crown, gold bracelets, gold everything except the eyes which are most likely diamonds or another precious stone with a yellowish hue. They shine so brightly that it’s quite a sight. There’s an ante room as well with a Vishnu statue studded with enough gold for my retirement.

I walked back towards the enclosure wall and along the northern wall, parallel to the temple tank that i couldnt get a good shot of and reached this gate that is kept shut for almost the entire year except on ‘vaikunth ekadasi’ (roughly translated as the eleventh day that marks the heavens where Vishnu resides). It shows a number of beautiful paintings of lord Vishnu – all in the same pose though.

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Either side of this door are two statues of Vishnu himself standing up and surrounded by the characters of the Ramayana. To the extreme left we see Hanuman – the monkey god and faithful devotee of Lord Rama and next to him in Jade green is Sugreev – the king of the monkey kingdom of Kishkindha. Next to him is probably Ram himself. On the right of the door is the identical dwarpal (door-keeper) statue and kneeling next to him is the faithful garuda – vishnu’s vehicle.

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I then walked straight (my back to the closed door), took a left at the end of the corridor and then a right and reached the north gate. To my right was a flight of stairs leading up to the Narasimha temple. The frescoes on the walls of the verandah are absolutely stunning and show the Man-Lion avatar of Vishnu first enjoying his meal of the entrails of Hiranyakashipu – the unjust king and in the second one he continues to enjoy the next course of an animal’s innards (possibly a mongoose) on top of the king who is reduced to a serving dish. The person standing on the right is likely to be bhakt prahalad (or the devotee prahalad who prayed to Vishnu for his deliverance).


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So engrossed was I in photographing this wall painting that I didn’t notice the priest creeping up close to me. He didn’t ask me anything about my religion but instead smiled mildly and asked me to step inside to have a look. There was a beautiful bronze statue (cast bronze, fairly old, less than two feet) that shone in the sunlight coming through the ventilators. I turned around to ask him if I could photograph and he immediately smiled and said ‘special festival donation, you give?’. As my head shook from left to right I could see the narasimha in this man come alive and his expression changed from a benign father’s to the ruthless mercenary. He didn’t say anything but waved his hand widely. I took it to be ‘no photo’ and calmly walked outside ignoring the cries of ‘festival donation’ and captured the other mural on the verandah wall – the one that depicted Sri Ranganathaswamy in a deep blue skin color.


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The north gopuram located right opposite this narasimha temple )seen below) had the usual assortment of gods and goddesses as well as men and women indulging in some earthier pleasures. The costume worn by the ladies of the chola age was certainly eye-popping and my camera autofocused in no time!!

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I then turned around and went back through the small corridor and past the Ramar sannadhi and took a turn left to come to a courtyard facing the Vellai Gopuram (white gopuram) in front. Most people believe that it’s natural that the gopuram be called thus as it is painted in white color.

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The story that learned later that day is that the gopuram was not always white. In the year 1323, sultanate forces from delhi attacked Srirangam in pursuit of the gold and gemstones that the temple held in its treasure vault. They succeeded in removing the temple gold and jewels but failed to get the statue of namaperumal (this is backed by fact : the statue was not present between the year of the attack and until 1371). During the year of the attack, a devdasi (supposedly also called Vellayi) inveigled the commander to climb up the gopuram and pushed him down. She subsequently jumped to her own death chanting the name of Rangnathar. This story, with some variation was also featured in The Hindu.

I then continued left towards the thousand pillared mandapam .... I've taken an old map done by Herr Baedeker and published in Leipzig around a hundred years ago, and posted my own landmarks on that (in line with the descriptions). The temple hasnt changed a bit since then and the map sourced freely from the Texas University library (available online) is perfectly usable. Hopefully this should make it easier to keep track of all that I'm writing.

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#13 Oct 15th, 2012, 08:18
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Thank you TD, Velu, DJ, Dave and others for the kinds words and comments. The place was amazing as there were hardly any tourists around and a wonderful vibe that I havent yet experienced in another Tamil temple till date. I'm a slow writer but will try to finish this.
#14 Oct 15th, 2012, 09:01
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I love your detailed report and your amazing photos!! Thanks so much for sharing all this with us!
#15 Oct 15th, 2012, 11:29
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Thank you Daisy

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