Lord with a might: Ranganathaswamy of Srirangam



While going from Tiruchirapalli to Srirangam, the skyline dotted with gopurams is simply unmistakable. It immediately tells you about the enormity of the place we are visiting. Therefore, I now feel it very intriguing that Srirangam was not the among the first names that I heard whenever I read or listened to about prominent temples of South India. Only word closer to it that I heard was the Srirangapatna, the erstwhile capital of Tipu Sultan. I came to know it at a very later stage that both Srirangam as well as the Srirangapatna are famous for Ranganathaswamy temples along with an another temple of the same deity at Sivasamudram.

Four storey gopuram at Ranganathswamy temple

Hence, having heard of temples of Rameshwaram, Madurai, Chidambaram, Tirupathi, Guruvayoor, Thiruvananthapuram etc. in very early years, Srirangam made place in my mind only at a very later stage. And, when it did, it happened with all sort of astonishments and amazing feelings. I just kept wondering that how come it happened that I heard so much about Ramanathaswamy Temple at Rameshwaram but not about Ranganathaswamy Temple at Srirangam. It isn’t so that there is any essential comparison between two, but now having known about this temple, I just feel that it is indeed one of the most important Hindu temples in whole of India.

Srirangam Town skyline. Photo: Ajay Goyal/Wikipedia

The mighty Kaveri

So, the three towns- Srirangapatna, Sivasamudram and Srirangam are the three most revered Vaishnavite pilgrim centres of South India dedicated to Ranganathaswamy. And, all three have another common thing- the river Kaveri. It is said that, there has been a tradition to consecrate all the islands formed in Kaveri river to Lord Ranganathaswamy. These three towns are based on three largest islands in Kaveri. Kaveri is indeed one of the most sacred river in South India often referred to as the Daksina Ganga or the “Ganges of the South”. Located in Tiruchirapalli district of Tamil Nadu, Srirangam is bounded by the Kaveri (also known as Cauvery) on one side, and the Kaveri distributary Kollidam (Coleroon) on the other side. The temple town lies on an islet formed by the twin rivers.

The golden vimanka over the sanctum amidst gopurams. Photo: Jean-Pierre Dalbera/Wikipedia

The deity

As I said it is a prominent Vaishnavite centre, which means that this temple is dedicated to Vishnu. This living temple and sacred centre of pilgrimage is counted as the first and foremost among the 108 Divya Desams dedicated to Vishnu. Srirangam also said to be among eight “self-manifested” shrines (Swayam Vyakta Kshetras, where presiding deity is believed to have manifested on its own) of Lord Vishnu. This temple is also known as Thiruvaranga Tirupati, Periyakoil, Bhoologa Vaikundam, Bhogamandabam. Temple has a reclining form of the Lord Vishnu.

13-storey Rajgopuram was completed in 1987

Srirangam town

It won’t be wrong to say that Ranganathaswamy Temple and Srirangam are synonymous to each other. Temple is the town and town is the temple. The distinction between the temple and the settlement gets blurred and the temple is also referred to as Srirangam many a times. This Temple-Town typology is unique to this part of the world and Ranganathaswamy Temple is an exceptional example of the same. The temple is the nucleus and the life of people is centred around it. But Srirangam indeed is a thriving town with constant flow of devotees all the year round.

Garuda Mandapa at Ranganathaswamy temple. Photo: Richard Mortel/Wikipedia

Legend from the Puranas

The origin of Ranganathaswamy Temple Srirangam has many legends associated with it and most of them originate from the Ramayana. The temple and its artwork are a subject of numerous different Tamil legends covered in regional Puranic texts. Sriranga Mahathmiyam, for example, is one of the compilation of the temple mythology about its origins. As per the legends either the idol of reclining Vishnu or the Srirangam Vimanam was being carried by Lankan King Vibhishana after it was handed over to him by Lord Rama. On his way to Lanka, he stopped at Trichy and either the idol or the vimanam refused to go any further. Hence the shrine came up at that place. A temple at Srirangam is mentioned in Tamil literature of the Sangam era (5th century BC to 3rd century AD), including the epic Silapadikaram.

Thousand pillar temple at Ranganathaswamy temple. Photo: Richard Mortel/Wikipedia

History and the Bhakti movement

Besides the legends, the Ranganathaswamy temple at Srirangam has a very rich history and has seen a many upheavals. It also played an important part in the Bhakti Movement. Chola kings Dharmavarcholan and Killivalavan are said to have developed the shrine into the big temple seen now. They built the basic foundations and main buildings. Beyond the ancient textual history, archaeological evidence such as inscriptions refer to this temple, but these stone inscriptions are from late 1st millennium AD. The inscriptions in the temple belong to the Chola, Pandya, Hoysala and Vijayanagar dynasties who ruled over the region. These inscriptions range in date between the 9th and 16th centuries. Temple and the region had its own share of invasions and plundering from the Sultanate and the Mughals on various occasions. But every time the temple regained its glory. This temple has been seat of many scholars, saints and poets. Kambar, 12th-century Tamil poet who composed Kamba Ramayanam, is believed to have come to the temple to get the approval of his work from scholars. Many of the Vaishnavite scholars of medieval India, like Nathamuni, Ramanuja and Vedanta Desika have been associated with the temple. There are many religious works that were exclusively composed in praise of Srirangam temple including Sri Bhashyam by Ramanuja, Sri Renga natha shtakam by Adi Shankaracharya, Paduka Sahasram by Swami Vedanta Desika, and many more.

The hall in front of Thayar shrine where Kambar recited Kamba Ramayana for scholars. Photo: S. Sriram/Wikipedia

The temple

Srirangam temple is unique in its Sapta-Prakaram formation, a temple centred settlement pattern that comprises of Sapta (seven) concentric rectangular enclosures or prakarams formed by thick and huge rampart walls that run round the sanctum sanctorum in which the deity presides. The temple is aligned to the north-south and east-west axis. While the inner five enclosures of the complex constitute the temple, the outer two enclosures function as the settlement. Apart from the 7 prakarams with massive walls, the Temple Complex has 21 very colourful sculpted gopurams (consecrated gateways with towers), 48 shrines, 9 sacred Pushkaran, gilded Vimana (dome) over the sanctum sanctorum of the presiding deity, Ayiram kaal mandapam (a hall of 1000 pillars) and several small water bodies inside and other interesting features such as mural paintings.

The temple complex includes over 48 shrines. These are dedicated to Vishnu, Lakshmi as well as various Vaishnava scholars and poets. The main shrine for Sri Ranganatha is in the innermost courtyard. The sanctum has a golden vimanam (crown tower over the sanctum sanctorum). Inside, a 6-metre (20 ft) edifice shown Sri Ranganthaswamy reclining on Adisesha. The Ranganathaswamy Temple town has over 800 inscriptions, of which nearly 640 are on temple walls and monuments. Many of these relate to gifts and grants by rulers or the elite, while others relate to the temple’s management, scholars, dedication and general operation. The inscriptions have been a source of information about South Indian history, culture, economy and social role. Temple is also rich in sculptures which reflect the socio-cultural influences at the temple. Since temple has seen various phases of construction under different dynasties, the sculptures also reflect the period and architectural school of their times.

The recognition

Ranganathaswamy Temple at Srirangam has been included in UNESCO’s tentative list of World Heritage sites. But the reputation of temple goes far beyond this. Constructed in the Dravidian style of architecture, the Temple Complex is massive in scale and spread over 156 acres (63.131 hectares). According to some scholars, this makes Ranganathaswamy Temple the largest Functioning Temple in the World and is often found ranked amongst the largest religious complexes of the world, including the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Borobodur in Indonesia, Machu Picchu in Peru and the Vatican City. Angkor Wat temple has bigger area but it is not a functioning temple. Some of the structures of Srirangam temple have been renovated, expanded and rebuilt over the centuries as a living temple. The towering Rajagopuram (shrine of the main gateway) is said to be the tallest temple tower in Asia.

Very intricately carved Sesharayar mandapam was built during Nayaka rule.
Photo: Jean-Pierre Dalbera/Wikipedia

Festivals

The temple celebrates numerous festivals around the year including processions. The annual 21-day Vaikunta Ekadashi festival conducted during the Tamil month of Margazhi (December–January) attracts 1 million visitors. Besides, Jestabishekam is celebrated in Tamil month Aani (June-July); Pavithrothsavam is celebrated in Tamil month Aani (August –September); Oonjal is held in Tamil Month Aipasi (October-December); Brahmotsavam (Prime festival) is held during the Tamil month of Panguni (March–April) and the annual temple chariot festival, called Rathothsavam is celebrated during the Tamil month of thai (January–February). There are many other festivals as well.

One of the festivals at Srirangam town

Travel

As I told that Srirangam is located on an island. Island is conveniently connected to the Tiruchirapalli town with road and rail bridges. Srirangam temple is located 9 Km. from Tiruchirappalli Rail Junction and just 15 Km. from Tiruchirappalli International Airport. Srirangam also has a railway station on Chennai-Kanyakumari section, which is just half kilometre away from the temple. Although all trains don’t stop at Srirangam but Tiruchirapalli is big station where all trains will stop. So you can easily travel from there to Srirangam. Being so close to the Trichy town helps in access through all means, whether bus, taxi or auto rickshaw. There are many options to stay at Srirangam as well as Tiruchirapalli towns. There is a Yatri Nivas at Srirangam as well. But, while travelling, keep the Srirangam Temple timings in mind. There is no darshan before 6 am and after 9 pm at sanctum sanctorum. Even during the day there are seven timings for darshan of the deity.

Bridge across the Kaveri river that connects Srirangam town with Tiruchirapalli

The mythology, the history, the location, the architecture, sculptures, the belief, the enormity, the amazing construction, the socio-cultural phenomenon—any one or few or even all of them are good enough reasons to visit this place. Next time, don’t miss this temple town whenever you are visiting that part of India.

Yatri Niwas at Srirangam town for the pilgrims

Have you visited the Ranganathaswamy Temple at Srirangam? How was the atmosphere, the feeling? Share with us in the comments section below.

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