SRIRANGAM –THE BHOOLOKA VAIKUNTHA
AND AN ARCHITECTURAL MARVEL
3.LIFE IN SRIRANGAM IN 21ST CENTURY
Vaikuntha, the permanent abode of Lord Vishnu is having 7 prakaram's and Srirangam temple having it's replica on this earth with 7 prakarams is referred as Bhoo Vaikuntha . It is a premier temple in South India and is the foremost among the 108 Vaishnava divyadesasand among the 8 swayam vyakta kshetras(self manifested) . 11 out of 12 Alwars have sung in praise of the deity Lord Rangantha enshrined in the huge temple in the center of the town. The Sri Vaishnava Acharyas starting from Nathamuni , have taken an active and abiding interest in the management of the temple. It was the head quarters of Sri Ramanuja for most of his life time and where he wrote most of his works .It was the epicentre from where Vaishnavism spread all over. During Ramanuja's time, far reaching reforms were introduced both in the religious and secular management. Thus Srirangam has an eventful history, both secular and religious, as the great Vaishnava Acharyas made it the headquarters of the wider Vaishnava movement. It is also referred as Antyaranga being the last of Ranganatha temples located in island formed by river Cauvery amidst sylvan settings , surrounded by picturesque mango and coconut groves and green rice fields.
Here is an attempt to present its eventful history from it's beginning in Krita yuga to present day status in Kaliyuga - both traditional and historical .
2.a In Kritayuga
The glittering Sriranga Vimana is said to have sprang as a result of the tapas of Brahma in the depths of the Milky ocean , carried by celestial bird Garuda with Adisesha spreading his hood over it,Vishvaksena, the Archangel-in-chief walking in front clearing the way., Sun and Moon fanning the Deity, celestial Musicians Narada and Thumburu following singing Lord's Glory, Rudra and other gods raising the "jayaghosha" and the celestial maids dancing . There was a rain of flowers
Awakened from his deep tapas, Brahma prostrated before the Vimana and recited the four vedas . Then Brahma found the Supreme Lord resting with his Consorts in the vimana. The Lord informed Brahma that he had come as a Svayamvyakta -- on his own volition -- as an idol and directed Brahma to worship him strictly according to the procedure for worship laid down in the Agamas and rested in his characteristic posture of Yoganidra.
Brahma carried the vimana to Satyaloka and installed it on the banks of the river, Viraja. After him, Vaivasvata Manu, continued the worship and his son Ikshvaku, becoming the King of Ayodhya, wanted it installed at Ayodhya. After doing tapas lasting many hundred years Bramha permitted him to take it to Ayodhya.
2.b In Treta Yuga
Thus, the Vimana came to Ayodhya. After Ikshvaku's time, his descendants continued the service. Rama, himself an avatara of the Lord ,worshipped Lord Ranganatha . After his return from Sri Lanka, Rama gave the Vimana after his coronation as gift to Vibheeshana for worship.
Vibheeshana set out for Sri Lanka with the vimana and got down on the Kaveri bank to perform his mid-day prayers. He placed the Ranga Vimana at a place known as "Sesha Peetam" and returned after taking his bath and performed the Pooja .But lo! when he tried to lift the Vimana, it would not move. It had got stuck . Vibheeshana was overcome with grief. The Lord appeared before him and consoled saying that he need not grieve since he had decided to make this place his permanent abode. Vibhishana could come and worship him daily and it is said that Vibheeshana worships the Lord daily at midnight.
2.c In Kaliyuga -B.C
In course of time, Nature devoured the site. The Sri Ranga Vimana and the structures disappeared and became a habitat for wild animals. After thousands of years a ruling prince of Chola dynasty hunting in that spot, overheard a parrot sitting on a tree ,reciting a sloka.
Kaveree Viraja Seyam Vaikuntam Rangamandiram
Sa Vasudevo Pangeshah Pratyaksham Paramam Padam |
Vimanam Pranavakaram Vedasrungam Mahadhbhutham
Srirangasayee Bhagavan Pranavarthaprakasakah ||
The river Kaveri is the very same river Viraja that eternally flows in Vaikunta. Srirangam Temple is verily Vaikuntam itself, the Abode of Lord Vishnu where he sits in all splendour and majesty in the company of Nityasuris.
The Lord of Arangam, is none but Vasudeva, the Primeval Lord Himself. The Vimana is verily the external Paramapada itself.
The Vimana is in the form of the Pranava (the life sustaining mantra). The four towers are marvelously akin to the four Vedas and the Lord, Sri Rangasayee is expounding the import of the Pranava.
On understanding the meaning of this sloka, the chola dug the earth towards west of the tree to lay a secure foundation for the Sriranga Vimana. But the Lord appeared before him in a dream and pointed out to him the exact spot wherein he lay. The king was overjoyed at finding the glittering Ranga Vimanam there. He cleared the forest, constructed all the essential parts of the temple, laid down flower gardens, instituted temple services and forms of worship. The shrine became widely knows as "Tiruvaranga Tirupathi", thanks to the benefactions of Kili Chola and his successors who ruled from Uraiyur.
2.d In Kaliyuga -A.D
3rd to 8th century –Alwars period
With the rise of Buddhism and Jainism in 6th century AD, in the Tamil country, there arose a strong reaction against their growing influence and gave rise to a strong movement among the worshippers of Vishnu and Siva. The Vaishnava resurgent movement was spearheaded by the Alvars who brought religion to the heart of the people. They employed Tamil as the medium of expression and composed the exuberant devotional songs - "Nalayira Divya Prabandham". The shrines visited and glorified by them became holy places (Divya Desas)and the temple at Srirangam is the foremost among them
A total of 247 hymns in the Nalayiram is found to be dedicated to the Lord of Srirangam. Of these, Tirumalisai Alvar refers many times to the shrine of Srirangam and the rivers Kaveri and its branch - Kollidam ,encircling the shrine, luxuriant gardens,the beautiful Tiruvarangam, and the eight tirthas (pools) in which people from far and near bathe and worship the Lord . Tirumangai Alvar renovated many shrines, towers and Prakara walls and the Dasavatara Shrine. He instituted the "Adhyayanothsavam" . The Kings and their chiefs vied with one another in bestowing attention on the temple. After the early Cholas, the Pallavas, the later Cholas, the Pandyas, the Hoysala , the Vijayanagar Emperors and the Nayak Kings took care of the shrine and made significant additions and benefactions. Pious pilgrims, saints and scholars from all over the country visited the shrine and worshipped the Lord year round.
10th to 13th century-Chola regime
There are over 600 inscriptions on the walls and other places in the temple,of which 105 pertain to Chola period , furnishing us with a variety of information about the benefactions made by thecholas ruling classes from time to time and also about the social, economic and political conditions.
For instance, we learn that Parantaka Chola I (907 - 955 AD), the greatest of the Cholas, Raja Raja I (985 - 1014 AD), Kulottunga I Chola, Vikrama Chola (1070-1125 AD) were all ardent devotees of Lord Ranganatha and donated many benefactions- gold and silver for lamps, golden Kalanju for performing the Tirumanjanam of the Lord with a "Sahasradhara" (1000 holed) gold plate , plots of land for for cake offerings to the Lord on the Ekadasi day during the Panguni festival, gift of one hundred cows to the temple for daily supply of four 'Nali' of milk along with cattle sheds and grazing fields ,precious gem set for the Lord etc . Second prakara- Rajamahendran Veedhi, Gosala, Shrine for Krishna in the north east of fifth prakara ,for Rama in south west and Nachiyar in North west were all added during their period . The huge Garuda in the fourth enclosure was installed during Vikrama chola's reign and the fifth enclosure was paved during his reign.
It is significant that during the acharya-ship of Sri Ramanuja ( 12th century AD), numerous benefactions accrued to the temple. Ramanuja completely overhauled the administrative system and saw to it, that great care was exercised in the matter of control of temple affairs and for this purpose - the office of the superintendent of the temple (Senapathi Durandhara ) was created . Mudaliandan and his descendants held the office with great distinction for almost two centuries.
Kulottunga III and Raja Raja III also continued to bestow care and interest in the temple affairs. During Raja Raja III's reign (1216-1257 AD), the Odras of Orissa were in occupation of the temple for about two years between (1223 -1225 AD). They were ultimately expelled by the Pandyan force under Mara Varman Sundara Pandya.
The benefactions of Jatavarman Sundara Pandya (1251 - 1268 AD) are simply breath-taking. He is said to have covered the Ranga Vimana with gold, built a shrine for Vishvaksena. , conducted many tulabharas (weighing himself against gold, silver, jewels etc. and gifting them to the temple). Other contributions include a golden ship for the float festival (Teppa tirunal), three golden domes, gift of garland of emerald, a crown of jewels, a pearl garland and many gifts of art of inestimable value and beauty. He also built a shrine for Narasimha on a gopura in the fifth enclosure and 'Amudu Mandapa' equipped with golden vessels and many more.
The Hoysalas are found to have established themselves at nearby Vikramapuri (Samayapuram). During their reign, the Venugopala shrine - a beautiful specimen of the Hoysala architecture was built.
14th Century- Dark period
Srirangam went thro' a black period in the year 1311 A.D and again in 1323 A.D when, Malik Kafur and Ulugh Khan attacked the temple. In the first sack of Srirangam, all the golden gifts made to the temple were carried away but fortunately it did not affect the religious life at Srirangam. But the second sack resulted in fall of the Srirangam Temple in alien hands who used it as a garrison till they were persuaded to leave the temple precincts. It appears a wall was built by devotees around the moolavar shrine to hide from the invaders.
Again in the raid in 1331 AD, the processional deity itself had to be moved to safety in Tirupati, by a band of devotees headed by Pillai Lokacharya. The restoration took place only in 1371 AD with the conquest of the South by the Vijayanagar. An inscription in the second Prakara (Raja Mahendran Veedhi) records that 'Gopanna took the image of Ranganatha from Tirupati to Chenji, his capital and after the defeat of the Muslims, restored the image to Srirangam and had it installed with Lakshmi and Bhoodevi'. This reconstruction took place on the 17th of Vaikasi (in the year Paridapi), Saka 1293 (13th May 1371). The great desciple of Sri Ramanuja , Sri Vedanta Desika returned to Srirangam after the self-imposed exile following the Muslim sack and witnessed in great delight the reconsecration. Subsequent to the restoration, Vedanta Desika, settled once again in Srirangam and spent a few years in a quiet and peaceful religious pursuit and brought out the famous work 'The Rahasyatrayasara' and dedicated it to Lord Ranganatha.
15th Century-Bright period-Vijayanagar regime
The restoration of Srirangam meant, for all practical purposes, end of Tamil Country from the Muslim Yoke and the beginning of a golden era for Vaishnavism. During the siege, the temple worship had practically ceased, many structures were wantonly damaged, precious jewels, gold vessels etc. removed, the gold plates covering pillars, walls and Vimanams peeled off and golden idols carried away. The temple treasury and the granaries were emptied, the jewels and valuables plundered. All the devadana lands having been usurped, the temple was reduced to a state of wretchedness and poverty.
To the credit of the Vijayanagar emperors, they realised the magnitude of the task of restoring this temple to its pristine glory and in this stupendous task, they were ably and faithfully assisted by the Uttamanambis of Srirangam - one of the most influential families associated with the administration of the temple for long. There are plenty of inscriptions (254) which throw considerable light on the Vijayanagar hold on the temple. A characteristic feature of these inscriptions are, they contain the saka (year) dates. This was the period which witnessed a spirit of religious enthusiasm and expansion.
A continuous flow of the royalty and high dignitaries from the Vijayanagar Empire frequented the temple and made offerings on a lavish scale. Among these distinguished worshippers are Krishnadevaraya, Achutaraya and Sadasivaraya. During this period the subshrine of the Alvars and Acharyas were furnished with a Vimana, Gopura and the mandapas. The construction of the Alagiya-Singar Koil (after clearing the forests) in the East, the erection of the mandapa and the installation of the Hanuman idol and renovation and installation of the Dasavatara images in 1439 AD, a Shrine for Dhanvantri, the Lord of Medicine in the North side of the fourth Prakara and the thousand pillared mandapa are some of the standing monuments that even today testify to the abiding interest of the Vijayanagar rulers.
While Vedanta Desika lived, propounded and expounded and wrote in the most troublous and turbulent days (as also Pillai Lokacharya and their associates), Manavala Mamuni whose birth almost coincided with the attaining of mukti of Sri Vedanta Desika, had comparatively a peaceful time when he established himself in Srirangam in 1405 AD. He was able to get over all difficulties that stood in his way of assuming the mantleship of Acharya at Srirangam and he has left a deep impression which lasts until this day.
16th Century- Nayaka's period
By middle of 16th century the Nayak Viceroys at Tanjore and Madurai became independent of the Vijayanagar , and Srirangam temple attracted their attention and patronage. Achyutappa Nayaka (1580 - 1614) was so passionately devoted to the Lord that he abdicated his throne in favour of his son, Raghunatha and retired to Srirangam to spend his time in the midst of devotees and pandits. He is credited with having covered the Vimana with gold afresh and reconstructed some of the outer Prakara walls, Gopurams etc.
The shifting of capital to Tiruchirapalli of the Madurai Nayakas forebode more pleasant times. Manifold benefactions were made to the temple .Vijaya ranga Chokkanatha (1706-1739) was the most magnificent benefactor. He built the "Vedaparayana Mantapa" in the 3rd enclosure and the 'Kannadi Arai' in the 'Chandra Mandapa'.
Further, it was during the Nayaka period, the ceilings and walls of several mantapas - particularly those on the enclosures surrounding the Nachiyar Shrine and the ceilings in the Dharmavarma Veedhi were painted with scenes from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata etc.
18th –20th century-Nawab's and British regime and after Independence
With Nawabs rule in 18th century, the Carnatic wars broke out between the English and the French. The temple was once again converted into a fortress but the temple worship was not affected. Hyder Ali occupied the temple for a brief while - in 1781 - while his son took it on 1790, but both pulled out quickly.
The victorious English took over the administration of the Carnatic in 1801. John Wallace was appointed as the Collector of the Tiruchirapalli District and in that capacity assumed the management of the temple. The British Government's direct control of the temple lasted for just about 40 years. On June 12, 1841, the Court of Directors of the East India Company ordered the immediate withdrawal of all interference with native temples and places of religious resort. As an effect of this decision, the first Board of Trustees of the temple was constituted on 7th August 1841, consisting of Vedavyasa Bhattar, Vadhooladesika, Rangachariar, Parasara Bhattar and Utthama Nambi.
Pachaiyappa Mudaliar of Kancheepuram, a well known philanthropist of the 20th Century, made benefactions for feeding Pilgrims in the Srirangam temple and for engaging a tutor for teaching English to Hindu boys at Srirangam. The inscription recording this benefaction is on a slab fixed in the 3rd enclosure near the flag staff and a deposit of one lakh varahas was made for this purpose. The Hindu Sabha of Chennapatnam- Madras was to administer the same.
We also hear of a visit to the temple by one of the greatest musical composers of devotional hymns - Saint Thyagaraja (1767 - 1847). He seems to have come during a 'Brahmotsava'. Being a stranger to the place, he could not go near the horse-drawn vehicle. But the vehicle would not move forward till it was realized that this stoppage of the divine procession happened because saint Thayaraja could not come near and have darshan of Lord. Only after the saint came near and had darshan of the Lord, the procession continued. This incident is echoed in one of his songs "Vinarada na manavi" (won't you heed my appeal?). Later the saint was taken to the main shrine with due honours and he worshipped the Lord in the sanctum all alone and dedicated the piece "O Ranga sayee" to Him after this exhilarating experience.
The latest benefaction to the temple is the reconstruction of the Rajagopuram in the seventh prakara–a magnificent, thirteen story , 236 feet tall(see picture below) ,built at the southern rampart by the late 44th Jeeyar of the Sri Ahobila Mutt and consecrated in 1987 with great fanfare and religious piety , attended by the then chief minister of tamil nadu-M.G.Ramachandran Now the temple management vests with the Hindu Religious and Endowment Board.of Tamil nadu.
That completes the history of the great SriRangam temple or the Bhooloka Vaikuntham from it's birth in Krita Yuga to the present 21st century in Kaliyuga We may conclude the brief account with Sri Vedanta Desika's sketch of the temple history. Rendered in English, it reads as follows.
The Temple or Vimana renowned as Srirangam
The Temple or Vimana gifted to the rulers of Ayodhya by Brahma
The Temple or Vimana where the invincible warrior Rama worshipped
The Temple or Vimana which is the refuge of Vibheeshana
The Temple or Vimana which secures all benefits unattainable elsewhere
The Temple or Vimana which is in the shape of Pranava
The Temple, or Vimana which destroys all sins,
3.LIFE IN 21st CENTURY SRIRANGAM
People of Srirangam consider Lord Ranganatha endowed with human traits as their own child 'Ranga". The ancient island town throbs with life perennially and is a home to it's peace-loving residents who seem to be members of one huge family. You can see an endless stream of freshly bathed men, women and children walking briskly some holding flowers in their hands, others baskets, going over to say good morning to their beloved Ranga before they began their day. While the temple of Lord Ranganatha is an ancient one, almost everything in Srirangam is ancient with a continuing, traceable history to establish antiquity.
Residents of Srirangam, tell you all the myths , legends and history that are inextricably blended into apocryphal stories as you walk down the corridors of the enormous temple. The town of Srirangam throbs with life right through the year. Trichy being within easy commuting distance makes Srirangam a desirable place to live in keeping alive the family traditions without compromising the modern day needs of their education ,outside careers and social activities.
Surprisingly, for a religious centre which has no other industry, Srirangam has not stagnated.
Over the past few years, 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. For example` L. P. Sampath, who had worked in a multinational bank and has a house in Madras finds him inexplicably attracted to Lord Ranganatha. He says ``I came here four years ago, and 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 town 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 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 not completely uncontaminated by the outside world. As Mr Sampath 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 joint 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.
4. ARCHITECTURAL MARVEL
This temple is a treasure house of art freezing various Dravidian architectural styles over a period of time. Architecturally it is unique among the great temples of south India and sculptures found in this temple are some of the finest ..
The temple is enormous in size and resembles a huge fortress with 7 set of thick and huge rampart peripheral walls ,on all four sides as if to protect the Lord residing in the center. The seven walls provide seven concentric prakaras or passages for devotees circambulation (pradkshina) around Lord Ranganatha .The temple area is about ¾ sq km's or a little less than half sq miles .The Dravidian architecture is unmatched in it's splendor . The outermost perimeter walls measure .95 km by .82 km .It has 49 sannidhi's or shrines which is largest no in any temple .
The layout is very well thought out with the Moolavar shrine kept in the center and the temple neatly expanded in concentric rectangles around it to form 7 prakarams with the 49 sannidhis scattered all over.. The outer three enclosures contain an entire town, with streets, houses, and shops. The inner four enclosures define the religious zone.
There are magnificent towers (gopurams) in all Prakaras and on all sides providing a unique sight to any visitor. The main Raja gopuram,13 stories and 236 ft high in the 7th prakaram south was started by Tirumala naik in 17th century but completed fully only in 1987 thanks to relentless efforts of Ahobala mutt jeer. It can be seen over a distance of 8 km's from Srirangam . .The eastern gopuram in 6th prakaram is most impressive on account of it's size and inscriptions in 13th century characters One can enter the temple from all 4 sides-south(main),north, east and west thro' entrance gopurams in each prakarams . However out of original 28 towers ,only 21 gopurams are excisting to-day. The grandeur of the towers decrease as one moves toward the center where sanctum is located
signifying that the devotee has to move away from the lofty earthly attachments in his spiritual quest The moolavar shrine faces south.
A birds eye view of the entire temple complex , all prakarams and gopurams and the gold coated pranava vimanam above main shrine can be had by climbing the stairs near the Venugopala shrine on the 3rd prakaram south with permission from administrative office.(see attached pictures ). On the pranava vimanam, statues of Paravasudeva, Achyuta, Ananta and Govinda are beautifully cast and gold plated. You can also see them looking up as you go round on pradakshinam of moolavar in first prakaram. All over the temple you cans see massive stone pillars intricately carved out of single rock with stone beams running between pillars to support the roof load (like present day RCC structures-columns and beams)- a marvel of Civil engg in those days. The pillars in the Vijaynagar Rayamandapam on the south east has exquisite carvings. The venugopala temple on south side ,built during Hoysala regime has excusite stone images similar to other Hoysala temples. There is also the famous 1000 pillared hall (presently 940 ) in the east (aayiram kal mantapam), each pillar being 3ft square and 18 ft high. There
are 2 pushkarani's -tanks inside the temple- Chandra and Surya. On the rear side of main shrine is the-parama pada vashal or gateway to heaven ,opened only once a year on Vaikuntha Ekadasi day (in dec –jan) when public are allowed to pass thro' the door on that day .
Other places of architectural delights apart from the 21 gopurams and places mentioned above are - Kambar mantapam, where poet Kambar wrote ramayanam, Horse Court, Chakratthalwar shrine, Rayar mandapam,garuda mantapa, Mirror hall, ranga vilasam and vasantha mantapam.
Pictures below give a glimpse of the architectural grandeur of this temple.
Apart from the architectural grandeur, he temple is located in verdant sylvan settings in the island formed by the two branches of river cauvery, which itself is held in high esteem by people all over south India, The island is full of mango, banana and coconut groves and is a delight to nature lovers also . Within 50 km's of Srirangam is also located Grand Anicut,a dam across cauvery , built n 11th century by Karikala Chola to utilize the water for irrigation which still stands to-day as built then, Tiruvayyaru where Saint Tyagaraja lived and composed all his songs and the famous Brihadeeswara temple at Tanjavur-another architectural marvel.