In the heart of Tamil Nadu, in the temple town of Trichy aka Tiruchirappalli, sits a larger-than-life Kovil (temple in Tamil) that can be spotted easily from over a mile away. The Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, located on the island of Srirangam, between the two rivers Kollidam and Cauvery, is said to be the first among the 108 divya desam (temples) dedicated to Lord Vishnu. I is mentioned in 2000 year old scriptures and its provenance is unknown, say experts. We take a walk in the precincts of this UNESCO world heritage site, scroll down for some magnificence!
Temple or town?
Sri Ranganatha Temple is the world’s largest functioning Hindu temple. According to Chennai-based historian Dr Chitra Madhavan, who has authored a book on the Srirangam temple of Trichy, references to the temple have been found in literature dating back to 2nd century AD. “There are various references to the Srirangam temple which indicate that it may have existed even before this era. Over the centuries, various dynasties such as the Cholas, Vijayanagara kings, the Nayars, and the Pandyas have contributed to the temple’s structure,” adds Madhavan. It is spread over 156 acres and a lively community thrives within the precincts—shops selling puja samagri and traditional kitchenware, hawkers with indigenous foods brought from the villages surrounding Trichy, pushcarts piled with sweets and halwas; and small restaurants catering to tourists and travelers make brisk business.
An Architectural Splendour Constructed in the Dravidian style of architecture, the temple complex features seven enclosures with massive walls. There are 21 impressive gopurams creating concentric circles towards the main sanctum, 50 sub shrines, 9 sacred pools, a gilded dome (Vimana), a 1000-pillar hall and innumerable frescos created at different points in history.
A sneak peek of the entrance, one of the stone sculptures, and a mandapa at the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple
Dr Madhavan and Dakshin Diaries host Rakesh Raghunathan at the 1000-pillar hall
Sun rays hitting the 1000-pillar hall
The Srirangam Temple is home to one of the tallest gopurams in Tamil Nadu called the Vellai Gopuram. Located at the eastern entrance of this temple in Trichy, this 44-metre tall structure stands out among the 21 others since it is the only gopuram painted white (vellai in Tamil). Why white, you may ask? Madhavan tells us of an interesting 14-century legend associated with the Vellai gopuram of Srirangam. In 1323, the Srirangam Temple was invaded by the Sultanate forces. They attacked and took away a major chunk of the temple treasures. However, when the forces tried to seize the idol of Namperumal, one of the most important idols at the sacred site, a devadasi (temple dancer) named Vellaiammal stepped in to save the day. “Vellaiammal was very unhappy with the situation. So, she lured the leader of the invaders to the top of this gopuram and once there, pushed him down. But she was also dismayed at having killed a man, and she too jumped down the gopuram. Her sacrifice was honoured by painting the gopuram vellai, which is white in Tamil.”
The legend of the Vellai Gopuram
Srirangam has a rare, reclining statue of Vishnu, the presiding deity of the temple. Of the many legends around this, Madhavan shares the most popular one: “When Rama returned from Sri Lanka after having defeated Ravana, he gifted an idol of Lord Vishnu to Ravana’s brother Vibhishana, as a token of gratitude for helping his side in the Lanka war to rescue Sita. On his way back to Lanka, with the idol in hand, Vibhishana took a brief halt at Thiruchirapalli, or Trichy, placing the idol down to perform his evening prayers. When he tried to lift it again, he found it couldn't be moved from the spot. Vibhishana was disappointed. This is when Lord Vishnu appeared and reassured him that the idol would always face south, towards Lanka,” explains Madhavan. That’s also the reason the Srirangam temple entrance is located in the south.
The reclining statue of Ranganatha
A wall painting of Sheshahi Vishnu at the temple
Over 600 inscriptions on the temple walls, towers, and pillars, written in Tamil and a few other languages, is a treat for epigraphists. According to Madhavan, they share interesting and valuable information about the history, culture, and economy of the region over hundreds of years. “The inscriptions talk about the kings as well as citizens who patronised, contributed and built the temple over the centuries; of measures of lands donated to it, of the rich economic and cultural history that it was the epicentre of," explains Madhavan.
Old Inscriptions and Stories of Yore
On regular days, the Srirangam temple kitchen churns out delicacies such as dosai, venu pongal, sukku vellam, aravanai, sweet chapati, plain rice (suddha annam), adhirasam (malpua), and milagu rasam. During the 20 days of Vaikuntha Ekadashi, which takes place between February and March every year, sambara dosa and selvai appam are the highlights. The temple prasadam is prepared in pure ghee and distributed among devotees, after being offered to the temple deities. On any given day at the temple shop that devotees make a beeling for, you can buy various kinds of Pongals (rice dishes) such as tamarind rice (puliogare), sweet pongal, Thair sadam (curd rice), Boondi laddus and Murukku (crunchy lentis and rice curls).
Watch the making of adhirasam at the Srirangam Temple here:
Step outside the grand hallways with fluted columns and spectacular frescos and sculptures and you step into a bustling town that lives within the temple. If you have a curious eye, you'll stop to inspect the hawkers selling indigenous fare--roots, tubers, herbs and halwas! Pushcarts loaded with mounds of red and yellow Godam halwa are parked along the walking paths. The sticky, glutenous halwa, is made from Godam or wheat and ghee, with dry fruits stuck inside. It is a pretty popular sweet in this region, and especially sold outside temples and places of worship.
Gorge on Godam halwa
For scores of small farmers and hawkers of their produce, the precincts of the Srirangam Temple are a great place to sell their wares. If you love to explore local foods, walking along the paths leading out of the concentric circles created by the gopurams, you will stumble upon men and women sitting behind heaps of roots like mango ginger, fresh turmeric, kasturimanjal and other aromatics used in Ayurveda. There are numerous varieties of beautifully coloured spuds and tubers, such as the palm sprouts or Panag Kilangu, a popular food in Tamil Nadu. Try them, steamed or salted, they're worth a go and you might come back for more!
Roots, Tubers and the Wonder of Local Foods
Photo courtesy: Priyamvada Kowshik and Prateek Sharma
Featured image, Vellai Gopuram, and Vishnu painting: Shutterstock
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