Thyagaraja temple, Thiruvarur (Srinivasan G/Flickr) 
Snapshot
  • Home to numerous expressions of puranic narratives, the sacred Shaivaite pilgrimage and spiritual centre for Tamil Hindus awaits a cultural revival.

    This can be done only by understanding its vibrant heritage.

Centuries ago, a Chola prince rode a chariot through the streets of a temple town and accidentally ran it over a calf, leading to its death. The grief-stricken mother cow approached the royal court to seek justice and rang the bell that was hung for the subjects to convey their grievances to the king. Hearing the bell, the King emerged from the court and found out what had happened.

While the courtiers gave various solutions or parihara to absolve the prince from the sin, the king thought of a retribution that would provide justice to the cow, which lost its calf. There was only one solution. The prince would be placed on the ground and the chariot wheel would run over him, killing him the same way the calf was killed. The royal courtiers could not bring themselves to execute this order of the king. So the king, filled as he was with grief and agony, took the reins of the chariot and ran the wheels over his only son, killing him.

Then, as all traditional anecdotes go, the gods who were playing the cow and the calf appeared in their true form and blessed the king for his unwavering commitment to dharma – not just towards his human subjects but also the animals. His deep sense of justice won him the title, Manuneethi Chola.

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Today, in the temple town of Thiruvarur, the second-most sacred Shaivaite pilgrimage centre for Tamil Hindus, the sculptures can still be seen the prince with his folded hands accepting his inadvertent crime towards the cow and its calf, and the wheels of the chariot rising above him, ready to crush him to death. However, the park where the sculptures are, is not maintained well but the stone sculptures of the slain calf, the grieving cow and the repenting prince ready to embrace death still demonstrate the deep sense of justice that prevailed then, but which is lacking now.

Welcome to Thiruvarur – one of India’s most important towns, culturally and spiritually. Every part of the holy town is immersed in history and culture.

According to puranic lore, Musukunda, a king of Ayodhya, famously known for his monkey face, helped devas defeat a powerful asura. In gratitude, Indra offered the king a boon. The king asked for the Shiva idol, which was being worshiped by Indra. Indra was hesitant to part with the idol and hence made six identical idols like the one he was worshipping. Then he said to Musukunda that if he identified the original idol, he could take it to Earth. Shiva had already instructed Musukunda on how to identify the original idol in his dream the previous night. So, when the king easily identified the idol, Indra gave all the seven idols of Shiva to the king. After installing the six idols in six places, the king had to choose a place, the holiest of all, to build a temple for the original Shiva idol. Viswakarma, the celestial architect, weighed Thiruvarur against the entire Earth in his weighing pans and declared Thiruvarur to be the most suitable place for the temple. So the temple was built there.

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There are also some varied puranic narratives, but inside the temple, one finds them all as beautiful paintings – three centuries old. The paintings don a unique style that is originally Indic, marking an important milestone in the development of Indian art. The paintings need more attention and care, and they deserve to be proactively promoted in the form of memorabilia.

Built by ancient Tamil kings, later day Cholas to Vijayanagara empire, the various features of the temple are a treasure trove of ancient architecture for a temple enthusiast. There is an interesting sculpture of an elephant giving birth while another hugging her to give support. That is just one of the many such sculptures in the temple.

A historically-important feature in the temple complex is the Devachrya Mandapam. It plays an important role in the historical development of Shaivaite Hinduism in Tamil Nadu. It was here that the devotees of Shiva used to assemble, and those who came to worship the lord paid their obeisance to the devotees first. Sundara Murthy Nayanar, a Shiva devotee, who was known for treating the lord of the universe as his friend, one day, went to worship in the temple, without paying his respects to the devotees. Seeing a worshipper ignoring them, one of the devotees, Viranmindar Nayanar got enraged and asked who that was. When he came to know it was Sundara, his anger grew as Sundara had even used Shiva as an emissary for his romance. So, this was a good time to teach him a lesson, thought Viranmindar. He declared that Sundara would be expelled from the Shaivaite circle a form of excommunication. The other devotees gently informed Viranmindar that even if they excommunicated Sundara, Shiva would still consider him as his friend. An infuriated Viranmindar declared that then Shiva would also be excommunicated henceforth.

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Shiva then explained to Sundara what his actions had resulted in. A repenting Sundara decided to pay his respects to each and every devotee of Shiva. He listed the devotees and their occupations, and declared himself to be the servant of the servants of such devotees – including Viranmindar. The list became a unique record of Shiva devotees and nearly five centuries later Chekkizhar would draw upon this list to write his Periyapuranam – the epic of Shiva devotees. Even today, Devachraya Mandapam stands in the temple complex with a heritage so unique in the annals of world religions, where devotees excommunicated their god and god yielded to their love that was vehemently virulent.

The temple is home to an enormous tank that is spread across 30 acres and is steeped in puranic anecdotes that reveal interesting historical facts. A legend says Sundara Murthy Nayanar was granted 12,000 gold coins by Shiva, but which the travelling devotee could not carry to Thiruvarur where he lived, due to reasons of safety and weight. So, Shiva instructed him to throw the gold coins into a river that flowed into the Thiruvarur temple tank, and from where Sundara can collect them.

Dr Kudavayil Balasubramanian, an authority on Chola temples, had pointed out that there are channels from rivers which feed the tank in a subterranean way, and hence the legend seems to correspond to historical facts. The Thiruvarur temple tank is not just sacred but also a marvel of Chola hydraulic engineering. No wonder the Cauvery delta region was for centuries known as the rice bowl of south India protecting people from, goodness knows, how many famines till the British wrecked the system.

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We do not know why a specific community was pushed into the space of untouchability during the period of social stagnation. But we do know that Hinduism always strove for social emancipation through spirituality. While colonialism internationalised the term ‘pariah’ to denote social exclusion, Hinduism, used the term with pride. In the temple, there is a tradition of ‘the great pariah ascendant on elephant’ marching through the streets to worship Shiva.

The town is known for nurturing art forms – dance, music and drama. It was here the three great seers of carnatic music lived – Sri Thyagaraja (1767-1848), Sri Shyama Sastrigal (1762-1827) and Sri Muthuswamy Dhikshitar (1776-1835). All the three saints and musical geniuses defined the traditional music landscape of their times and their memories live to this day in the vibrant musical tradition they heralded. Their houses are present here in the holy town and alas, in the name of renovation, they have been rebuilt with concrete and marbles, while chosen poverty and simplicity characterised their lives.

Like all old temples of south India, this temple town too had invited the wrath of alien invaders. From Malik Kafur onwards, this temple had been raided, ravaged and plundered. Yet, the local communities and later the Vijayanagara kings, and still later, the Maratha chieftains, restored the temple to its former glory and added their own contributions in terms of sculptures, artwork, property and jewellery. Not taking into account the activities of the secular state through Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department, the latest attack the temples faced came in 1758.

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The French also searched the premises for treasures. Infuriated on not finding anything, the soldiers of the Christendom ransacked the houses. They imagined that the Brahmins should be very rich but realised it was otherwise. The archakas, meanwhile, had effectively hidden the temple idols in secret chambers and had fled. Later, when they returned to find out what had happened to the temple and deities, they were captured by the French Army – labelled as spies and “were blown off from the muzzles of the field-pieces”.

There is fortunately a museum inside the temple complex, but what is lacking is creativity and an efficient method of conveying to the visitors the historic, cultural and spiritual elements of this great town. Today, a cultural capital is considered as the sum total of performing arts, local crafts, embedded values and the vibrancy of heritage structures. It also included oral traditions, history, specialised local communities with domain expertise in traditional knowledge systems, and annual as well as seasonal festivals and spiritual values that intangibly weaves through them all.

After French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu defined cultural capital and its dynamic potentials, there have been a lot of studies on how it can be integrated with the tourism sector and how more value can be added to it. Most of these studies have been done in Europe and the West where the original cultures have either become extinct or have limited exposure. Thiruvarur seems to have a problem of plenty when it comes to cultural capital in all its three forms: embodied, objectified and institutionalised. More importantly, Thiruvarur also has a matrix of communities with possessions of the attributes of cultural capital, which are, however, dwindling, and with them, we are facing an erosion of cultural capital without even realising what we are losing. It is time we take a proactive interest in making use of the cultural capital.

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Take, for example, the case of Manuneethi Chola, who killed his son for the grieving cow. The tradition has created local ballads celebrating this sense of justice. These ballads can be revived with state-of-the-art modern theatrical components, in addition to creating light and sound shows.

The Devachrya Mandapam which resulted in the creation of the religious genre of the biographical epic of the Shaivaite devotees is of great importance to the religious history of Tamil Nadu. World over, before the advent of modern age, the convention for epic and even playwriting had been that the heroes and heroines who sang would either be of royal or noble descent. Periyapuranam, which had its roots in this hall, defied that for the first time and made common people the heroes and heroines of the song. Highlighting this through plays and art would increase both economic growth as well as the social capital in a broader sense.

The houses of the trinity of carnatic music can be restored to their original glory with the thatched leaves structures, and modern museums can be built to showcase their history and legacy. Their rare compositions can be made available here not just in the form of a CD but also books explaining the historical and spiritual context in which the different keerthanas were composed. Short courses can be offered in music – particularly in keerthanas.

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Today, with 3D printing technologies, it is not hard to create a memorabilia of the temple, the tank and the various sculptures of importance in the temple. The paintings in the temple can be transformed into collector’s cards for the pilgrims and the tourists. The possibilities of converting a cultural capital into enterprises that generate income and employment opportunities are endless in Thiruvarur. This, besides offering those who visit the sacred town an experience that they will cherish, and which may have cascading effects on the cultural heritage of their own towns.

This article is part of Swarajya’s series on Indic heritage. If you liked this article and would like us to do more such ones, consider being a sponsor—you can contribute as little as Rs 2,999. Read more here.

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