Srirangam - The Life and Times of a Temple Town in India

Srirangam –The Life and Times of a Temple Town in India.

 At the stroke of dawn, Alamelu Sarangapani has a quick cup of coffee, finishes her morning ablutions and makes her way to the Ranganatha Swamy Temple at Srirangam, with a small container of ground rice paste with which she will draw intricate patterns on the ground, outside as well as inside the temple precincts. Alamelu has been doing this ever since she came to Srirangam as a young 18 year old bride – she is 62 years old today. Karunakaran sits patiently against a pillar at the East entrance of the temple with his registered guide identity card pinned to his shirt, waiting to guide pilgrims through the Ranganatha Swamy temple. This is the only world he has known and has wanted to know since the age of nine when he first visited the temple with his father. There are many more like Alamelu and Karunakaran in the temple town of Srirangam whose life and livelihood is inextricably linked to the temple. The temple is their gateway to heaven. 

South India is synonymous with Tamil Nadu and Tamil Nadu immediately throws up images of temples. It is the one state, where, from times immemorial, temples have been the raison d’ĂȘtre of towns. The culture of Tamil Nadu (Dravidian) has taken birth and flourished in these temples, and continues to do so even today. There are eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Tamil Nadu, of which three are temples and the other five are rock temples! The temple, its legend, its lore, its rituals, its festivals and everything associated with it goes to construct a matrix around which the whole town functions.
In Hinduism all creation begins and ends with the Holy Trinity, Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the protector) and Shiva (the destroyer) and Hindus are broadly divided into Shaiviite (followers of Shiva) and Vishnaviite (followers of Vishnu). The Vaishnavites hold Lord Vishnu to be supreme while to the Shaivaites, Lord Shiva is primus inter pares. 108 temples in the south of India are of utmost importance to the Vaishnavites and Srirangam tops this list. It is here that one of the foremost Vaishnavaite Saints, a lady at that, called Godha Devi is believed to have merged with the idol and attained salvation.
Srirangam is a mere 8 kilometres from Trichy, a major district of Tamil Nadu.
 It is not very difficult to identify or locate temple towns in Tamil Nadu. If you are travelling by road, you cannot miss the huge hoardings put up by commercial establishments of the town, bearing vividly coloured images of the deity of the particular temple. Visitors coming in by train are treated to similar advertisements (though on a smaller scale) along the railway lines as they near the station in question. This is temple art of a different kind! And if you miss these, you can always look for the ceremonial tower or gopuram of the temple, which, in the case of Srirangam, can be seen from miles away as it is the tallest in Asia.
Srirangam is replete with lore and legend. The idol, said to have risen from the celestial Milky Ocean, is a huge, monolithic black statue of Lord Vishnu, reclining on a couch made by Adisesha, the Divine Serpent. The idol was received by Lord Brahma and left in his custody, till Vishnu, in his incarnation (avatara) as Lord Rama gave it to Vibheesana, the noble brother of the slain demon king Ravana. Vibheesana expressed the desire to carry it back to Sri Lanka, and the Lord told him that it was not to be placed down under any circumstances. If it was placed down, it would be immoveable from that spot. Vibheesana did keep it down in order to perform his ablutions and sure enough the idol remained rooted to the spot. It lay there for ages, deep in the forest, covered with vegetation, till a prince of the Chola dynasty, Dharma Varma stumbled upon the idol and built a shrine around it. Soon thereafter, Tamil Nadu fell to a series of Muslim invasions due to which temples were plundered and looted. The priests then erected a wall over the main idol, hid it without a trace and fled with a smaller deity which was used in processions. They moved with it from place to place for fifty years and finally hid it in a ravine at Tirupati, another major Vaishnavite temple. When the Muslims were routed out, the priests returned to Srirangam and reinstalled the idol. Since then subsequent kings of the Chola, Pandya, Vijayanagar and Hoysala dynasty from the 10th century onwards, have made significant additions to the temple, making it the largest ‘functioning’ Hindu Temple in the world. Technically, Angkor Vat in Cambodia is said to be the largest Hindu Temple in the world but it is no longer functional.
The Srirangam Ranganatha Swamy temple is spread over 156 acres; it has seven concentric walls and as many as 21 gopurams or pyramidal towers - a sight that no temple guide will leave out. In fact, it is mandatory to scamper up a floor to a broad terrace from where you can count the gopurams – all 21 of them. The main Gopuram or the Rajagopuram rises to a height of an astounding 236 feet (72 metres). It is the tallest in Asia. The ramparts of the temple are decorated with stone pillars embellished with intricate carvings of mythological figures and designs. This “temple architecture” has provided inspirations to hundreds of architects and designers down the centuries. There is a corridor with a thousand pillars that culminates in a hall and every pillar is a masterpiece. Looking up at these intricate forms, the mind boggles as to how sculptors captured such minute details like the intricate folds of the garments, the design on an ornament, the plume of the bird or the detail of a horse’s hoof on rock and stone, at a time when there was no electricity, no machine and no automation. It is sheer poetry. In fact, when Karunakaran showed us the huge eagle Garuda, on whom Lord Vishnu rides, all we could do was to look up in awe and marvel at his size and detail!
Srirangam is also well known for its temple festivals and the number of festivals in this temple outnumbers the normal average across other temples. In fact, there is a festival in each and every month of the Hindu calendar! The priests and the devotees place the greatest importance on the conduct of these festivals as per the tenets prescribed by the Vedas and Agamas (Hindu scriptures). In some of the festivals, the deity is carried around the town in elaborate chariots pulled by the devotees or on the shoulders of devotees and priests. The effort is the offering and the opportunity to do so is regarded as a privilege. During Vasanthotsavam, a festival meant to herald spring, the processional deity is installed for nine days in the temple garden so that he can enjoy the flowers blooming. The festival of lights between the months of November and December coincides with the onset of winter, when idol is taken around the town in a decorated chariot; hundreds of lamps are lit inside and outside the temple and the treasurer of the temple reads out the accounts of the temple to the Lord. The Vaikuntha Ekadasi, falling between the months of December and January, is the most important festival in Srirangam. It is believed that the doors of heaven remain open throughout that specific day and a visit to any shrine of Lord Vishnu on earth, on that day, ensures entry into heaven. Bus loads of devotees come from far and near and wait for hours to get a glimpse of the main idol. Preparations for the Vaikuntha Ekadasi here commence in October itself when the first of the 47 pillars of a grand “mandapam” (stage) is erected in the presence of the priests rendering sacred chants. Each festival at Srirangam is a vision of ceremonial splendour. The deity is bedecked in the choicest of silks and adorned with the most beautiful flowers after a ceremonial bath with the purest of milk, honey and sandalwood.

Temple festivals were meant to be the main drivers of socio economic growth and continue to remain so. Every festival is an expression of splendour and gaiety and unleashes a frenzy of activity. Most festivals coincide with seasonal changes, thus providing a strong market for the agricultural and horticultural offerings of that season. Not only do the people of that town come out in full attendance, but there is also a sizeable influx of devotees from other towns, pushing up at once the demand for various services. The police force is out in full strength despite the all-is-forgiven mood pervading the town. Women from orthodox families (and there are still quite a few of these) who are meant to stay indoors have the sanction to step out in their finery and go about the town. Bazaars, selling everything from a pin to an elephant, spring up around the temple. Their business is brisk as visitors take this opportunity to have a small holiday after visiting the temple. These shops are veritable treasure troves. If you look patiently you could probably pick up rare books and antiques at throwaway prices, as the owners of these heirlooms are quite ignorant of their value! But there are also the unscrupulous who cheat the gullible.We happened to run into one such character named Sridhar, an antique shop owner, who warned us ominously that if we did not take home a particular idol, our children would fall prey to the evil eye of our enemies and come to grievous harm!
Srirangam is a riot of colour and sound all around, even on non festival days. Exotic flowers, the fragrance of incense, devotional songs blaring through the speakers, delectable offerings from way side eateries, droves of noisy families and energetic and persistent vendors. To many urbanized Hindus themselves, temple towns actually prove to be an assault on the senses. But when you are done with all that, what remains essentially in the mind is the devotion of the man who has pierced a needle through his tongue and carries an idol on his shoulders without the slightest trace of pain, the ecstasy on the face of another devotee as he pulls the ropes of the heavy chariot, the quiet faith of the old lady who is praying fervently with her eyes shut and the abject devotion in the tone of the devotee, singing praises of the Lord in the most off key note without the slightest trace of awkwardness.
 Every visit to a temple and a visit during a temple festival, despite the chaos and corruption, is a journey from the temporal to the spiritual - a journey which gives people the strength to face life’s challenges. To the devout Hindu, God is his own personal psychoanalyst and an effective one at that, for, at the end of each session you have found the answers yourself! At Srirangam, as you see the jet black idol of Lord Vishnu, in a reclining posture, it is difficult not to be touched by the centuries of history and religion that surrounds it. To the residents of Srirangam, Lord Ranganatha is a live entity. They address him in the first person, they visit him as they would visit a family member, they draw on him in times of distress and they share their joys with him, they dress him up with love and they carry him around with care. When they visit the temple, it is with a sense of ownership coupled with an unshakable faith that He is there!
Truly, Srirangam offers the best thumbnail sketch of Indian culture!
What you need to know
How to get to Srirangam
 Srirangam is closest to Trichy and Trichy is accessible from Chennai (320 kilometres away) by rail, road and air. Trichy is also accessible by train from Bangalore, Madurai and Trivandrum.
Trichy airport receives direct flights from Chennai and Trivandrum, connecting flights from Bangalore as well as international flights from Sharjah, Kuwait and Colombo. Kingfisher Airlines operates flights from Bangalore and Chennai to Trichy. Paramount Airways operates flights from Chennai to Trichy.
You can also drive into Trichy from Chennai (320 kilometres), Bangalore (345 kilometres) or Madurai (142 kilometres).
Where to stay and what to eat
Trichy has a host of accommodation options from the budget lodges to decent three star hotels. Hotel Sangam and The SRM Residency, at the top end, are tested and proven! There are many small hotels and cool bars which serve coffee, tea, cool drinks and the world famous South Indian idlis and dosas. Remember, most bars here are non alcoholic!
Getting Around
The most comfortable way to travel is to hire a car from Trichy, visit Srirangam and the other temples around it and get back to your hotel. This should cost you anywhere in the region of Rs.1200 to Rs 2000/ per day depending on the distance covered. There are also buses that ply regularly between Srirangam and Trichy, but they are likely to be hot and crowded. However, if you really want a close up view of the locals, hop on to a bus. They are generally friendly and forthcoming.
Best Time to visit
The Srirangam Temple has festivals around the year, so Trichy is a round-the-year destination. Summer runs from April to July and can get unbearably hot. So the best time to visit Trichy is between August and February.
Along the way
You can also visit the cigar factory at Woraiyur from where Sir Winston Churchill used to requisition his cigars! Then there is the 128 year old Gandhi Market in the heart of Trichy, one of the most important yet one of the oldest markets in Tamil Nadu – almost a heritage site.
While in Rome…….
Srirangam, Trichy and many other towns of Tamil Nadu have fairly state-of-art infrastructure, but the people continue to remain conservative. Polite and decently clad visitors are always respected. It is prudent not to ruffle local sensibilities!
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