About 40km from the famous Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu, is a little known temple dedicated to a formless God, built by Manikkavasakar, an iconic 9th century Tamil poet and saint. The temple, called Avudaiyarkovil, stands in a small town in the Pudukkottai district. The town was originally called Perundhurai, but is now called Avudaiyarkovil after the temple.
Manikkavasakar was one of the Naalvars, regarded as the four greatest Tamil Shaivite saints who lived between the 7th and 9th centuries. He was an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva, right from his early years in Madurai. A pious, wise and intelligent man, he soon impressed the reigning Pandya ruler Arimardhana Pandya, who made him his Prime Minister. One day, the king gave Manikkavasakar money to travel to Perundhurai (also called Tiruperundhurai), to purchase horses for the army. When the Prime Minister got here, he met a saint, who is believed to have been Lord Shiva himself, and attained enlightenment from him. He then built a Shiva temple in the town, using the money meant for the horses. When the king heard about this, he was obviously upset, and had Manikkavasakar imprisoned. Legend has it that it took divine intervention from Shiva to convince the king to set the poet free. Soon after this, the poet gave up the material world and became a saint. He eventually moved to Chidambaram, where he penned his literary masterpiece called the Tiruvasakam, a collection of songs dedicated to Lord Shiva. His name, in fact, translates to ‘the man whose words are gems’.
The two statues on the right depict Manikkavasakar
While the temple was originally built by Manikkavasakar in the 9th century, additions and modifications were made over time, and most of the current structure is believed to date back to the 15th century.
What sets this temple apart from other Shiva temples is that the main deity here, is formless. Shiva-lingams are usually placed on a base called a peeta, but here, the sanctum has only a metal peeta, and no lingam on it. The version of Shiva worshipped here is called Atmanatha, which means the Lord of the Soul. Another departure from the norm here is that there is no nandi (the bull that is believed to be Lord Shiva’s vehicle). The offering to this formless deity is just the steam that rises up when hot rice mixed with slices of dried bitter gourd is spread on a stone slab.
Besides Atmanatha, there are also shrines to Parvati and Ganesha. Manikkavasakar is worshipped here as well, and his idol is taken out for processions whenever the temple celebrates festivals.
The famous sunshades of Avudaiyarkovil
The temple is a treasure trove of spectacular life-sized statues and exquisite sculptures depicting tales from Hindu mythology. A beautiful carved panel tells the story of Manikkavasakar himself, and the episode with the king and the horses. The navagrahas or the 9 celestial bodies, that are usually placed in a shrine of their own in most temples, are all carved on pillars here instead. Interesting panels above the entrance to one of the shrines depict the 27 nakshatras or stars from Hindu astrology. The most fascinating feature of this temple, however, would have to be the sunshades running around it!
The renowned sunshades of Avudaiyarkovil, called kodungai locally, are carved entirely out of granite. They get progressively thinner towards the edges, and are held in place by nuts and bolts, also made of granite! Apparently, an English officer who visited this temple during the British rule, couldn’t believe that the sunshade was indeed made of stone, and fired a couple of bullets through it to check! You can still see the holes they left.
The Pudukkottai district of Tamil Nadu is accessible from Chennai by road and rail. The railway station closest to Avudaiyarkovil is Aranthangi. If one is visiting the Chettinad region, this temple is only a short drive away.
Photographs by Madhumita Gopalan