The temple counts as one of the 108 holy Shri Vaishnava shrines known as ‘Divyadesams’.

Magic in stone An ancient temple a forgotten legacy and a journey into Tamil countrysideButter Thief Krishna at Vishnu temple in Thirukurangudi village in Tirunelveli
news Heritage Monday, November 30, 2015 - 13:36

The Nayak rulers of Madurai were great patrons of the arts. A visible proof of their fine taste is the massive temple of Vishnu at Thirukurangudi village in the remote Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu. One cannot confirm the dates of the temple’s existence exactly. It is said to have been around since 8th century and slowly kept growing under the patronage of various rulers, till 15th century. It is certainly a pre-Chola era temple.

Sprawling across eighteen acres, this is easily one of the less-explored temples, even by scholars of art history and Indology. The central deity is Vishnu, prayed to, as ‘Azhagiya Nambi’ and his consort Lakshmi is ‘Kurungudi Valli’.  ‘Azhagiya’ means beautiful and ‘Nambi’ in today’s Tamil means ‘belief’. I will tell you more about this beautiful Nambi later.

The temple counts as one of the 108 holy Shri Vaishnava shrines known as ‘Divyadesams’. Legend goes that when Thirumangai Azhwar (8th century CE) who built the huge walls of the Srirangam temple sought moksham or liberation, Lord Ranganatha is said to have directed him to visit his ‘Southern Home.’ Accordingly, Thirumangai went to Kurungudi and performed services invoking the blessings of Lord Azhagiya Nambi and composed the last of his sacred Paasurams on the Lord before he passed away in Thirukurungudi. Hence, Vaishnavas believe this to be the ‘lord’s southern home’. Ramanuja visited other Divyadesams such as Thiruvattaru, Thiruvan Parisaram and camped at Thirukurungadi.

One of the grandest festivals celebrated here is the ‘Kaisika Ekadesi.’ Kaisika Nataka, the story of Kaisika Puranam, is presented on Kaisika Ekadesi. That requires a different column and I won’t get into that at this point.

Probably because of the remoteness of where the temple is situated, it has been less accessible to everyone, except for a few devout Iyengars. It took me a flight to Tuticorin (there is only one a day) and an 80 km drive into the wilderness to reach the town of Thirukurangudi. Once there, I was housed in the 250-year-old family home of the famous TVS Iyengar. The family has a long-standing association with the temple and remains its biggest patrons. In fact, till three decades ago, the temple was a dump and a veritable ruin. It had become a dingy hub of bats. It was the efforts of the TVS family that helped resurrect it to its current state.

Prior to the Nayak rulers’ patronage, the temple was part of the larger Pallava kingdom, which patronized it. One can see traces of it in the architecture and sculptures in and around the five-tier main spire or the Raja Gopuram at the entrance. The Gopuram is a repository of history narrated through its sculptures.

In the Pallava style of architecture, you can find in little nooks and corners, small sculptures with elaborate detailing. Among those from mythology are a Mahishasura Mardhini, a Navaneeta Chora Krishna (Lord Krishna stealing butter), a Bhima-Hanuman Samvaadam, a Garuda story among others. You also have a famous composite horse and a composite elephant. Above these composite sculptures are seen smaller figures of Vaishnava saints.

Composite elephant made of beautiful Apsaras

 

Garuda Mythology

 

The Goddess as Mahishasura Mardini

“A true saint doesn’t get distracted even if the most beautiful Apsara comes to seduce him,” said my frail octogenarian guide and scholar Thirunarayana Iyengar. What one gets is a sense of artistic freedom the kingdom enjoyed. Sculptures of nude nymphets and damsels share the same wall as mythological stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

My octagenarian guide Thirunarayana Iyengar and his loyal walking stick and I

The Nayakar Mandapam inside the temple is yet another wonderful space built around the 14th century. The pillars of this enclosure are all made of single pieces of large granite stone. On the outside are some exquisite life-size, or some even larger than life-size, sculptures. In addition to the usual sculptures of Hindu gods are those of regular life around the kingdom.

What caught my fascination were sculptures of local folk. There is a life-size statue of Kurathi, a nomadic sing-song fortune-teller gypsy girl, holding in her left hand a basket, on her left shoulder a child, and guiding another of her children with her right hand. The fine lines of the basket, the casual expressions on the face of the girl and the children are worth studying.

Kuravan, the gypsy man and another one of a man eloping with a princess are two more wonderful sculptures. Their impeccable body proportions will give Michelangelo’s famous ‘David’ and several other medieval European male body sculptures a run for their money.

In the inner circle of the same Mandapam are life-size statues of a series of Nayak rulers. Thirumalai Nayak stands tall with folded hands, paying obeisance to the deity. Attached to one of the Nayak sculptures is the sculpture of a beautiful woman of short stature. “This is one of the queens!”, said Thirunarayana Iyengar, with much confidence. I asked him how he knew. “See that waist band around her? It is called a Mekhala. It was always made of gold, rubies and diamonds. More importantly, only a queen could afford a Mekhala and wear it below her waist. That is how we know this might have been one of the many queens of these Nayaks”, he said, pointing out to these minute details.

Below the Mandapam, on the outer ring, almost a foot-high above the earth, are more small exquisite sculptures. One particularly curious one is that of a Ganesha. Here, Ganesha has the body of a female and legs of a lion. “Vyagrapada Vighneshwari”, said Thirunarayana Iyengar, pointing out to this with his walking stick. Had he not pointed out to this little one, I might have easily missed it.

Inside, in a corridor flanked by pillars on either side, are large Yaalis. Yaalis are mythical creatures comparable to griffins. Thirunarayana Iyengar stretched his arm up and put his hand into one of the Yaali’s mouth. He asked me to do the same. Inside the mouth was a stone ball. “How did it get there?,” he asked with a cheeky smile on his face. “It is all made of a single stone. The sculptor wanted to show off his expertise and hence made this”, he added. I put my hand inside the Yaali’s mouth and rolled the stone ball, the size of a large apple!

Outside the Raja Gopuram, is another enclosure called ‘Rati Mandapam’. In here are more beautiful life-size sculptures. There is Manmadha, or the mythological cupid with a sugarcane bow in one hand and arrows made of flowers in the other; opposite him is the sculpture of his wife Rati, riding a peacock. The other sculptures are those of Arjuna being taken into the battlefield of Kurukshetra on his chariot, driven by Krishna. Several other sculptures feature in this Mandapam.

Left: Rati, riding her parrot. Right Top: The handsome Gypsy Kuravan. Right Bottom: The beautiful gypsy girl Kurathi with her basket and two kids

 

There are scores of stone inscriptions on the temple walls. A 10th century inscription speaks of a gift of twenty-five sheep to the temple. There is a ‘Bali Peetham’ or a sacrificial podium, inside the temple. Can one draw conclusions as to whether there might have been animal sacrifice like what happened in most ancient temples? One never knows.

Ancient Tamil inscriptions on the temple walls

Another inscription on the northern wall from 14th century dating back to ruler Sundara Pandya II, mentions the gift of lands to Nambi, and yet another speaks of gifting fifty cows to the temple, the ghee of which was meant for lighting lamps for Nambi. Epigraphers are yet to properly document what is in and around the Thirukurangudi temple.

The temple has also been visited by several of the Azhwar poet saints who lived between 4200 BCE and 2700 BCE. The main among them, as I have mentioned earlier, is Thirumangai Azhwar.  He spent his last days here and this is his final resting place as well. He wrote in the 8th century:

The cool moonlight breeze,

heavy with his jasmine's fragrance,

rips my heart with longing and burns my soul.

Leaves me sleepless for another night,

Let my companions prattle on,

carry me away to my lord in Kurungudi.

The morning merges into dusk,

every hour at night stretches

to eternity.

The cool breeze feels like a tongue of fire,

carry me away to my lord in Kurungudi,

where peacocks dance.

— Periya Thirumozhi 9.5.2/3

 

What can one say about ‘Nambi’?  Nammazhwar wrote:

Why my companions do you blame me?

 It is not my fault that I am in love with him!

On seeing my Lord of Kurungudi,

 I think only of his discus, his conch,

 His lotus eyes and pair of coral-hued lips.

My heart is mine no longer!

- Thiruvaimozhi 5.5.1

And further writes:

My resplendent Lord of the celestials,

lives in Kurungudi and shines

like molten gold.

How can I ever forget him?

- Thiruvaimozhi 1.10.9

I had with me the erudite company of dancer-scholar Anita Rathnam who reminded me of the lines from Thondar Adi Podi, the Azhwar poet who writes ‘Pachchaimaal Malai pol meni, Pavalavai Shen Kamala Kann’:

The lord who stands tall,

glistening like an emerald mountain,

with lips like corals….

Seeing the exquisitely beautiful face of Nambi by firelight, one couldn’t agree more that Andal had written about this Nambi. For a second, I wished I had captured the image of Nambi on my camera. But realized the actual experience of it was to physically visit this place. If these poets could visit this remote place way back in their respective centuries, one sees no reason not to visit it now, in this day and age.

This is probably the only Vaishnava site, which also reveres the Shaiva tradition. A small temple of Shiva is within its complex. Scores of sculptures from Shiva mythology are seen all over. There are several marginal sculptures on dance and music. There is so much more to write about this ancient temple of Thirukurangudi. Various styles and schools of ancient temple architecture merge here. The village around the temple is spic and span. A decade ago, it won awards for one of the cleanest villages in Asia. You can walk around barefooted and not worry about anything. One can write much more about the place, the temple and so on. But that is for another time! Or even better, plan your next holiday trip to the temple of Vishnu at Thirukurangudi village and discover it yourself!

(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He lives in New Delhi and can be reached at vs.veejaysai@gmail.com)

Images Courtesy: Veejay Sai

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