Srirangam Temple

Also known as the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple or Thiruvaranga Tirupati, it is located in Tiruchirapalli, Tamil Nadu.

The smell of incense burning, the colors of marigold, bells, and chants fill the air! Ancient towers, intricate sculptures, mysticism, and legends! Srirangam is a marvel that attracts pilgrims as well as art, architecture, and history lovers. Dedicated to Sri Ranganatha, the reclining form of Lord Vishnu, it is an important religious site for Srivaishnavites.

It is built on an island surrounded by the Kaveri and Kollidam rivers. Sprawling an enormous 156 acres, Srirangam is the largest functioning Hindu Temple in the world.

It is considered the first and foremost of the 108 Divya Desams dedicated to Lord Vishnu and is one of the eight self-manifested shrines of the deity. Sri Ranganatha is lovingly called Azhagiya Manavaalan or the beautiful groom in Tamil by his devotees. Like all ancient temples, Srirangam is steeped in legend, folklore and mystical stories. 

The Legend of Srirangam

Legend has it that the idol of Sri Ranganatha was received by Brahma in a deep state of meditation. Later, it came to be in the possession of Lord Rama, who worshiped it with pure devotion. It was Lord Rama, who gave the idol to Vibishana, the brother of Ravana; out of gratitude for helping him win the war.

Vibishana could take the idol to Sri Lanka, however, there was one condition. He should not place the idol on the ground or else it would get fixed in that place permanently. Now, on his way to Sri Lanka, he came across a festival at Srirangam. Not heeding to the advice received, he placed the idol on the banks of river Kaveri.

Lord Ranganatha liked the place and refused to leave. He, however, promised Vibishana that he will continue to bless him by facing the South. Even today, the deity faces the South direction.   

Historical and Textual Evidence

Inscriptions

There are more than 800 inscriptions found in the temple that date as back as the 9th to 16th Century AD. They belong to the Chola, Pandya, Hoysala, and Vijayanagar dynasties who looked after the temple and made large contributions to it.

Mention in Religious Texts

According to the Puranas, it is Dharma Varma of the Chola dynasty, who first built the temple. The temple is mentioned in Tamil literature of the Sangam era (6th Century BC to 4th Century AD). It is also mentioned in the epic Silapadikaram.

Invasions of the Delhi Sultanate

The Srirangam temple underwent many gruesome attacks under the Delhi Sultanate. Arabic texts mention the first invasion in 1311 AD. The second one took place in 1323 AD. It was only later, under the Vijayanagara empire, that the temple was restored and returned to its former glory.

Later years

In the late 16th Century, Srirangam became a battleground between the Mughals and the Nayaks. With the establishment of the Madras Presidency, it came under the British Empire until independence in 1947. Today, the temple is administered by the Hindu Religious and Endowment Board of the Government of Tamil Nadu.

Religious Significance

Spiritual Inquiry and Debate

The Ranganathaswamy temple became a center of religious debate and spiritual inquiry in the 11th Century under Ramanuja and his contemporaries Nathamuni and Yamunacharya. Ramanuja is the main expounder of the Visistadvaita philosophy, propagated in his book – Sri Bhasyam.

The Bhakti Movement

The temple was also a hub for the Tamil Bhakti Movement with its devotional poetry, song, and dance tradition. The Azhwars or the divine saints of this movement have dedicated 247 hymns to Sri Ranganatha. They are compiled in the Nalayira Divya Prabhandam, which is a collection of 4000 hymns written by 12 Azhwar saints from the 6th to 9th century AD.

Festivals

The main festival is held around the Vaikunta Ekadashi (11th day of the month Margazhi), which falls in December or January. It attracts more than a million devotees. There are celebrations for 21 days, with much pomp and glory. There is singing, dancing, theatrics, and recitation of poetry. This is the best time to visit Srirangam.

On Ekadashi, after a long procession, the deity is placed in the 1000 pillared hall. It is said that whoever gazes at it will attain heaven after death. The place itself is said to become Bhooloka Vaikunta or Heaven on Earth. So blessed is Srirangam on this day that the entire pantheon of Hindu Gods comes to witness it. The other festivals of importance are Jyestabisheka, Brahmotsavam, and the annual Rathothsavam. While of major religious significance, Srirangam is also known for its brilliant architecture. 

Previous
Next

Ancient Dravidian Architecture

Rich in early and mid- medieval Dravidian architecture, Srirangam leaves visitors enchanted by its beauty! Though there is evidence that it was built around the 1st Century AD, during the Sangam Period, a lot of editions have been made by various dynasties over hundreds of years. Here are some of its architectural marvels.

Prakaras

The temple was also a hub for the Tamil Bhakti Movement with its devotional poetry, song, and dance tradition. The Azhwars or the divine saints of this movement have dedicated 247 hymns to Sri Ranganatha. They are compiled in the Nalayira Divya Prabhandam, which is a collection of 4000 hymns written by 12 Azhwar saints from the 6th to 9th century AD.

Gopuram and Mandapams

There are 21 colorful and beautifully decorated gopurams or tower gateways in the complex. There is even a gopuram made of Gold, which is protected by an electric fence! There are many halls or mandapams, most striking amongst them is the 1000 pillar granite mandapa built by the Vijayanagara Dynasty.

Shrines

The temple has more than 50 shrines, dedicated to Lord Vishnu, Goddess Laxmi as well as various scholars and poets. The innermost courtyard houses the main shrine of Sri Ranganatha, where Lord Vishnu is seen reclining on the Adisesha or coiled serpent.

Mystical Stories

The Muslim Princess:

In the 13th Century, Malik Kafur, the general of Sultan Alauddin Khilji, invaded the temple and took the idol with him to Delhi. Devotees of the deity, dressed as a band of performers traveled to his court, impressing him requested the idol as a reward. And he obliged. Delighted, returning home with the deity, they were followed by princess Surathani, who had fallen madly in love with Sri Ranganatha. She prostrated before him and attained moksha. Her shrine is still present in the temple compound.

This, however, angered the Sultan and led to another invasion, causing a massacre. The deity and his consort Sri Ranganayaki were cleverly shifted before they could be stolen again. They traveled from village to village until reinstated in the temple only 60 years later. 

The Little Garland Girl:

Andal, a little girl found under the Tulsi plant was adopted by a priest and cared for like his own. Her duty was to make garlands to be offered to Lord Ranganatha. She would however wear the garlands first, to make sure they were perfect. One day, the priest caught her in the act and apprehended her for offering used garlands to the deity.

The deity, however, protested at the fresh new garlands offered and said, “Where is the scent of the girl, who will be my future wife?” He came to the priest in a dream and asked to be offered only the garlands worn by her. And sure enough, the deity appeared riding an elephant and was married to Andal. Their love story is still celebrated today as Andal Kalyanam on Bhogi Pongal. 

The Cursed Diamond:

One of the greatest mysteries surrounding the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple is the Orlov diamond. It came from the famous Golkonda mines and was embedded in the idol. It is a large alluring diamond, the size of half a chicken egg. It was stolen by a French army deserter and Hindu convert. After exchanging many hands, it was purchased by Count Grigory Grigorievich Orlov for the Russian Empress Catherine the Great. She liked the diamond so much that she named it after the Count and embedded it on her imperial scepter. Today, it is displayed at the Moscow Kremlin.

The Shrine of Ramanuja:

There is a shrine of the great Hindu philosopher Ramanuja, within the temple compound. The representative body in the shrine is believed by many devotees to be the mummified body Ramanuja. This however has been denied by the temple priests.

Interesting Facts

Srirangam is the largest functioning Hindu temple in the world, covering an area of 156 acres. It is only smaller in size to Angkor Wat, which is a non-functioning temple. It is also one of the largest religious complexes in the world, along with Vatican City, Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, Borobodur, and Potala Palace.

It hosts the tallest tower in Asia. Known as the Rajagopuram, the tower stands at a height of 236 feet. Amongst the many water tanks at Srirangam, two of the largest are known to hold 2 million liters of water.

The main idol of the temple which is the reclining Vishnu is made of stucco and thailam, a paste made out of camphor, honey, musk, jaggery, and sandal. The walls are painted in exquisite designs using vegetable and herbal dyes. Srirangam has survived many invasions and natural disasters and has been rebuilt over many centuries. It has been nominated as a UNESCO world heritage site. 

Conclusion

If you are a spiritual seeker or simply love to marvel at ancient lore and architecture, Srirangam has so much to offer a traveler. Soaking in centuries of history and legend is sure to leave you spellbound! And all this while gaining an opportunity to be blessed by Sri Ranganatha!