SPENDING SUMMER vacations in a fairly religious Vaishnavite household in Tirunelveli, it is next to impossible at not being taken to the nine Vishnu temples on either side of the Tamiraparani collectively known as the Nava Tirupati. My first visit was as a teenager. In just a day's visit, I had become an `addict' of the temples that are repositories of art, sculpture, architecture, bronze work, frescos and so on. Just to look at the impeccable craftsmanship gave great pleasure. Their setting amongst lush green fields bordered by stately trees and the waters of the river soothed the frayed nerves of a city dweller. The addiction also generated a sense of helplessness and pity at the destruction time and with it dwindling income had inflicted on these temples.
On my return from vacations, immediate pressures of college pushed back my memories. The sense of peace and serenity the atmosphere had generated or the images had inspired resurfaced often enough to make me take an annual visit to the temples and relive them. Each visit would end with a longing for the next and also a curiosity about the poems of Nammazhwar. The poems were not difficult to find, they were a part of the 4,000 hymns on Vishnu sung by the 12 Azhwars during the bhakti movement. The Tamil was chaste and the words beyond my comprehension but with a dedicated teacher I could unravel themEven now, as I make the journey to the nine temples I experience the same longing to enjoy the serenity and it gets a new meaning as I recite the hymns of Nammazhwar whose poems speak of the same longing. In other words, the temples now evoke the same emotion that was felt in the ninth century. The temples are at the centre of an array of interests, sculpture, epigraphy, painting, literature, religion and a way of life. Do the temples owe their glory to the poetry of Nammazhwar or is it vice versa? It is irrelevant for they compliment each other and create an overriding sense of peace in the devotee.
The Nava Tirupati form an important part of the 108 Divyadesam the 12 Azhwars have sung about. Incidentally, the Irattai Tirupatis are counted as one divya desam though in the Nava Tirupati list they feature as two.
The nine temples can be visited in a day. The best way to do it will be to stay at Tirunelveli (30 km from the temples), which is well connected by train and bus. There are frequent bus services from Tirunelveli to Azhwar Tirunagari and Srivaikuntam, the most populous villages in the group. The temples are en route to Tiruchendur. From these villages it will be best to hire a taxi to visit the nine temples for bus services are not very regular. Thanks to a massive restoration project by the Indian Culture and Heritage Trust, substantially funded by the TVS group, the darshan timings are organised and displayed at all the temples. Both Srivaikuntam and Azhwar Tirunagari open by 6 a.m. It is best to be there about that time and start the journey. A suggested route could be — Srivaikuntam (25 km from Tirunelveli on the Tirunelveli-Tiruchendur road) then Varagunamangai or Natham then Tiruppulingudi (2 km from Srivaikuntam and 1 km from Natham) then Thirukkulandhai or Perungulam (8 km from Srivaikuntam). These shrines are on the Srivaikuntam-Tuticorin bus route. Then could be the two temples a few yards apart called Tulaivillimangalam or Irattai Tirupati. They are in an absolutely desolate location surrounded by scrub jungle so it is best to use a taxi or van from Sri Vaikuntam/Azhwar Tirunagari for there is no bus service either.
These temples are on the one side of the river. On the other side are Thenthirupperai (31 km from Tirunelveli or 3 km from Azhwar Tirunagari on Tirunelveli-Tiruchendur road) then Tirukolur (between Azhwar Tirunagari and Thentirupperai. It is a kilometre off the Tirunelveli and Tiruchendur road en route to Nazareth). Finally comes Tirukkurugur/Azhwar Tirunagari (28 km from Tirunelveli on the Tirunelveli-Tiruchendur road). Both Azhwar Tirunagari and Srivaikuntam are on the rail route but services are infrequent so it is best to stay at Tirunelveli. The trip can also be done starting at Azhwar Tirunagari. The route can vary depending on festivals in the temples. One can check the boards and ask the archakar at Srivaikuntam/Azhwar Tirunagari, which is where one should start the pilgrimage. The temples are also sign-posted on the main roads.
I started my journey on a warm summer's morning at Tirukkurugur, also known as Azhwar Tirunagari being the birthplace of Nammazhwar. The Moolavar here is Adipiran and is in his Paratwa roopam — one who has no beginning or end. Nammazhwar in his song on the deity says, ``When none of the gods or the Worlds... Or any life in any form existed... He gave life to all the gods... In Tirukkurugur, with lofty mansions does he stand... Why then, do you seek other gods? (Thiruvaimozhi, 4.10.1) The sthalapuranam narrates how Mahavishnu revealed Himself here first after saving the earth in the Varaha avatar.
It was difficult to confirm if the Moolavar's feet are indeed sunk beneath the floor. In keeping with the pasurams calling for devotees to pray to Adinatha, I went at a time when Nammazhwar's hymns from his Thiruvaimozhi, which is equated to Sama Veda, were being recited. The work has been originally set to music but unfortunately the recitations were at such a quick pace that it was difficult to savour the euphony of Tamil as Nammazhwar employs it.
A slow pradakshinam of the main shrine pausing at the subsidiary shrines especially of the thayar(s) brought me to the most significant part of the temple. Climbing a small flight of stairs, I came to a low but sprawling tamarind tree with four branches said to represent the four Vedas.
The tree was gnarled and the branches had twisted themselves into fantastic shapes. Fascinated by them and the streams of sunlight dancing through the gently rustling leaves, I shivered slightly. Despite my passion for the prosaic, a charged atmosphere was present in the area.
Sadagopan, a long time resident of the town and an archakar at the smaller Venkatesa temple told me the story I had read many times before. Coming from the descendant of the first person to write the commentary for the Thiruvaimozhi I could feel a new passion in the ancient story.
He was born as Sadakopan, the son of Kari, a chieftain, and his wife in answer to their prayers to Adinatha for a child. When he was born, he neither cried nor opened his eyes but when brought to the temple crawled to sit in meditation under the same tamarind tree. Sixteen years later, Madurakavi, a resident of nearby Tirukkolur (one of the nine temples), who was on a journey to the North, was directed by a star to the boy under the tree. Madurakavi asked the boy, ``If a small thing is born inside a carcass, what will it eat and where will it exist?" The boy speaking for the first time replied, ``It will eat the same thing and exist in the same thing." -Madurakavi, having heard what he wanted, for the boy had implied that for those who live and live off attachments, salvation would be impossible to attain.
Madurakavi from then on became an inseparable friend and took down all the verses the boy sang.
Madurakavi himself became an icon of the guru-sishya parampara when he composed only one work in the Prabhandam, ``Kanninun Siruttambu," the small coil of rope, where he says ``In saying his name I found joy... In finding his feet I found truth... Of other Gods, I know nothing... I only sing His name as I roam the world." And Madurakavi who took refuge in Kurugur's Nambi has this to say ``You devotee of God, Look at Nambi's feet for THAT is THE paradise!" (Kanninun Siruthambu, 2 & 11).
Nammazhwar died at the age of 32. Through a dream Madurakavi found an idol and consec-rated it in the temple. With the passage of time, the 4,000 verses of the Azhwars were lost until Nadhamuni, under the shade of the tree, recited Madurakavi's stanzas 12,000 times when they were revealed to him.
My narrator (Sadagopan) went his way and in the few minutes I spent alone under the tree that neither bears fruit nor closes its leaves at dusk, I thought I had crossed the centuries and did not find it too hard to visualise the hazy figure of a seated person.
Circling the tree I made note of the now badly eroded sculptures of the 36 deities including all those in the Nava Tirupati temples that Namm-azhwar has sung about. I reached Namm-azhwar's shrine and paused to admire the Nayak period sculptures of warriors with fantastic beards. The walls of the shrine are covered with inscriptions. Unfortunately no one there had a clue about them or any of the inscriptions found in the other temples of the constellation. A day's patient reading of the epigraphical surveys threw some light on a period of the comparatively lesser known Pandya dynasty.
As in other temples in the Nava Tirupati, which do have inscriptions, many are of Maravarman Sundara Pandyan. Most inscriptions record the gift of land towards the worship of Thiru Nadudaya Piran or Polindu Nindra Piran. An inscription of circa AD1253 records the dedication of a shrine to Varaha Naayanar, while another dated Circa1272 records the donation of land to feed those in the Arulaladasa Matha founded by Kulasekara I. While inscriptions can be dated from 1215, it is likely that the temple was in existence much before even 9th C when Nammazhwar is said to have lived. I had just missed the Vaikasi utsavam, the most interesting of the various ones celebrated. The archakar spoke of how on the fifth day, the deities of all the nine temples congregate at Azhwar Tirunagari and listen to the hymns of Nammazhwar. Nammazhwar is seated on the Hamsa vahana and Madurakavi in the Parangi Narkali. The Utsavam was apparently started in the early 1800's. Also famous is the Arayar sevai where the Arayars, enact the Divya Prabhandam, particularly the four compositions of Nammazhwar, equated to the four Vedas with graceful abhinaya. He also asked me to pray specially to the planet Budhan that is associated with Tirukkurugur. Also he spoke of a stone nagaswaram, which is played on important occasions. An ancient piece, it needs special skill to produce music out of this unusual version of the wind instrument, he said.
As I left the temple to go on to Tirukkolur, the landscape on either side was dotted with emerald green paddy fields, fields of tall sugarcane, hedges of Pandanus palms all of this amazingly is still intact. Again, in a way a 21st century individual could in his own way feel the reverence of a 10th century poet par excellence.
His song on Azhwar Tirunagari ends: ``Maran of Tirukkurugur, who wears the garland of vakula blossoms, composed these ten verses of the thousand in praise of Adipiran.
For those who master them, The paradise that is Vaikunda, will be theirs... " (Thiruvaimozhi 4.10.11) Looking around, I wondered which was the paradise he speaks of — the one above us, or the village itself.
Now I know who the brainy one is, I'll keep loknoig for your posts.