Thiruvannamalai: A divine retreat
The small, unassuming town of Thiruvannamalai, 85 km south of Vellore, is something of a hidden gem in a region overwhelmed by significant temples.
Flanked by Mt Arunachala, this is an important Shaivite town where Shiva is revered as Arunachaleswar, an aspect of fire. At each full moon, the hill swells with thousands of barefoot pilgrims who circumnavigate the base of the mountain, but on any day you’ll see large gatherings of Shaivite priests, sadhus and devotees milling around the temple.
Thiruvannamalai is a bit of a hot spot for people interested in Advaita Vedanta. A number of spiritual teachers of varying quality, both Indian and Western, congregate in the area and offer satsang. One of the holiest shrines of the Shaivites, Thiruvannamalai is one of the Panchabhoota Sthalas, or five Shiva temples, with each a manifestation of a natural element: land, water, air, sky or fire.
It is the Thejosthala (Agni), and the abode of Lord Shiva and one of the personifications of the Tantric chakras of human anatomy. It is associated with the Manipooraga chakra. Guarded by the holy Arunachala Mountain, which rises to a height of 2800 feet, it has a magnificent temple facing east, constructed on a 25-acre campus on the Annamalai foothills. No matter where you are in this world, it is said that just thinking of Thiruvannamalai (Mukthi Sthala), can lead you to ultimate freedom.
This soul-stirring sanctuary is visited by millions of devotees from all over the world, mostly Indians and expats but also, more and more Westerners. Siddhas say that Arunachala is a spiritual treasure chest and stretches out to infinity and one has to have a lot of good karma in his account to even think of Arunachala.
Every cubic inch of the space surrounding Arunachala is filled with millions of sookshma (subtle) jyothi lingams. The hill is believed to be even older than the Himalayas and legend says this hill was a mass of fire in the Satya Yuga; a mound of gems and emeralds in the Tretha Yuga; a mass of gold in the Dwapara Yuga; and a hill of stones in the Kali Yuga, which is the present epoch.
Thiruvannamalai is named after the central deity of the Annamalaiyar Temple, Annamalaiyar. The 10-day Karthigai Maha Deepam festival is celebrated here during the day of the full moon between November and December, and this festival reaches its epitome of spirituality in lighting the ‘Mahadeepam’, a huge beacon on Annamalai hill whose light and heat is touched by devotees.
The event is witnessed by three million pilgrims. On the day preceding each full moon, pilgrims circumnavigate the temple base and the Annamalai hills in a worship called Girivalam, a practice carried out by one million pilgrims yearly.
The festival begins with the ‘Dwajaranam’ and the lighting of a brass lamp in the temple early in the morning which is called the ‘Bharani Deepam’ and ends with the lighting of the gigantic wick in the ghee-filled cauldron at the top of Arunachala hill. This gigantic wick is lit by a temple priest and two tribal men who stay on fast for 40 days before lighting it. The whole temple town of Thiruvannamalai is a sight to see on this day as lots of small earthen lamps adorn all the houses.
All the people in unison chant ‘Om Annamaleshwaraaya Namah’. The lighting of the lamp atop the hill is followed by the advent of Lord Ardhanaareeswarar from inside the sanctum sanctorum. The Deepam, which symbolizes Lord Shiva in the form of Agni or fire, is visible as far away as 45 kms.
Thiruvannamalai has been ruled by the Pallavas, the Medieval Cholas, the Later Cholas, Hoysalas, the Vijayanagar Empire, the Carnatic kingdom, Tipu Sultan, and the British. It served as the capital city of the Hoysalas. The town is built around the Annamalaiyar Temple like other Nayak capitals. In spite of being a resident of Thiruvannamalai, I didn’t realize its significance until I started reading a lot of books about this sacred place and this kindled the spark of spirituality in me.
It is said to be around thousand years old and patronised by the great saints and poets of Tamil Nadu. Prominent among them are Appar, Sambamdar, Sundarar and Manickavasagar and Arunagirinathar. In Hindu mythology, Parvati, wife of Shiva, once closed the eyes of her husband playfully in a flower garden on Mount Kailash. Although only a moment for the gods, all light was taken from the universe, and the earth, in turn, was submerged in darkness for years.
Parvati then performed penance with other devotees of Shiva, and her husband appeared as a column of fire at the top of Annamalai hill, returning light to the world. He then merged with Parvati to form Ardhanarishvara, the half-female, half-male form of Shiva. The Annamalai, or red mountain, lies behind the Annamalaiyar temple and the hill is considered a lingam, or iconic representation of Shiva.
Another legend is that once, while Vishnu and Brahma contested for superiority, Shiva appeared as a flame, and challenged them to find his source. Brahma took the form of a swan, and flew to the sky to see the top of the flame, while Vishnu became the boar Varaha, and sought its base. The scene is called lingothbava, and is represented in the western wall of the sanctum of most Shiva temples.
Neither Brahma nor Vishnu could find the source, and while Vishnu conceded his defeat, Brahma lied and said he had found the pinnacle. In punishment, Shiva ordained that Brahma would never have temples on earth in his worship. In Tamil, the word Arunam means red or fire and Asalam means hill. Since Shiva manifested himself in the form of fire, the name Arunachalam came to be associated with Annamalai hill.
The first mention of Annamalai is found in Tevaram, the seventh century Tamil Saiva canonical work by Appar and Tirugnanasambandar. Early one morning, I decided to explore all the sacred spots myself to feel the divinity.Arunachaleswar temple was awash in golden flames and the roasting scent of burning ghee, as befits the fire incarnation of the Destroyer of the Universe. Covering some 10 hectares, this vast temple is one of the largest in India and has six prakarams around the temple. The Rajagopuram standing majestically, soaring to a height of 217 feet, comes into view first.
It has 11 storeys. This tower is a standing testimony to the artistic genius of the Vijayanagar Dynasty. The Paathala (underground) Linga which is inside the temple in the south west corner of a thousand pillared hall is one where Ramana Maharishi worshipped and secured liberation. The Kambath Illayanar Sannadhi is where Arunagiri Swami, the author of Thirupugazh, was granted Mukthi.
The temple has six enclosures which includes 9 gopurams (towers). I took in the magnificent architecture. Four large unpainted gopurams, one for each cardinal point, front the approaches, with the eastern tower rising 13 storeys and an astonishing 66 mts. I passed through the huge pillared structures before entering the Eastern Gopuram (Gateway) called the ‘Rajagopuram’ (King’s Gateway) of the temple, which is 11 storeyes and 217 feet high.
The cool winds through this gateway welcomed me into the temple. The inscriptions on the structure were very interesting and told of the history of the temple. King Vallala, the greatest king of the Hoysala dynasty, took great interest in the upkeep and the expansion of this temple and built a splendid gopuram (gateway) of great artistic beauty.
It is called as ‘Vallala Maharaja Gopuram’. It has another magnificent tank called Brahmateertham in front of the Kalabhairavar shrine. The shrines of Brahmalingam and Yanaithiraikonda Vinayakar lie in this precinct, apart from several other shrines which are small but very significant and each one has a story behind it.
I paid my obeisance to another Nandi before climbing a flight of steps to the ‘Kili Gopuram’ or the “Parrot tower.” Saint Arunagirinathar is said to be in the form of a parrot here. The ‘Kili Gopuram’ invited me into the third prakar and right into the 16-pillared ‘Katchi Mantapam’, where the five deities (Panchamurthis), are seated during the Karthigai Deepam festival, to give Darshan to their innumerable devotees who flock here. Performing my ‘Thopakarnams’ (sit-ups) in front of the huge crimson colored Lord Ganapathy, I stood at the Gopura Darshan spot from where I could see all the 9 Gopuras. It was a spectacular sight! Lord Dakshinamurty and other deities were seated under the holy tree. Then I viewed the beautiful sculptures, murals and chandeliers. It is here that the Panchamurthis are adorned and worshipped before they alight on the different Vahanas during the ten day festival.
Offering my prayers at several other important shrines, I proceeded to the front and crossed the Flagstaff, the Bali Peetam and Adhikaara Nandi to enter the second prakar.The second precinct is bound on its South, West and North by the Murthis of the famous Tamil saints and poets, the Utsava Murthis, the Saptamatas, the 63 Shaivite saints, the shrine of Lord Nataraja, the different Lingas and many other important deities. Circumambulating this prakar, I entered the first prakar through the eastern entrance, guarded by the Dwara Palakas. Entering into the ‘Gurbagruha’, I offered my pranams to the main deity, Lord Arunachaleshwara.
I came out through the ‘Swarga Vaasal’ and entered the separate temple of Goddess Unnamalai Nayaki or Abhithakujambal, the charming, graceful and inseparable partner of Sri Arunachaleswarar, seated in the ‘Garbagruha’. Hats off to the sculptors who sculpted the exotic, meticulously hewn sculptures of the different forms of the Devi! I went round the ‘Navagrahas’, the Chitraputhrar shrine, the Pidari shrine and other important shrines. On the way out, I offered my prayers at the Kalabhairavar shrine and fed the fish in the Brahmateertham with puffed rice grains.
Exquisite beauty! Astounding architecture! Stupendous Gopuras and Kattai Gopuras! Lovely Temple Gardens! Magnificent Mantapas and Vimanas! Meticulous carvings! Finally, I prepared for the final prakar or walk – the “Giri Pradakshina.”