Sri Rangam - bhooloka vaikuntham
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Jewel on the Cauvery
The history of the Srirangam temple is closely related to the development of the Vaishnava movement in the South. The Temple is venerated as The Koil, the most important of the divya desas. The sthala purana is the Sriranga Mahatmya which traces the evolution of this temple from its inception as the Ranga Vimana, worshipped by Brahma in Satyaloka to its descent to the banks of the Cauveri.
This temple town has tremendous cultural vivacity with a calendar filled with festivals that attract devotees. The gold plated vimana, a symbol of its wealth during the Pandya rule in the Middle Ages, continues to be an attraction. From inscriptions we infer that the present sanctum belongs to the early Chola period, while literary evidence, such as the hymns of the Alwars and others writings, take it to the beginning of the first millennium.
The Arayar tradition traces its origin to Periyalvar and they sing Andal's Tiruppavai and Nachiyar Tirumoli in a delightful lilting manner infusing in the rendition, bhakti and a sense of joy. The decoration of the deities and the special attention to the accoutrements make one realise why the deity goes by the name Alagiyamanavalan, "the handsome groom". Another belief ingrained in the Vaishnava ethos is to look upon Srirangam as "Bhuloka - Vaikuntam", a concept expanded by Tondaradippodi Alvar, who performed a fulfilling service to the Lord - "pushpa kainkaryam" or braiding basil leaf garlands. That Srirangam was a premier centre of worship is evident going by the numerous mangalasanas recited in praise of Lord Ranganatha. All these were precursors to the evolution of the Visistadvaita philosophy of Ramanuja who made Srirangam the centre for his activities.
In the 11th and 12th Centuries, under the leadership of Ramanuja, new administrative reforms were carried out in Srirangam, that infused a spirit of inclusiveness and opened out the temple to a larger section of society, thereby revitalising a moribund system.
Ramanuja laid a strong foundation for Srivaishnavism theology at Srirangam and permitted the freedom to reform, give direction to the temple and help it to withstand the oppressive incursion of Malik Kafur. It provided sanctuary to kings displaced from Karnataka.
The temple flourished during Vijayanagar rule. It received generous land grants, new festivals were initiated to commemorate the birth stars of kings and activities of the temple. Impressive gopuras were built. The Nayaka kings and queens were deeply attached to this temple and made munificent donations in the form of jewellery, large mural paintings and building mandapas. But adequate funding for their maintenance was not provided for.
The Sribhandaram a cross-section of society - or the treasury, received donations from the barber, the shepherdess, the horse dealer and the Chola queen, Tennavan Mahadeviyar, wife of Rajendra. It was used to maintain a perpetual lamp (nondavillakku) to brighten the myriad corridors and the sanctum. Land gifts were made to maintain the gardens.
Srirangam, being an island town in the middle of the Kaveri, was prone to floods which devastated standing crops and deposited silt. The walls of Srirangam are replete with inscriptions that mention tax holidays and leaving the land fallow by rotation for a gradual reclamation programme. Service by the temple ensured the establishment of housing colonies, craft villages and looking after craftsmen. Its dynamism waned at the end of the 18th Century.
Today, this temple, like other temples, suffers because of government apathy.
Srirangam temple, with its seven enclosures, covers a vast area. Between the enclosures there are houses, shopping arcades and open land where there are groves. Shops sell materials required for rituals and some personal effects. But today they sell merchandise like cameras and television sets. The temple's particular layout with its mandapas and gopuras in the centre of the street, qualifies the structure as a heritage site. The vimanas, or gateways that go up to 30-40 metres, give this complex a grandeur unsurpassed by any other temple.
The seventh enclosure with its incomplete gateways belongs to the Vijayanagara-Nayaka period and is known as the Adaiyavalaindan. Studying the massive dimensions of the base structures, one can surmise they would have carried the largest vimanas ever.
The next enclosure is the Chittirai or the Kaliyugaraman gateway, as the vahanas and chariots used during festivals, particularly Chittarai, are parked here. Kaliyugaraman is the title of the Pandyan King who established this enclosure. The ceilings of these gopuras, particularly that of the Kattai or south Kaliyugaraman gopura, have medieval paintings of festivals like the mahotsavas, delineating an entire procession, a variety of standards and musical bands, and the Vaishnava parijanas participating and being entertained by Terukutthu, i.e. a street performance.
As we proceed to the fourth and the fifth enclosures, one gets closer to the core temple area, where the dwellings and shopping areas end and the temple begins. The southern akalankan or the rangavilasa gateway is the entrance to the holy shrine where Lord Ranganatha lies facing the south in perpetual darshan to Vibhisena in Lanka. On entering the fourth enclosure there are some lovely shrines and mandapas. The Venugopala temple is mentioned in inscriptions as Kuzhal udum pillai, i.e. Krishna the flautist. This was built by the Hoysalas during their interregnum at Kannaur in the 13-14th Centuries. The paintings of Krishna- Lila are contemporary and have been treated to prevent further weathering. In front of this shrine is the Ranga Vilasa mandapa, where the weary devotee may rest a while and watch others haggle and purchase items for rituals. The Ranga Vilasa mandapa carries the Bala Ramayana narration which concludes with the episode of Sita Kalyanam. The element of love is implied in an adjacent mural of Manmatha and Rathi and a similarity between Rama and Ranganatha, where "the handsome groom" is highlighted.
In this prakara the Vellai gopura was renovated under the aegis of UNESCO and other government departments many years ago. A bird's eye-view from the top is breathtaking - the complex in contrast to the lush countryside.
In Srirangam, the museum has interesting exhibits - from old locks and keys to swords and scabbards to images of gods, inscribed copper and ivory sculptures of the Nayaks plates. Close by, there is the Sesharaya mandapa with intricately detailed sculptures of riders on horses. There is a Thousand Pillared hall where the temple conducts the Vaikunta Ekadasi festival. To understand the rituals, where the deity is offered rajopachara with a sense of dedication, this is the temple to come to. Great care is paid to the accoutrement of the deities. The jewellery is ancient and exquisite and the flowers are draped with a delicate touch.

The main deity in the shrine of Ranganatha is Vishnu lying on the Sesha (sayanamurthi). As it is created out of stucco, many of the special offerings are made to the tirthabera rather than the mulabera. The holy water for the Tirumanjanam or the Sacred Bath is fetched from the Kaveri in a special silver pot and taken out with fanfare. Drinking this is further enhanced by adding basil, pachaikarpuram, cardamom, clove, sandal paste and saffron i.e. parimaladravyam which is handed to the chief priest while conches are blown. This process takes place early in the morning. Those who are present can have a sip of this holy water at the end of the tirumanjanam.
The main shrine, which has the gold plated Ranga Vimana, has a small circumbulatory corridor named after the Chola king, Rajamahendran Tiruvinnalli. This area was once ravaged by fire but there still remain some wonderful paintings of the 17th - 18th Centuries delineating the story of the Ranga Vimana or the sthala mahatmayam. Stepping into the large covered hallway, there are the life size statues of Vijayaranga Chokkanatha Nayaka (1706-1732), his wife and their family. On the cobbled pathway one notices images of people sketched in with the label sada seva in Telugu, which denotes couples in perpetual obeisance to the Lord - this is a votive offering.
Srirangam temple, at one time was known for its practice of indigenous medicine and has a shrine for Dhanvantari, the apostle of good health. This temple was known for its decoctions but today makes only the most difficult of items - the Tailakaapu required for the protective fragrant oil coated on the icon of Ranganatha. The Tayar complex has the shrine to Lakshmi. The Panguni Uttira, the Vasantha and the Unjal mandapas are a part of the canopied corridor that forms the pradakshina pada of this shrine.
The ceilings of the corridor carry the murals that delineate the legend of the Vishnu Purana. The paintings were executed on the commission of Vijayaranga Bhupalaudu, whose family is portrayed at the end. This is a gallery that details every member of the family and the court. Even today the festivals, the dramatic arayar sevai, the tradition of supporting artisans from Jiyarpuram, preparation of garlands, maintaining temple gardens, treating the plants with reverence and taking immense pride in being associated with the temple makes a visit to this temple absorbing.

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athAto "brahma" zignAsA - Then thereafter be inquisitive to enquire about "the Absolute"