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The Temple Par Excellence

Ranganayaki and Ranganathan

A Brief History of the Srirangam Temple

by Prof. V.S. Seshadri, Srirangam
From ``Sri Nrusimha Priya''

Srirangam, the premier Vaishnava temple in South India is the first and foremost among the 108 Vaishnava divyadesas. All the Alvars have sung in praise of the deity enshrined in the huge temple in the center of the town. The Sri Vaishnava Acharyas from Nathamuni are found to have taken an active and abiding interest in the management of the temple. During Ramanuja's time, far reaching reforms were introduced both in the religious and secular management. Thus Srirangam has an eventful history, both secular and religious, as the great Vaishnava Acharyas made it the headquarters of the wider Vaishnava movement. Here is an attempt to present its eventful history in a nutshell - both the traditional and historical.

In the Vaishnava parlance, the term "Koil" signifies the Srirangam temple only. The temple is enormous in size. The temple complex is 156 acres in extent. It has seven Prakaras or enclosures or Tiru Veedhis. These enclosures are formed by thick and huge rampart walls which run round the sanctum. The total length of these seven walls is 32,592 feet or over six miles. There are magnificent towers in all Prakaras providing a unique sight to any visitor. The latest addition is the 236 feet high stupendous thirteen tired Rajagopuram built at the southern rampart by the late 44th Jeeyar of the Sri Ahobila Mutt and consecrated in 1987 with great fanfare and religious piety. The grandeur of the towers decrease as one moves away from, them towards the sanctum signifying that the devotee has to move away from the lofty earthly attachments in his spiritual quest.

The Peria Koil is complete in all respects. It has the full complement of seven Prakaras. It has a main shrine where the Lord (Ranganatha) is found in a reclining posture in his serpent bed. There are also sub shrines for Vishvaksena, Rama, Krishna, Nachiyar, Chakratalvar, Garuda, Hanuman, Andal etc. and for all the alvars and the acharyas upto Vedanta Desika within the precincts.

The Peria koil lies on an islet, formed by the twin rivers Kaveri and Kollidam. The river has always been a very important adjunct of a Hindu temple or religious institutions and therefore held as sacred as the temple.

The origin of the glittering Sriranga Vimana is said to have been narrated by Rudra to Narada. According to the Sriranga Mahathmya the glittering Sriranga Vimana sprang as a result of the tapas of Brahma in the depths of the Milky ocean. It was borne by the celestial bird Garuda. Adisesha, had spread his hood over it. Vishvaksena, the Archangel-in-chief walked in front clearing the way. The Sun and Moon were fanning the Deity. The celestial Musicians Narada and Thumburu followed singing His Glory. Rudra and other gods raised the "jayaghosha". The celestial maids danced. There was a rain of flowers.

Awakened from his deep tapas, Brahma prostrated before the Vimana. He recited the four vedas and gazed in wonderment. Sunanda, a celestial guard informed him that the Lord was pleased with his penance and had come in answer to his prayers. When Brahma looked into the Vimana, he found there the Supreme Lord resting with his Consorts. The Lord informed Brahma that he had come as a Svayamvyakta -- on his own volition -- as an idol. He would appear likewise in eight places on earth -- Srirangam, Srimushnam, Venkatadri, Saligram, Naimisaranya, Totadri, Pushkara and Badri. Ranga Vimana is the first and the earliest of all these. The Lord directed Brahma to worship him strictly according to the procedure for worship laid down in the Agamas and lay down in his characteristic posture, in Yoganidra.

Brahma carried it to Satyaloka and installed it on the banks of the river, Viraja. He appointed the Sun god to do the daily pooja. After him, Vaivasvata Manu, performed the worship. When his son Ikshvaku, became the King of Ayodhya, he wanted to have it installed at Ayodhya. He entered on a tapas which lasted for many hundred years at the end of which he was permitted by Brahma to take it to Ayodhya.

Thus, the Vimana came to Ayodhya. After Ikshvaku, his descendants continued the service. Rama, himself an avatara of the Lord worshipped him and thereafter the Lord came to be known as "Periya Perumal". On his triumphant return from Sri Lanka, in the coronation held in grand style, Rama gave the Vimana as gift to Sri Vibheeshana for worship.

When Vibheeshana set out for Sri Lanka, He got down on the Kaveri bank to perform his mid-day prayers. He placed the Ranga Vimana at a place known as "Sesha Peetam" near the Chandrapuskarani. He returned after taking his bath and performed the Pooja and lo! when he tried to lift the Vimana, it would not move. It had got stuck up. Vibheeshana was overcome with grief and shed tears. The Lord appeared before him and consoled him saying that he need not grieve as He had already decided to make the place His abode. He could come and worship him daily. It is said that Vibheeshana worships the Lord daily at midnight.

A chola by name Dharma Varma who was then ruling the territory, had seen the Ranga Vimana at the Yagasala when Dasaratha performed the Putrakameshti Yaga. He was so fascinated that he wanted to have it installed in his region. When he undertook a tapas on the banks of Chandrapushkarani, the sages told him that Sri Ranga Vimana was expected to arrive any time and requested him to give up the penance.

Soon the "Sriranga Vimana" carried by Vibheeshana had arrived and the episode (explained above) had taken place. Dharma Varma was overjoyed as the Lord had willed to make it his abode. He built a shrine for the Vimana, the surrounding Prakara known as "Dharma Varma Veedhi" and arranged for proper daily worship.

In course of time, Nature devoured the site. The Sri Ranga Vimana and the structures disappeared and became a habitat for wild animals. A ruling prince of the Chola dynasty hunting to that spot overheard a parrot repeating a sloka.

Kaveree Viraja Seyam Vaikuntam Rangamandiram
Sa Vasudevo Pangeshah Pratyaksham Paramam Padam |
Vimanam Pranavakaram Vedasrungam Mahadhbhutham
Srirangasayee Bhagavan Pranavarthaprakasakah ||

The river Kaveri is the very same river Viraja that eternally flows in Vaikunta, Srirangam Temple is verily Vaikuntam itself, the Abode of Lord Vishnu where he sits in all splendour and majesty in the company of Nityasuris.

The Lord of Arangam, is none but Vasudeva, the Primeval Lord Himself. The Vimana is verily the external Paramapada itself.

The Vimana is in the form of the Pranava (the life sustaining mantra). The four towers are marvelously akin to the four Vedas and the Lord, Sri Rangasayee is expounding the import of the Pranava.

On understanding the import of this sloka, the chola caused the earth towards the west of the tree (known as Tirumudikkurai) to be dug deep to lay a secure foundation for the Sriranga Vimana. But the Lord appeared before him in a dream and pointed out to him the exact spot wherein he lay. The king was overjoyed at finding the glittering Ranga Vimanam there. He cleared the forest, constructed all the essential parts of the temple, laid down flower gardens, instituted temple services and forms of worship. The shrine became widely knows as "Tiruvaranga Tirupathi", thanks to the benefactions of Kili Chola and his successors who ruled from Uraiyur.

With the rise of Buddhism and Jainism in the Tamil country, there arose a strong reaction against their growing influence. This found expression in a wide movement among the worshippers of Vishnu and Siva. The Vaishnava resurgent movement was spearheaded by the Alvars who brought religion to the heart of the people. They employed Tamil (the local language) as the medium of expression and composed the exuberant devotional songs - celebrated as the "Nalayira Divya Prabandham".

The shrines visited and glorified by them became holy places (Divya Desas). The temple at Srirangam and the Deity enshrined therein have been sung by all of them.

A total of 247 hymns in the Nalayiram is found to be dedicated to the Lord of Srirangam as shown below:

Kulasekhara Alvar31
Tirumalisai Alvar14
Tondaradippodi Alvar55
Tirumangai Alvar73
Poygai Alvar1


All the Acharyas have composed stotras in praise of the Lord and Ranga Nachiar. Vedanta Desika composed Paduka Sahasram (1008 slokas) in different metres.

Of these, Tirumalisai Alvar refers many a time in his hymns to the shrine of Srirangam and the Kaveri and its branch - Kollidam - encircling the shrine, luxuriant gardens and the beautiful Tiruvarangam, the eight tirthas (pools) in which people from far and near bathe and worship the Lord (Tiruchanda Viruttam 49 & 50). Tirumangai Alvar renovated many shrines, towers and Prakara walls and the Dasavatara Shrine. He instituted the "Adhyayanothsavam" for which in the good old days, Nammalvar's image was brought all the way from Tirunagari. The Kings and their chiefs vied with one another in bestowing attention on the temples. After the early Cholas, the Pallavas, the later Cholas, the Pandyas, the Hoysala and the Vijayanagar Emperors and the Nayak Kings took care of the shrine and made significant additions and benefactions. Pious pilgrims, saints and scholars from all over the country visited the shrine and worshipped the Lord year round.

Numerous inscriptions appear on the walls and other places. They exceed over 600. They furnish us with a variety of information about the benefactions made by the ruling classes from time to time and also about the social, economic and political conditions.

For instance, we learn that Parantaka I (907 - 955 AD), was an ardent devotee of Lord Ranganatha. During his reign, the temple received many benefactions. A gift of 30 pieces of gold for a permanent lamp, 40 for camphor, one for cotton wick and a silver lamp were received by the Sabha of Tiruvarangam which managed these endowments. A hundred Kalanju of gold was made for performing the Tirumanjanam of the Lord with a "Sahasradhara" gold plate (1000 holed). Provision for cake offerings to the Lord on the Ekadasi day during the Panguni festival was made through a gift of two plots of land.

The Anbil plates of Parantaka II (Sundara Chola 956 - 973 AD) record the grant to Srinatha, a native of Anbil (Premagriha). This Vaishnava teacher was an ardent devotee of Lord Ranganatha and is identified with Nathamuni, the first of the Sri Vaishnava acharyas. He organised regular classes in which he expounded the import of the "Nalayira Divya Prabandham" and continued the festivals organised by Tirumangai Alvar and made arrangements for the recitation of the 'Nalayiram'.

The contents of the Anbil plates also convey the very strong Vaishnava feelings of Aniruddha - the minister of Parantaka II (955 - 985 AD). He himself recited these hymns, illustrating them with appropriate gestures during the Tirumoli and Tiruvoimoli festivals and trained his two nephews, Kallaiyagattalvan and Melaiyagattalvan to sing and dance during the festivals.

During the regime of the greatest of the Cholas, Raja Raja I (985 - 1014 AD), a gift of gold and a gift of one hundred cows to the temple for daily supply of four 'Nali' of milk to the deity by one of his officers was recorded. It also provided for cattle sheds and grazing fields.

The second Prakara is known as Rajamahendran Veedhi, a prince of the chola dynasty. He is said to have gifted to the Lord a serpent couch with precious gem set. There are in all 105 Chola inscriptions in the temple. Of these, 65 are assignable to Kulottunga I and 14 to the reign of his son, Vikrama Chola between the years 1070 and 1125 AD. Vikrama Chola is also said to have built a gosala and a shrine for Krishna in the North East of the fifth Prakara. He also built a shrine for Rama in the South West and for Nachiyar in the North West. The huge Garuda in the Periatirumandapa fourth enclosure known as "Alinadan Tiruveedhi" was installed during his reign. He was also known as "Akalanka". The fifth enclosure - Akalankan Tiruveedhi was paved during his reign.

It is significant that during the acharya-ship of Sri Ramanuja, numerous benefactions accrued to the temple. Ramanuja completely overhauled the administrative system and saw to it, that great care was exercised in the matter of control of temple affairs and for this purpose - the office of the Senapathi Durandhara was created and charged with the specific duty of superintendence of the temple. Mudali and his descendants held the office with great distinction for almost two centuries.

Kulottunga III and Raja Raja III also continued to bestow care and interest in the temple affairs. They appointed royal personnel as Sri Karyams. Thirteen Srikaryams are mentioned in the inscriptions. During Raja Raja III's reign (1216-1257 AD), the Odras of Orissa were in occupation of the temple for about two years between 1223 and 1225 AD. They were ultimately expelled by the Pandyan force under Mara Varman Sundara Pandya.

The Hoysalas are found to have established themselves at Vikramapuri (Samayapuram). During their reign, the Venugopala shrine - a beautiful specimen of the Hoysala architecture was built.

The benefactions of Jatavarman Sundara Pandya (1251 - 1268 AD) are simply breath-taking. He is said to have covered the Ranga Vimana with gold. He built a shrine for Vishvaksena. He conducted many tulabharas (weighing himself against gold, silver, jewels etc. and gifting them to the temple). He is also said to have built a golden ship for the float festival (Teppattirunal). He erected three golden domes, gifted a garland of emerald, a crown of jewels, a pearl garland and even so many gifts of art of inestimable value and beauty. He also built a shrine for Narasimha on a gopura in the fifth enclosure. He built the 'Amudu Mandapa' which he equipped with golden vessels and many more.

He also appointed his officers as "Srikaryams" who were invested with full authority to administer the temple. It was during his period that the soul stirring lectures on Bhagavat Vishaya were delivered by Nampillai Acharya.

In the year 1311 A.D and again in 1323 A.D, Muslim forces led by Malik Kafur and Ulugh Khan attacked the temple. In the first sack of Srirangam, all the golden gifts made to the temple were carried away but fortunately it did not affect the religious life at Srirangam. But the second sack resulted in fall of the Srirangam Temple in alien hands who used it as a garrison till they were persuaded to leave the temple precincts.

In the raid in 1331 AD, the processional deity itself had to be moved to safety by a band of devotees headed by Pillai Lokacharya. The restoration took place only in 1371 AD with the conquest of the South by the Vijayanagar. During the period from 1331-1371, the Madurai Sultanate exercised jurisdiction over the temple and we find traces of their influence in the temple routine and art.

An inscription in the second Prakara (Raja Mahendran Veedhi) records that 'Gopanna took the image of Ranganatha from Tirupati to Chenji, his capital and after the defeat of the Muslims, restored the image to Srirangam and had it installed with Lakshmi and Bhoodevi'. This reconstruction took place on the 17th of Vaikasi (in the year Paridapi), Saka 1293 (13th May 1371). According to 'Prapannamritam', the inscription in two verses in Sanskrit, were composed by the great Sri Vaishnava acharya, Sri Vedanta Desika who had returned to Srirangam after the self-imposed exile following the Muslim sack and witnessed in great delight the reconsecration. Subsequent to the restoration, Vedanta Desika, settled once again in Srirangam and spent a few years in a quite and peaceful religious pursuit and brought out the famous work 'The Rahasyatrayasara' and dedicated it to Lord Ranganatha.

Gopanna Udayar is said to have donated to the temple through Uttamanambi, 52 villages at an expense of 17,000 gold pieces. Saliva Mangiu, another Vijayanagar General, is said to have gifted to the temple 60,000 madas of gold. A new flag mast was erected in the Aniyarangan court yard in the third enclosure (Kulasekharan Veedhi). The restoration of Srirangam meant, for all practical purposes, the liberation of Tamil Country from the Muslim Yoke and the beginning of a golden era for Vaishnavism.

During the siege, the temple worship had practically ceased, many structures had been wantonly damaged, precious jewels, gold vessels etc. had been removed, the gold plates covering pillars, walls and Vimanams had been peeled off and golden idols carried away. The temple treasury and the granaries were emptied, the jewels and valuables plundered, all the devadana lands having been usurped, the temple was reduced to a state of wretchedness and poverty.

To the credit of the Vijayanagar emperors, it must be said they realised the magnitude of the task of restoring this temple to its pristine glory and in this stupendous task, they were ably and faithfully assisted by the Uttamanambis of Srirangam - one of the most influential families associated with the administration of the temple for long.

There are plenty of inscriptions (254) which throw considerable light on the Vijayanagar hold on the temple. A characteristic feature of these inscriptions are, they contain the saka (year) dates. This was the period which witnessed a spirit of religious enthusiasm and expansion.

A continuous flow of the royalty and high dignitaries from the Empire frequented the temple and made offerings on a lavish scale. Among these distinguished worshippers are Krishnadevaraya, Achutaraya and Sadasivaraya. During this period the subshrine of the Alvars and Acharyas were furnished with a Vimana, Gopura and the mandapas. The construction of the Alagiya-Singar Koil (after clearing the forests) in the East, the erection of the mandapa and the installation of the Hanuman idol and renovation and installation of the Dasavatara images in 1439 AD, a Shrine for Dhanvantri, the Lord of Medicine in the North side of the fourth Prakara and the thousand pillared mandapa are some of the standing monuments that even today testify to the abiding interest of the Vijayanagar rulers.

Some time before the Muslim invasion, the temple stalattars created the office of the Sriranga Narayana Jeeyar - Koora Narayana Jeeyar, being the illustrious first in the line exclusively intended to attend to all details relating to temple rituals and regulate them. Though not hereditary in succession, the Jeeyars have been able to contribute significantly to the preservation of the tradition.

While Vedanta Desika lived, propounded and expounded and wrote in the most troublous and turbulent days (as also Pillai Lokacharya and their associates), Manavala Mamuni whose birth almost coincided with the attaining of mukti of Sri Vedanta Desika, had comparatively a peaceful time when he established himself in Srirangam in 1405 AD. He was able to get over all difficulties that stood in his way of assuming the mantleship of Acharya at Srirangam and he has left a deep impression which lasts until this day.

By about the middle of the 15th Century (i.e., 9th March 1459 AD), Narayana Jeeyar assumed the mantleship of the Ahobila Mutt which was founded in 1398 AD. During his pontificate, Krishnadevaraya was reigning. Through the Jeeyar's intercession, Krishnadevaraya made a provision for taking out the Deity on the 'Jyesta' asterism (the birth star of the First Jeeyar of the Ahobila Mutt) and distributing a share of the prasadams to the disciples of the Satakopa Jeeyar Mutt at Srirangam. This inscription is found in the tiers of veranda on the western side of the second Prakara. This inscription is dated in the year 1517 AD.

The Nayak Viceroys at Tanjore and Madurai having become independent of the Vijayanagar in the middle of the 16th Century, the Srirangam temple attracted their attention and patronage. Achyutappa Nayaka (1580 - 1614) was so passionately devoted to the Lord of Arangam that he abdicated his throne in favour of his son, Raghunatha and retired to Srirangam to spend his time in the midst of devotees and pandits. He is credited with having covered the Vimana with gold afresh and reconstructed some of the outer Prakara walls, Gopurams etc.

The shifting of capital to Tiruchirapalli of the Madurai Nayakas forebode more pleasant times. Vadhoola Desika of Srirangam was adopted as the royal guru and manifold benefactions were made to the temple Vijaranga Chokkanatha (1706-1739) was the most magnificent benefactor. He built the "Vedaparayana Mantapa" in the 3rd enclosure and the 'Kannadi Arai' in the 'Chandra Mandapa'.

Further, it was during the Nayaka period, the ceilings and walls of several mantapas - particularly those on the enclosures surrounding the Nachiyar Shrine and the ceilings in the Dharmavarma Veedhi (Tiruvannali) were painted with scenes from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata etc.

During the period of Nawabs rule, the Carnatic wars broke out as a result of the struggle for power between the English and the French. The temple was once again converted into a fortress but the temple worship was not affected. Hyder Ali occupied the temple for a brief while - in 1781 - while his son took it on 1790, but both pulled out quickly.

The victorious English took over the administration of the Carnatic in 1801. John Wallace was appointed as the Collector of the Tiruchirapalli District and in that capacity assumed the management of the temple. The British Government's direct control of the temple lasted for just about 40 years. On June 12, 1841, the Court of Directors of the East India Company ordered the immediate withdrawal of all interference with native temples and places of religious resort. As an effect of this decision, the first Board of Trustees of the temple was constituted on 7th August 1841, consisting of Vedavyasa Bhattar, Vadhooladesika, Rangachariar, Parasara Bhattar and Utthama Nambi.

Pachaiyappa Mudaliar of Kancheepuram, a well known philanthropist of the 20th Century, made benefactions for feeding Brahmin Pilgrims in the Srirangam temple and for engaging a tutor for teaching English to Hindu boys at Srirangam. The inscription recording this benefaction is on a slab fixed in the 3rd enclosure near the flag staff and a deposit of one lakh varahas was made for this purpose. The Hindu Sabha of (Chennapatnam) Madras was to administer the same.

We also hear of a visit to the temple by one of the greatest musical composers of devotional hymns - Saint Thyagaraja (1767 - 1847). He seems to have come during a 'Brahmotsava'. Being a stranger to the place, he could not go near the horse-vehicle. But the bearers could not move forward. It was soon known that this sudden stoppage of the divine procession had come about because saint Thayaraja could not come near and have darsan. Only after the saint had darsan of the Lord, the procession continued. This incident is echoed in one of his songs "Vinarada na manavi" (won't you heed my appeal?). Later the saint was taken to the main shrine with due honours and he worshipped the Lord in the sanctum all alone - and he dedicated the piece "O Ranga sayee" to Him after this exhilarating experience.

Now the temple management vests with the Hindu Religious and Endowment Board.

Conclusion: We may conclude the brief account with Sri Vedanta Desika's sketch of the temple history.

Rendered in English, it reads as follows.

The Temple or Vimana renowned as Srirangam
The Temple or Vimana gifted to the rulers of Ayodhya by Brahma
The Temple or Vimana where the invincible warrior Rama worshipped
The Temple or Vimana which is the refuge of Vibheeshana
The Temple or Vimana which secures all benefits unattainable elsewhere
The Temple or Vimana which is in the shape of Pranava
The Temple, or Vimana which destroys all sins, that is indeed
The Temple full of nectarine grace which never satisfies.

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Last modified: Tue Apr 13 13:22:24 PDT