The following day ( day 3 of our visit), we headed off to do a pilgrimage of the nine temples for Vishnu in the area surounding Tirunelveli. Collectively called “Nava Tirupathi”, these nine temples form an important part of Lord Vishnu’s Divya Desams or Holy Abodes.
The first , and most significant temple in this group is Sri Vaikuntam. This is an ancient and extremely beautiful temple situated on the banks of the river Tambiraparani. We arrived very early in the morning and, as we were waiting for the temple priest to open the sanctum, we took a tour around the surrounding mandapams/ courtyards. The pillars abound in rich decorations. Mythical beasts, warriors, dancing damsels, animals, and birds have been crafted with great ingenuity and the temple tower with its intricately carved figures soars high, a beautiful sight viewed from afar, set amidst the lush green fields and borderd by the river.
Lord Vishnu gives his darshan here as Lord Kallapiraan, standing regally under the hood of Adi Seshan.
The story here is that a thief ( Kallan), was in the habit of donating half of his ill- gotten gains to the Lord. One day, he was caught by the King’s soldiers and as he was going to be punished, Lord Vishnu makes his presence felt to both the King as well as devotee.
The Nava Tirupathi temples are also believed to represent the power of the nine planets- Nava grahas.
Sri Vaikuntam represents the abode of Surya ( sun).
The second temple stop was at Alwar ThiruNagari.
This temple is perhaps most well known since it was the birth place of one of the foremost vaishnavaite saints, Nammazhwar.
Lord Vishnu is called Adi Naadan/ Gnana Piran/ Varaha Perumal. He is seen in a standing posture facing east along with his two consorts. It is believed that the Lord’s feet are actually below the ground at this sacred temple.
The highlight at this temple is the shrine of Nammazhwar and the tamarind tree under which he is supposed to have sat in Samadhi for sixteen years.
The story goes that a child was born to devout parents at Thirukkurugoor. However, this was an unique child since he never spoke, neither did he eat food. In desperation, his parents who were devotees of Lord Adi Natha, left him in the temple near a tree. For 16 years, the boy remained with his eyes closed in deep meditation, until one day an elderly brahmin sage came upon him. This sage was MadhuraKavi, a great bhaktha of the Lord. He was on pilgrimage to holy places when he was led by a shining star to the temple at Tirukkurugoor. To his amazement, Madhura Kavi observed the glowing light to disappear inside this holy child.
Finally, Nammazhwar came out of his trance and during his short life of 33 years, produced some of the most devotional poems in Vaishnavaite liturgy.
The tamarind tree he sat under still exists. This tree is unique because it bears no fruit and the leaves do not close even at dusk!
There is no doubt that the saint Nammazhwar was indeed an incarnation of the Lord, and even today the saint’s importance is revealed once a year as all the images of the Lord from the Nava Tirupathis come to pay their respects to Nammazhwar, mounted on their respective Garudans. This Garuda Sevai is a very important feature at Alwar Tirunagari. The temple here is synonymous with the worship of Guru or preceptor, among the Navagrahas.
The third temple on our particular tour was Thirukkollur. This is represented as Mars or Angarakan, among the nine planets.
Here, the Lord is in his Bhujanga Sayanam- reclining posture, with his head supported by his left hand. The story here is that Lord Kubera, the God of wealth (Nidhi), lost all his Nava Nidhis due to a curse and regained them only after propitiating the Lord here.
This holy spot is doubly sacred as the birth place of the saint Madhura Kavi.
Then Thirupperai was our next stop. The Lord is in a seated posture here along with consorts and is believed to bestow prosperity and good fortune to his sincere devotees. The planet Sukra is associated with this temple.
With the exception of Sri Vaikuntam and Alwar Thirunagari, the rest of the Nava Tirupathis are fairly small temples, scattered in the vicinity of the river Tambiraparani and situated mostly on the Tirunelveli to Tiruchendur route.
Periankullam was no exception. At this temple Lord Srinivasa graces his devotees in the standing posture. nHe is also known as Mayakoothan owing to the fact that he slew a demon and then danced on top of him. The planet Saturn is associated with this holy spot.
Irattai Tirupathi or the twin temples called Tirupathi were next on our itinery. These temples are located in a remote area accessible by a dirt road. However, the scenery and landscape enroute is breathtaking with lakes and marshland interspersed among fertile fields.
At these two temples consecrated to the planets, Rahu and Kethu, Lord Srinivasa as Devapiraan ( in the standing posture), and Lord Aravindalochanan ( in the seated posture) bless the pilgrims. The story here is that two devotees of the lord, Thullai( literally meaning
balancing scale) and Villi,( bow) who were under a curse were freed by the saint Atreya, resulting in the manifestation of the Lord at these respective holy sites. Thulai became a woman and Villu, a man. It is believed they regained their natural form after having been locked up as a scale and bow respectively, under a curse.
At Thirupulliangudi, a Budhan Stalam, the Lord is recling in his Bhujanga sayanam. A single stalk emerges from his navel and seems to reach up to the lotus , upon which is enthroned Lord Brahma. The holy feet of the Lord is visible through a small side- window. This holy spot is sacred for removing sins of the worshippers. Lord Indra was supposed to have propitiated the Lord here to remove the Brahma Hatya Dosham ( sin from killing a brahmin), at this temple.
Finally, at Natham, a temple enshrines Lord Varagunamangai Perumal and his consort. Widely believed to represent the deity Chandran ( moon) among the nine planets, this temple and the moolavar is believed to have come into existence after a devout brahmin called Vedavit performed austerities and penance to get a vision of the Lord.
Our tour of the Nava Tirupathis allowed a fantastic insight into the rituals and practices carried out in Vaishnavaite temples. In addition, we had been fortunate to see some of the oldest and remotest temples reknowned for their breathtaking architecture and powerful legends.
On the evening of the third day, we carried on to visit three temples in the vicinity of Tirunelveli. These were at Palamadai , Sepparai and the famous
Palamadai is the ancestral home of my father-in-law’s family. The village itself is rather nondescript, with just one main road flanked by a few huts. There is a small temple on the edge of this little village and this is where we headed first.
The goddess Mangala Nayaki or Mangalambikai is the principal deity, an incarnation of Parvathi and the consort of Lord Shiva. The temple priest seemed delighted to hear that my husband’s family were descendents of the esteemed family tree that stretches back to Appaya Dikshitar and his son Neelakanta Dikshitar. The latter was the chief minister to the Nayak King of
We paid respects at the Samadhi of Neelakanta Dikshitar and then took the priest along with us in the car as we headed to the next temple at Sepparai.
Many of the temples in the remote villages of Tirunelvelli remain closed as there is hardly any pilgrim traffic and it was fortuitous that we had called ahead and established whether the temple was indeed open for visitors.
The temple at Sepperai is quite big and is dedicated to Lord Shiva as Nataraja. There is a beautifully sculpted image here of Lord Shiva in his dance pose.
The main deity is Lord Nelliappar and his consort is the divinely beautiful Kanthimathi.
The story here is that Lord Shiva wished to test the devotion of one of his ardent followers, Vedapattar. He made the poor brahmin suffer a lord of hardships in life. One day, Vedapattar left a small amount of paddy ( his only source of food for the day) at the temple while he went to bathe in the nearby river.
At this time it started to pour with rain and the poor bhaktha rushed inside the temple in an attempt to save his food ( paddy- Nellu).
To his amazement he saw that the spot where the paddy was left remained dry as if protected in an enchanted circle , while rain continued to pour around it!
It was all a play or Lila of the Lord who henceforth became known as Nelliappar ( one who saved the paddy).
The Nelliappar temple is also famous for containing one of the five great dancing halls of Shiva, the Tamra Sabha or Hall of Copper.
This mandapam or hall is richly decorated with wood work and is said to house the idol of Lord Nataraja and his consort Sivagami during the auspicious Arudra festival in the month of Margazhi ( December).
An enormous, white Nandi made of Shell, guards the entrance to the inner sanctum.
We wandered through the vast temple complex admiring the finely sulpted stone images and frescoes.
It was rather late in the evening when we finally, and reluctantly, left this wonderful temple. We had barely set off in the car when there was a loud noise and all the lights in both the temple and the surrounding streets were completely put out!
I heaved a sigh of relief and thanked the lord sincerely for having allowed us to complete our pilgrimage without interruptions!
On the fourth day of our pilgrimage, we visited the
It is perhaps with good reason that this temple is called the Bhoolokha Vaikunta of Lord Vishnu. At Nanguneri, the Lord is seated on a throne, one leg folded under him and the other leg touching the ground. He is alongside his two consorts, Bhoo Devi and Shri DEVI under a canopy of the thousand hooded serpent, Adi Seshan.
Thotaadri Naadan, as he is called here, the great Lord is believed to have manifested himself in this temple or appeared of his own accord. This temple is one of eight such “ Swayamvyaktha Kshetrams”. Some of the other places where the Lord has appeared on his own accord include the famous temples at Sri Rangam, Tirupathi, SRI Mushnam, Naimisaranyam, etc.
The story for this special appearance of the Lord at Nanguneri is as follows:
Once, Lord Brahma found himself seated on a lotus flower at the top of a very long stem. He looked all around to see how he had come into existence, but could not spot anyone . Brahma looked down below to see the origin of the lotus stem, but could not fathom how deep it went. All around him swirled the waters of the ocean. So, in his ignorance, Brahma thought He was the original creator of the universe and this made him exceedingly proud. Now, all this while, Lord Vishnu had been resting in divine slumber in the depths of the ocean on his serpent bed. When he realised that Brahma’s ego had become immense and had to be quelled, he planned to teach him a lesson. Two demons, Madhu and Kaitaba were sent to threaten Brahma and to steal his knowledge. Brahma, suddenly found himself berefit of all his powers and bowed to the Supreme Lord in submission, having realised his fault. He appealed to Vishnu for help in defeating these two demons.
It was here at Tirukkurungudi that the Lord finally vanquished the asuras after a fight lasting 5,000 years. The asuras were puffed up with pride that Maha Vishnu was unable to defeat them! The Lord, however, used their foolishness and pride to his advantage. He feigned submission and craved for a boon from them. The demons assented, their intellect dimmed by the veil of pride and ignorance. As a boon, Lord Vishnu requested the asuras that He should be the one to slay them. He asked them where they would like to die! Observing that the whole universe was submerged in water, the two demons said that Lord Vishnu could only slay them on a dry spot.
Instantly, the Lord’s size grew bigger and bigger until it obtained the Vishwa Roopam, transcending the earth and heavens above. He plucked the two demons and crushed them to death against his own thigh ( which was dry). Thus goes the legend. However, after they were killed, a few droplets of the demons’ blood fell on the ground where Bhoo Devi was performing penance. The goddess appealed to her consort to purify the spot where she had been praying and this resulted in the self- manifestation of the Lord at Nanguneri.
The main feature at the Nanguneri temple is the Thaila Kappu ( ablution with oil) that is done every day to the deity. The residue of this oil runs along a narrow gutter into a massive oil well outside the precincts. It is widely believed that the ingestion of this oil is bound to produce miraculous cures for various ailments.
I looked into the deep recesses of this oil well. All I could see were a few dead cockroaches floating on top of a thick, slimy, green mess. I shuddered in disgust, yet dutifully took a spoonful of this oil when it was offered to me by the priest. It would have appeared rude to have refused it. However, much to my surprise, I found that no foul smell emanated from the oil. I took a few drops of this viscous liquid and applied it on my head.
As we were leaving this temple , the priest who had been our tour guide , turned to me and said “ You should also make a trip to the famous town of
Despite protests from our escort that a visit here would completely wreck the itinery for the day ( we had intended to visit Nagercoil, Suchindram and Kanya Kumari), I decided firmly to proceed to Tirukkurungudi.
The Perumal in Tirukkurungudi is called “Nambi”. There are five different Perumal Sannidhis around this area, three of them within the temple and two situated nearby.
There are in general, several postures taken by the Lord in his 108 abodes.
He is called either:
Nindraan ( one who stands),
Irundhaan( one who sits),
Kidandhaan( one who is lying down),
And, Nadandhaan ( one who walks).
At Tirukkurungudi, the Lord can be seen in the three poses as, Nindran ( Vadivazhagiya Nambi); Kidandha Nambi and Irundha Nambi.
There is a small mandapam directly opposite the entrance to the temple and this is where we went first.
This was a fairly large hall supported by many pillars, each beautifully carved, depicting deities, dancing girls and animals. What struck me as extremely odd and unnatural was the fact that these sculptures appeared almost life-like. There was a smiling Manmathan ( Cupid), facing his lover ( Rathi). There were a few ferocious looking gypsies and demi- gods. All of them seemed to be observing me with real interest. I could not shake off the eerie feeling that these figures were somehow imbued with power--- the power of coming alive at will!
While I had been examining these sculptures, our escort brought in the temple priest. A very knowledgeable man, this priest proceeded to be our tour guide for the temple. I couldn’t help asking him about my fears. Was it my imagination or were these sculptures powerful?
The priest smiled and said “Why , of course, there is a story behind these sculptures. The artist who carved these images did such a good job that when he finished, many of the images started coming to life. They were demi-gods, trapped in an astral plane and when they started to make contact with normal humans, this caused a lot of mental afflictions to the people of this village. So, as a remedy, it was decided to disfigure each of these lovely images, just a tiny bit so that the power of these heavenly attendants could be contained. A finger or toe was chipped off; little details were mutilated to prevent the re occurrence of these images coming alive”. The priest concluded his amazing story.
So, my intuitive feelings had been right after all!
Without being conciously aware, it appeared that my powers of perception were being strengthened. Whenever I looked at some of the statues in the temples, they seemed to converse with me. This phenomena had been occuring slowly as I began visiting more temples. However, I had always brushed it aside, not wishing to dwell upon what I considered to be “tricks of my imagination”. More on this later!
We walked into the main sanctum. There are many colorful legends associated with this
It is also said that the Lord saved Ramanuja from his enemies at this temple.
In the main sanctum is a beautiful, painted statue of Vadivazhagiya Nambi, in the standing posture with his two consorts standing on either side.
The idol is beautiful and the lotus eyes of the lord seemed to be smiling and extending his blessings as we walked in. There are two other Nambis in this temple, in the seated and reclining posture.
As we circumambulated the inner courtyard, we came across a small shrine to Bhairavar( an aspect of Lord Shiva). Bhairavar is usually regarded as a guardian deity in most Shiva temples. However, this was a predominantly Vaishnavaite temple. I was a bit puzzled. Our guide explained. “You see the square, empty space just in front of the Irundha Nambi Sannidhi?. Well, there used to be a Shiva Lingam there. However, the people who were in chrge of the renovation works, decided to move the Shiva Linga to a separate shrine outside the temple. That was when things started to happen. There were several catastrophes that affected our village. There was a period of relentless rains that caused flooding and great damage to the houses. Finally, a decision was taken by the temple authorities to bring the Shiva linga back and place it inside the temple. There is a separate room where we have placed this lingam inside a mound of paddy. This is believed to contain the wrath of Shiva.”
Our guide paused. “ Now, this Bhairavar is also very upset at the sequence of events and his power has magnified several- fold , as a consequence. Do pray to him if you are looking for solutions to problems, etc. He will help you”.
I stood in front of the small shrine to Lord Bhairsvar. This was a tall statue of a naked lord wielding his weapon, the trident. A timid dog stood curled around his legs. The gloom of the small room was pierced by the glow of three small flames flickering one below the other . Suspended on a single brass chain were three small lamps. All three lamps were lit. However, I noticed that the first lamp seemed to be hanging almost in line with the nose of the figure. This flame seemed to jerk around violently in all directions as if there was a draught of air inside the room. Curiously enough the flames of the two lamps suspended directly below the first one remained still and steady without the faintest movement.
The priest explained”You see , the top flame is flickering because Bhairavar is breathing. He is alive in this shrine.” He continued “There have been many miracles and stories associated with this deity. I have had innumerable personal experiences. Just pray hard. He will reach out to you”
There was no mistaking the sincerity of the priest. He stood for a long time in front of this little shrine, just looking at the God within. Then, he fell down to prostrate the Lord, legs and hands stretched out in a manner of total Sharanaagathi or Surrender.
I looked at the face of Lord Bhairavar. Indeed, He seemed totally alive! His eyes seemed to bore into mine. I stared transfixed, unable to keep my eyes off his face. After a while, I could hear him speak. “ I am going to strike a deal with you. I know your husband has financial problems and debt. I will help him to solve these problems. However, if I help you, I expect you to do something for me as well.
Perform a puja for me on the 8th day of the waning lunar cycle and decorate my body with a dress of flowers; If you pray sincerely, I shall help you. Once your husband gets rid of all his financial problems, you should donate generously to temples and give money readily for religious causes. This is your new purpose in life”.
I realised that this conversation was not a mere figment of my imagination. So, I went up to the priest, explained what had just passed and asked him if I could perform a special puja for this Lord.
It was no great surprise for me to hear that the Thei Pirai Ashtami ( 8th day of the waning moon), was indeed sacred to this particular Lord. The shirt/ dress of flowers was important in order to appease him and it appeared that his favourite food was a special type of Vadai made in ghee.
I was also informed that at the start of the puja, a coconut would be split into halves and each hollow half was to function as a lamp by placing in a wick and filling the coconut halves with ghee. The object was to keep the flame going in these improvised lamps for a period of three hours without allowing it to die out. Success in any undertaking or project was sure to be guaranteed if this could be done.
As I was leaving the temple, I gave the particulars ( i.e. the name, gothram and birth star) for my husband and paid the money for the puja. I was told that April 10th was the Ashtami day, when the puja would be performed. The priest said that any puja would bear full fruit only if the intended beneficiary ( my husband) was present. I knew this was not going to be feasible since my husband had just gone back to
Then, after a moment’s hesitation, something made me say to the priest “I am not really sure if this bargain that Bhairavar made with me is really true. I might have just imagined it all. I wish I could get some guidance or signal from him”.
I hardly finished saying these words when the temple bells suddenly broke out into a joyous peal!
The priest raised his folded palms over his head “ There’s your signal. He wants you to return”.
I left Thirukkurungudi with mixed feelings. I couldn’t help remembering the words of Bhairavar. They seemed to go through my mind in waves. I hadn’t really planned on coming to this temple today. Somehow, it seemed I had been guided here for a purpose.
Exiting the temple, we visited the shrine of PaarKadal Nambi , a few kilometres down the road. Here, the Lord’s image seemed extraordinarily beautiful, covered with a gold Kavacham, as he stood and greeted his devotees.
The drive up the small hill seemed to jolt every bone in my body. After about half an hour of driving, we reached the abode of Thirumalai Nambi or Malai Mel Nambi, as he is called here.
A crystal clear river meandered slowly on one side of the temple. We waded in to wash our feet and the water felt icy cold and lovely on that blisteringly hot day!
The Malai Mel Nambi represented the Lord in his standing posture. We learnt that the priests who perform puja climb up this hill, arduously, each day , carrying flowers and the cooked prasadam to offer the Lord.
This showed real dedication and commitment to serve the lord!
With a sigh of satisfaction from having successfully completed our visit to all the five Nambis, we took leave of the priest and continued our journey, headed in the direction of Nagercoil, to the south.
As we pulled away, little did I dream that I would be re- visiting this place within the month, accompanied by my husband!
At Nagercoil, we had a late lunch and after a short rest, proceeded to the famous temple for the Snake King, Lord Nagarajan. The town derives its name from word Naga or snake and the temple is built on a sacred spot where a self- manifested idol of a five- hooded serpent was found. The hallowed place was also once a Jain temple, thousands of years ago. Many miracles are associated with this temple and the sand surrounding the snake-pit , in the main sanctum is expected to cure illnesses.
We jostled among the crowds to get a closer look at the main deity. The sanctum is very small, with an extremely low ceiling. Peering inside, I could see the two ruby- red eyes of the snake- king, glisten in the dim light!
We were soon off to see the imposing and lovely
Another architectural delight, the soaring temple tower, and the sculptural richness of this temple is a true feast for the eyes. It seemed as though all the master craftsmen of the Chola, Chera, Pandya , Pallava and Nayak dynasties had left their indelible marks in the statues, and intricate stone carvings.
The main sanctum is dedicated to the Trimurthis, Lord Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. A single stone lingam represents THANU ( SHIVA) MAAL(VISHNU) AYAN(BRAHMA). Hence, this temple is the abode of Lord Thanumalayan! Or the holy Trinity.
The legend here is that once the great sage Atri left his ashram to go away to the
Immediately the three great lords were converted into beautiful babies whom Anasuya gathered close to her bosom, fondled with motherly love and fed!
The babies remained at the ashram being nourished by Anasuya for a long time until the consorts of Vishnu Shiva and Brahma prayed Anasuya for their return.
The three Gods, in turn, realised the true devotion and sincerity of Anasuya and prayed to her and Atri so that they could indeed be born to them as children.
And so, it came to pass that three beautiful sons, Chandra, Dattatreya and Durvasa were born to Atri and Anasuya.
Here in Suchindram, they reside in the Trimurthi form as Sthaanumalayan.
The name Suchindram is itself interesting as it reveals another story of how Lord Indra was absolved of his sins and made pure. Suchi means Pure and Indra stands for the Lord of the Heavens. The story is that Lord Indra , in the guise of a mendicant, once entered the hermitage of the Saint Gautama. Indra was really, only seeking out the beautiful Ahalya, Gautama’s wife. So, one day, when Gautama had gone for his ritual bath in the river, Indra in the form of a sanyasi , entered the ashram and managed to seduce Ahalya. However, the pair were caught and punished by the sage on his return from the river. Ahalya was turned into a stone and told she would receive liberation only when Lord Rama blessed her. Indra was cursed with continuous sorrow and defeat at the hands of his enemies.
It was at Suchindram that Indra was finally relieved of his guilt for violating Ahalya.
We wandered around the temple relishing these stories and marvelling at the sculptures. An interesting shrine to Lord Vinayaka in his female form of Vainayaki is tucked away in this enormous temple complex.
The main attraction at Suchindram is of course, the gigantic stone image of Hanuman. Standing over 3 metres in height, this great Rama Bhaktha exudes peace and tranquility as he stands, with an attitude of total devotion in front of a small sanctum enshrining Lord Rama, and Sita.
There is yet another story associated with this interesting temple. It was from Suchindram that Lord Shiva was about to proceed to wed his consort, Parvathi, as the virgin girl, Kanya Kumari. Naradha, the great sage had fixed the mid night hour for the wedding. However, as the wedding procession was on its way, a rooster crowed, too early, by mistake. Thinking that dawn was breaking and the auspicious hour was past, Shiva returned to Suchindram leaving his bride still waiting for him at Kanyakumari. It is said that all the food that had been prepared for the wedding feast lay uneaten and over time turned into the multi colored sand and pebbles that one can still find on the rocky beach at
This is where we headed next.
The evening was already well advanced by the time we reached this powerful Shakthi Peet.
We raced inside to catch a glimpse of this beautiful goddess before the temple closed for the evening.
The atmosphere inside was definitely charged with an invisible force. I walked along slowly, with a crowd of people towards the main sanctum. Then, suddenly, the people ahead of me seemed to melt away and there she was, this glowing image of a young Baala Tripurasundari, standing right in front of me!
The black granite statue of the goddess seemed extremely alive and it seemed that I could connect almost immediately with the beautiful aura surrounding her. T he famous diamond nose ornament she wore dazzled with an unsurpassed brilliance as the camphor was lit. I left the shrine with the image of this evening arathi embedded in my mind.
I did a circumambulation of this sacred shrine and then came out into the warm night .
A light breeze was wafting from the ocean and I could see the twinkling lights of the distant Vivekananda Memorial in the middle of the sea.
We drove back , exhausted, yet happy , towards Tirunelvelli. The following morning we would catch the flight from
This trip was taken during March 21st to 26th of 2007.