‘Thiruvarangam’ is a temple located in Srirangam dedicated to Ranganatha Swamy, a reclining form of Lord Vishnu. It is one amongst the few illustrious temples in South India, dating back to the Sangam era [i], according to the Tamil Literature , and is mentioned in the epic Silappadikaram by Ilango Adigal .
Constructed in the Dravidian style of architecture, Thiruvarangam is one of eight self-manifested shrines of Lord Vishnu and one of the most important 108 main Vishnu temples. Known by several names such as Thiruvaranga Tirupati, Bhoologa Vaikundam, Periyakoil, Bhogamandabam, Thiruvarangam is the first among the Divya Desams [ii] alongside following the Thenkalai [iii] tradition of worship.
According to Divya Prabandha, a collection of 4,000 Tamil verses by twelve Alvars [iv]. There are entirely 108 Vaishnava Divya Desams . Out of them, 105 are located in India, one is in Nepal, and the last two are believed to be outside the Earthly realms.
In India, up to eighty-four of them are in the state of Tamil Nadu, eleven of them are in Kerala, four of them are in Uttar Pradesh, three of them in Uttarakhand, two of them are in Andhra Pradesh, and one in Gujarat.
This first Divya Desam is massive in scale and is spread across 156 acres . It is even the largest functioning temple in the world and is ranked amongst Angkor Wat in Cambodia & Borobudur in Indonesia . Though Angkor Archaeological Park spreads over 40,000 hectares, unlike Sri Ranganatha Swamy Temple, the deity isn’t offered prayers anymore.
Another unique element for Sri Ranganatha Swamy Temple is that around its main shrine, there are seven concentric rectangular enclosures formed by thick rampart walls. Within these enclosures, the inner five enclosures of the complex constitute the temple monuments and shrines, and the outer two enclosures function as the settlement comprising living and commercial areas. These seven rectangular enclosures are called Sapta-Prakaram and these make the temple more of a temple-town than just a temple . Thus, the distinction between the temple and the settlement gets blurred and the temple is often referred to as ‘Srirangam’ .
However, Sri Ranganatha Swamy Temple isn’t the only temple with these enclosures. Meenakshi Temple dedicated to Goddess Parvati in Madurai has four prakarams followed by four concentric rings of settlement. Similarly, Nataraja Temple dedicated to God Shiva in Chidambaram has five prakarams followed by a few concentric rings of settlements . A slight difference is that Madurai and Chidambaram are examples of settlements around a temple while Srirangam has settlements within the temple. It is even considered as the best enclosure based temple-town in Tamil Nadu or arguably the entire world.
Srirangam is also known as the “Temple Island” and the temple complex alone stretches over 156 acres with a perimeter of 4,116 meters. The tremendous site of this gigantic piece of architecture is situated on the island of Srirangam, that is bounded by the Kaveri River and Kollidam River (a tributary of Kaveri).
Covered by rivers on either sides, Srirangam’s Ranganatha Swamy temple has the Sapta-Prakaram design which encompasses the sanctum, gopuram, shrines, pavilions, mandapas, water harvesting systems via temple tanks, and other services with some residential and commercial locations. It has over twenty-one magnificent towers inside all prakaras and the main entrance known as Rajagopuram or the Royal Temple Tower is seventy-three meters high and moves up in eleven progressively smaller tiers.
The settlement planning was done based on the position of the temple and the settlements were within the temple. What makes Srirangam unique and important to an urban historian is the grandness of the vision and the rigour with which Srivaishnava ideology and practice were put in the making of the settlement. The seven concentric enclosures or prakara were taken as the reference for the settlement planning.
Apart from these seven enclosures which spread 129 kilometers and 170 kilometers approximately in the longitudinal and latitudinal axis, rampart walls were added during the medieval times after a few invasions. In these enclosures, the shrines and monuments are located within five enclosures and the last two enclosures have the commercial areas, living areas and other infrastructures. The numerous gopurams or magnificient towers connect the Sapta-Prakaram enclosures allowing the pilgrims to reach the sanctum from multiple directions .
Apart from the seven prakarams with massive walls, the temple complex has 21 very colourful sculpted gopurams (consecrated gateways with towers), 50 sub shrines, 9 sacred pools, gilded Vimana (dome) over the sanctum sanctorum of the presiding deity, and other interesting features such as fresco paintings. The temple is the nucleus and the life of people is centred around it.
Along with Lord Vishnu’s temple, Srirangam also has Lord Shiva as Jambukeshvara and many cave temples like Lalitankura cave temple, Pallava cave temple, Malayadipatti Perumal temple, Buddhist cave temples etc. A few of these cave temples are older than the Ranganatha and Jambukeshvara Swamy temples. The island even has Tiruchirapalli rock fort.
Swamy Ranganatha Temple is not only referred to in the ancient Tamil literature of the Sangam era but is also mentioned through stone inscriptions belonging to the Chola, Pandya, Hoysala and Vijayanagar dynasties who ruled over the region. These inscriptions range between the 9th and 16th centuries and tell various stories about the temple.
For a temple as old as Sri Ranganatha Swamy temple, there would certainly be a lot of unique features. A few of them are:
Under the Vijayanagara Empire, the temple site saw over 200 years of stability, repairs, first round of fortifications and addition of mandapas. The Vishnu and Lakshmi images were reinstalled and the site became a Hindu temple again in 1371 CE under Kumara Kampana, a Vijayanagara commander and the son of Bukka Raya I.
In the last decade of the 14th century, a pillared antechamber [x] was gifted by the Vijayanagara rulers. In the 15th century, they coated the apsidal roofs with solid gold sheets, followed by financing the addition of a series of new shrines, mandapas and gopuras to the temple, according to George Michell.
The temple has witnessed and played a key role in the early Sri Vaishnavism history, particularly the centuries that followed the major Hindu philosopher Ramanuja (1017–1137 AD), and his predecessors Nathamuni and Yamunacharya. It witnessed the debate between the Dvaita (dualistic) and Advaita (non-dualistic) sub-traditions within Vaishnavism. Centuries later, it was a key site in the debate and disagreements between the northern Tamil and southern Tamil traditions, also called as the Vadakalai and Thenkalai. The early rulers such as the Pallavas, Cholas and Pandyas supported it as a hub of the Bhakti movement with a devotional singing and dance tradition, but this tradition stopped during the 14th century and was revived in a limited way, much later.
In modern times, Sri Ranganathaswamy temple has won the UNESCO Asia-Pacific award for cultural heritage conservation programme in the Awards of Merit category. It is the first temple from Tamil Nadu to grab the prestigious honour from the UN body. The traditional method of renovating temple premises as well as re-establishment of rainwater harvesting and historic drainage system in preventing flooding were two key parameters that earned the temple the award.
i. The Sangam Era period was from the sixth century BCE to the third century CE in ancient Tamil Nadu, Kerala and parts of Sri Lanka which were then known as Tamilakam. It was named after the famous Sangam academies of poets and scholars who were centered in the city of Madurai.
ii. Divya means divine and Desam indicates place or abode.
iii. Accepting Prapatti or surrender as the only means to attain salvation.
iv. Alvars are saints.
v. Temple records of Srirangam Temple.
vi. Tamil name for Lord Vishnu’s idol.
vii. Small devoted place.
viii. Considered to be Ranganatha Swamy’s consort.
ix. Muslim princess, daughter of Malik Kafur.
x. An antechamber is a smaller room serving as an entryway into a larger one.