Sundararaja Perumal’s lotus face
Twenty one kilometers north-east of Madurai on a picturesque wooded hill amidst panoramic surroundings resides Lord Vishnu, Kallazhagar Perumal, the brother of Goddess Meenakshi. Azhagar Kovil is situated on the foothills of Azhagar Hills or Solaimalai, surrounded by the ruins of an ancient fortified town.
According to legend, When Lord Vishnu manifested the Vishvarupa in His Vamana avatara and raised His foot, Lord Brahma performed padapuja with the Ganga water in heaven. Some of the water drops splashed over the anklet of Lord Vishnu, fell on the earth at Azhagar Hills and still exists as a lake. This water body is known as Nupura Ganga (nupura means anklet in Sanskrit) or silambaru (in Tamil).
Once, while Sage Suthapas was bathing in Nupura Ganga at Azhagar Hill, he failed to pay heed to Maharishi Durvasa who was passing by. The enraged Maharishi Durvasa cursed Sage Suthapas that he would turn into a frog, until he was redeemed of the curse by Lord Sundararajar, who is also known as Kallazhagar (the Lord of Azhagar Kovil).
Because of this curse, Sage Suthapas came to be known as Manduka Maharishi (manduka means frog in Sanskrit). The sage began to perform penance on the banks of river Vaigai, which is otherwise known as Vegavathi, at Thenur near Madurai, not far from Azhagar Kovil.
Sundararaja Perumal on the way to Nupura Ganga
According to legend, Lord Kallazhagar came riding on a golden horse to Madurai from Azhagar Kovil to participate in the celestial wedding ceremony of His sister Goddess Meenakshi (Goddess Parvathy) and Lord Sundareshwar (Lord Shiva).He arrived late and as He reached the river Vaigai, He was informed that the wedding ceremony was over. He was furious and decided to return home to Azhagar Kovil.
However He changed His plan and decided to visit Goddess Meenakshi and Lord Sundareshwar to bless them. He presented them with the gifts that He brought with Him from Azhagar Kovil and blessed them. On His way back to Azhagar Kovil, Lord Kallazhagar heard the prayers of Sage Suthapas and was immensely pleased. He went to where Sage Suthapas was and blessed him to regain his original form. Upon getting his original form, Manduka Maharishi requested Lord Kallazhagar to show him His Dashavatara (the ten avataras of Lord Vishnu). Lord Kallazhagar, being very happy, revealed to the sage His divine Dashavatara and blessed him.
Lord in Matsya, Kurma and Vamana alankara
It is believed that Lord Kallazhagar came to Thenur to attend the wedding via Malaipatti, Alanganallur and Vayalur.
The Mahabharata says that this temple was visited by both Yudhisthira and Arjuna.
Andal and Kallazhagar Perumal
Andal is the incarnation of the goddess Sri Mahalakshmi, the consort of Lord Vishnu, and is one of the 12 Alwars. She wanted to marry Lord Sri Ranganatha (Lord Vishnu) of Srirangam, without knowing the birth secret of Her incarnation. She often used to make the garland for Lord Vishnu and had garlanded Him with flowers and her songs. She and her father Periyalwar (also one of the 12 Alwars) often visited Azhagar Kovil and sang paasurams about the hill and Azhagar.
Sundararajar as a hunter
Sri Andal, prayed to offer akkara adisil (sweet milk rice) to Lord Kallazhagar of Azhagar Kovil temple, if her desire to marry Sri Mahavishnu of Sri Rangam would be fulfilled. Though she attained her desire of marrying the Lord of Srirangam, she could not perform her promised offerings. Later, Sri Ramanuja, the incarnation of Adishesha or Anantha, came to Azhagar Kovil on the 27th day of the Tamil month Margazhi and performed offerings of akkara adisil on Andal’s behalf. Every year, this is remembered by performing the offerings on the 27th day of the Tamil month Margazhi.
Lord Kallazhagar and Sri Andal of Srivilliputtur have a divine relationship. As a mark of this, even today a garland adorned by Sri Andal comes from Srivilliputtur (birthplace of Andal) during Chithirai festival. Wearing this garland, Lord Kallazhagar enters River Vaigai in His Kuthirai vahana (horse vehicle).
Ramanuja and Kallazhagar Perumal
In the time of Sri Ramanujacharya, his glories spread far and wide. Along with this, grew the number of enemies, i.e. the people who became jealous of Sri Ramanujacharya. At that time, the Chola king who was influenced by certain groups, ordered Sri Ramanujacharya to be brought to his court. Understanding the king’s plan, Koorathalwar, one of the chief disciples of Sri Ramanujacharya, immediately rushed back to the matha in Srirangam and requested Sri Ramanujacharya and the others to move away to some safer place. Though not interested in moving, Sri Ramanujacharya had to oblige his adamant disciples. When the soldiers came to the matha, Koorathalwar was dressed up as Ramanujacharya. Mistaken, they took him along with Sri Mahapurna, (Periya Nambi), the diksha acharya of Sri Ramanujacharya, to the royal court in Gangaikonda Cholapuram. At the court, the King presented a written declaration which read, “Nothing higher than Shiva exists," and commanded them both to affix their signatures to it without protest. But both of them refused and argued the supremacy of Lord Vishnu, quoting from the Vedas, Upanishads and various other holy texts.
Lord Sundararajan with His consorts
At some point, the king became furious and ordered their eyes be gouged out. On hearing the order, Koorathalwar replied that he did not need the eyes which have seen a sinner like the king, and he blinded himself. The eyes of Mahapurna were also gouged out by the soldiers and they were sent away from the court. The old Sri Mahapurna died on the way to Srirangam.
Sri Ramanujacharya meanwhile had moved to Melkote in Karnataka along with his disciples and established Vaishnavism there with the support of the local king. After a turbulent period of over 12 years, Sri Ramanujacharya returned to Srirangam and the old friends reunited. Ramanujacharya was very sad to hear of the mournful incident. Sri Ramanujacharya asked Koorathalwar to go to Azhagar Kovil and pray for his eyesight. Sri Koorathalwar who had no desire for eyesight, was obliged to obey the orders of his acharya. Sri Koorathalwar got back his eyesight in Azhagar Kovil, by composing Sundararajastavam, a hymn in praise of Sri Kallazhagar.
Kallazhagar in the temple with His consorts
Legend has it that the Somasundara Vimanam, also known as the Somaskanda Vimanam or the Somachanda Vimanam was designed by Vishwakarma. This shrine was built by Dharma Deva, upon whose request Vishnu took this place as His permanent abode.
The devotees take bath in the Nupura Ganga to wash away their sins. This water tastes sweet and has medicinal values. Bath in Nupura Ganga during full moon, new moon and Dwadashi are considered sacred.
The Deities, the temple precincts and the pond of this temple have been described in Varaha Purana, Brahmanda Purana, Vamana Purana, and Agni Purana clearly.
Azhagar Hills and Azhagar Kovil have been highlighted in the Valmiki Ramayana and Veda Vyasa's Mahabharatha. Vyasa quoted in the Mahabharatha, that Yudhishthira came here when the Pandavas had been banished from the kingdom for 12 years. In Bhagavatam, Balarama, the incarnation of Lord Vishnu, had reached Virushapathiri (Azhagar Kovil), and had gone to Sethu (Rameshwaram), when on His pilgrimage.
The moolavar (main Deity) here is Azhagar/ Paramaswamy, in a standing posture facing east. The utsavar (processional Deity) is called Azhagar and also Sundararajan. This beautiful Deity is made of pure gold and is a fine example of craftsmanship of the ancient period. In the topmost right hand, He has Prayoka Chakram (the chakra that is going to be used). Both the moolavar and utsavar are found along with the pancha aayutham (5 weapons) namely the shanka, chakra, vaal or sword, kodanda (bow) and gadha or mace, in their hands. There are also utsavars of Kalyana Sundaravalli Thayar, Andal, Sridevi and Bhoodevi.
Lord in horse carrier
The vimanam (roof of the sanctum sanctorum) is called as Somachanda Vimanam and is fully gold plated. Azhagar is considered to be the tutelary Deity of the Kallar tribe of this region, hence the name Kallazhagar.
Thayar (Mahalakshmi) in Azhagar Kovil is called Kalyana Sundaravalli. The shrine of Kalyana Sundaravalli, the divine consort of Azhagar, is in the southern enclosure. As the Thayar has a separate shrine, she is also called Thanikkovil Thayar.
There is another shrine in the north dedicated to Andal who visited this place with Periyalwar from Srivilliputtur. Other important shrines are those of Sudarshana and Yoga Narasimha. Sudarshana or Sudarshana-chakra is about 2,000 years old and only once a year the door of the shrine is opened. Sri Yoga Narasimha is in sitting posture.
Karuppannaswamy, the God of Kallars and the finely carved eighteen steps are held in great reverence by the devotees. It is claimed that nobody will dare tell a lie at this spot.
The hill by the side of the temple is about 300 metres high and is famous for its holy springs called Silambaru and Nupura Gangai. According to local tradition, this spring is said to have originated from the anklets of Mahavishnu during His incarnation as Thrivikrama. The 3 kms path on the hillock to the summit, where bathing facilities are available, offers some beautiful natural scenery to the visitors. Taking a holy bath in this water is said to fulfill the desires of the people and so it is also called ishta siddhi. In Silappadikaram there is a mention of three springs found in this hill namely Shravanam, Bhavatharani and Istha Siddhi.
The hill nearby resembles the shape of a cow, and hence the name Vrishabhadri. The temple is surrounded by two forts, the outer one being Azhagapuri and the inner one Hiranyapuri. The southern gateway to the fort, the Hiranyakottai vaasal is the main entrance. The Thirumalai Nayakar Mantapam is a grand structure while the Anna Vahana Mantapam has sculptures depicting scenes from the Puranas. The Kalyana Mantapam has life-size images of Narasimha, Krishna, Garuda, Manmatha, Rathi, Trivikrama and Lakshmi Varaha. The flagstaff here is gold plated. The Aryan Mantapam houses Yalis with non-removable stone balls in their mouths.
This temple is called as Dakshina Thirupathi. Azhagar also gives His seva in the same nindra thirukkolam on the foot hill (malaiyadi vaaram) of Azhagar Malai.
Other names for Azhagar Kovil are Thirumaliruncholai, Uthiyana Sailam, Vanagiri, Vrishabadhri, Solaimalai.
Other names of Azhagar hills are Thirumaliruncholai, Uthiyana Sailam, Solaimalai, Malirunkundrum, Irunkundrum, Vanagiri, Virushapathiri.
The Alwar Period
Alwars are the 12 disciples of Lord Vishnu from the 8th century. They have praised this hill and its wealth, and have described this temple as the southern Thirupathi. In their hymns they have praised the place, the Lord and the pond.
Out of 12 Alwars, six of them, namely Periyalwar, Andal, Thirumangaiyalwar, Bootathalwar, Peyyalwar, Nammalwar had praised the hill and Lord Azhagar in 128 hymns.
When Srirangam had been looted by the Mohammedans, in order to save the Deity, a fierce devotee called Pillai Lokachariyar (one of the main acharyas in the Sri Vaishnava disciplic succession) had taken the Deity in a palanquin and travelled to a safe place towards the south. On the way, Pillai Lokachariyar left to the abode of Lord Vishnu at the place called Jodishkudi. His followers took the Deity safely to Thirmaliruncholai (Azhagar Kovil) and kept the Deity in a well. This well which protected the Deity is called Alagiya Manavalan Thirukinaru. All the religious rites were performed to the Deity inside the well. Thus for more than a year, Thiru Arangan of Srirangam had stayed in Azhagar Malai. Then the Deity of Thiru Arangan was taken to some other places in Kerala and at last after 60 years, in 1370, the He returned safely to Srirangam.
Recent Historical Period
At the origin of the Pandyan kingdom, Azhagar Kovil and Alagapuri were already present .The temple was situated within the castle wall of Alagapuri. Both the temple and Alagapuri were once considered as the same in social and religious life. At first both of these were said to be constructed by the deity of justice and Vishwakarma, the celestial architect, and were later renovated by the Pandyan king Malaithuvaja Pandyan, who was the son of the founder of the Pandyan dynasty, Kulashekara Pandyan.
The Periyalwar Puranam mentions that there was a big wall around the temple, and now we can see the ruins of this big wall here and there. The length of the wall was said to be more than 1.5 km. Apart from the Pandyan kings, other kings of the Cholas, of Sri Lanka, of the Vaanars, Hoysalas and the Vijayanagara Nayaks also engaged themselves in religious services here. At last the patronage was handed over to the East Indian Company in 1785.
The flags of the Pandyan kings bore the monogram of the Matsya avatara, since they were the followers of Vaishnavism. The Pandyan king Jadavarman Sundarapandyan (1251 – 1270) had offered a lot of service to Azhagar Kovil, one of these being the making of the golden cladding work on the tower of the temple. Later, the kings of Vijayanagara superseded the Pandyan kingdom, allowing the Pandyan kings to function as only their representatives. They also offered their services to Azhagar Kovil. In 1565, after the defeat of the Vijayanagara rulers by the Mohammedans, the ambassadors of the Pandyan kingdom became liberated and declared they were the kings of those regions. Among the Vijayanagara kings, the most noted was Krishnadevaraya, who had immense devotion towards Azhagar and the temple. He then gave two villages called Samayanallur and Satthamangalam to the temple. From the revenue collected from those two villages, during the festivals on the Tamil month of Aadi, some charity was given to the public.
During the reign of Thirumalai Nayak (1623 – 1659), Madurai was at the peak of prosperity. He offered religious services to the Azhagar Kovil, like the construction and renovation of the yaaga salai, palliyarai, thantha vimaanam, thantha pallakku, abisheka mantapam etc. He also built a palace in Azhagar Kovil.
In 1757, the Mohammedan king Hyder Ali conquered Madurai and robbed the wealth of Madurai and destroyed the sculptures in the wedding hall of the temple. He destroyed the city of Alagapuri and the surrounding walls of Azhagar Kovil. He also broke down the palace and laid it to ruins, its surroundings. These are still visible today.
A great Mohammedan warrior called Yusuf Khan defeated Hyder Ali, and returned what Hyder Ali had looted from the temple, to Azhagar Kovil. But Yusuf Khan was killed by conspiracy and chaos returned to Madurai. At last, in 1785, Madurai was handed over to the East India Company.
During the British raj, although at first there were a lot of improvements made for the smooth maintenance of the temple, later due to mismanagement, a lot of the temple’s treasure was lost. Finally, in 1929, the Hindu Religious and Endowment Board took charge of ancient temples and under the control of this board, the temple is managed well.
Kallazhagar temple covers an area of about 2 acres (0.81 hectares) and has a five-tiered gopuram (gateway tower). The temple is enclosed in a rectangular courtyard with huge granite walls. The central shrine houses the presiding Deity. The Deities of Sridevi and Bhoodevi are also housed in the sanctum. There two life-size Deities of Narasimha. One of them is shown holding the demon Hiranya and the other, slaying him.
The temple houses some rare Vijayanagara sculptures. The style of the buildings denote 3rd or early 4th Century construction. The gopuram of the Karuppaswamy shrine depicts the passionate side of human relationship in the form of beautiful statues. Apart from these, it also depicts the evolution of cultural aspects of the local society, including a depiction of an Englishman in British police uniforms. There is another half- built gopuram on the southern side of the temple.
The main tower entrance, mukya gopuram always remains closed, with the shrine of Karuppana Swami. The closed door is worshipped as Pathinettaam padi Karuppan (meaning, the black Lord who sits at the eighteen steps). There are various legends associated with this. Only once a year the door is opened and Sudarshana Chakra passes through the open door. Not even the Lord's utsava Deity goes through this passage. This is a centuries-old practice.
The Kalyana Mantapa of the temple has beautiful sculptures on its pillars which are fine specimens of Nayaka art. In addition to the life-size sculptures of the kings who ruled over this place, there are many delicate carvings relating to the epics. They are magnificent in concept and yet jewel-like in the delicacy of the chisel. Some of them surpass the workmanship found in similar pillars of the famous Meenakshi temple of Madurai. The notable ones are those of Narasimha, Krishna, Rathi seated on the parrot, Manmatha, Vishnu on Garuda and a few others. Apart from these, the statue of Thirumala Nayaka found on a pillar is claimed to be the best when compared with similar figures found elsewhere. The inscriptions of various dynasties found in this temple, as also in a cavern on the hill, throw light on the antiquity of this place. Some of them date back to the glorious reign of Ashoka. It is believed that the renowned Jaina teacher Ajjanandi and his disciples were staying on the caves of this hillock.
The various architectural specialties of the temple are: car mantapam, elephant vehicle mantapam, sixteen- pillared mantapam (Andal mantapam), Kondappa Naicker mantapam, Thirukkalyana mantapam, Kodaithirunal mantapam, Ponveintha Perumal mantapam (constructed by Sundara Pandyan), Aryan mantapam (Padiyetra mantapam), Maha mantapam (Alanagara mantapam), Vasantha mantapam, Madhavi mantapam (Noopura Gangai – Rakkayee Amman Temple).
A granite wall surrounds the temple, enclosing all its shrines. The temple has a seven-tiered rajagopuram.
The temple follows the traditions of the Thenkalai sect of Vaishnavite tradition and follows Vaikanasa agama.
Amongst the many festivals that are conducted here, the Chithirai festival is the most important. During this festival, the processional Deity of Azhagar is taken to Madurai, halting at various places on the way. This festival attracts thousands of pilgrims and visitors from South India as well as from other parts of the country. A legend is popular how Azhagar, the brother of Meenakshi, was unable to attend her marriage in time and how He turned back from the banks of the Vaigai River. As Azhagar returns from Madurai, Dasavatharam festival is celebrated throughout the night at Ramarayar Mantapam on the northern part of river Vaigai. After this event Azhagar is taken to Mysore Veera Mantapam on a decorated Anantharayar palanquin. The next morning Azhagar in the form of Kallar returns to Azhagar Kovil on a palanquin decorated with flowers.
Lord Kallazhagar also goes to Poigaikaraipatti for Theppam festival (boat festival).
During the months of July and August the festival of Aadi Brahmotsavam is celebrated for 10 days, within the precincts of the temple. Devotees from different parts of Tamil Nadu throng to participate in this festival. The temple car, Amaiththa Narayanan, is taken in procession during Pournami (full moon day) of Aadi.
Thirukalyanam (celestial wedding) of Sri Kallazhagar with four Thayars namely Sundaravalli, Sridevi, Bhoodevi and Andal takes place on Panguni Uthiram day.
Azhagar Kovil dosai prasadam is very famous.
The various festivals are:
Chithirai – Chithirai Grand festival, Vaikashi – Vasantha festival, Aani – Muppala festival,
Aadi – Aadi Grand festival, Aavani – Thiru Pouthira festival, Purattasi – Navarathri festival, Iyppasi – Thailakkappu (Sri Perumal visiting Noopura Gangai), Karthikai – Karthikai Deepam festival, Margazhi – Thiruvadhyayana festival (Pagal Patthu Rappatthu festival), Thai – Kanu festival, Masi – Gajendra Moksham festival, Float festival, Pankuni – Thirukalyana festival.•
Photo courtesy: Santhanakrishnan, Srirangam