Located in the Thirunagari village north of Sirkali is the spectacular temple of Thirunagari, the kingdom of Thirumangai Alwar.
Continued from the previous issue, here are the glories of Thirumangai Alwar.
Vaishnavism vs Shaivism
Alwars are saints in the realm of Sri Vaishnavism and Nayanmars are saints of Shaivism. Most often there have been conflicts between these two groups. This is an interesting such incident which happened between Thirumangai Alwar and Thirugnana Sambandhar.
Kochenganaan had been born as a spider in his previous birth, at the Shiva temple by name Thiruvanaikka. The spider’s attempts to weave a shelter over the linga had been thwarted by an elephant. Reborn as the Chola king, Kochenganaan continued where he had left off, and ended up building 70 temples for Shiva. But to explain the Alwar Nayanmar connection, one has to unravel the past some more.
When Kochenganaan’s mother went into labour, Lord Shiva, in the guise of an astrologer, ensured that the child’s birth was held back by some minutes, so that at the time of his birth, Lord Mahavishnu’s glance would fall on him, for this would guarantee moksha for Kochenganaan. It was predicted that the child would never taste failure. Sure enough, when he assumed the mantle of power, Kochenganaan faced victory after victory. But at one stage his enemies banded together and defeated him.
Wondering why the prophecy about his success had proved false, Kochenganaan went in search of the astrologer, who, of course, was none other than Lord Shiva himself. Shiva took Kochenganaan to the Thirunaraiyur Vishnu temple, and gave him diksha (initiation) in Vaishnavism `by instructing om namo narayanaya. Kochenganaan recited the mantra and worshipped the Supreme Lord Narayana.
Soon after, Kochenganaan won a decisive victory against his enemies, and went on to build a big temple for the Thirunaraiyur deity – Naraiyur Nambi (refer Krishna Voice Dec 2013).
It was at Thirunaraiyur, that Thirumangai Alwar received Vaishnava diksha. To express his gratitude to the Chola king who built the temple for Naraiyur Nambi, the Alwar praised him. In one of the songs he sang, nine out of ten verses are about the Chola king.
Commentators observe with wonder that one half of each verse was devoted to Naraiyur Nambi and one half to Kochenganaan – the Nayanmar who built a temple for Vishnu.
Thirumangai Alwar and Thirugnana Sambhandar
Historians by and large in Tamil Nadu agree that this incident did take place and the two stalwarts did live in the same era. Saint Thirugnana Sambandhar and Thirumangai lived during the same time. This has been established again and again. There is absolutely no doubt about this and a biography on Thirumangai provides much more details.
Besides, they both respected each other so much for their knowledge in Tamil and in fact they both longed to see each other. This has been established by Tamil historians again and again. In fact this has been explicitly explained in both their Tamil works: both Thirumangai and Thirugnana Sambandhar expressed their eagerness to see each other. They never argued with each other and on the contrary held each other in high esteem as fellow Tamil poets. They had a debate as promoted by their disciples. The debate was not on whether Shaivam or Sri Vaishnavism was greater. At the request of Saint Sambandhar, Thirumangai delivered the songs on Lord Thadalan (refer Krishna Voice Dec 2014) in His temple at Sirkali and Saint Sambandhar accepted the song with great veneration, appreciating the poetic skill of Thirumangai even after the very first line in which he stacked numbers 1 to 10 in Tamil poetry and indirectly cited them as the 10 incarnations of Lord Vishnu. After this Saint Sambandhar presented his own holy spear (vel) as a reward and as an acknowledgement of Thirumangai's winning the so-called debate. This is why we see Thirumangai Alwar with a spear in his hand.
Thirumangai Alwar and the Tamarind Tree
Thirumangai Alwar wanted to build huge walls around the Srirangam temple. Even for the king of Nangoor, the wealth was not sufficient to build the walls. Alwar sent his disciples to find out from where they could raise funds for this noble cause. One of the disciples came and told him that there was a gold Buddha statue in a Buddha Vihar at Nagapattinam and if they could get it, they could sell the statue and get money for the construction work. But the statue was installed on top of the vimana and if the statue was removed the vimana would be damaged. Hence they had to find a way to remove the statue without damaging the vimana, and to do this, they had to find the sculptor who constructed it. Alwar sent his disciples to find out where the sculptor lived. Later locating the place, he went in person with his disciples and stayed with a person living opposite to the sculptor. He told that person that he was going on pilgrimage and just waiting for the arrival of a ship to continue his pilgrimage to Nagapattinam.
One day he was talking to his disciples in a raised voice and was telling them that he came to know that the golden Buddha statue was stolen. The sculptor who heard this was shocked and started cursing the helper who worked with him and knew the secret of the construction of the statue. Thirumangai Alwar asked the sculptor where the helper lived so that he could search for him and punish him for his misdeed. The sculptor did not know his assistant’s whereabouts, except that he was from Chola Nadu. Alwar spoke to him pleasingly and requested him to tell him about the secret of vimana (vimana makuta sutram) construction. He assured the sculptor that he would find the assistant and recover the statue from him. The same day a ship arrived and the Alwar boarded the ship with his disciples. Alwar went to the Buddha Vihar with one of his disciples and hid there till nightfall. As he had already taken clues from the sculptor to remove the golden statue without damaging the vimana, with his disciple’s help he removed the statue. The statue glittered in the moonlight and Alwar was just thinking, Buddha who renounced his princely home and kingdom did not deserve a golden statue. On Alwar’s chanting a song, the gold from the statue melted and dropped into Alwar’s lap.
Immediately he told his disciple that he did not want both of them to be seen together and ordered him to go back to Srirangam. Alwar decided to walk back to Srirangam. When he was approaching Thirukkannankudi it was getting dark. He was also feeling tired and so wanted to take rest. Seeing a big tamarind tree, he sat underneath the tree. Beside the tree he saw a wet ploughed field. He dug the muddy field and buried the gold. Then he took rest under the tamarind tree. He was afraid that he might fall asleep and someone might take the gold. He told the tree that even if he fell asleep, the tree should be awake and take care of the gold. Next morning the tamarind tree woke him up by shedding its leaves upon him. He thanked the tamarind tree and blessed it as a tree which doesn’t sleep. It is believed that the leaves of the tree never closed after this incident.
The owner of the field came to plough the field in the morning. Thirumangai Alwar stopped him by saying that it was his land and he would not allow him to plough. The farmer told him that for generations the land belonged to his family and how could Alwar tell him now that it belonged to him. Alwar told him that he was also asking the same question to him. The owner took him to the panchayath and when they asked for proof the farmer showed his patta. When Alwar was asked for his patta, he told them that it was at Srirangam and if they gave him twenty four hours’ time he would bring it and show it to them. The panchayath gave him time. Alwar just wanted to take out the gold and leave the place, and for that he asked for time. Alwar sneaked away with the gold and continued his service of constructing the grand walls of Srirangam, which still stand as a testimony to his devotional service.
Thirumangai Alwar and Sri Ranganatha
The Alwar leaves a lot of autobiographical information about himself in the last verse of his works.
There is an amusing story about the tendency of the Alwar to speak a lot about his own achievements while singing the praises of the Lord. There lived in the temple of Srirangam, a devotee who was employed to clean the lamps, known as Villakku Pichchai. He used to talk to himself while working. Lord Ranganatha reclining in the sanctum sanctorum started conversing with this man out of sheer boredom. He in turn used to report to the Lord all that was going on in the temple. Not that the Lord didn’t know the news, but He chose to amuse Himself with this diversion. Villakku Pichchai soon grew a little pompous with this special attention he received from the Lord. Once he heard the chanters in the temple reciting the Periya Thirumozhi verse (a work of Thirumangai Alwar) wherein the Alwar speaks about his various titles a bit more than usual. Pichchai brought this to the attention of the Lord and said, “Your devotee starts by singing Your praises and ends up singing more about himself!” Lord Ranganatha was annoyed with Pichchai’s impertinence and remarked, “So what is wrong with that? All the fame of Thirumangai is due to My grace, his devotion is to Me is My praise indirectly!” After this, the Lord withdrew into his archa code of not speaking to anyone. The above episode mentioned in the commentaries reveals that Sri Ranganatha loved Thirumangai and his verses so much that He would not tolerate any criticism of them.
Thirumangai Alwar went to Thirunaraiyur (refer Krishna Voice Dec 2013) and sang his verses bewitched by Nambi’s (Lord of Naraiyur) beauty. Thirunaraiyur Nambi was also the Alwar’s spiritual master and therefore commanded a special position in the Alwar’s heart. Later when Thirumangai returned to Srirangam, Lord Ranganatha, with evident disappointment, confronted him saying, “Alwar! You offered your special verses as female mode to Nambi!” The Alwar tried to pacify Sri Ranganatha saying, “But I built the huge rampart walls of Your temple to make it fit to be called the biggest temple. This is a special service offered to You alone!” Unconvinced by this explanation given to placate him, Lord Ranganatha is said to have retorted, “I would have been happier if you had offered your madal (song in Tamil) to me and built the madil (Tamil word for wall) for Nambi.” This charming anecdote reveals the magic of Thirumangai’s words that kept the Lord spellbound. It also reminds us that what impresses the Lord and Vaishnavas is the benedictory words of the saints, not the massive walls of bricks, stones and mortar built around them.
Thirumangai’s Love for the Deity Form
This Alwar’s devotion to the deity form is incomparable. The deity form was vibrantly alive to him and responded to his faith and entreaties. He was truly the pioneer of the modern trend of pilgrimage tourism. One must keep in mind that the Alwar reached out, covering distant kshetras like Salagramam, (Nepal) Badri, Naimisharanyam, Ahobilam, in days when most modern comforts were unknown and transport was primitive. Among the 108 temples, Thirumangai visited 86 and sang about them, unlike the songs of Nammalwar who never stirred from his abode under the tamarind tree at Thirukkurugoor. All Nammalwar’s verses on temples were sung with his special vision. But Thirumangai Alwar took great pains and travelled to remote places with great zeal. In his first song, Periya Thirumozhi, he dedicated a song to each temple. But in later works he started singing about many temples together. Many commentaries throw light on why the Alwar did this: the Alwar was getting older, nearing his departure to Sri Vaikuntha. His immense love for the Deities makes him recall all the earlier experiences he had with Them. This can be compared to a young girl leaving her home after marriage. She goes around visiting all the dear ones, recalling her joyous days with them and taking leave with a heavy heart.
Thirumangai Alwar’s devotion to the deity form was so total that he rejected moksha, the land of eternal bliss where the liberated soul remains close to the Lord in celestial form, to be inferior to deity worship in this world. In one of his works, he uses the analogy of a hunter pursuing a rabbit, abandoning the chase to try and catch a crow flying in the sky. The rabbit is easier to capture and tastier too. The Deity is likewise within our reach and is the abode of all auspicious attributes while the spiritual form is beyond reach and the bliss it confers is only hearsay spoken by the scriptures. The Deity evokes actual experience. To Thirumangai Alwar the Lord came in person with His consort to give initiation through the 8 syllable mantra when threatened with a sword. The Alwar’s love for the Deity was special and he in turn demanded special treatment from the Lord. When he did not get such treatment or response, he threw a tantrum and poured out his anger in verses, as in the verses on Thiru Indaloor. The Alwar reached the temple and found the doors closed and could not contain his disappointment. He said “O Lord of Indaloor! Scriptures speak of You as the omniscient one! But You seem to know everything other than my presence here at Your gate!
Such is the freedom Thirumangai had with the Lord.
He further chastises the Supreme Lord:
The scriptures declare that Your glorious form belongs to the devotees. What then is the point in closing the gates when I have come all the way to have Your darshana and to sing Your praise? Do not consider me to be a submissive devotee like the other Alwars! I cannot tolerate separation from You and I need regular doses of Deity darshana for survival.”
At another temple, Thiruninravoor, there is yet another sweet episode that drives home the point that the Lord of lords needed the Alwar as much as the Alwar needed Him. The Alwar was visiting and singing full verses on each temple: Thiruvalloor, Thiruvallikeni, Thiruneermalai, Thirukkadalmallai, Thiruvidavendai in a sequential order, when the Goddess of Thiruninravoor drew the attention of the Lord saying, “O Lord! Thirumangai, the last among the Alwars has passed by Our temple and We were preoccupied playing a game of dice. If he doesn’t sing Our praises, Our temple will never be known as a divya desam. So please invite him with befitting honours.” The Lord of the temple invited the Alwar who made a passing reference to Him as “one who stopped me and made me sing” in his verses on Thirukkadalmallai. These two words from the lips of Alwar made this temple one among the revered hundred and eight divya desams.
Manjalkuli Festival which is taking place right from the lifetime of Sri Thirumangai Alwar is sublime and without a parlance in our spiritual history, was gifted to Sri Thirumangai Alwar by Lord Sri Ranganatha of Srirangam for conducting the Vaikuntha Ekadashi festival at Srirangam.
The Thirumangai Alwar song festival in the month of Thai (after the new moon night) witnesses 11 Garuda seva, a spectacular event in which festival Deities of the Supreme Lord Narayana from the 11 divya desam shrines in the area are brought on Garuda mounts to Thirunangur. A festival deity of Thirumangai Alwar is also brought here on a swan carrier (from Thirunagari) and his songs – dedicated to each of these 11 temples – are recited. The deity Thirumangai Alwar circumambulates each of these Deities, and at the conclusion of the festival, the utsavars are returned to Their temples. Prior to this, the utsavar of Thirumangai Alwar and his consort, Sri Kumudavalli Naachiyar, are taken in a palanquin to each of the 11 Thirunangur temples, through the paddy fields in the area, and the songs dedicated to each of the 11 temples are chanted in the respective shrines. The 11 Garuda seva is the most important of the festivals in this area, and it draws thousands of visitors.
Photo courtesy: Santhanakrishnan, Srirangam