About 74 km south of Madurai, in the district of Virudhunagar of Tamil Nadu, is a town known as Srivilliputhur where Lord Vishnu resides as Vatapathrashayi. It is the birth place of the Vaishnava saint Andal, the incarnation of Goddess Bhoomi.
Andal is one of the most extraordinary personalities in religious history. She is known in her native tongue of Tamil as an Alwar, one who is immersed in the depths of enjoyment of God, the omnipresent Supreme Personality of Godhead. Between the fifth and ninth centuries, in the Tamil-speaking region of South India, these saints revitalized the Indian religious environment, sparking a renewal of devotional worship throughout the subcontinent. Traveling from place to place, from temple to temple, from holy site to holy site, they composed exceedingly beautiful poetry to their Divine Beloved, Vishnu, as an expression of their love for Him. Anyone can see why their poetry was so attractive; at once both impassioned and philosophical, their words cut across all barriers of caste and class, attracting all to their faith. In doing so, they created a new religious heritage of intense love of the Divine, whose impact is still felt today in Indian religious life. Tradition reckons twelve Alwars, of which Andal is the only female. Andal, whose life and poetry are celebrated every day by staunch Sri Vaishnavas, is the most visible contributor to this heritage. A peep into her wonderful life would not be out of context because she was born in Srivilliputhur and most of her pastimes took place there.
While Lord Vishnu rests on the Ocean of Milk, Bhoo Devi (the Earth goddess) visits Him with a floral garland. He tells her that He would like her to offer Him garlands of songs. The goddess asks Him for such a boon and accordingly, she is born on Earth.
The life of Andal is remarkable in its romantic simplicity. Vishnuchitta or Perialwar, a devout brahmana and one among the twelve Alwars, lived in Srivilliputhur, a town near Madurai. He was an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu and he dedicated his life to the service of Lord Vatapathrashayi (the divya desam Lord of Srivilliputhur). His daily duties included procuring flowers for the worship of the Lord at the local temple. One morning, as he went about his business, he discovered a baby girl lying under a tulasi plant in his flower garden. Having no family of his own, Vishnuchitta felt it was God’s grace that gave him this child and he named her Goda or one who has beautiful hair. Filled with joy, he took her home and raised her as his own.
Temple painting depicting Andal’s birth
Goda grew up in an atmosphere of love and devotion. Vishnuchitta doted on her in every respect, singing songs to her about his beloved Krishna, teaching her all the stories and philosophy he knew, and sharing with her his love of Tamil poetry. The love Vishnuchitta had for his beloved Lord intensified further in his daughter, and before long she was passionately in love with Lord Krishna. Even as a child, Goda made up her mind to marry none but the cowherd boy of Vrindavana and refused to think of any human being in similar terms. She imagined what it would be like to be His bride, playing the role of His beloved, enjoying His presence. Unknown to her father, she adorned herself daily with the flower garland he prepared for the Lord at the temple. After admiring her reflection and thinking of herself as His ideal bride, she would put the garland back for her father to take to the temple and offer to the Lord.
One day, when the garland was taken to the temple, the priest noticed that there was a hair strand in the garland and returned the garland to Vishnuchitta with a warning not to bring such garlands. Shocked and saddened by this desecration of what was meant only for the Lord, he scolded Goda for her misuse of the garland and discarded it. He carefully prepared a new one and offered it to the Lord, begging His pardon all the while. But no matter how much the priest tried to offer the garland to the Lord, it would not simply fit the Lord and broke up into pieces immediately. Upset at this, Vishnuchitta returned home with a heavy heart. That night, the Lord appeared to Vishnuchitta in a dream and asked him why he discarded Goda’s garland instead of offering it to Him. He told Vishnuchitta that He missed the scent of Goda’s body in the flowers, and that He preferred them that way. Would he please continue to give the garlands once worn by Goda? Overcome with emotion, Vishnuchitta awoke and cried tears of both joy and remorse. It dawned on him that his daughter was someone whose love of God was so intense and pure that even he had not comprehended its extent. Her spiritual greatness was such that the Lord Himself wished to share her presence. From this day on, she became known as Andal, the girl who ruled over the Lord. (Even today, the pastime of exchange of garlands with Andal and the Supreme Personality of Godhead happens in every Vishnu temple in South India. The Lord demanded this.)
Andal blossomed into a beautiful young woman as she came of marriageable age. When asked to marry, however, she stubbornly refused, saying that she would only agree to marry Sri Ranganatha, the Lord at the great temple town of Srirangam. Vishnuchitta despaired, wondering what was to become of his daughter. One night, Lord Ranganatha appeared in his dream and asked that Andal be sent to Him in all her wedding finery. Simultaneously, the Lord appeared before the priests at Srirangam and asked them to prepare for the coming of Andal. Vishnuchitta once again was filled with both joy and sadness; joy that his beloved daughter would attain her goal, but sadness at losing her. He made all the wedding preparations and arranged for Andal’s journey in a palanquin to Srirangam. Andal waited with excited anticipation as the wedding party approached Lord Ranganatha’s shrine. As they entered the temple, she jumped out of the palanquin, unable to restrain herself any longer. Running into the temple sanctum, she embraced Lord Ranganatha and disappeared in a blaze of glory, having joined her Lord. She was only fifteen at the time.
Andal is now one of the best loved poet-saints of the Tamils. Pious tradition reckons her to be the veritable descent of Bhoomi Devi (Mother Earth) in bodily form to show humanity the way to His lotus feet. She is present in all Sri Vaishnava temples, in India and elsewhere, next to her Lord, as she always desired.
According to legend, Srivilliputhur was known as Varahakshetra. There was a dense forest named Champaka where the sages Bhrgu and Markandeya were performing penance and had their hermitages. A demon named Kalanerai was troubling the sages and they prayed to Vishnu to relieve them from the demon. Vishnu was pleased by their devotion and appeared there to slay the demon. He chose to remain in the forest, reclining on Adishesha, His serpent bed, on the leaf of a banyan tree, and is therefore He is lovingly addressed as Vatapathrashayi, the one who is lying down in a banyan tree. The place thus came to be known as Vadaveshwarapuram or Shenbagaranyam (meaning beautiful forest, in Tamil). Shenbagaranyam was a small part of the large kingdom ruled by a Queen Malli whose sons were Villi and Puttan. They liked hunting and used to hunt animals in Shenbagaranyam. One day, while Villi and Puttan were in the forest on a hunt, they spotted a tiger. They tried to kill the tiger and Puttan vigorously chased it while Villi lost track of his brother. However, after some time the tiger managed to kill Puttan by hiding behind a tree and pouncing on him at an opportune moment. Villi came searching for Puttan and on seeing Puttan’s dead body, he was overcome with grief. Sad and tired, Villi drifted off to sleep. While sleeping, Villi had a dream. Lord Vishnu appeared in his dream along with His consort and said, "O Villi do not grieve. Puttan will get back his life." The Lord then mentioned about His previous appearance as Lord Vatapathrashayi in lying posture under the foot of the banyan tree in Shenbagaranyam. The Lord indicated to Villi that there was a cave near the huge banyan tree, where His Deity had been lying for a long time. There were also lots of gold coins and jewels near that place. The Lord instructed Villi to use the money to deforest the place and build a village. He wanted Villi to construct a temple for His Deity in the cave. Villi woke up to find his brother Puttan alive and narrated his dream to him. He then built a small town and a temple for Lord Vatapathrashayi. As a forest full of snake mounds was converted into a town by Villi it came to be known as Villiputhur. Later with the advent of Sri Andal, it got the name Srivilliputhur (the prefix Sri representing Mahalakshmi).
The Divine Groom and Bride
During the reign of Thirumalai Naikar (1623 – 1659) and Rani Mangammal (1889 – 1706), this city became very popular. Thirumalai Naikar organized a lot of renovation in the temples of the city. From 1751 to 1756 A.D., Srivilliputhur came under the rule of Nerkattucheval Jamindar Pulithevar. Then it fell into the hands of Mohammed Yousoof Khan. Until 1850, the temple was under the care of the king of Travancore. Formerly, Srivilliputhur was a part of Madurai district. Later it was annexed with Thirunelveli district in 1838 and in 1910 with Ramnad district. When Ramnad district was divided into three, Srivilliputhur, significantly called the city of temples, came under Virudhunagar district. In this renowned city, there are many heritage temples. The temple of Sri Andal and Sri Vatapathrashayi are located in the heart of the city. This temple is also called by the names Vanpudhuvai, Sri Dhanvipuram, Thiruvilliputhur Andal Kovil, Thiruvilliputhur etc. Towards the west of this city lies the Western Ghats.
Srivilliputhur finds mention in the Brahmakaivatsa Purana and the Varaha Purana. The Varaha Purana foretells the existence of Srivilliputhur and the consequent visit of Bhagavan during the Varaha avatara which have been discussed in detail above. The Brahmakaivatsa Purana mentions the location of Vatapathrashayi temple in Srivilliputhur.
The temple has two sections – one of Andal located in the southwest and the other of Vatapathrashayi in the northeast. A granite wall surrounds the temple, enclosing all its shrines, the garden where Andal was found and two of its three bodies of water. The 196 ft. high temple tower is second only to Srirangam’s rajagopuram (236 ft) among the divya desams. The nine-tier temple chariot is said to be the biggest in Tamil Nadu. The tower is believed to have been originally built by Perialwar with the prize money he obtained from religious debates in the court of Vallabha Pandya in Madurai. The Andal shrine houses the Deities of Andal and Rangamannar. Garuda, who brought Ranganathar, the divine bridegroom from Srirangam, is also housed in the same shrine. The walls around the shrine have paintings on the life of Andal. The second hall from the entrance towards the sanctum, the Kalyana Mantapa, houses life-size sculptures of Mohini, Rama, Kamadeva, Rati and many other deities. The sanctum sanctorum is two-tiered. The sanctum in the second level, approached through a flight of steps, houses the Deities of Vatapathrashayi in a reclining posture and His consorts, Lakshmi and Bhudevi attending on Him at His lotus feet, all under the vimalakrithi vimanam. Sage Bhrigu stands near His head and Sage Markandeya is also near His lotus feet. The Lord is in sudhai (brick and mortar) and no daily thirumanjanam (sacred bath) is performed to Him. In front of the sanctum sanctorum is a rectangular hall known as Gopala Vilasam where araiyar sevai is performed during Pagal Pathu utsavam. History has it that the hall with a wooden roof or canopy over it was built with the remains of the temple's big car which was partially damaged in a fire nearly 200 years ago. A new car was presented to the temple by the then Jeeyar Swami of the Nanguneri-Vanamamalai Matha, over 150 years ago, as an inscription found in one of the big rings with the words "Kollam year 1025, Sowmya year, Avani month, 14th day", corresponding to August 28, 1849, testifies. The wooden carvings on the roof contain scenes from Ramayana and other stories, such as the slaying of Hiranyakashipu by Narasimha and Andal being carried in a palanquin to Srirangam.
Andal in sitting posture and Sri Rangamannar lying down on her lap
The banyan tree whose leaf is known as vatapathram, on which Vishnu is said to rest in the form of a baby during the pralaya, is at His head, behind Bhrigu. Deities of Panchamurtis – Tumburu, Narada, Sanatkumara, Kinnara Mithuna, the Sun god and the Moon god are all around Rangamannar, as well as representations of Villi and Puttan at His feet. The sanctum has three doorways from which the presiding Deity can be seen. The hall leading to the sanctum, Bhopala Villam, has a hall with detailed teak wood carvings depicting incidents from the Puranas and the Dashavatara. There are carvings that decorate the ceiling. The temple houses some rare Vijayanagara sculptures. Darshana of Lord Lakshminarasimha is on the lower tier of the sanctum sanctorum. Vatapathrashayi is known by other names like Pallikonda Paramaswamy, Vataperunkoil Udayan and Periya Perumal. The temple is situated just adjacent to the Andal temple. Connecting them is the garden of Andal’s guardian parent Perialwar and her birthplace.
Special status to Garudadeva
One finds Lord Garuda, the carrier of Lord Vishnu, alongside the main Deities. In all other temples, one finds Garuda standing opposite the main Deity. It is believed that Garuda brought Lord Ranganatha of Srirangam to Srivilliputhur faster than expected and hence he was accorded the special status here..
Vatapathrashayi on Garuda Vahana
There are over a dozen monolithic pillars with exquisite images in the dwajasthamba (flagstaff) mandapam of the Andal temple. The first is that of four-handed Lord Venugopala who appears playing the flute with two hands, while the other two hands are holding the sacred disc or Sudarshana and Panchajanya or the conch. It is rather rare to find Krishna in this posture. Vishwakarma or Mayan, the divine sculptor, with the hammer in his right hand and chisel in his left appears with four arms, which according to scholars, represents Vishnu amsha, a version unique to this temple. Another marvelous work is the figure of Jalandarasura (demon king to annihilate whom Lord Vishnu assumed His form). In the Ekadashi Mantapa, which is on the northern side of the dwajasthamba, are pillars containing images of Manmatha (Cupid), Rathidevi, Oordhvamuka Veerabhadra, Guha, Arjuna, Karna and Sathyaki, Lord Krishna's charioteer. The mantapa at the entrance to the Andal temple is described in her pasuram as muthudai thamam niraithaazhntha panthal, is the place where Andal's marriage is celebrated on the Panguni Uthiram day every year. One can see frescoes depicting scenes from the Ramayana on its ceiling. Interestingly, in Sita Kalyanam the images depicted are those of Lord Rangamannar and Andal and not of Sri Rama and Sita.
The grand mantapas of Srivilliputhur
The manimantapam in front of the mahamandapam is marked for its fine workmanship in stone and wood. The stone palahanis providing light and fresh air to the mahamandapam and manimandapam are not mere windows but fine works of art. The statues of Thirumalai Nayak and his consorts in the sukkiravara kuradu, where the Deities used to be worshipped every Friday in a decorated oonjal (swing) are very attractive. On the walls one can find pictures from Andal's life as depicted in her Naachiyaar Thirumozhi and Thiruppavai. The Thiruppavai Vimanam over the sanctum sanctorum with the sudhai images describing the scenes visualized in her great work is unique, as a similar structure is not found in any other holy place. The two temples contain over 60 inscriptions in Vattezhuthu in the tower, dwajasthamba, walls of the central shrines and mandapams. They date back to the 10th century or even earlier during the reign of Pandya kings. Most of the inscriptions speak about the lands and other gifts made to the two temples. Srivilliputhur is mentioned as Malli Valanadu and they provide lot of information about the divisions and sub-divisions made by kings and administrators, the names of the Deities and the rulers and chieftains. The temple possesses numerous jewels and vast landed property, but the income that it gets from them is nil or negligible.
Aadi Pooram Festival (Sri Rangamannar and Goddess Andal are taken in decorated palanquins to the car) – July / August, Aani Alwar Utsavam – June /July commemorates the birth anniversary of Periya Alwar, Thiruvadipooram Festival – August celebrates the birth anniversary of Andal, Ennaikappu Festival – December / January in which the Deity is clad with medicated oil for 30 days, Pagal Pathu Adhyayana Utsavam – December /January is a 20 day festival in dedication to Nammalwar, Unjal Thavam Festival – October/ November when the Deity is gently rocked in a swing, Vaikuntha Ekadashi Festival – December /January where the Supreme Lord appears at the Vaikuntha door. Special mention goes to the Garuda Seva of five different Lordships on the birth day of Andal in the Tamil Calendar month of Aadi, when one witnesses Garuda Sevas of Venkatachalapathy, Thiruthangal Appan, Vatapathrashayi, Rangamannar and Kaatu Azhagar Sundararajan mounted on golden Garudas taken in procession on the streets of Srivilliputhur. During the Chitra Festival in Madurai, Kallazhagar garland is sent by Andal of Srivilliputhur. Only after wearing the garland, does Azhagar get into the Vaigai River. During the Aadi Thiruvadi Pooram festival, marking the birthday of Andal, Lord Azhagar of Thirumaalirun Cholai sends His attire to Srivilliputhur as a return gesture to her.
Huge chariot of Andal
Araiyar Sevai – a big attraction
A big attraction at the Srivilliputhur temple is the Araiyar Sevai, the visual song and dance enactment of the pasurams (4000 Divya Prabandham verses) that has been performed at divya desams for over 1000 years. Srivilliputhur remains one of the three divya desams in Tamil Nadu where Araiyar Sevai is still being performed, the other two being Srirangam and Azhvaar Thirunagari (near Tirunelveli).
The famed Araiyar Sevai is said to have originated from Thirukkurungkudi, the divya desam about 40kms from Thirunelveli. Araiyars (kings of music) are descendants of Nathamuni, who is believed to have introduced the Araiyar Sevai. It is believed that Lord Ranganatha Himself gave the Araiyars the right to perform the unique musical chanting at the temples and presented them with the cone-like red cap, two cymbals and the sacred garland (which they wear around their neck when they perform). The Araiyars first recite the verse, then explain its inner meaning and finally perform the abhinayam, a unique art/dance performance with their hands and legs, explaining the Pasurams with special musical effect. This special explanation (vyakyaanam) requires a deep knowledge and understanding of the verses and their inner meaning. It is not an easy art, as it takes one nearly 20 years to learn and perfect the abhinayam. Legend has it that the Lord used to listen to the Araiyars’ abhinayam, hiding behind a wall in Bashyam Street (South Mada Street).
Story of Andal through Araiyar Sevai during Margazhi
One of the Araiyar Sevai occasions that is of particular significance is during Vaikuntha Ekadashi – the Paghal Pathu (10 days) and the Era Pathu (10 days) – when one is treated to a real spectacle with the Araiyars enacting the story of Andal growing into a young beautiful girl, through their abhinayam. Thousands of people from across the state arrive every year to crowd Srivilliputhur on this festival, and to witness the annual car festival at the Andal temple. This event is the highlight of the 12-day Aadi Pooram Festival at the temple. It is one of the biggest festivals in the entire Virudhunagar district. After early morning special pujas, the presiding Deities, Sri Rangamannar and Goddess Andal are taken in decorated palanquins to the car. The festival marks the adoption of the presiding Deity, Sri Andal, by Perialwar after he had found her near a tulasi plant in the Nandavanam of Vatapathrashayi temple at Srivilliputhur, on the eighth day of the Tamil month of Adi.
Andal gives us valuable advice through Her Thiruppavai. She talks of the importance of taking along everyone when one goes to worship. In one of her verses, she requests Lord Narayana to analyse why she has approached Him with her friends, and to then act accordingly.
–Photo courtesy: Santhanakrishnan, Srirangam