Located in the heart of the temple town Madurai is the wonderful temple of the Supreme Lord known as Thiru Koodal Sundararaja Perumal.
The Alwars (meaning ‘those immersed in god’) were Tamil poet-saints of South India who espoused bhakti (devotion) to the Supreme Godhead Vishnu in their songs of longing, ecstasy and service. They are venerated especially in Sri Vaishnavism.
Periyalwar, one among the twelve Alwars, occupies a special place among Alwars as he became the father-in-law of Sri Ranganatha, the Deity handed over to Ikshvaku, who depicts the start of the lineage of Surya Vamsha (the lineage of the Supreme Personality of Godhead Rama), when Periyalwar’s daughter Andal married Him. Periyalwar appeared in Srivilliputhur on Swathi nakshatram of the Tamil month Aani. He is believed to be the part of Garutman. Garutman is a bird with beautiful and strong wings and is a powerful deity mentioned in the Vedas. The Rigveda mentions the sun as the celestial bird, or Garutman. He is also known as Suparna, which means the strong-winged one. As per the Mahabharata, Garuda, the celestial vehicle of Supreme Personality of Godhead Vishnu, is same as Garutman.
Historically Periyalwar is placed around the latter part of the 6th century A.D. He belonged to a family of devout Vaishnava brahmanas and was named Vishnuchitta. True to his name, his mind dwelt constantly on the form and pastimes of the Lord. He did not show much interest in learning scriptures and constantly enjoyed relating with the Lord as little Krishna. He wanted to perform some service which the Lord was especially fond of. With this objective, he set up a beautiful garden with great variety of flowers and tulasi plants. He used to prepare specially decorated garlands and offered them to the Lord at the Vatapathrasaayee temple.
Once, the king of Madurai named Vallabha Deva came to Srivilliputhur in disguise to know about the welfare of his citizens. He saw a brahmana sleeping on the front porch of a house and stopped to enquire about him. The brahmana told the king that he was a pilgrim returning south after a tour of many temples in the Gangetic plains. The king asked the brahmana to teach him some shlokas that would lead to his enlightenment. The pilgrim recited a shloka, the substance of which runs as follows: "One has to gather everything necessary for the rainy season when the sun shines. One has to save for old age by working hard during the younger days. Similarly, one has to search for the ultimate reality in this birth to benefit in the next birth." The king was greatly impressed by the shloka and honoured the brahmana. His mind dwelt on the futility of his past life and he constantly worried over what is the ultimate reality. He could not choose his faith from the various paths offered by different religions. He called his family preceptor named Selvanambi and asked him to call scholars and philosophers of various faiths to a contest which would determine the reality. The king tied a big bag of gold coins to a long vertical pole and announced in the contest that the booty would go to the scholar who could bring it down with his faith. For many days, a number of scholars tried in vain to do this with their scholarly works, eloquent speeches and heated debates. One night the Lord appeared in Vishnuchitta's (Periyalwar’s) dream and asked him to go to the king's court and win the contest. Vishnuchitta woke up in the morning and proceeded to the king's palace according to the Lord's direction. However he was well aware of his limitations, as he had never shown any interest in scriptural learning. He was confident that the Lord's will always prevail. In the King's court, he proceeded to talk on Sriman Narayana as the ultimate reality. The words started flowing as a torrent as he went on quoting the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Puranas. Selvanambi, the king and the entire gathering were thrilled to the core by his faith and were astounded to see the bag of coins fall on its own accord into Vishnuchitta's palms. The whole court acknowledged that Vishnuchitta had the special grace of the Lord. The king honoured him with the title "Bhattar Piran" (lord of brahmanas).
The king honoured Vishnuchitta by seating him on the royal elephant and arranging a procession around his capital. Sriman Narayana Himself appeared in the sky on His vehicle Garuda with His consorts like a happy parent wishing to join in the celebrations for His accomplished son. Alwar became joyous at the divine vision of the Lord and became greatly worried about any evil eye falling on the eternally beautiful form of the Lord and harming Him. Vishnuchitta attained the mental state of a concerned mother and performed obeisance to the Lord spontaneously as a poem called Thiru Pallandu or “may you live long” poem.
The first two verse of this poem go like this:
For many hundreds, thousands and crores of years, may the bright red lotus feet of the gem-hued Lord with mighty wrestling shoulders, be protected. This inseparable bond between us, may it last many thousand years. May Mahalakshmi, who ever adorns the Lord's right chest, live an uncountable years. May the fiery luminous Sudharshan chakra on the right hand live many uncountable years. May the Panchajanya, the famous conch which strikes terror in the battlefield, live many uncountable years.
The historically significant temple of Koodal Azhagar in Madurai, mentioned both in non-religious epics like Silappadikaram as well as in the ‘poems of Thirumangai Alwar and Thirumazhisai Alwar, is where Periyalwar is famed to have sung his wonderful poem Thiru-Pallandu.
Koodal Azhagar Perumal (Lord Vishnu) and Maduravalli Thayar (Sri Mahalakshmi) are seated in two prakaras, which devotees can walk around, as they do in Thirupati. They also get to enjoy the darshana of Lord Vishnu standing as Surya Narayana and reclining as Pallikonda Perumal. The temple’s five-tiered rajagopuram, the ashtanga vimanam beautified by scenes from epics, several small shrines for various deities and the Navagraham (nine planetary demigods) are various beloved aspects of the temple. The Hema Pushkarani (pond) was formed from the waters of the Kiruthumal River, which once ran through Madurai. It is believed that when Brahma washed the legs of the Almighty after His Thrivikrama Avatara (Vamuna Avatara), it became Kiruthumal River.
The temple follows the Vaikasana Agama.
The temple celebrates festivals on 253 days of the year, Ten days are celebrated as Karthikai Utsavam (festivities in the month of Karthika), in honour of Thirumangai Alwar, who performed the mangala sasanam (or sang the poems in praise of the Lord) of the temple. The Vaikunta vaasal, the symbolic gateway to the spiritual world, is kept open every year on the 24th morning of the month of Karthikai. “Ra Paththu” is a ten-day celebration that begins on the night of Ekadashi, when a hundred of the four thousand pasurams (verses of poems composed by Alwars) are sung, every night. Two hundred pasurams are sung every day for the next ten days and this is known as Pagal Paththu, The rest of the thousand songs are sung on the final day of the celebration. Female energy is harnessed on this night, as the Lord is adorned in the Nachiar Thirukkolam. (Where the Lord puts on the attire of Mahalakshmi). Another unique festival is the Vedu Pari Utsavam during which accounts of the temple are submitted to the Lord Himself.
The temple has stood through centuries as a source of spirituality and solace and today, in the words of Anita, the executive officer, it also serves food to a hundred people every day.
Koodal Azhagar temple covers an area of about 2 acres (0.81 hectares) and has a five-tiered gopuram rising to a height of 125 ft (38 m). The temple is within a rectangular enclosure with huge granite walls. The central shrine has an elevated structure and houses the presiding Deity, Koodal Azhagar in sitting posture, 6 ft (1.8 m) tall. The Deities of Sridevi and Bhudevi are on either side of Koodal Azhagar. The festival Deity is named Vyuga Sundararajar and He is 4 ft (1.2 m) tall. The vimana or shrine over the sanctum is ashtanga, having eight parts, namely, adhistana (plinth), three padas (wall), prashthana (limb), griva (neck), shikara (tower) and stupi (top portion). The outer parts of the vimana have stucco images of sages, Dashavatara, Bhuvaraha, Lakshmi Narasimha, Lakshmi Narayana and Narayanamoorthy. The vimana is believed to be the work of Vishwakarma, the divine architect. The shadow of the vimana does not fall on the ground. The ashtanga vimana is found in only three places, at Uthiramerur, Thirukoshtiyur and Cheranmadevi temples. The inner walls of the sanctum have paintings of ashtadikpalakas.
The shrine of the consort of Koodal Azhagar, Maduravalli, is located to the south of the main shrine. There are smaller shrines of Lakshmi Narasimha, Rama, Lakshmi Narayana and Krishna located close to the sanctum. The Deities of Andal, Narasimha and Manavala Mamunigal are found in separate shrines around the first precinct. The shrine of Andal has paintings depicting Puranic stories and inscriptions detailing devotional literature. The shrines of Garuda, Anjaneya, Ramanuja, Vedanta Desika and Alwars are found in the second precinct. The pillars in the halls leading to the sanctum have small sculptures. The temple has Navagrahas, the nine planetary deities, in the second precinct. The second floor has a shrine dedicated to Suryanarayana standing along with Devis. The theppakulam, the temple tank, is located outside the temple premises. It has a centre hall made of granite. In modern times, the temple priests perform the rituals during festivals and on a daily basis. As at other Vishnu temples of Tamil Nadu, the priests belong to the Sri Vaishnavaite community. The temple rituals are performed six times a day: Kalasanthi at 8:00 a.m., Uchikalam at 12:00 p.m., Sayarakshai at 5:00 p.m., and Aravanai Pooja at 6:00 p.m. Each ritual has three steps: alankara (decoration), naivedya (food offering) and deepa aradana (waving of lamps) for both Koodal Azhagar and Maduravalli. During the last step of worship, nagaswaram (pipe instrument) and tavil (percussion instrument) are played, religious instructions in the Vedas (sacred text) are recited by priests, and worshippers prostrate themselves in front of the temple mast. There are weekly, monthly and fortnightly rituals performed in the temple.
The major festivals include the car festival where the utsava Deity is decorated and taken around the temple.
A 10-day float festival takes place in the Tamil month of Maasi on Makham nakshatram, when the utsava Deity is decorated and taken around in the pond.
Garuda Seva (Aani month),Sayana Seva, three fruits decoration, Pavitra Utsava, Navarathri festival, Five Garuda seva, the hunting festival, Adyayana utsava, the birth star festivals of Alwar and Acharyas, Gajendra Moksham, New Year’s Day, Celestial Wedding Festival, Vasantha Utsava are celebrated at this temple.
Thiru Pallandu, the full Poem sung by Periyalwar
Oh Lord who is of the colour of emerald gem,
Who with His powerful shoulders won over the wrestlers,
May the prettiness of Your divine red feet be protected,
For many years, many years, for many thousands of years,
For several crores of thousand years.
Without parting let us who are Your slaves stay along with You for several years,
Let the lady who is pretty and who stays on the right side of Your chest be there for several years,
Let the divine wheel held in Your right hand which gives out lustrous light be there for several years,
And let the conch Panchajanya that booms when entering the battlefield, be there for several years.
If you are standing in the control of the Lord come and accept the mud and incense,
But if you are standing as a slave or only food, we would not accept you in our group,
Because for twenty one generations we did not have any stain and we sing, “Many more divine years,”
For very many years more to the Lord who destroyed the Lanka occupied by rakshasas.
Those who are interested to join our group, before you are put in the cremation ground,
Please come and enter our group and join us quickly before crossing the limit,
And let those who have devotion among you recite “Om Namo Narayanaya”
So that the villages and cities do understand it properly and sing, “Many more divine years.”
The Lord Hrishikesha became the Lord of several worlds and completely
Destroyed the clans of asuras and rakshasas,
And you are in the clan who do service to Him and so please come, salute, dance,
And chant His thousand names, avoiding your old habit of leaving Him after seeking,
And then say to Him, “Several years and several thousands of years.”
The seven generations of me, my father, his father, his father, his father,
And his father and grandfather have come from one path to the next,
So that we can do service and sing, “Several years and several thousand years,”
To relieve Him for killing His enemy after taking the form of a lion,
On the festival day of Thiru Onam at the time of the dusk.
By the unified lustre of the place of the divine wheel which gives out red light,
Which is greater than fire, for several generations we have come to do service
To the powerful God who held the divine wheel, which rotated and caused
Blood to pour out from the thousand shoulders of Bana,
Who came to fight with the aid of illusion, and we sing “several years” to Him.
That God gave me high quality food with ghee, several constant assistants,
Betel leaves and nuts from His divine hands, apart from ornaments for the neck,
Golden orbs for the ears and very good quality sandal paste to apply on my body,
So that I would become a good being and I wish “several years” to Him,
Who has on his flag Garuda, the enemy of the hooded serpent.
Your slaves like us wear the yellow silk apparel that You wore and removed, eat food left by You,
Wear the tulasi garland which was once worn by You,
And all these actions which are practiced everywhere are well completed by You,
Who takes rest on the bed of Adisesha who lies down with His hoods,
On the festival day of Thiru Onam and we sing “several years.”
From that day on which we wrote and told you, “Oh Lord we are your slaves,”
All the people of our homes who are serving you, were freed and uplifted,
And from that good day You appeared in Mathura and broke the bow of Kamsa,
And from the day You jumped on the head of serpent with five hoods and danced,
We were telling you,“Several years.”
Oh Lord Narayana, like the Selvanambi who does not have any bad character,
Who is the lord of Thirukoshtiyur which is the gem of this world,
And who is immersed in the thought that he is the servant of the Lord,
I am also your old servant, oh Lord, who is divinely pure in many ways,
And I would chant “Om namo Narayanaya” in the very proper way,
And also would chant several of Your names and I would say “several years” to You.
Vishnu Chittha of Thiruvilliputhur who wrote these words
About the divinely pure one, the Lord who resides in the divine abode,
And the lord who wielded the bow called Saranga,
Desires auspiciousness forever for those who chant
These without any break for a very long time, and that good time would surround
Those who chant “Om Namo Narayanaya” and keep on praising Him for a very long time.
Photo courtesy: Santhanakrishnan, Srirangam