Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Srirangam
The largest temple in India is located on the island of Srirangam located on the Kaveri River. The island resides in the southern part of the larger Indian continent near the city of Trichy, which is located in Tamil Nadu. According to the temple’s website, Srirangam Temple is “the foremost of the eight self-manifested shrines (Swayam Vyakta Kshetras) of Lord Visnu. It is also considered the first, foremost and the most important of the 108 main Visnu temples (Divyadesams)” (Srirangam Temple History). The temple goes by several names including Srirangam temple and Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, the latter a result of the temple being dedicated to the Hindu deity, Raganatha, a reclining version of the god Visnu. It is considered to be in the Dravidia style of temple architecture (Urwick 58). In its history, it has had important political implications on the region, and has withstood Muslim military occupation in the early fourteenth century (Spencer 21). In modern day India the temple is regarded as the largest active Hindu temple in the world and is home to several festivals, the most important of which is Vaikunta Ekadasi, which attracts thousands of visitors annually (The Hindu).
As are many things in the Hindu tradition, the origins of the Srirangam temple are rooted in the Hindu epic, the Ramayana. It is said that in Rama’s quest to save his beloved Sita he employs the help of Vibhisana. Vibhisana is the brother of Rama’s adversary, the demon god Ravana, and agrees to assist Rama only when he determines that Rama’s cause is the nobler of the two (Bastin 47). The legend continues that after Ravana is defeated, Vibhisana accompanies Rama and Sita back to India for their wedding where he receives the gift of a special Visnu shrine and sets out on his return journey to Lanka. On this return home Vibhisana decides to stop by the banks of the Kaveri River to rest. The form of Visnu (Ranganathaswamy) in the shrine seemingly decides that he likes the spot and refuses to be moved from it. Vibhisana is crestfallen at the god’s decision, so Visnu offers to face south in the direction of Lanka, and thus the south-facing Srirangam temple is established (Hari Rao 17-21). While such claims to ancient origins are not generally employed by religious studies scholars, author Rohan Bastin offers the story in his examination of a conflict in the late 1990’s between the Sinhalese and the Tamils (Bastin 48).
One of the most comprehensive outlines of the temple physically is provided by the author William Urwick. The temple itself looks as if it were a walled off town instead of a religious temple and according to the temple’s website covers one hundred and fifty six acres. Urwick asserts that the temple’s lands comprised “seven miles in circumference, and includes many bazaars and streets of Brahmans’ houses” (Urwick 58). There are twenty one gate towers or gopuras and each is flanked by massive granite pillars, above which rests “pyramids of elaborate stone carving towering up to the height of two hundred feet” (Urwick 58). Inside these massive structures one finds a pillared hall with a flat stone roof supported by one thousand columns of granite, each with a figure carved into it. These figures range from men and horses to men mounted upon rearing horses spearing tigers. Beyond that is the central shrine which is surmounted by a golden dome. Near to this four sacred elephants are stabled, and a staircase leads up to the flat stoned roof (Urwick 58). While almost all of the structures endured throughout the centuries unharmed, there was some damage done when the Muslims raided the temple’s lands in the fourteenth century.
Early political relationships of the temple with Delhi Sultans are both crude and easy to comprehend. During the three decades that the Khilji sultans occupied the throne (from 1290 C.E.-1320 C.E.) of the northern Delhi kingdoms a policy of aggressive expansion and raiding into the southern peninsula of the Indian continent was popular foreign policy. The all important Hindu dynasty Vijayanagar had not yet been founded and the only legitimate political entity in the region was severely weakened by internal conflicts (Spencer 20). This meant that when the raiding armies of the Muslims came to Srirangam there was really no organized resistance to attempt to stop them from taking what they wanted. The Muslims were focused on raiding the temple for immediate economic boon. Plunder such as elephants, jewels and gold were largely preferred (Spencer 19).
The Muslim raids that struck the temple in 1311 and 1323 C.E. had a “highly disruptive effect” upon its administration and services (Spencer 20-21). Although the temple was not destroyed in its entirety, the Muslims did cause extensive damage during their respective visits. Fire damage to gopurams was common. Many images of gods and saints were destroyed, including Visnu’s gold staff. One scholar notes that, perhaps during the lengthy second stay of the Muslims, certain wooden structures were simply left to deteriorate (Spencer 21). Before the Muslims’ arrived for the second raid the entrance to the inner sanctum was blocked with large stones. This protected the reclining form of the idol Raganatha albeit at the expense of interrupting services (Spencer 21). The southward expansion of the Islamic frontier into peninsular India, of which these raids constituted only one rather dramatic manifestation, set in motion certain wider changes in the political structure of southern India, transformations which drastically altered the temple’s relationships with the outside world. The temple also would finally begin to see the upswing in the coming Vijayanagar period.
By 1371 C.E. Vijayanagar generals had restored the sacred images to Srirangam that the Muslims had destroyed, but temple administration was in shambles and it had lost most of its lands as well as other endowments during the last half-century. The kings of this period began making a habit of granting generous gifts of land and other valuables back to the temple, many of which had been obtained militarily (Spencer 25). This was done in large part because large generous gifts could be rewarded with ceremonious honours from the temple. These titles conferred honor and legitimacy upon hero-kings and were used to establish political and ideological ties to a region, resulting in the potential for vast empires. (Spencer 25). The success of the Vijayanagar kings in this aspect helped to consolidate their regime. This also gave a momentum to the growing strength of the Tengalai school of Srivaisnavism. This patronage would eventually lead to this Southern school of Hinduism being the predominant at Srirangam.
The most important function of the modern day Srirangam temple is its hosting of many Hinduism festivals. One such festival was created during the aforementioned Vijayangara dynasty and is named after the famous king Virupanna udayer (Younger 626). According to the temple’s website Lord Ranganatha was brought to the sanctum sanctorum in 1371, shortly after the temple had been liberated from the Muslims. The sanctum was in poor condition and so in 1377 Virupanna donated seventeen thousand gold coins to cover the cost of renovations. After renovations were completed in 1383, and during the Chithrai festival, Virupanna donated fifty two villages to the temple. The festival occurs during the Tamil month of Panguni (roughly March-April) and is synonymous in the modern day with the Chithrai festival.
The most important festival for the temple is the Vaikunta Ekadashi. As one educational poster notes:
“To those with a pure heart, the gates of Vishnu’s spiritual world are always open. But on a precious few days, it is said, that passage is open to all, allowing devotees to more easily reach Vaikunta, the abode of Lord Vishnu, Supreme God to hundreds of millions of Hindus. This is the essence of Vaikunta Ekadashi, a festival marked by fasting, devotion and pilgrimage to famous temples, when devotees draw closer to God in a most personal way” (Hinduism Today)
The festival takes place during the Tamil month Margazhi (December-January). Vaikuntha Ekadashi celebrations last twenty one days and are divided into two, ten day parts known as pagal pathu (morning part) and Ira pathu (night part). Lord Vishnu as Lord Ranganatha is adorned in an armor of diamonds (rathnaangi) and is brought to the Thousand-Pillared Hall from the sanctum sanctorum through the northern gate known as Paramapada Vasal, the gate to Vaikunta. This gate is opened once in a year, only on the Vaikuntha Ekadashi day.
The temple’s website describes this occasion as the peak point of all festivals conducted in the temple. “On this day of days; Sri Ranganatha becomes a virtual king and is known as Sri Rangaraja… Devotees, engaged in non-stop bhajans, fast throughout the day and keep endless vigil during the whole night, singing and dancing to the beat of cymbals” (Srirangam Festivals).
The Hindu Blog explains that the significance of Vaikunta Ekadasi can be traced back to the Padma Purana. It is said that the Purana indicates Lord Visnu took the form of ‘Ekadasi’ – female energy – to kill the demon Muran. This happened during the month of Margazhi. Impressed by ‘Ekadasi,’ Lord Visnu told her that whoever worships him on this day will reach ‘Vaikunta’ (heaven). Like all Ekadasi days, devotees fast on this day and observe a vigil the whole night. Some people indulge in meditation, Japa and singing of Hari Kirtan. Rice is avoided during Ekadashi days as it is believed that the demon Mura finds a dwelling in the rice eaten on Ekadasi day.
Although the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple is the largest active temple in the Hindu religion, it has undergone changes in its role over time. The Muslim occupations in the fourteenth century left the temple a shell of its former self and it was not until the Vijayanagar Hindu dynasty restored much of the temple’s wealth and lands that it really got back to being a key component of the region. Nowadays the temple serves mostly as just a place of worship and it plays hosts to several important festivals, the biggest of which is the twenty one day Vaikunta Ekadasi.
References and Future Recommended Reading
Bastin, Rohan (2005) “Hindu Temples in the Sri Lankan Ethnic Conflict – Capture and Excess.” Social Analysis, pp. 45-66.
Hari Rao, V. N. (1976) History of the Srirangam Temple. Tirupati, Sri Venkateswara University Press.
Hari Rao, V.N. Koil Olugu; The chronicle of the Srirangam Temple With Historical Notes Madras: Rochouse and Sons.
Parker, Samuel K (1992) “Contemporary Temple Construction in South India: The Srirangam Rajagopuram.” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, pp. 110-123.
Smith, Bardwell L (1978) Religion and the legitimation of power in South Asia. Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill.
Spencer, George (1978) “Crisis of Authority in a Hindu Temple under the Impact of Islam.” In Religion and the legitimation of power in South Asia. Bardwell Smith ed. Leiden: Brill. pp. 14-27.
Urwick, William (1891) Indian pictures, drawn with pen and pencil. London: The Religious Tract Society.
Willis, Michael (2009) The Archaeology of Hindu Ritual: Temples and the Establishment of the Gods. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Younger, Paul (1982) “Ten Days of Wandering and Romance with Lord Rankanatan: The Pankuni Festival in Srirankam Temple, South India.” Modern Asian Studies, pp. 623-656.
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Article written by: Kyle Cantelon (March 2012) who is solely responsible for its content.