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The temple at Thirukurungudi: flights of fancy in stone, wood and words.

   The cool moonlight breeze.
   Is heavy with the scent of jasmines.
   It burns my soul and leaves me sleepless for yet another night.
   Let my companions prattle on,
   Take me to him in Thirukurungudi.

   The morning drags on to dusk
   Every hour at night stretches to eternity
   The cool breeze is like leaping tongues of fire
   Take me to him in Thirukurungudi,
   Where the peacocks dance.

"Periya Thirumozhi" of Thirumangai Azhwar, 9.5.2 and 3

THE VERSES OF THE SAINT THIRUMANGAI AZHWAR, CIRCA 8TH CENTURY, which refer to the Azhagiya Nambi Rayar temple in Thirukurungudi in Tamil Nadu's Tirunelveli district, may be interpreted in a philosophical sense, as expressive of the soul's yearning for union with the eternal one. Legend has it that this saint who was once a bandit, after travelling all the way up to Nepal to sing of Vishnu shrines, chose to live his last days in Thirukurungudi. The temple is administered by a monastery once known as Thirumangai Matam and now as Thiru Jeeyar Matam. Though it is sacred to Vaishnavas, specifically of the Tenkalai subcaste, it also includes shrines to Shiva that follow the Shaiva worship protocol.

The temple is set in one of India's most scenic locales, beside the Nambi river and against the backdrop of the Western Ghats on the southern Tamil Nadu-Kerala border. The site is surrounded by mountains, a bird sanctuary, paddy fields and coconut groves that contribute to the enchantment of visiting devotees.

For Tamil-speaking Vaishnavas, the verses of the 12 saints known as Azhwars (or Alwars, the name meaning "immersed", and here specifically "immersed in Vishnu") are comparable to the Vedic hymns. The Azhwars lived between the 4th and 8th centuries and sang in Tamil about how the path to salvation was an easy one, Vishnu being the divinity most accessible to devotees who yearned to merge with the universal spirit. The saints specifically mention 108 abodes of Vishnu, 106 on earth and two in heaven. It is the desire of all Tamil-speaking Vaishnavas to visit all 106 earthly abodes at least once in their lifetime.

Out of the 106, 11 are on the banks or close to the Tambraparni river. Thirukurungudi and nearby Nanguneri are close to rivers that feed into the Tambraparni; the remaining nine temples are collectively called Nava Tirupati. All these temples, have been extolled in song by only Nammazhwar (who was born in Azhwar Thirunagari, one of the Nava Tirupati), except for Thirukurungudi, which has been sung by Nammazhwar, Thirumangai Azhwar and two others--and that makes it even more special. The Nambi Rayar temple is just 53 kilometres from the old Chera capital of Padmanabhapuram (in southern Tamil Nadu) and 116 kilometres from their later capital Thiruvananthapuram (in Kerala). It is 206 kilometres from Madurai, the capital of the Pandya and Madurai Nayak dynasties. This location ensured that it received gifts from all three dynasties.

There are several temples close by that have fine sculptures. Srivaikuntam, Nellaiappar, Krishnapuram, and Tenkasi temples all have beautiful sculptures from Nayak times. None however has the range of themes and finesse the Nambi Rayar temple has, concentrated in just one structure. The Nayak period is generally considered a time when sculptures lacked imagination, were rigid and conventional; however the Chitra Gopuram of the Nambi Rayar temple alone shatters that myth and can easily claim the status of being one of the most inspired structures created in this period in Tamil Nadu.

We do not know the date of consecration of the Nambi Rayar temple. Verses and inscriptions from the 8th century tell us that it was already an important temple by that time. However, much of the 18 acres (over 7 hectares) that the temple walls enclose were built only in the 17th century when for some reason, the 8th-century structure was greatly enlarged. Among the most important additions is the Chitra Gopuram (meaning an artistic or beautiful towered entranceway).

The temple layout can be divided into three areas, the entrance area before the Chitra Gopuram, the Chitra Gopuram and the inner precincts of the temple that include all the shrines. Each of these displays interesting sculptural work that we shall describe below.

Entrance Area before the Chitra Gopuram

The entrance to the temple is through the main half-finished gopuram that is over 40 metres long and 24 metres thick. This structure has

several small alcoves, each of which has a bas relief. Two unique aspects are evident here. First, the themes are both Shaiva and Vaishnava, which is very unusual for Tamil Nadu that had by the 17th century been completely polarized on religious lines. Perhaps this eclectic outlook was a result of the temple's proximity to Kerala, or maybe because it was funded by Nayak rulers in Madurai who post the reign of Thirumalai Nayak were increasingly looking at ways to bring the two warring subsects together. Unusual sculptural themes include a depiction of Saturn with his mount, the crow. A second noteworthy feature are the massive wooden doors towering to 7.5 metres but easily opened by a very ingenious mechanism of levers.

Next is a mandapa or hall with eight magnificent pillars, all with very finely carved, 2-metre-high sculptures, largely free-standing. Each of the images has an interplay of folk as well as classical themes. None of them is painted, except for the white and black in the eyes. All of them have very high detail, which seems almost impossible to believe for a stone as hard as granite. Each gemstone of the many ornaments that adorn the figures from head to toe, every fold of the garments and even the striations in the bamboo of the bows have been painstakingly carved. The veins in the feet and the nails of the hands are also delineated; however the faces themselves are hard and angular.

The sculptors have not lost their creativity in their attention to detail. The pillars behind these sculptures are simple compositions of alternate square and octagonal blocks. At each intersection is the usual Naga bandham--a cobra-shaped motif that fills the gap between the square's corner and the side of the octagon. One of these has a little crouching monkey instead--the sculptor has innovated here while still following the process of embellishing this space. The panels here are mostly decorative, but one depicts the endangered blackbuck, once common in these parts.

Also in this area once stood a rare brick granary for rice from the 17th century, round in shape. Sadly, that was recently demolished.

The Chitra Gopuram connects the entrance area to the inner temple complex. This structure has a base of 21 x 11.5 metres. It is 29 metres tall. Its base is of stone and the rest of brick. The stone is beautifully carved as are the interiors of the five-level brick superstructure. Panel sizes range from some that are just 10 centimetres square to others 4.5 metres long. Every one of them demonstrates the sculptors' careful attention to detail, and many of the themes are found nowhere else.

The doorway inside the gopuram is a towering 5.5 metres tall and 3 metres wide with single stones for the lintel structure. The ceilings are superbly carved with religious themes and floral design motifs. The upper walls have unique panels--Arab merchants bringing their trade to shore, laden on camels. Another shows the life-cycle of a bird. Birds figure prominently in the temple sculptures and verses: for example, a verse relating to the temple by another Azhwar, Thirumazhisai Azhwar, praises a crow that pecked at a palm fruit to eat it and held on to it and perished as the fruit fell into a river. The lesson here is how persistent the bird was, and how we need to have that kind of unflinching dedication as we seek out Vishnu. Ottakoothar, a 12th-century Chola poet, sings of how the cranes and egrets in the town choke on the surfeit of fishes available to eat.

There are probably more than 2,000 stone and wood relief panels on the Chitra Gopuram--these need detailed documentation. Here we may draw some broad conclusions about their subjects and methods of narration.

A cursory look shows the primary subjects to be the stories of Krishna from the Bhagavata Purana, episodes from the Ramayana and Shaiva themes. However, looking more closely, several nature-inspired themes are evident as well.

The ceilings within are split into rectangular compartments, each with six or nine panels. The sculptures include various forms of Vishnu (some depicting Narasimha with 12 hands), Devi, Ganesha and Lakshmi. Shiva and Parvati are also commonly shown. The beams that criss-cross the panels are carved as well, and the wall brackets that support the panels have free-standing wooden sculptures of female figures, gods and goddesses, and demons.

A few wooden panels depict rotund men making passes at buxom women. Detailed attention is given to animals, tigers, elephants, boars and leopards being the common ones represented here. The tigers have been given short wavy stripes and the leopards have spots, so no detail has been missed. One pillar has a delightful scene of a hunter praying for mercy to a wild boar, while his companion is in a tree watching in fright. On an adjacent pillar is depicted a scene where both hunters have thrown spears at the boar that have missed their target, and the enraged boar has flung one hunter into the air. The wood-carver has left the viewer to imagine the final outcome.

The ceiling of the fourth-level has even more innovative panels, of the incarnations of Vishnu, including Buddha, Narasimha in various forms, and one of the deity on his mount Garuda; while the final floor has a boat-shaped ceiling with no panels, but with each buttress having carved images--some of men in comical postures.

The stone sculptures on both the external surfaces of the base structure are just as detailed and thematically unique. A spectacular image in stone is of Rama holding a drawn bow with arrow in the act of threatening to unleash this on the Sea God if the latter does not cooperate in creating a bridge to Lanka. Beside this is an image, only about 30 centimetres square, of Krishna stealing butter from pots suspended from the ceiling. Both have sharp detailing; the Rama panel even has waves in the foreground. Other stone panels include two rare ones, possibly found nowhere else in the Tamil region. One is of Bhima unsuccessfully trying to lift the tail of Hanuman. The sculptor has emphasized Bhima's gargantuan proportions by showing clouds on either side, and has deliberately shrunk Hanuman and given him a crouching position. The other panel is from the story of Garuda's meeting with his father. Here the half-eagle, half-human figure carries in his beak a branch of a tree on which sit four meditating sages, and in his talons an elephant and a tortoise.

A particularly fine wooden panel on an interior wall of the gopuram is of Kamsa killing the eighth child of Vasudeva and Devaki. On the left extreme Kamsa is shown taking the child and then holding up the child by its legs. In front is a river with all the previous children killed by Kamsa floating on the surface; on the extreme right is Maya Devi laughing at Kamsa's folly. Interestingly, Kamsa's body is shown twice but with one pair of legs for both--the message being the speed with which he attempted to kill the child. Here action and movement are shown in the same panel. The same device to emphasize movement is apparent in a small roundel on the north side of the base--this shows a deer with one body but four necks and heads at different angles, thereby indicating the animal's alert and watchful nature.

The Inner Temple Complex

Beyond the Chitra Gopuram is the main temple complex. Within the complex on the right is the Virappa Nayaka Mandapam. Was this built for Muthu Virappa Nayaka (1609-23) or for one of the two Nayak rulers of similar name who ruled later in the same century? Large 3-metre carvings on the pillars of the mandapam include two of Narasimha--one catching the wicked Hiranya and the second, tearing him apart. The figure of Hiranya is smaller to exaggerate the ferocity of the multi-armed Narasimha. Among the sculptures of the Nayak queens, one wears the entire tiruman or Vaishnava caste mark that only men wear. Two pillars have images of Bhima and a Purushamriga--a satyr of sorts, with human body but animal's legs. Their story is found in the Tamil version of the Mahabharata. Shiva temples have the Purushamriga motif, but to see them in southern Tamil Nadu and in such numbers is rare. Also noteworthy are a pair of yali (mythical composite animal) sculptures that have freely rotating stone balls inside their mouths--all of them carved from the same stone. Finally, we may take note of the sculpture of a Kurati (woman from the hunter community of the hills) with a prince. Although from a caste that would not have been allowed into the temple when this pillar was commissioned, the Kurati and her male counterpart, the Kuravan, are found frequently in the foth-iyth century additions in this area. Perhaps they were part of literature the artisans were fond of.

Towards the centre of this massive, pillared space is a smaller enclosure that is the core of the temple. The three independently standing shrines for Vishnu--standing, seated and reclining--are the oldest structures in the temple and date surely from the 8th century. The main deities are made of stucco and painted. Adjoining these are subsidiary shrines for Shiva and Bhairava, both excellent examples of stonework. In the old days, before the sacred food offering was made to the main Vishnu shrine, the priest in the adjacent Shiva shrine would be respectfully asked if the food had been offered to the Shiva shrine and only then would the food for the main shrine pass through.

Also in this area are several uniquely designed lamps--many reflecting interesting amalgamations of Kerala and Tamil Nadu styles. Among the bronze images, of particular interest is one of Rama, whose prabhavali (aureole) on the back has a cobra; and with a removable decorative fixture shaped like an open flower above the yali at the top.

The Temple's Inscriptions

Besides the shrines of the Thirukurungudi temple, inscriptions are found in the neighbouring Thiruparkadal temple. The Malaimel Nambi temple in the hills close by also has a damaged 8th-century inscription. Of the 35 inscriptions at Thirukurungudi, 27 are in the main temple. Of these sadly only three have been published since the 19th century.

The oldest is a fragment from the 10th century that records a donation of a "nandha vilakku" or a lamp that had to be kept lit throughout the day and night. For this, 50 goats were also donated.

On the entrance of the Chitra Gopuram is a long inscription. It records how water from Uchi Malai flowed down through the Paralai river. In 1313, a stone dam was constructed to divert the water to the northern river and a canal in Kalakkad. However by 1673 this had fallen into disuse. The inscription states that Ayyapallai Ayyan, the temple maniyam (officer), deputed Tirumalai Servaikaran and Tirumalai Asari to repair the dam and clean the canal to bring water back. This dates the Chitra Gopuram to the 17th century.

Another inscription on the wall of the inner sanctum states that the monastery that administers the temple was created in the 14th century as the Thirumangai Matam with offerings for Tridandi sanyasis (mendicants who have taken three vows).

Most inscriptions record gifts of land, usually in villages close by but also in far off Kerala referred to as Malai Nadu. Kaladi and Meithuruthi are two places mentioned. Most of these inscriptions are from the 13th century during the reign of Maravarman Sundara Pandyan. One of them mentions food offerings, of 10 padi (16 kilograms) of amuthu (rice), with proportionate quantities of kari amuthu (vegetables), nei amuthu (ghee), elai amuthu (betel leaves) and adaikai amuthu (areca nuts). To enable this food offering, Purusha Narayana Per Eri, a large lake, was donated to the temple. The funds generated from fishing rights and charges for water supply to fields were used to buy materials for the feast. Other towns mentioned include Sri Vallabha Chaturvedi Mangalam (Tirunelveli today) and Tiru Muthukuti (Tenkasi today).

During the Muslim invasion, the Azhagar deity from Thirumaliruncholai near Madurai was brought here, and locals still call the area after that deity. When the deity went back, some of the devotees chose to stay behind, and one of them--a devadasi dancer called Alankara Valli--donated her lands to the temple in Thirukurungudi in the 16th century.

Another inscription on the wall of the inner enclosure states that in 1571 during the reign of Sadasiva Rayar, the Kerala king Udaya Marthandan along with his queens donated a garden through Mahabali Vanathirayan, a local chieftain. The large bell in front of the main shrine has a Tamil inscription that records its gift by Aditya Varma. The Kollam year corresponds to 1468.

A 13th-century inscription on the wall of the inner enclosure mentions Malava Chakravarti constmcting the Azhagiya Manavala Perumal shrine in memory of his father.

For those interested in colonial history, the southern street that separates the temple from the river has an interesting inscription. Two small stones, one almost built over and the other heavily painted, simply say, "Levinge Agraharam--1849". It is said that the houses on this street had been regularly damaged when the river overflowed its banks, and in course of time, had vanished. Vere Henry Levinge, who was then sub-collector for these parts, had the banks rebuilt, the houses restored and the village's brahman community settled in them. Levinge went on to become collector of Madurai and is remembered for creating the lake at Kodaikanal in 1863.

A Unique Theatrical Performance

Every devout Vaishnava Tamil remembers the town of Thirukurungudi in the month of Kartikai (November-December) on Ekadasi (the 11th day from the new moon or full moon). Every month has two, but this one is special and called Kaisika Ekadasi--Kaisika being an ancient raga in Carnatic music, corresponding to Bhairavi in Hindustani music. On this evening, even today, a five-hour dance drama is staged in the Nambi Rayar temple, celebrating the story of Nam Paduvan.

The story is in the form of 92 stanzas in Sanskrit and occurs in the Varaha Purana. Parasara Bhattar (c. 12th century) has written a commentary to this text, but strangely no direct representations of the story can be seen on the temple walls. Perhaps the theatre tradition was a post-17th-century phenomenon?

The story is of Nam Paduvan (literally, "one who sings of me", so obviously not a real name), a Harijan devotee of the deity who could not enter the temple but sang outside around 3 am every morning. One day, while returning from the temple, he was accosted by a Brahma Rakshasa--a brahman who has become a demon as a result of not fulfilling his duties. The rakshasa wanted to eat Nam Paduvan but at his request gave him another day, for the next day was Ekadasi. Nam Paduvan promised the rakshasa that he would return the following day, saying that if he did not keep his promise his punishment would be equal to that for committing 18 sins, including not keeping one's word, differentiating between fellow worshippers while serving food, taking back a gift of land given to a brahman, enjoying sexual union with a lady but forsaking her after that, having sexual intercourse after performing rituals on new moon days, not giving another something despite promising to, failure to bathe and perform ceremonies on certain auspicious days, marrying twice and treating one wife unfairly, speaking ill of women who are devoted to their husbands, luring a married woman, addiction to liquor, stealing gold, ill-treating cattle, divorcing a woman without supporting her as she suffers, praying to deities other than Vishnu and--the final clincher--the sin accrued from equating other deities to Vishnu.

The next day, after Nam Paduvan sang in the Kaisika Pann (raga) he returned to the same spot even though an old man had advised him to not keep his word. The rakshasa didn't want to commit the sin of eating a truthful person and instead asked Nam Paduvan to help him regain his original form. Nam Paduvan refused but after hearing much pleading, gave him the merit he had earned by singing that night. With just this, the rakshasa was transformed into his original self--Soma Sharman--and he blessed Nam Paduvan.

The story ends with Vishnu saying that those who listen and recite this story on the Ekadasi of Kartikai month shall be his favourite devotees.

Originally this story was enacted by members of the devadasi community. The man playing the rakshasa would stay within the temple completely secluded for a few days before the performance, cooking his own meals. He would go into a trance as he wore the mask on the day of the performance. Much of the original performance was discontinued in the 20th century but it has been revived and, in the last decade, draws more and more people who are reminded on that day that the path to Vishnu is open to all irrespective of caste, and that keeping one's word and selfless devotion are indeed the most important services to the Lord. In other Vishnu temples the story is read, but in Thirukurungudi it is actually enacted with music and commentaries.

In addition to the Kaisika Ekadasi, the temple celebrates other festivals that are important in the Vaishnava calendar. The entire village revolves around the temple especially during these festivals; and even during the rest of the year, everyone visits the temple at least once a day.


Since it is in the list of 106 important temples, the Nambi Rayar temple in Thirukurungudi sees several pilgrims, but none stops and looks at the sculptures, preferring to rush in, pray and rush out. They also hurry to visit the nearby Thiruparkadal and Malaimel Nambi temples. It is this writer's fervent hope that in the near future the wooden and stone treasures in the Chitra Gopuram will be appreciated and studied in greater detail by both travellers and by scholars who can in turn help in its conservation and preservation. This structure is a precious part of India's heritage that deserves more attention.

Caption: 1 Sculpture depicting Shani (Saturn) on his crow mount in the hall of the outer gopuram at the entrance to the Nambi Rayar temple. Images of Shani are rare, that too in a Vishnu temple. Photograph: Abhinav Asokh.

Caption: 2 The ceiling of the Chitra Gopuram has horizontal stone beams at least 3 metres long, with intricate sculptures such as this Gajalakshmi.

Caption: 3 View of the Chitra Gopuram of the Azhagiya Nambi Rayar temple in Thirukurungudi. Photograph: Abhinav Asokh.

Caption: 4 Very detailed carving in the Chitra Gopuram, done in hard granite with the delicacy of ivory carving. The simple kumbha pancharam (stylized pillar emerging from the base of a pot) decorative motif in the centre becomes an elaborate carving here.

Caption: 5 Krishna themes are popular throughout the interior of the Chitra Gopuram. Notice the vessels in this panel which is just a foot (c. 30 centimetres) square.

Caption: 6 A fine representation of Dakshinamurti, just c. 30 centimetres high, in the Chitra Gopuram. The position of fingers, facial features, and popularity of Shaiva themes in a Vaishnava temple, all point to a heavy influence of Kerala traditions in this temple.

Caption: 7 The Virappa Nayaka Mandapam has large sculptures on all its pillars. This is of a Kurati (woman from the hunter community of the hills) with a prince. Notice the attention given to the basket-weave.

Caption: 8 Carvings of horses and elephants formed out of human and bird figures are found throughout the Chitra Gopuram. These are usually not more than 30 centimetres tall, sometimes smaller.

Caption: 9 Close to the temple is a large lake that is a spot for migrating birds. Both poems and sculptures in the temple frequently feature birds, this panel in the Chitra Gopuram showing a bird's stages of development.

Except for figures 1 and 3 all photographs by Sunder Gurusamy.


Champakalakshmi, R., Vaisnava Iconography in the Tamil Country, New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1981.

Kaisika Puranam, Bhattar Vyakhyanathudan, Nanguneri: published by P. Krishna Iyengar and Family, date not mentioned.

Lakshmi Narasimhan, K.K.C., A Study of Vaikhanasa Iconography, Mumbai: Ananthacharya Indological Research Institute, 2007.

Santalingam, C. et al., "Tirukumngudi Kalvettukal", in Avanam (published by the Tamil Nadu Archaeological Society, Thanjavur), Vol. 24, 2013, pp. 157-82.


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Title Annotation:PERSPECTIVES
Author:Chakravarthy, Pradeep
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Mar 1, 2015
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