Palani is a hallowed kshetra, being one of the Arupadaiveedu- the six sacred shrines associated with Muruga/Karthikeya/Subrahmanya. This is a hill temple, located on the eponymous hillock, which stands 1500 feet over sea level. Palani is also known as Tiruavinankudi because of the town of the same name located at the foot of the hill. Here there is a vast and ancient temple dedicated to Murugan where he is seen as a child seated on a peacock.

Murugan on the hill is in the form of Andi – one who has renounced the entire world. The principal deity is two armed, clad in just a loin cloth, shaven headed and carrying a staff in one hand. Because of the last attribute, the Lord here is also known as Dhandayudhapani. Legend has it that a divine fruit was offered by Lord Shiva to whichever of his two sons went around the world in the shortest possible time. Muruga embarked on his peacock, quite confident that Ganesha with his portly form and the rat for a mount would never be able to achieve it. Even as Muruga flew around the earth, Ganesha simply circumambulated his parents, stating that they were the world to him. He consequently got the fruit. When Muruga returned, he was enraged at what he felt was Ganesha’s trickery. He promptly renounced the world and decided to meditate on a hilltop. At the same time, the sage Agastya was moving South for his meditation and asked his giant of a disciple Idumban to carry two hillocks from the North, to be placed at whichever spot the sage chose for his hermitage. Idumban slung the two hillocks from a bamboo frame suspended across his shoulder and began marching south. At a particular spot he felt tired and having set the two hillocks down he rested. Muruga appeared at that moment and settled on one of the two. When Idumban rose to leave he could not lift the hillocks. A fierce battle ensued between Muruga and Idumban in which the latter was killed and later restored to life. He requested Muruga of two boons – the first was that the Lord would be propitiated by anyone who would carry the kavadi – a symbolic representation of his act of carrying the two hillocks. The second was that he, Idumban would stay guard over the entrance to the Lord’s shrine. These were granted and even today the kavadi is a frequently adopted practice, with devotees bringing votive offerings slung on their shoulders or simple bearing a palanquin like structure. The kAvaDi chindu is a folk-music form that is therefore associated with Murugan shrines. The temple for Idumban stands halfway up the hill. Shiva and Parvati came in search of their son and appeased him by saying that to them he (ni in the second person) was the fruit (Pazham). The shrine became Palani.

The main idol of Muruga in the temple is believed to have been fashioned out of nine poisons (navapashanam) by Bhoga Siddhar. The idol is therefore said to have remarkable curative properties and great is the demand for the panchamritams and other unguents with which it is anointed. Today the idol is said to be in a fragile state consequent to repeated ritual bathing. The processional idol is that of an endearing child. Palani town and shrine are bustling centres today, ever thronged by pilgrims. Though most people prefer to climb the hill, there is also a winch service. There are festivals galore at this pilgrim town. In March/April, Panguni Uthiram is celebrated for ten days at the Tiruavinankudi shrine, when the processional deity of that temple, Muthukumaraswami, is brought out on a series of mounts in the company of his consorts. In October/November is celebrated Kanda Shashti. This is a six-day festival and the processional deity from Palani Hill, known as Chinna Kumarar is taken out in processions. Thai Poosam is observed in January/February. Kavadis are taken out on nearly all days of the year and during the festivals, the numbers go up.

Palani has been a centre for the arts from time immemorial. As a shrine to Muruga it has fostered Tamil as a classical language. In his Tirumurgatruppadai, Nakkeerar sings of Palani as being the third of the six Arupadai Veedu. Arunagirinatha, in the 15th century has sung around 95 verses on the Palani temple. This group begins with the popular nAdavindukalAdi namO nama. The verses mention either Avinankudi or Palani. shivanArmanam kuLira is a popular stanza from this set as also is apakAra nindai.

Among the Carnatic Trinity, it was Muttuswami Dikshitar who travelled to Palani. He dedicated his daNDAyudhapANim in Ananda bhairavi to the deity. This is a grand composition and in the caraNam Dikshitar performs worship using the five elements as his ingredients. His composition is in chaste Sanskrit but Murugan being essentially a Tamil deity, it is in that classical language that the bulk of songs on Palani are composed.

Perhaps the most prolific composer on Palani after Arunagirinatha is the little-known Doraiswami Kavirayar who lived in Madras in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He composed 59 kirtanais on the deity and these are known as Palani Andavar kirtanais. He also composed verses in formats such as vENba, kaliturai, pAmAlai, antAdi and padigam. These compositions came to the fore in the 1940s when the Tamil Isai Movement gained ground. The faculty of the Annamalai University had much to with compiling compositions in Tamil. A prominent contributor to this effort was the vainika VS Gomathisankara Iyer who collected all the songs of Doraiswami Kavirayar with notation. Iyer also composed songs and two of his varnams are on Palani. The one in asAvEri/Adi is featured here.

Papanasam Sivan is a name that needs no introduction. This vaggEyakAra of the 20th century has left us several wonderful compositions on Palani. Perhaps the most famous one is kA vA vA in varALi, a song that gained prominence thanks to the mellifluous rendition of Madurai Mani Iyer. The lyricist Periasami Tooran also created several songs on Palani as did the late 20th century composer D Pattammal. Another prolific composer on Palani was Kovai Subri.

Interestingly, Palani has also had a powerful performing tradition in percussion. Palani Rangappayyar was a name to contend with in percussion as were the father-son duo of Palani Muthiah Pillai and Subramania Pillai. Today, a nagaswaram college, perhaps the only one of its kind flourishes in this town.

No write-up on Palani can be complete without mention of KB Sundarambal, the theatre artiste, Carnatic singer and film personality. She was practically synonymous with her song –Pazham nI appA. She was deeply attached to this temple and was a frequent visitor.

This was written as a sleeve note for CDW’s album on Palani, sung by Prasanna Venkataraman