This article appeared in Housecalls, the in-house magazine of Dr Reddy’s Labs

Tiruvarur is not probably a name that comes readily to mind when you think of Tamil Nadu, its rich cultural heritage, temples and tradition. Chances are that first of mind recall would be Tanjavur, Madurai or Chidambaram. Unlike Tanjavur or Madurai, Tiruvarur does not take your breath away in terms of temple towers and a profusion of sculptures. But like Chidambaram it was a crucible of the arts and its iconography is full of mystic significance. Most importantly perhaps, it played a very important role in the development of South Indian classical music and dance.

Nobody is very certain as to when the temple here was built. It must have existed from very ancient times for two mythical Chola kings – Muchukunda who is said to have assisted the Gods in a battle against the Demons, and Manunithi, who was known for his strict adherence to law, are associated with the shrine. In the 9th century, Aditya Chola had the temple built in granite and later, the temple was reconstructed in stone by the imperial Cholas – Raja Raja I and Rajendra. It exercised its fascination over the subsequent dynasties of the Vijayanagar rulers, the Nayaks and the Marathas, the last two of whom ruled from Tanjavur. Over the centuries it grew in power and stature, becoming a great pilgrimage centre. As royal patronage grew, the temple expanded in physical area, with several ceremonial halls, sub-shrines and processional deities. It also acquired a wealth of murals on its walls. It also became famous for its festivals and celebrations. A vast number of artistes – dancers, pipers and drummers, became employees of the temple thereby making it the home for the arts.

Tiruvarur is situated between Tanjavur and the port town of Nagapattinam and is therefore close to the fertile delta of the river Kaveri. Today it is a district headquarter but most ironically its heyday was when it was a small village dominated by the temple. The temple still dominates the town, spanning as it does an area of 20 acres. And even larger is its tank, the Kamalalaya which spans 25 acres. It is so big that it has an island in its midst, with another temple dedicated to Shiva on it, accessible only by boat.

You reach Tiruvarur by train from Chennai and if you are near Kumbakonam or Trichy, the journey is better done by road. And when you reach the town, all you need to ask for is the temple and any of the local residents will guide you to it. If you can take your eyes off the tank, you can proceed to the temple. The deities of this temple are unique in several respects. The sanctum has an anthill that is worshipped as a Shiva Linga, here referred to as Valmiki (anthill) Natha (Lord). Though the anthill has ossified into stone, it is still considered to be of sand and so, unlike other Shiva Lingas, this is not bathed with water everyday. On the other hand it is anointed with civet oil, which gives out a unique fragrance.

More famous than the deity in the sanctum is the processional icon, known as Tyagaraja or the Lord of Sacrifice. Tyagaraja or Tyagesa is clearly made of metal and iconographically it is the standard representation of a Somaskanda, ie Shiva in the company of his consort Uma with Skanda, their infant son between them. This is the processional icon in most of the Shiva temples of Tamil Nadu. What makes Tyagesa unique is that he and his consort are forever covered with flowers and decorations, leaving only the faces exposed. Till date, none but the temple priests have ever seen the rest of the image. “What is the flaw in your body that you hide it and show only your face?” sang Papavinasa Mudaliar, a 16th century Tamil composer. Twice a year, Tyagesa deigns to display his feet – the right one sometime in December/January and the left one in August/September.

The icon is said to have been fashioned without a chisel by the divine sculptor Viswakarma and given to Vishnu for his daily worship. Vishnu in turn gave it to Indra, the king of the gods. When Indra was besieged by the Rakshasas he sought the help of Muchukunda, the Chola king. When the duo emerged victorious, a pleased Indra asked Muchukunda to name his reward. He was in for a shock for the Chola king wanted the Tyagesa idol. Indra thought quickly and asked Muchukunda to return the next day. When he came, there was a challenge in store for him. There were seven identical icons and he was told he could have Tyagesa if he managed to identify the original. Muchukunda with the help of Shiva’s grace managed to select the correct one and Indra had to give in. He also gave the other six to Muchukunda and asked him to install them at locations around his capital- Tiruvarur. This Muchukunda did, keeping the original at Tiruvarur. Even today there are six temples with Tyagesa icons around Tiruvarur. Interestingly, Muchukunda is said to have had the face of a monkey. In his previous life he is said to have been one and when he pleased God with his devotion he was blessed with the boon that in his succeeding birth he would be a king. The monkey prayed that it should always remember it’s past and be humble and so was allowed to be born a human with a simian cast.

Though it is covered with flowers, it is believed that Tyagesa is ever in a cosmic dance and so when the idol is brought out in procession, it is carried in a special palanquin with bearers who adopt a particular gait to give the impression that the deity is dancing. This is a sight to behold and the religious fervour of all those around makes it a unique experience. Interestingly, the other six Tyagesa idols situated in the vicinity also dance when they are brought out in procession. And here is the surprise element – each of the seven has a different gait that needs to be practised and perfected by the bearers before they bring it out in procession. Each of the seven dances has a different name and has come down through the generations, for bearing the deity in procession was for long a hereditary right.
The temple has in its possession a unique percussion instrument with five faces. Known as the Panchamukha vadya, it is played at certain times of the day.

Rather unusually, there are two shrines for the Goddess in this temple. The wife of Tyagesa is Nilotpalamba or the Goddess of the Blue Lily who has her sanctum close to the Tyagesa shrine. The processional icon of this Goddess shows her twining her little finger around the hand of her child – Skanda. Far to the rear of the temple is a separate shrine for another Goddess – Kamalamba – She of the Lotus. This deity is unusual for it depicts the Goddess in a seated posture with her legs crossed. Such an iconographic representation is not seen anywhere else in India. This Goddess is said to be ever in penance, praying for union with Tyagesa. It is believed that this will happen only when the universe will come to an end and that will be augured by three events – a barren cow giving milk, a stone chariot in the temple courtyard moving by itself and the Kamalalaya Tank drying up. Fortunately, the tank has never gone dry!
All three, Tyagesa, Nilotpalamba and Kamalaba sport a unique headgear – a band of flowers ending with two large circlets over the ears. There are 16 sub shrines in this temple dedicated to Ganesa, the elephant headed god who removes obstacles. Each Ganesa is different, ranging from the Vatapi Ganapati to the esoteric Ucchishta Ganapati. The space fronting the last named deity is said to have been the venue for tantric rites. In keeping with this, the Ganapati has a goddess on his lap and his trunk is embedded in her pudenda! The icon is kept demurely shrouded under a cloth today. Some of the other sub-shrines are also interesting. In the courtyard are sanctums dedicated to Shiva as the five elements. Of these, the shrine depicting the sky is a pit with nothing in it. Another is so built that no ray of the sun ever enters it. A lone lamp illuminates the sanctum.

Tiruvarur is famous for its endless temple festivals and the most famous of these is the day when the temple chariot is brought out in procession, with Tyagesa in it. The Tiruvarur Ther (chariot) is an art connoisseur’s delight. Devoid of its trappings and embellishments, it is octagonal in shape with four segments. The widest of these segments is at the top and forms the pedestal on which the idol of Tyagaraja is placed during the procession. The lower segments are profusely embellished with carvings depicting episodes from the myths and legends. The height of the chariot is around 10 metres and on either side it has wooden wheels, each 2.59 metres in diameter. In its undecorated state, the chariot weighs 26 tonnes.

The chariot festival takes place during the annual celebrations or Brahmotsavam which fall in the month of Pankuni (March/April). The Ther is one of the highlights of this festival and work begins on decorating the chariot long in advance. It is fitted with a curved canopy that is essentially a wooden frame on which brocade cloth is fitted. From this canopy hang thombais- cylindrical, brightly coloured cloth festoons that are unique to Tamil Nadu. The canopy and the thombais account for 3000 metres of cloth. These and other decorations when fitted add significantly to the weight of the chariot and its height. In its full assembly that chariot weighs 400 tonnes and rises to 30 metres. The spectacle is said to be so beautiful that Tyagaraja when seated on it is said to suffer from the proverbial evil eye- from those who envy his car and its beauty. Ceremonies are performed to ward off the negative impact of this ill-will. Dance was an integral part of the chariot festival with the Kondis, a unique lineage of female dancers attached to the temple performing as the chariot set out. This is not practised any longer though descendants of the family still receive traditional honours.

The chariot/ther rolls out on the 15th day of the annual festivities to accompaniment of loud cries of “Aroora! Tyagesa!”. Tirunavukkarasar, the Nayanmar of the 7th Century sings of Tiruvarur as the place where he saw the Lord on the great chariot. As is the practice in Tiruvarur for all its festivals, the music that is to accompany the chariot is strictly codified. These are believed to have been structured by Ramaswami Dikshitar, father of the famed music composer Muttuswami Dikshitar (1776-1835). The icon of Tyagaraja is removed from its sanctum and brought to the chariot with a certain set of ragas being performed on the nagaswaram (the traditional South Indian woodwind instrument). Once the icon is placed in the chariot, the ther mallari, a unique composition is performed on the nagaswaram. The chariot is then ready to move with its ropes being distributed among the volunteers who drag it. As it rolls along the four principal streets, different ragas and pieces, all following a set pattern are performed on the nagaswaram. Muttuswami Dikshitar in his song Tyagaraja Mahadhwajaroha describes the temple festival in its entirety and sings of the chariot.

The Tiruvarur Ther also became famous for its swaying gait and slowness, again coining an expression in Tamil to depict anybody who is slow and refuses to move easily. The latter aspect became a greater problem with the streets slowly getting congested and the difficulty in getting the chariot to negotiate corners. There have been instances of the chariot being brought back to its shed a full six months after it set out on its run. In the years approaching independence, economic conditions, the absence of volunteers and the Herculean task of organising the festival led to murmurs of discontent and the chariot festival was abandoned in 1947.

It had to wait a good twenty years for its revival. In 1969, the Chief Minister of the State Mr M Karunanidhi, who hailed from the Tiruvarur region, felt that the chariot was a symbol of Tamil pride and that the festival ought to be revived. The public sector undertaking, M/S Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited was brought into the picture and the pulling of the chariot was made easier through the introduction of giant wheels with iron rims and hydraulic brakes. Bulldozers were brought in to push the car from behind and reduce the manual effort. The public thronged back to pull the ropes. As a concession to tradition, the use of wooden blocks to help the chariot negotiate corners was retained. The chariot moved once again and has since been in use. The annual festival draws thousands of pilgrims but the day the chariot is brought out sees the maximum crowds.

The Tiruvarur Ther marks the successful collaboration of tradition, modern engineering, political will and religious fervour. In many ways it is symbolic of Tamil Nadu. Its shape and structure were the inspirations for the Valluvar Kottam, a unique architectural icon of Chennai city.

Another colourful festival is that of the float which precedes the annual festival. For three nights a huge decorated float moves around the tank carrying the deities in it. The public is allowed to sit along with the deity and live traditional music performances take place as the float moves. It takes around two hours for each round and the float moves thrice around the tank each night. On the banks several thousands line up to watch the illuminated float and the fireworks that are let off.

Tiruvarur town is also the birthplace of the Carnatic music trinity – Syama Sastry (1762-1827), Tyagaraja (1767-1847) and Muttuswami Dikshitar (1775-1835). The houses in which they were born were later acquired by a trust which built memorials for them at the spots. Though not aesthetically appealing, they serve to commemorate three geniuses who between them, revolutionized South Indian classical music, rather like Bach, Beethoven and Mozart in the world of Western Classical Music. Of the Trinity, Muttuswami Dikshitar is completely associated with Tiruvarur. Several of his compositions are in praise of the deities here. The Maratha ruler Shahaji, who ruled over the region between 1684 and 1712, was devoted to this shrine. It was said that he would not partake of his afternoon meal without the puja for Tyagesa being concluded. To convey the information that the worship had concluded, a series of bells were installed between Tiruvarur and Tanjavur and when the chimes had relayed the news, Shahaji would sit down for his lunch. Shahaji composed songs in praise of Tyagesa. His most famous opera is the Pallaki Seva Prabandha which describes Parvati pining for Tyagesa and her companions bearing the message to him. Tyagesa relents and the women carry him in a palanquin to Parvati. Another opera composed around the same time is the Tyagesa Kuravanji. This is performed as a dance drama even today at the temple on special occasions.

The Bhakti movement in Tamil Nadu is associated with the 63 devotees of Shiva, known as the Nayanmars, all of whom lived between the 2nd and 8th centuries. Of these, the last- Sundaramurthy has a shrine to himself here. It is believed that he first came up with the idea of the 63, including himself, at the Devashraya – a many-pillared hall that stands within this temple. Another hall in this temple is the Rajanarayana. The Devashraya was known for its unique murals depicting various episodes from the life of Muchukunda. These were all from the Nayak period (16th/17th century). Mostly done with vegetable dyes, these had been affected by water seepage, dust, dirt, bat excreta, the nests of birds and insects and also the growth of fungus. The Prakriti Foundation is a dynamic trust in Chennai set up to promote awareness of various arts and is headed by art-lover and aesthete Ranvir Shah. The Foundation came forward voluntarily to carry out the restoration. The Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) was brought into the picture and with the help of its experts, the restoration was carried out and completed. The hall was thrown open for public view in early January this year. The event witnessed talks by experts on Tiruvarur traditions such as Saskia Kersenboom Story, Rajeshwari Ghosh and Devesh Soneji. PR Thilagam, the last of the Kondi line of dancers performed the Tyagesa Kuravanji along with her students and a book on the Muchukunda Panels by Indologist David Schulman and VK Rajamani was released. A concert by Aruna Sairam followed. It was the culmination of an arduous and difficult project, made successful thanks to Prakriti Foundation.

There is a lot to be done at Tiruvarur, for despite being a high-profile town, it suffers from unplanned and uncontrolled development. The surrounding infrastructure is not great and as for the temple itself, it has clearly seen better days. That past is now displayed in a museum within the precincts which is remarkable for its poor exhibits and the lack of effort in making it a visually aesthetic experience. Clearly, Tyagesa has to work one of his miracles to get around official apathy. And as long as he does not plan to immediately unite with Kamalamba, life will perhaps go on.

Despite all the negatives, those who have been to Tiruvarur have always considered the experience unforgettable. It has a certain magnetic attraction making tourists and pigrims wanting to return there, again and again. Mythology says it is the centre of the earth and perhaps in a symbolic fashion such a description is not far wrong.