The start of the ascent - Iyermalai
The start of the ascent – Iyermalai

I stand at the base of the Iyermalai (aka Vaatpokki) at 9 a.m. At the summit I can see a rock fort akin to the more famous one at Tiruchi. A song and an artist’s rendition of it have brought me here – Muthuswami Dikshitar’s ‘Pahimam Ratnachalanayaka’ (Mukhari) and Musiri Subramania Iyer’s recording of the same. It is a jewel of a song, and after listening to it being sung by the master of emotion I had to visit the temple that had inspired it. A friend, whose native place is Iyermalai, has promised me that a priest will meet me at the top of the hill. But what I did not know was that several ferocious monkeys would be scrambling up and down the pathway.

The climb is steep and the sight of two monkeys fighting ferociously like Vali and Sugriva has me running back to the base. I join a group of pilgrims who are amused at my cowardice. The climb of 1,000 steps is difficult but the views are picturesque, especially that of the village and the large temple tank. I am told that in a year with plentiful rains, the greenery around can be breathtaking. A large rock is split into two owing to natural reasons near the summit and in the shadow of the two pieces is an open-air shrine for the Sapta Matas with a Ganesa keeping them company. Opposite this is a stone seat in the shadow of another giant rock. Could Dikshitar have sat here?

More monkeys greet us inside the shrine proper. The Goddess, Aralakesi (Surumbar Kuzhali) has a tiny shrine to herself outside the main temple. We then enter a mandapam with 100 pillars, one wall of which is the hill itself. The temperature drops abruptly and the coolness is welcome. A Nandi faces a wall and around it are the 63 Nayanmars. We cross this mandapam and again are in the open. Then follows a small climb and we are finally at the temple for Siva – Ratnagiriswara. The Lord resides here in solitary splendour, a guardian deity – Vairaperumal being his sole companion. The Linga is tall and has a prominent scar at the top, the result of a king having cut it with a sword. The silence is deafening and as we prostrate, me mumbling Dikshitar’s song, we know we are in the presence of God in all his magnificence. Perhaps it is appropriate that the monkeys made us reach the sanctum empty-handed for what could we have offered other than prayer?

Flooded with inscriptions

The temple would be an epigraphist’s delight, for the walls are flooded with inscriptions. After the worship, I talk to the priest. Muthuswami Dikshitar in his song writes that it is the temple tradition that a member of the Aryaraja community brings water everyday from the River Cauvery for anointing the deity. What happened to it? I am stunned to know that it is still in vogue. This involves someone going to the river, which is eight km away, carrying the water all the way, climbing up the hill and finally emptying it into a large cauldron kept beside the Linga. The priest adds that Appar’s Pathigam on the temple also records the same tradition. I am humbled to know that the locals have kept alive a practice going back to the seventh century. “Why did Dikshitar write that the Linga is in the form of the Sri Chakra,”? I ask. Apparently, Iyermalai is in the form of the Sri Chakra, it being considered an earthly representation of the sacred Meru, and the Linga is a natural outcrop of the hill.

The priest informs me that all the temple festivals are held at the village and so the processional deities are taken down each time and brought up. What with the bringing of water and the carrying of the deities, worshipping at Iyermalai demands a high degree of physical fitness. The priest could have given all our gym-trained urbanites a run for their money.

Iyermalai is one of a sacred triad of Siva temples, along what is known as the Akhanda Cauvery and all an hour from Tiruchi. Tradition demands that we worship Kadambeswara at Kulithalai in the morning, Ratnagiriswara at Iyermalai in the afternoon and Marakadachaleswara at Tiringoimalai (another hill top shrine). Dikshitar composed on all three. Songs on the first two (‘Neelakantam’ in Kedaragowla and ‘Pahimam Ratnachalanayaka’ in Mukhari) are in Subbarama Dikshitar’s Sangita Sampradaya Pradarsini while ‘Marakatalingam’ in Vasanta is not.

As I begin my descent, I think of the piety that brought Appar and Dikshitar to this lonely spot. What about the sculptors who gave the temple its shape? And then I reflect on the stern resolve with which the locals keep their traditions going. I am moved to tears.

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