I have written earlier on this place and also recorded a story on it for my YouTube channel but the Akhanda Cauvery region, with three temples for Shiva exerts a magnetic pull. So when Sruti magazine recently asked me to write on them I gladly did. The first of the three-part series, on Kadambavaneswarar Temple, Kulithalai, came out this month. I am reproducing it here.

A Triad of Shiva temples along the Akhanda Cauvery

The Cauvery as it flows between Karur and Trichy widens somewhere near Thirunarayanapuram and continues that way till it reaches Gunaseelam where it begins to branch off as the Kollidam, thereby forming the island of Srirangam. This wide section is known as the Akhanda Cauvery and located along its banks is a triad of Shiva Temples, all famed for verse and song. Kalai Kadambar, Mathiya Sokkar, Anthi Venginathar is the oft repeated slogan here, for you are expected to visit all three on the same day and in that order. Kadambar Koil in Kulithalai is to be visited in the morning, followed by Thiruvatpokki or Ratnagiri or Iyermalai in the afternoon and Maragathachalam or Thiruingoimalai in the evening. This is easier said than done, for while the first is at ground level, the other two are on hills and can only be accessed by tough ascents. And yet, many savants, saints and singers have done it before us.

All three are Padal Petra Sthalam-s, in that they have received thevaram verses in their praise, the first two by Appar and the last by Gnanasambandar. There are other common factors too – the first two are linked by the same sthala puranam and the second two too share a common story. Besides, the three lingas point in three cardinal directions; at Kulithalai Lord Shiva faces north, at Iyermalai He faces west and at Thiruingoimalai He faces the East. All said and done, these are fascinating shrines that are off the beaten track of pilgrims and are well worth a visit.

1. Kadambar Koil

Kulithalai is an hour’s journey from Trichy, en route Karur, on the southern bank of the river. The temple here is small, with two circumambulatory corridors, a single gopuram and a very graceful entrance mandapam. The temple today is largely Nayak and post Vijayanagar in its architecture but we do know that it has been in existence from Pallava times. A verse of the early Nayanmar, Aiyyadigal Kadavarkon, testifies to this antiquity. It also gives us the original name of this village – Kuzhi Thandalai, the grove in a depression. In Kadavarkon’s time it must have been a beautiful spot by the river, full of Kadamba (Neolamarckia Cadamba or the burflower) trees, which species is also the sthala vrksham of the temple. Legend has it that Lord Brahma worshipped Shiva here in the form of a north-facing five-faced Lingam and after his penance bore fruit, requested the Lord to stay on and bless devotees. Because the temple in relation of the river is in the same alignment as that of the Viswanatha Swami temple in Varanasi, the place is also known as Dakshina Kasi.

The Lord, He of the five faces, is known as Kadamba Vana Nathar or Kadambavaneswarar or simply Kadambar. A second legend, one that connects the shrine to the temple at Iyermalai is of the seven mothers (Sapta Mata-s) worshipping Lord Shiva to expiate for the sin of killing sage Katyayana under the mistaken impression that he was the demon Dhumralochana. The images of the Sapta Mata-s are behind the linga in the sanctum itself. The verse by Kadavarkon rather sternly asks us to keep chanting the name of the Lord at Kuzhi Thandalai and not postpone this task to a time when the spirit is leaving our decaying body. It is one of the 24 kshetra venba-s composed by this king. 

Appar aka Thirunavukkarasar came here sometime in the 7th/8th centuries and composed a decad of verses on the Lord. The first stanza is set in the form of a pillai kathal – calf love in modern parlance. A mother laments at the condition of her daughter, so young that her breasts are still not formed fully, who on seeing the Lord come out in procession has lost her mind and keeps chanting His name. It is significant that the Goddess here goes by the same name – Muttrilamulai Ammai or Balakuchambika – she whose breasts are yet to mature. Was Appar using the name of the Goddess whose shrine already existed in his time? Or, as is more likely, when it became customary to build sanctums for the Goddess in Shiva temples did whoever it was just take the name from the tevaram and bestow it on the Goddess here? We don’t know. The deity here is four-armed and in standing posture, at right angles to the Lord.

Arunagirinathar came here in the 15th century and composed a set of verses on the Muruga here. He refers to the place as Thenkadamban Thurai. Lord Subrahmanya is said to have lost the power of speech owing to his having listened on the sly to Lord Shiva explaining the pranava mantra to Goddess Parvati. He therefore came here, worshipped and was restored to normalcy.

Entrance Mandapam at Kulithalai

In the 19th century, Muthuswami Dikshitar visited Kulithalai and composed his Neelakantam Bhajeham in raga Kedara Gaula/Rupakam. The song has plenty of references to the sthala puranam and also some other features of the temple. It alludes to worship by Brahma and Muruga, the name of the Goddess, the deity being of five faces looking northwards and also the fact that the place is Dakshina Kasi.

In keeping with the close proximity of the river, its banks become the venue for the great annual festival of Thai Poosam, when Lord Kadambanatha along with the Goddess, Ganesa, Muruga and Chandikeswara, proceeds to the Cauvery. Deities from seven other surrounding villages join the procession and large crowds gather to witness this divine congregation. The temple’s utsava murti-s are fascinating – a beautiful Somaskanda being the main icon. There are in addition two Nataraja murti-s, one the conventional one but the other most unusual, with arms and feet very differently positioned. 

The annual ten day festival of this temple happens in the month of Masi (Feb/Mar) and includes the usual processions on various mounts. Sometime in the 18th or 19th century, the chariot of the shrine was made afresh by a Saravana Mudaliar of the North Arcot district. The grandeur with which it moved kindled the creativity of a poet attached to the Thiruvavaduthurai Mutt and he created the Kadambar Koil Ula. This a set of 383 couplets that describes the procession and in the process documents the progress of devotion to eventual self realisation, depicting it as a conversation between a group of women ranging from a young girl (a novice to bhakti), a woman in full bloom, an older woman and finally a realised elderly lady. One of the most significant passages in the work is the listing of the musical instruments that accompany the Lord as He sets out in procession – takkai, udukkai, tadari, tavil, bheri, kara talam, turumbu veenai, swaramandalam – along with Tevaram and Vedas being recited. It reminds you of Appar’s Tevaram, where he describes Shiva at Kulithalai as one who is Sanskrit, Tamil and music. 

This Ula, whose author remains unknown, was resurrected by U Ve Swaminatha Iyer and the entire text is available on the website – www.shaivam.org. It merits several readings, for apart from the details listed above, it is a step by step description of the procession right from the decorating of the deities. Another interesting passage in it is one where the divine beings from other shrines are listed as being part of the procession and their names are given in code – by referring to some popular legends associated with each place. There is a section that describes the dancing women – the Devadasi-s accompanying the temple chariot as it moves along. The whole work is an amazing word picture – much suited for abhinaya. 

Kulithalai is now a fairly busy town, and there is no sign of the Kadamba grove that gave the place its name. But the river front, which is accessed by a straight path from the temple, is still very charming. Having visited the shrine and reflected on all its glorious contributions to the world of performing arts, let us now proceed to Iyermalai.