The Lord takes shape

Chennai: Parthasarathy Temple, Triplicane. Photo: V. Ganesan.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the verses that three great devotees – Peyazhwar, Thirumazhisai Azhwar and Thirumangai Azhwar composed at Thiruvallikeni is that they sequentially appear to indicate the way the temple developed. In Peyazhwar’s verse, said to have been composed in very ancient times, the Lord is worshipped more in the form of nature as you can read from here

I now come to Thirumazhisai Azhwar. Once again, as is true of the first three Azhwar-s (Poigai, Bhootam and Pey), there is no agreement on when Thirumazhisai Azhwar lived. Time estimates vary from the 4th millennium before Christ to the 7th century CE. But as per Vaishnavite chronology, he was after the three early Azhwar-s. And so while Peyazhwar simply describes the sea, the coral and the pearls, the evening lights and twilight and then goes on to describe He of the magnificent chest that bears the lily-like She who is on a lotus, Thirumazhisai Azhwar begins with an idol. What is interesting is that he describes not a standing idol, which is what you would expect of Thiruvallikeni, but a beautiful reclining one –

தாளால் உலகம் அளந்த அசைவேகொல்?

வாளா கிடந்தருளும் வாய்திரவான், நீள் ஓதம்

வந்து அலைக்கும் மாமயிலை மா அல்லி கேணியான்

ஐந்தலை வாய் நாகத்து அணை

Is it because of the fatigue caused by measuring the three worlds with His feet?

He lies immobile and mute on a five-hooded serpent,

In that huge Mayilai Allikeni

Where moisture is brought in by the waves.

And so, the Lord is Ranganatha, lying on a snake with five hoods. Now as is well known, Thiruvallikeni has five sanctums, one each to Venkatakrishna/Parthasarathi, Rama, Ranganatha, Gajendra Varada and Thelliyasinga/Narasimha. Of these it is generally believed that the Ranganatha shrine is the oldest – whether that is because of this verse I do not know. But it is certainly noteworthy that Thirumazhisai Azhwar chose to describe only one manifestation of the Lord here. This is in sharp contrast to Thirumangai Azhwar, who in the 8th century sings of all the sanctums that we presently see. More on that tomorrow (Inshallah).

We must also observe here that while Peyazhwar sings of Thiruvallikeni in isolation, Thirumazhisai Azhwar clubs it with Mayilai and so does Thirumangai after him. It is believed that this is out of respect for Peyazhwar, who was born in Mayilai and therefore elevated it to an exalted status. Historically, it is nice to see the two localities mentioned together, though poor inchoate Royapettah in between is as always given the miss.

This article is part of a series I write occasionally on poetry on Chennai. You can read the earlier bits here