A Temple rises in Thiruvallikeni

Lord Venkatakrishnan at Thiruvallikeni

On Monday, 12/10, I wrote about Thirumazhisai Azhwar’s single verse on the Thiruvallikeni temple and how it describes a reclining deity, namely Lord Ranganatha. An earlier post was on Peyazhwar’s paasuram which predates that by Thirumazhisai- that verse describes Vishnu in generic terms.

By the time of Thirumangai Azhwar, in the 8th century, it appears that the temple had risen in full, with all its sub-shrines, barring that of Vedavalli Thayar, which dates to the Vijayanagar era. This is evident if you read his ten verses on Thiruvallikeni which are part of his Periya Thirumozhi.

The first six verses are dedicated to Krishna, though the first one also has a line on how the Lord gave up his kingdom at the desire of His stepmother, which is an allusion to Rama. But by and large the first six verses are on Krishna, with several references to the Mahabharatha. This is but appropriate for the main deity here, the magnificently moustachioed Venkatakrishna, a tall granite idol dating to Pallava times, depicts Krishna as Arjuna’s charioteer. Verse 1 specifically states this -” for the destruction of the enemies, He stood in front of Partha’s charioteer, staff in hand.” The allusion to the Lord standing before Arjuna is significant, for the processional icon of Lord Parthasarathy has a scarred face, said to be because of all the arrows He received from Bhishma’s bow.

Having described the Lord thus, Thirumangai Azhwar shifts to Rama in verse seven. And in it he describes the Lord not in His usual configuration of being with Sita, Lakshmana and Hanuman but as also being in the company of Bharatha and Shatrughna. It is significant for this is exactly how the deity is in the sanctum to Rama at this temple.

Verse eight describes Narasimha and refers to Him as Thelliyasingam – this is how Lord Narasimha is known here and His name has been corrupted in more recent times to Thulasingam. Verse nine describes the Lord rescuing the elephant Gajendra from the clutches of the crocodile. This clearly is a reference to the Gajendra Varada shrine which has a beautiful granite idol of the Lord, mounted on Garuda and in the very act of flying to Gajendra’s rescue.

Though all the verses specifically mention Thiruvallikeni, verses 2, 9 and 10 sing of the place as Mayilai-Thiruvallikeni. In verse 9, the place is described as being full of orchards bearing honey (தேன் அமர் சொலை). Verse 10 has a more detailed description – Thiruvallikeni is filled with water, orchards, lakes, fortifying walls, palaces and pavilions, all attributed to the Lord of Southern Thondaimandalam, which refers to a king of the time of Thirumangai, most likely a Pallava ruler. The original lines are:

மன்னு தண் பொழிலும் வாவியும் மதிளும்

மாட மாளிகையும் மண்டபமும்

தென்னன் தொண்டையர் கோன் செய்த நல்

மயிலைத் திருவல்லிக்கேணி நின்றானை

My question now is – are the idols in the sanctums of Ranganatha, Rama and Gajendra Varada that we see the same as the ones that Thirumangai Azhwar worshipped? That Venkatakrishna is from that time is fairly certain, for stylistically the idol is of Pallava times. I am not so sure about the others. Perhaps there were earlier idols that were replaced by later ones? But what is certainly of interest is that there were these same of set of sanctums in the 8th century – amazing continuity in the history of the city of Chennai.

This article is part of a series I write on poetry on Chennai.