At the very heart of Tamil Nadu, on an island created by the forking of the rivers Kaveri and Kollidam, lies one of the largest and the grandest temples dedicated to Maha Vishnu. Variously praised as Sri Rangam, Thiruvarangam, Aranga Maanagaram, Rangapuri and so on, the temple is the first of the 108 Divyadesas of the Sri Vaishnava Sampradaya and the very center of the Sri Vaishnava cult. Presided over by Sri Ranganatha Perumal, who had been worshipped by Sri Raama at Ayodhya, the temple by itself is a bustling town bursting with religious fervor and celebrations. Hundreds of thousands of people visit this place, from all walks of life and from various towns and cities all over India and abroad. They walk through the seven grand circumambulatory paths, visiting various shrines and finally stand before the gigantic moorthi of Maha Vishnu lying on Adisesha, going into bursts of ecstasy and delight as the priest waves the lamps before the moorthi to the loud exclamations of ‘Rangaa… Rangaa…’ They then disperse to pay a visit to the shrine of Ranganayaki, the queen of Sri Ranganatha’s court. As they walk on to the other shrines, only but a few of them branch off to visit a small shrine by the side of the Arjuna mandapa. They alone go to pay their respects to Thulukka Naachiyaar, one of the twelve Ubaya Naachiyaars of Sri Ranganathar and the darling daughter of Alauddin Khilji, the ruler of the Delhi Sultanate (Yes, you can drop your mouth all that you want!!!). WHAT?... HOW?... WHO?... WHEN?.. THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE… You may shout all you want, but here, I lay forward the story of this strange marriage of Sri Ranganatha - a story that spans over sixty years, and a story that transcends all religions to drive home the age old point –
एकं सत् विप्रः बहुधा वदन्ति - रिग् वेदा
“The truth is one, sages call it by different names” – Rig Veda
It was a time when the entirety of Tamil Nadu had been brought under the rule of the Pandias, after the defeat of Rajendra Chozhan III at the hands of Maravarman Kulasekara Pandian. Following the decline of the Chozhas, the temple of Sri Rangam, which had been under the patronage of the wealthy Chozha Kings, came into the hands of the Pandias. Though the temple changed hands, the Pandia king continued to support the temple with his generous offerings. The death of Maravarman, however, saw a struggle for the throne between his two sons - Jatavarman Sundara Pandian and Jatavarman Veera Pandian. Ultimately, Sundara Pandian lost, which led to his banishment from the Pandia Empite – a banishment that would change the religious history of Southern India for all times to come
It was also a time when the atrocities of the Islamic invaders were reaching new and fearsome heights. Their hatred for idol worship made the Hindus tremble all over - not in fear for their lives, but at the very thought of the possible damages that the holy deities in their hallowed temples would suffer. The ruthless Muslims destroyed the idols that they came across by breaking them into pieces, and by cannon-balling the sanctums in the temples. For larger and sturdier idols, they had a different strategy – they simply defaced the idols or polluted them using unutterable means, thus destroying the sanctity of the Moorthis. The smaller Utsavar Moorthis (Processional Idols), which were exquisite pieces crafted from the expensive Panchaloha (An alloy of Gold, Silver, Copper, Lead and Zinc), were carried off in large heaps to Delhi, where they were melted into new ornaments. Drastic measures were taken by the temple authorities to save the idols from these damages and disrespects. The priests and the other temple officials did their very best to cover the sanctum-sanctorum with bricks and often sent the smaller idols for safekeeping with trusted families. The Muslim forces, however, kept driving further south, plundering every temple in sight and slaughtering scores of innocent devotees. It was then that Sundara Pandian showed his colours. Enraged at his loss to his brother, the fugitive prince literally invited the barbaric Muslim invaders to have a go at Madurai, the prosperous capital of the Pandia Empire, and promised them with untold riches from the famed Meenakshi-Sundareswarar temple if they helped him to overthrow his brother.
The Sultan of Delhi, Alauddin Khilji, the worst tyrant of the Slave Dynasty, was mighty pleased with this offer and promised help to Sundara Pandian. He entrusted the siege of Madurai to Malik Kafur, a slave from Gujarat, who had been purchased by Alauddin to be his personal assistant. Over time he had grown to become the Commander-in General of the Sultan’s army. Though a Hindu by birth, he was converted to Islam by the Sultan and was lavished with every luxury that the Sultan’s court could offer. Malik Kafur on the other hand, remained loyal to Alauddin Khilji and went to great extents to please him. Many consider his conquest of the South to be his greatest contribution to the Delhi Sultanate.
Thus, headed by Malik Kafur, the crushing army came to the banks of the Kaveri en-route to Madurai. On the island bounded by the Kaveri and Kollidam, the army beheld a magnificent temple complex, gleaming with untold riches - Sri Rangam, the holy abode of Lord Ranganatha. Malik Kafur was astonished by the grandeur of the temple, its sheer size, its sanctity, and its riches. However, that did not prevent his plundering instincts from kicking-in. "Charge", he thundered, and his ransacking army broke into the largest functioning temple complex in the world.
To people who have visited Sri Rangam, you would probably agree with me when I say that it is simply humungous. So huge was Sri Rangam, so large were its streets, and so high were the walls, that Malik Kafur took days to go around the prakaarams (Circumambulatory Paths), looting all the innocent people on his way. The inner temple was fiercely protected by a group of staunch Vaishnavas, who refused to let the Muslims defile their holiest shrine. They held the army out for three days - time sufficient enough to build a wall in front of the main sanctum, thus hiding out the gigantic idol of the reclining god. The priests even managed to bury the idol of Ranganayaki under a Bilva tree, but alas, before they could save the Utsavar of Ranganathar, the army broke in. They killed every single soul in sight, took the Utsavar and marched on with their conquest. After their destruction of the south was complete, Malik Kafur marched back to Delhi.
The whole city of Sri Rangam wore a forlorn look. People mourned the deaths of their near and dear. More so, they mourned the loss of the Utsavar from their sacred temple. According to legend, one brave woman, a temple dancer who could not bear her separation from Manavaala Perumal, followed the army all the way back to Delhi, tracking the idol. She came back to Sri Rangam with vital information on the whereabouts of the Utsavar Moorthi. Since she had followed the Utsavar all the way through, in history, she came to be praised as பின் தொடர்ந்த வள்ளி (‘Pin Thodarntha Valli’ - The lady who followed). With the information given by the danseuse, a few young, bright men came forward and vowed to bring the Utsavar back from Delhi. “We will neither sleep nor eat until we behold with our very eyes the beauty of our Arangan at our temple”, they pledged, and over the next few days they hatched their master plan. A couple of days later, the group set out to Delhi, disguised as an entertainment troupe, headed by Pin Thodarntha Valli.
Meanwhile at the palace of Alauddin Khilji in Delhi, strange things were afoot. When the soldiers had brought in the plundered riches, the daughter of the Sultan, Princess Suratani, was immediately drawn to the charming face of Arangan. "Baapa", she called out to her father, "Can I have this sweet idol to myself? I really like him a lot. Please do not melt him too. I will take care of him properly. Please Baapa, please." she pleaded. Bemused by his daughter’s request, Khilji allowed her to have the idol, and Suratani immediately carried him to her room, bouncing up and down with joy. Over the next few weeks, Suratani was never to be seen without the idol of Arangan. She bathed the idol, dressed it, shared her food with it and even slept with the idol. Pleased with her deep love for him, Ranganathar appeared before her every night and offered her visions of his various forms and avatharas (Very much like our modern day fashion show!). And without actually realising it, the young and beautiful Suratani fell in love with Rangar (…and who would not?).
While the princess immersed herself in her deep love for Azhagiya Manavaalan, the entertainment troupe from Sri Rangam finally reached Delhi and asked for permission to perform before the Sultan. When the permission was granted, on a sacred Ekadashi day, they performed before Khilji's court. There, they put on show the best of their dancing, singing and acting skills, and ultimately won the Sultan's applause. Alauddin Khilji was so overjoyed with their performance, that in return he gave them exactly what they expected. "You have been excellent! Simply magnificent! For your talent I offer you anything within the confines of this palace. You are free to take anything, anything that your desire", he offered. "Shahenshah", said Pin Thodarntha Valli, bowing deeply before the Sultan, "we would like to have the statue of our Arangan back at Sri Rangam. That is all that we ask for." "You got it", granted Alauddin Khilji and walked away.
The troupe however knew that the princess was deeply involved with the idol and that she would make a fuss if they took it away. So they waited for night fall, and when the princess was deep in sleep, they retrieved the idol and started out of the city.
They ran as fast as their carts could take them, lest the Sultan sent his army behind. But as luck would have it, Suratani was so distressed to find her idol gone that she jumped onto her horse at once, and followed the entertainment troupe. Fearing for her safety, Malik Kafur immediately followed the princess with his humungous army. Frightened by the sight of the large army on their tail, the entertainment troupe scattered widely. A small group of them finally reached Tirupathi and entrusted the idol to one Kodavar leader, his son and his nephew for safekeeping. The group then split up once again to meet back at Sri Rangam. Also, at the request of the entertainment troupe, the Kodavar family went into hiding until it was safe for the idol to re-emerge.
Back at Sri Rangam, Suratani’s army searched frantically all over the place for the idol. Not finding it anywhere, Suratani gave up her life before the very doors of the sanctum. As her mortal coils hit the ground, a blinding light emerged from within her and merged into the doors of the sanctum – the lovers had finally united in her death.
The death of the princess, however, stirred up a deep fury within Malik Kafur. With a blood-curdling yell, he ordered every single Sri Vaishnava to be brutally murdered. A bloody war followed in which close to 13000 Vaishnavas lost their life. The already plundered temple was further damaged and people fled from the city in thousands. At long last, the beautiful Devadasis of the temple came to the rescue. They used their skills at dancing and singing to seduce the army generals and packed them back home. One particular Devadasi went to great extents and took the chief-general to the top of the Vellai Gopuram on the pretext of showing him the grandest of the temple treasures. There, while pointing out through the window, she pushed him out, killing him instantly. The very next second, she too jumped down and committed suicide, lest she be molested by the Muslim army. Flabbergasted by the death of their Chief, the army finally withdrew from Sri Rangam, leaving behind the wreck of a city that had once gleamed with untold riches.
The temple somehow survived the catastrophe, but a lot of things were not in order. The whereabouts of the Utsavar were not known and the temple festivities had to go on. After much discussion, the head priests then secretly ordered for another identical Utsavar to be made and installed it in the place of the original one.
|Thulukka Naachiyaar - Ranganatha's Bride|
Sixty long years passed by. The original idol of Ranganathar still remained under the custody of the Kodavar family in Tirupathi. Figuring out that the time was now ripe, the family finally came out of hiding, and set out for Sri Rangam, to take the idol back to his original home. However, when Ranganathar arrived at Sri Rangam, there were no celebrations. Instead, pandemonium reigned at the temple. Wasn’t there already one Utsavar in the sanctum?
It had been sixty long years and the people who had witnessed the disaster were long since gone. Doubting the originality of the idol and the story of the Kodavar family, the priests did not allow the deity to be brought into the inner shrine. Instead, they stopped the deity at the Aryabhattal Vaasal (Gate of Aryabhatta) in the third prakaaram and gave him no entry. Interestingly, that very night, Ranganayaki appeared in a boy's dream and asked him to lead the Bhattar to a particular Bilva tree in the third prakaaram and dig under it. The boy too dutifully did the same and out came the long buried statue of Ranganayaki. The Bhattar understood the gravity of this find, and so did the priests and all the citizens of Sri Rangam – the idol waiting at the Aryabhattal Vaasal was indeed the original Rangar. They immediately passed on the news to the king, who was, however, still skeptical about the deity. After much thought, the king asked the priests to search for any living soul whose memory went back to Muslim invasion.
|Kailee Thirumanjanam to Namperumal|
So even today, in Sri Rangam, at the sannidhanam, we can see two Utsavars receiving worship. Also, the shrine to Suratani is found near the Arjuna Mandapa, next to the main sanctum. Once a year, the Kalyana utsavam of Thulukka Naachiyaar with Arangan is celebrated with great pomp and show at her shrine. In testimony of her unflinching love, to this day, Arangan's breakfast naivedhyam consists of Sweet Roti's, Raw Milk and Butter, cooked Mughalai style. They are first offered to the Naachiyaar and then only offered to Rangan. Later, when betel leaves are offered to the lord after his meal, it is a custom to apply the lime (chunnambu) on the front side of the leaves (like the Muslims do), as compared to the more traditional rear side. Also, unlike at other Vishnu temples, the Utsavar dons a colourful lungi, as compared to a white silk dhoti (veshti), during his Thirumanjanam (ritual bath). This is famously known as Kailee (Muslim word for Lungi) Thirumanjanam, and is yet another mark of the Islamic culture on the traditions of the temple. In a world that is rampant with religious disputes and sectarian wars, such ancient customs, followed in the most hallowed of our shrines, provide much inspiration for secular tolerance, a mutual feeling which I believe is the need of the hour today
The temple at Sri Rangam stands tall today (literally and figuratively, for its Rajagopuram is the tallest in all of South Asia), its lost grandeur refurbished, and restored to its rightful position as the spiritual capital of the Sri Vaishnavas. The Muslim invaders could only strip the place of its material wealth, but its true spiritual wealth was left untouched. And as the witness to it all, stands the shrine to the Thulukka Naachiyaar, a Mughalai princess, who had proved beyond any shred of doubt, that it is love alone that matters in the end.
1. Going by historical records, the temple of Sri Rangam was attacked twice by the Delhi Sultanate – in 1311 under the command of Malik Kafur and once again in 1323 led by Ulugh Khan. Yet another raid by unknown invaders is recorded in the year 1331.
2. During its first attack, the temple lost all of its famed wealth – the many precious gems, golden utensils, palanquins, and diamond jewellery. The legend of Suratani is also associated with the first attack on the temple, when it is believed that the raiding army did carry the processional deity back to Delhi. It is also widely believed that it was the death of Suratani which lead to the second attack, 12 years later. It was this attack that totally sacked the spiritual life at Sri Rangam; the darkest hour for the grand temple.
3. During the 1311 attacks, it is believed that Pillai Lokacharya fled the temple with the deity and attempted to carry it to Thirumalai. However, owing to his old age and the sudden stress of the attack, he breathed his last at a village near Jyotishkudi.
4. However, going by history, the removal of the processional deity to Tirupathi did not happen until 1331. The deity was transported to Tirupathi by Swami Vedanta Desikar, who had escaped the hoarding forces by hiding amongst the dead. With him, he also took the only known copy of Srutha Prakaasika, Sudarshana Bhattar’s commentary on Sri Ramanuja’s famous Sri Bhaashyam, and the two sons of Sudarshana Bhattar. From Tirupathi, he then moved to Sathyamangalam in Karnataka, where he composed the now famous Abheethi Stavam, praying for the restoration of peace at Sri Rangam and the destruction of the Muslim invaders. This Stavam, consisting of 29 verses is recited even today to destroy the various fears of devotees.
भयं शमय रंगधाम्नि अनितर अभिलाष स्पृषां
श्रीय बहुलय प्रभो श्रित विपक्षं उन्मूलय |- अभीति स्तवं
“Oh Ranganatha! Do remove the fears that exist in the minds of your devotees, whose only goal is to perform eternal service to you at Sri Rangam
And pray, do grow the wealth of Sri Rangam, in the form of true Vaishnavas, and destroy the invading enemies, who disturb our peace.” – Abheethi Stavam
5. The Abheethi Stavam was sung daily by Desikar and his disciples, with utmost faith and devotion, for forty long years. During this period, Gopanna, the king of Senji, took the idol into his kingdom for protection. Later in 1371, Gopanna, with the help of the Vjayanagar Empire, drove out the Muslims from Sri Rangam and re-established the original idol at the temple. It was during this time that the confusion arose as to the originality of the idol, which was solved by the old washer-man. It is believed that when Gopanna returned the idol back to Sri Rangam, Desikar was so pleased with his service, that he sang two verses in praise of the brave king (which is a matter of surprise, since none of the aacharyas ever did Narastuti (singing the praises of a man)). The period from 1311-1371 forms the 60 years during which the whereabouts of the idol remained murky.
6. In commemoration of his invaluable services to the temple, the old washer-man was bestowed with the name Eeram Kolli (The recognizer of wetness). Similarly, the Kodavar’s son, who had brought the idol back to Sri Rangam was named Thiruttaazhvarai Daasar, and the entertainment troupe, who played the key role in the retrieval of the idol from Delhi were blessed as the Isai Ariyum Perumal Koottathaar (The troupe of the Lord, who is the bestower of all music).
7. To this day, the Utsavar of the temple is lovingly called by the name ‘Namperumal’, in memory of those words which were uttered by the ecstatic washer-man upon recognizing the original idol.
8. Also, in memory of the brave danseuse who had sacrificed herself for the protection of the temple, to this day, the funeral pyres of all the temple dancers are lit with the sacred fire brought from the temple kitchens.
I would love to dedicate this post to Varun [Gultee], Vinoth [Dubukku] and Ram [Kama], who were the ones who let me in on this story, one bored night, at the hostels in college :D