275 Saivite Temples of India from the 7th-9th century AD
Templenet Special Feature 10/19/99

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©1996 K. Kannikeswaran
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Tradition Meets Technology

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Paadal Petra Stalam
Shrines sung by the Nayanmars)
A well kept secret
The Nayanmars
Geographical Disposition
State of these temples today

Templenet Layout
The Future

Introduction: The State of Tamilnadu boasts of a staggering number of temples that dot the skylines of its hamlets, towns and cities. 265 of these and 10 from the rest of the subcontinent form the focus of this bumper issue of Templenet.

Paadal Petra Stalam: What sets these 275 odd shrines apart from the thousands of temples that constitute the backbone of the cultural heritage of India? The answer lies in the Tevaram hymns of the Nayanmar Saints of the 7th through the 9th centuries AD*, which speak of the existence of these temples during that phase in history which is well over 1200 years past – and in the Royal patronage extended to the preservation of traditions in these shrines for centuries together, even after the period of the origin of Tevarm hymns*. Each of these  shrines is referred to as a Paadal Petra Stalam (Shivastalam). These 275 shrines have survived a history of more than 1200 years, and most of them are still vibrant centers of worship, art and culture. Little is known of such a grouping of temples to the outside world, leave alone India, or for that matter the Southern State of Tamilnadu – in whose language Tamil, the hymns speak of their glory*.

About a dozen of these temples notably the tourist attractions such as Chidambaram, Madurai, Rameswaram, Kanchipuram, Tiruvanaikka, Tirukkazhunkunram, Tirunelveli, Kalahasti and Tiruvannamalai are well known to the general public. Recent interest in astrology has brought shrines such as Tirunageswaram, Tiruvenkadu and Kanjanur into prominence*. The vast majority of these 275 shrines remain largely unheard of, although several of them are vast structures, bearing witness to the patronage extended by the Pallavas, the Imperial Cholas, the Pandyas, the Marathas and the Nayak rulers of Tamilnadu*, and some were even silent witnesses to the Anglo French wars* that happened on Indian soil!

Inscriptions carved in stone, that have survived the passage of time bear details of endowments made by the royal patrons, and also speak of the state of life during those periods in history*. Even greater, is the legacy in architectural monuments, lavishly decorated with sculptural wonders* (as in the musical pillars at Tirunelveli) and the myriad of stucco images that line the mammoth towers of these sprawling complexes – images representing legends from the colorful lore of the Indian Puranas (Puranas which constitute the shared legacy of the entire subcontinent, without particular reference to the Tamil speaking region), as well as legends specific to beliefs associated with particular temples. There is further the legacy left behind in terms of the exquisitely carved niche images of the Parivara Devatas and the bronze images of the festival deities both sets of which are considered to be objects of reverence; as well as the stone carved images that don the inner sancta of these temples.

A well kept secret: However, by far, the greatest legacy that these temples speak of is what I refer to as India’s best kept secret. These temples represent a social movement in history, that has carefully preserved a grand tradition over a 1200 year period. 1. A tradition of grand festivals* celebrating existence itself – in synchronization with the movements of the earth and the moon with respect to the sun. 2. A tradition of an involved worship protocol which is amazingly common across almost all of these temples. 3. Adherence to protocol in the alignment of deities and various structures within the temple again exhibiting an amazing similarity across a relatively wide landscape (barring the temples of Vada Naadu, Tuluva Naadu and Malai Naadu). 4. A tradition that fostered music and dance*. Dance has been considered a form of worship service in several of these temples and no worship service is considered complete without the singing of the Tevaram hymns in their full splendor - (in fact it is the Tevaram hymns that are considered to have formed the basis of the developments in Karnatic music in the later half of this millenium*). In addition, musical instruments such as the nadaswaram played during festivals and worship services have carried on the tradition of classical music over time*. 5. A tradition of concern for societal well being* as evidenced from several of the inscriptions, as well as a concern for the maintenance of tradition in temples that did not enjoy patronage – as evidenced from inscriptions which speak of the collective contribution of two or more temples to provide for worship services in temples that lacked royal patronage.

The Nayanmars: It is necessary to know of the Nayanmar saints and the Tevaram hymns beforenalvar.jpg (49500 bytes) undertaking a tour of the 275 shrines glorified by the Tevaram. 62 saints who lived their lives, expressing their devotion to Shiva, (considered to be one of the supreme manifestations of divinity and the most ancient of Gods held in worship in the Indian tradition) were honored in Tirutondattogai*, a Tamil work by Sundaramoorthy Nayanar, the 63rd of these saints in the famed Tyagaraja temple at Tiruvarur. The lives of all 63 of these saints were researched* , written and extolled in Sekkizhaa’rs epic work Periya Puranam, later in the 12th century AD. It is this group of 63 saints that constitute the Nayanmars and it is the foremost three of this group of saints that authored the bulk of what we know today as Tevaram.

Tirugnanasambandar, Tirunavukkarasar and Sundaramoorthy Nayanaar constitute the Tevaram trinity. Sambandar and Appar lived during the age of resurgence of the Hindu religion amidst persecution by the then fading Jain and Budhist faiths while Sundarar belonged to a later period. Sambandar , Appar and Sundarar undertook long pilgrimages visiting Shiva temples in existence then, singing of their glory in chaste Tamil verse. Patikam is the word used to refer to the collection of 10 or so verses that spoke of a temple.  (More will be said about Manikkavacakar the author of Tiruvacakam  in a later issue of Templenet, although he is commonly shown together with the other three).

It is believed that these hymns went into oblivion and a part of them were later on discovered by Raja Raja Cholan* in early 11th century AD, and were collated and classified by the revered Nambiandaar Nambi of Tirunaaraiyur. What was discovered by Raja Raja Cholan in the famed Chidambaram temple constitutes the first seven chapters of the 12 Tirumurais the compendium of Tamil hymns used in worship in Saivite temples. The 275 odd shrines that have at least one patikam composed in their honor are referred to commonly as Paadal Petra Stalams, or more generally Shivastalams. There are 249 other Saivite shrines, referred to in the Tevaram, which do not bear a Patikam, and these are referred to as Tevara Vaippu Stalams*. Please note that only 274 of the 275 shrines have been traditionally referred to as Paadal Petra Stalams. The 275th, Tiruvidaivaai was discovered only in 1917, with Sambandar’s patikam dedicated to it engraved on its walls. This patikam is not a part of the works of Sambandar traditionally associated with the Tamil tirumurais.

The fact that there are several other Saivite shrines that oduvaar.jpg (26666 bytes)pre date the Nayanmars, and that they have not been referred to in the Tevaram, may be attributed to the possibility that the ‘lost’ portion of the works could have referred to these shrines, Tiruvidaivai above very well being a point in illustration.

These patikams have been preserved and handed over from generation to generation, and what we hear today of the hymns is the rendition of these hymns from families trained in this art for generations together, the Oduvars. Oduvars undergo a rigorous training before they set out to sing these hymns in temples during worship services and processions.

Geographical distribution of these temples: Now, where are these Shivastalams located? 265 of the 275 Shivastalams are located in Tamilnadu (including Pondicherry) and are distributed rather unevenly. Traditionally the entire Tamil speaking region is classified into the Chola, Pandya, Kongu and Tondai territories, with Nadu Naadu (the erstwhile North and South Arcot districts) constituting the region between the Tondai and Chola territories. An overwhelming bulk of these shrines (191) are located in the fertile Chola naadu (Nagappattinam, Tiruvarur, Thanjavur and Tiruchirappali districts)irrigated by the Kaveri. A disproportionate bulk of these (128) are located to the South of Kaveri. Only 14 Shivastalams are located in what is classified as Pandya Naadu (Madurai, Ramanathapuram, Sivaganga, Karaikkudi, Tirunelveli. districts) and only 7 Shivastalams are located in Kongu Naadu (Coimbatore, Karur, Tiruppur, Erode and Salem districts). Tondai Naadu (Chennai and Chingleput districts) boasts of 32 Shivastalams, including the famed Sree Kalahasti temple in Andhra Pradesh.

The lone Shivastalam in Kerala is Tiruvanjaikkalam near Kodungallur, while the one in Karnataka is Gokarnam. Triconamalee and Tirukketheeswaram are the 2 Shivastalams in Sri Lanka. Sree Sailam is another of the Shivastalams in Andhra Pradesh. Four of the Himalayan shrines have been sung by the Tevaram – Tirukkayilaayam (Mount Kailash), Kedarnath, Indraneela Parvatam and Gowrikund. From the accounts of Sekkizhaar, it is apparent that the travels of the Nayanmars were confined to the Tamil region, and that Sambandar sang of the aforementioned shrines from Sree Kalahasti, the northern most point of his travel.

State of these temples today: Given this background, let us take a look at some of these Shivastalams as they exist today. Shrines such as Chidambaram, Madurai, Tiruvannamalai and Rameswaram are vast structures, that form the center and the focal points of the temple towns that house them, and are very well visited and well endowed. Tiru Mayilai – Kapaleeswarar Temple at Mylapore, which is a recent structure built in lieu of the damaged ancient shrine visited by Sambandar, is one of the prominent landmarks in Chennai* and it attracts vast crowds during its biweekly Pradosham festival and during the famed Arupattumoovar festival. On the other hand, some magnificient structures stand in total desolation as in the case of Tirupaasoor Shivastalam near Tiruvallur just outside of Chennai. A few other magnificient structures are in ruins as in Tiruvalanchuli near Kumbhakonam. Two of the Shivastalams have been relocated (one near Sirkazhi and the other which was submerged by the Poondy reservoir). Some of the 265 Shivastalams in Tamilnadu are relatively small shrines as in the handful of shrines other than the Ekambreswarar temple at Kanchipuram, while  a small handful of the 265 Shivastalams are subsidiary shrines in famed temple complexes such as Tiruvarur and Tiruppugalur.

"The South is Shiva’s own land" in the words of art historian Michael Wood*. It is a very precious legacy that the Southern state of Tamilnadu has in its possession, what with hundreds of thousand year old stone structures substantiated by the 1200 year old legacy of grand Tamil verse and music, augmented with centuries of patronage of music and the arts, celebrated with festivals and carnivals throughout the year.

Templenet Layout: Templenet is proud too present this great legacy to the world, through this special presentation on the internet, where it takes readers on a journey to each of these 275 Shivastalams. You may access the Shivastalams from the main menu which provides a listing based on the traditional geographic classification, or from the menus that allow you to access Shivastalams from the nearby tourist centers (in due course). Also watch out for weekly features focussing on select groups of these temples such as the Veeratta Stalams, the Vitanka Stalams and so on.

The Future: A Tamil version of this feature is to be produced shortly; watch out for details. Also, ‘Abodes of Shiva’ is set to be published as a book shortly. This book will serve as a comprehensive guide to the 275 Shivastalams, and will feature several articles in addition to those published on the internet. *A complete set of annotated references related to Shivastalams will be listed in the book.

References:  The information presented in this website is   a presentation of  the author's ongoing research on Indian Temples and is based on facts collected from various sources of references  both in English and in Tamil, and from personal accounts of travel to several of these Shivastalams, and from personal conversations with the Sivacharyars, Oduvaars custodians of these shrines and several others.A complete set of annotated references will be listed in the book titled ‘Abodes of Shiva’ to be published shortly, by Templenet.

Acknowledgements:  Of the several people whom I talked to during my travels, mention  must be made of the Sivacharyars at Tiruvalankadu, Takkolam, Mayiladuturai, Tiruvilanagar, Tiruvarur, Sikkal, Nagappattinam, Tiruvannamalai (Ramesh Gurukkal) , Madurai (Raju Bhattar); the Oduvaars at Tirumayilai and Sikkal, Sambamoorthy Sivacharyar of the Kalikambal temple at Chennai; the late Ganesa Gurukkal at the Kachapeswarar temple, Chennai whose singing of the tamil hymns was a source of inspiration during my high school days; temple guides at Tirunelveli, Tiruvidaimarudur; local resident pilgrims at Kanchipuram, Tiruvothur; Dr. Naa Mahalingam of Sakthi Sugars (especially for his granting permission to use material from a number publications featuring him as the general editor), Mr . Vaidyalingam – Tamil scholar (Tiruvanmyur), Dr. Sirkazhi Sivachidambaram, and several others, conversations with whom inspired the creation of this book,   Ramani Akileswaran for his help with images, my parents for supporting and standing behind this project and my wife Jayashree  for her tireless work in helping create the webpages.  

Abodes of Shiva is dedicated to the memory of my late grandmother
A. Lakshmi Ammal, who introduced me to the world of Shiva and the Tamil Saints when I was three years of age. I stand in acknowledgement of all that I received from her that made me undertake this and several other related projects. We miss her as this project comes to life.

Kanniks Kannikeswaran
Oct 19, 1999

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