The temple of Srirangam occupies an important
place in the religious history of India as one of the most active centers
of Vishnuism, which flourished particularly in the south from the Seventh
to the Thirteenth centuries. It was the seat of a school of philosophy
whose most outstanding leader was the famous Vaishnava teacher Ramanuja
(Eleventh to Twelfth centuries).
But as always in India, when it comes to chronology, it is impossible
to be strictly accurate in historical research, since tradition is so
closely bound up with genuine historical fact that it becomes dangerously
We have seen that the origin of the temple is entirely mythological,
and that its first architectural form is traditionally attributed to
Chola kings of whose existence there is no historical proof. It is the
same for the period that follows. Up to the Tenth century, literary
sources alone testify to its existence; but in spite of their lack of
historical detail, there is no doubt that its fame goes back to ancient
times. The references to the remple in the Silappadikaram a Sangam work
in the collection “The Four Thousand Hymns” (Nalayirappirappirabandagal,
or more simply Nalayiram “The Four Thousand”) are most graphic
they describe the god of Srirangam, Vishnu, reposing with the goddess
Lakshmi on the couch of the thousand - hooded serpent, known as Ranganatha
in its southern form, or as the Seshasayanamurti or the Anantasayana
of Vishnu - Naravana of classical northern Vishnuism; a cosmic god who
is one of the specific figures of the cult of Vaishnava bhakti a concept
which goes back to the Rig Veda
The texts attributed to the most recent Alvars (2) (Nammalvar, end of
Seventh century (?) - Kulasekaram, Eighth century or beginning of Ninth
century - Periyalvar, mid - Ninth century) refer to the temple of Srirangam,
its many enclosures or Prakara and some of its particular features.
Local tradition closely associates some of the Alvars with the life
of the temple; the chronicle of the temple, KOILQ (Eleventh - Twelfth
centuries (?)) attributes the construction of the buildings in the fourth
enclosure to Tirumangaialvar, the I most famous and productive of them
all, supposed to have lived in the Seventh century; unfortunately these
buildings contain no trace which might confirm this. Again, the verses
of Periyalvar contain the history of Periyalvar’s adopted daughter,
the poetess Andal., who describes in her chronicle of the temple the
love, she felt for the god Srirangam, Alaglyamanavalar, whose wife she
became. A sanctuary in the Pandya style (Twelfth - Fourteenth centuries)
is dedicated to her in the Seventh court, near the south - west corner;
another, in the fourth court, also near the south west corner, is in
a later style (Seventeenth century).
With the rise of the Chola in the Tenth century inscriptions appear,
some of them dated. The most ancient bears the date of the seventeenth
year of the reign of Parantaka I (about 907 - 953) and tells of the
gift to the temple of Srirangam of a silver lampstand and fifty - one
gold pieces for its permanent maintenance, to include the purchase of
camphor and a cotton wick. The following year Parantaka I made a further
endowment to the temple providing for the recital of sacred texts for
Among the other gifts received from this dynasty (3) should be mentioned
that reputed to have been made by Rajamahendra Chola (1060 - 1063),
one of the sons of Rajendra II, to whom is ascribed the construction
of the first enclosure which bears his name (Rajamahendran Tiruvidi).
It was about this time that there was born in the Madras area the celebrated
Ramanuja (11 37(?) whose name is still connected with the temple of
Srirangam. Ramanuja (In Tamil:Udayavar) was born of a Brahman family
and brought up in Kanchipuram (Conjeeveram) as an adept of the cult
handed down by its founder Nadamuni (920(?)) who made a collection of
the work of the Alvars which most certainly influenced Ramanuja. Ramanuja
was one of the greatest teachers of the Vedanta philosphy (4). He settled
at Srirangam, where he taught theology, engaged in lively religious
polemics, and shortly became head of the temple’s school, after
having taken a vow of sannyasa The chronicle of the temple attributes
to him, with much plausibility, the complete recasting of the administration
of the temple in a form which was preserved until the Muslim invasion.
Towards the end of his life, after traveling through much of India,
perhaps as far as kashmir, Ramanuja was persecuted by the son-in-law
of the last Chola King. Kulottunga (1070-1120) who had founded a new
dynasty (Chalukya-Chola) and forced Ramanuja to take refuge in Maisur
(Mysore), at that time part of the Hoysala empire.
An inscription dated in the twentieth year of the reign of Kulottunga
III (1178-1218), who belonged to this branch dynasty of the Cholas,
shows that Kulottunga III still supervised the administration of the
temple of Srirangam, since he orders the officials of the temple to
settle as best they can their serious dispute with the administrators
of the Shaiva sanctuary of Jambukeswaram at Srirangam. The times were
troubled; though the authority of this dynasty was recognized as far
as Orissa, it was attacked almost simultaneously by the people of Orissa,
the Eastern Ganges, and by the Pandyas, supported by the king of Ceylon.
The temple of Srirangam was then occupied for two years by the Ganges
(1223- 1225), who disrupted its administration.
In spite of the aid given to the Chalukya Cholas by the Hoysalas of
Maisur (Mysore), king Pandya Maravarman Sundara I (1216-1238) captured
the Carnatic; and in the ninth year of his reign his armies liberated
the temple of Srirangam from the Ganga occupation. But the Hoysalas
had also taken an interest in the temple, and left behind many inscriptions.
One can justifiably attribute to them the gift of a garden in 1240 (the
sixteenth year of the reign of Somesvara, 1234-1262), of a sala in the
third enclosure, and, according to the chronicle of the temple, of several
endowments by two brothers, who were generals of Ramanatha (1263- 1297).
One of the prettiest sanctuaries of Srirangam that of Venugopala Krishnan,
dates from this time.
About the same time the temple benefited from the rather ostentatious
piety of the Pandyas, the king of Madurai, Jatavarman Sundara Pandya
1(1251-1268), became famous for his many buildings in the temple, numerous
embellishments and sumptuous gifts. His inscriptions, flatteringly listed
by the chronicle of the temple, bestow on him the name of king who covered
the temple with gold” (Hemachchadana raja). He built a sanctuary
for the god of Srirangam, the Lord of Ranga; a gopura dedicated to Vishnu
Narasimha; a sanctuary for Vishvaksena; another sanctuary for Vishnu,
three domes (Vimana), and a large hall for preparing the sacred food.
All these buildings were covered in gold. as also was the wall ( of
the second enclosure. The king gave the temple an image of Sesha, the
king of serpents, ‘who is the couch of the Lord of Ranga”;
a golden halo, a jewelled golden pedestal, a gold triumphal arch (makaratorana)
decked with jewels “to shelter Ranga” and a gold image of
the bird Garuda, the sacred mount of Vishnu. He covered Ranganatha with
ornaments and jewels, and presented him with a garland of emeralds taken
from the treasure of the king of kataka (Cuttack, Orissa), a crown of
jewels, a garland of pearls, a dais of pearls, a golden garment, a golden
car, and golden vases and vessels. He inaugurated a procession for which
he had a boat built in gold on the river Kaveri. The chronicle of the
temple adds the description of a particularly spectacular offering:
the king had two boats built on the Kaveri; on the one he embarked the
state elephant, and sat on its back; on the other he poured jewels and
gold till it sank to the same water-line as the first boat. He then
donated the pile of gold and precious stones to the treasures of the
temple. The same chronicle recounts that he had an image of the god
cast in gold, in his own likeness and bearing his own name.
In this way Jatavarman Sundara Pandya I achieved at Srirangam every
kind of offering to the god, including the two principal ones which
identified him with the divinity: a statue of an apotheosis, representing
the god but bearing the name of 1he king; and an offering to the god
of the king’s weight in gold and jewels. It should be noted that
the latter is described by the chronicle in superlative terms.
It may be worth recalling that nearly 25 years later (1292), in the
reign of King Maravarman Kulasekhara Pandya (1268:1308), Marco Polo
was struck by the splendor and opulence of this region. Shortly afterwards,
in 1311, the Muslim Malik Kafur seized Madurai, and the Pandya dynasty
collapsed. In the turmoil which befell the Carnatic, the temple of Srirangam
was captured by the Muslims.
In 1311, Malik Kafur carried out a lightning raid. It is probable that
the temple was sacked, and the statues and treasures carried off to
Delhi; the chronicle statues that new statues were then cast and intalled
in the place of the stolen ones. worship was restore (1). In 1323 came
the turn of Mohamed b. Tughlak (1 325-1 351), then heir presumptive.
According to lbn Battuta, an Arab. traveller who visited India in 1333,
Mahomed b.Tughlak’s taste for the magnificent was matched only
by his cruelty, He invaded the surrounding country and took Madurai
as his capital. The temple of Srirangam was then occupied by the Muslims
and transformed into a fortified camp. But this time the statues, some
of the jewels from the treasure, and the necessary articles for worship
were saved before the invasion, and transported to Tirupati where they
remained until 1371.
In that year resistance was organized in the south, with Vijanagar as
its centre. The Vijayanagar armies reconquered the region and liberated
the temple of Srirangam. The statues of the gods, exiled at Tirupati,
were restored, and rich benefactors, princes, dignitaties and officials
presented the temple with land and villages. The work of restoration
continued for a long time, and the temple received many munificent endowments
until the collapse of the Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar.
It was during the Fifteenth and Sixteenth centuries that the temple
of Srirangam took on the appearance it has today. The Vimana was rebuilt
and gilded over, a new statue of the bird Garuda, in copper, replaced
the original one destroyed in the Muslim invasions, and was cerremoniously
installed before the sanctuary in 1415. Many sanctuaries were restored,
gopuras rebuild, the flagstaff of the temple (dvajastambhas) was covered
with 102 gold plates, and some of the gates were also plated in gold,
including the Mukhmandapam (1526). There are records of gifts of cows,
gardens and many villages (52 in 1371, 292 around 1490, 5 in 1516).
Large sums of money in gold, and gold objects used in worship, were
donated to the treasury of, the temple these included, between 1424
and 1429, plates, a pedestal for the goddess, a sanctuary lamp ( a vase
( and a garment of pearls. Important religious festivals were instituted
or restored; some of them are still celebrated today and bear the names
given them in the Fifteenth century.
At the same time the management of the temple was reorganized, with
the result that it passed gradually into the hands of administrators
and military chiefs under the mandate of the kings of Vijayanagar. The
kings appointed wardens who were entirely devoted to them and acted
“as if they were part of the administration of the royal palace”,
and the code of Ramanuja was abolished. All this did not go unopposed.
The chronicle of the temple had already noted disputes between its leaders
and even cases of corrupt administration; in addition to this it records
in 1463 a royal decree requiring that taxes levied from the lands belonging
to the temple should be paid in whole to the king (the Vijayanagar administrators
had previously embezzled them). A number of temple priests committed
suicide in protest by throwing themselves from the vellai gopura This
made the king intervene firmly in favor of the temple.
After the defeat of Vijayanagar, the dynasty of the governors or nayaks
of Madurai and Thanjavur (Tanjore) continued their administration of
the region and.lavished gifts on the temple of Srirangam. Over the years
from about 1583 to 1732, as fervent adepts of Vishnuism and self-appointed
patrons of the temple, they built many edifices, restored others, created
now endowments and enriched the temple treasure. Gifts of land, villages
and jewels were added to earlier donations.
Around 1600 the Nayak of Thanjavur (Tanjore), Achyutappa, abdicated
in favour of his son and withdrew to Srirangam, where he spent his time
in the company of the temple teachers. The chronicle states that he
covered the Vimana with gold plates afresh, reconstructed some of the
outer walls and gopuras had several mandapas (pillared halls) built,
and laid out pleasure gardens. In 1616, the Nayaks of Madurai transferred
their capital to Tiruchirapalli (Trichinopoly). and adopted as their
spiritual masters the wise men of the temple of Srirangam, King Chokkanatha
Nayaka (1 659-1 682) laid out wide avenues during his reign and set
aside special areas for Brahman& One of his successors, Vijayaranga
Chokkanatha Nayaka (1706-1732) built a mandapa in the third court and
the “mirror room” (Kannadiyarai). He also installed, in
the western part of the first court, four life-size statues in ivory
of himself and his family, painted statues that are still in place.
The Nayaks have images of themselves in a praying attitude (fig.17 and
18) throughout the temple, on the pillars of several mandapas and in
the ceiling and wall paintings.
After the Nayaks, the kingdom passed under the control of the Nawabs
of Arcot, supported by the English. The war between the English and
the French, with their respective allies, was a fresh threat to the
temple of Srirangam. The first attack, dated 1707 in the Koil Olugu
was bought off by payment of a heavy tribute. Not-withstanding the ensuing’
Mahratta invasion between 1720 and 1740 the property of the temple was
not evacuated, not again in. 1743 when the Nizam of Hyderabad. besieged
the fortress of Tiruchirapalli (Trichinopoly) and drove out the Mahratta
forces. But a few years later, in 1 751, Chanda Sahib and the French
troops fighting against the Nawab of Arcot and the English, shut themselves
up in the fortress of Tiruchirapalli and entrenched themselves on the
island of Srirangam, particularly in the outer enclosures of the temple
of Ranganatha. On 9 June 1752 Chanda Sahib was forced to abandon his
positions and the French had to surrender. It appears that in spite
of their surrender, the temple continued to be occupied sporadically
with the help of the armies of Mysore until 1 758, and. that Crillion
attacked it for the last time in 1759. The chronicle says that notsithstanding
these events and the demands made by the occupying forces, the temple
continued to prosper.
In 1781, it was again attacked, this time by Hyder Ali, supported by
the Mahrattas and the French. He kept up the attack for only six days.
In 1 790 his son Tipu Sahib invaded the temple, but evacuated it a few
days later when threatened by an advancing English army.
The whole area was however under Muslim domination; these created difficulties
for the temple, since the Muslims insisted on the right of exert their
In 1801, the Carnatic passed into the control of the English East India
Company, and the temple of Srirangam came under the jurisdiction of
the collector, John Wallace. In 1803 Wallace brought together all the
existing chronicles in the town of Srirangam and had them compiled into
a single complete and up version. One copy, bearing the seals of the
five administrators (stanattar), was placed in a stone chamber in the
southern part of the temple.
Stability then returned to the temple, through under the authority of
the English, which it should be emphasized, was exercised discreetly.
The Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, visited the temple
on a tour of southern India in 1875, and donated a large gold cap which
is still part of the treasure.
After the proclamation of the independence of India in 1947, temples
and religious congregations came under new legislation, which still
governs them today, including the temple of Srirangam. In 1966 Unesco
decided to provide technical assistance to the temple and sent an expert,
followed by two more in 1968. The temple of Sri Ranganatha at Srirangam,
now included among the works which form our universal heritage, carries
on its mission and continues to help all its devotees and pilgrims to
play their part in it.