Srirangam History

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 misleading.

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 three nights.
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 authority.

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.

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