The Mother Divine
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by Sri Nirmal Chandra Ghosh

The custom of visiting sacred places for worshipping God has been a common practice in this holy land from very ancient times. Descriptions about many sacred places, holy mountains, rivers, lakes, pools and springs are found in the holy books which tell us about the pilgrimages of great persons like Parashurama, Balabhadra, the Pandava brothers and many others.

The benefits of visiting sacred places are many. The desire to see the holy places and shrines helps to concentrate the mind on God. The sufferings that one undergoes in visiting far off and out of the way places increase one's power of endurance. The mind and body get purified as a result of holy thoughts and the pure way of living the daily life during the pilgrimage. Above all the mind gets intense pleasure in reflecting upon God. Besides, one gets a direct impression of the natural beauty of this country, its ancient and modern art and architecture, its history, the varied manners and customs of its people etc. and one feels in one's heart of heart that the same spiritual theme binds almost every individual of this country in one chord of harmony.

Tamil Nadu, bounded in the north by the states of Mysore and Andhra, in the south by the mighty Indian Ocean, in the east by the Bay of Bengal and in the west by the State of Kerala, was till recently termed Madras. It is in the southern portion of India called the Dakshinapatha or Deccan, which is separated from the north by the Vindhya Range. According to the ancient scriptures, the Puranas, the great sage named Agastya and the warrior sage named Parashurama migrated to this area from the north several thousand years before the Christian era. Many sacred spots in the south are still associated with their memory.

According to Valmiki's Ramayana Shri Rama during his exile in the forest for long fourteen years travelled with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana far and wide in this region when, in his absence, his wife Sita was carried away forcibly by Ravana from the hut in the forest. Rama crossed to Lanka (Ceylon) from Dhanushkodi in Ramanathapuram District of Tamil Nadu by bridging the gulf of Mannar. There are many references about the sacred spots in this region in the Mahabharata, Skanda Mahapurana and other Puranas.

During the early part of the Christian era and perhaps even before Tamil Nadu formed a part of the Chola and Pandya and Pandava kingdoms. The oldest stone monuments which still exist in this area were first constructed by the Pallava kings. The wonderful Rathas (chariot temples) were cut out of rock boulders at Mahamallapuram by Narasimha Pallava. Narasimha II built the Shrine Kailashanatha at Kanchipuram. The Cholas constructed the gorgeous temples at Thanjavur. Besides these, innumerable shrines were constructed in very ancient times and many of them still exist. Because of the geographical position of Tamil Nadu onslaughts from the north were not frequent and the Muslim rule in Tamil Nadu was short. As almost all the invaders, except those from Europe, came from the north-west of India, they could not penetrate into this southernmost State and so could not much influence the religion and culture of the people. Even the religions, Buddhism and Jainism, which for some time greatly influenced the then faith of the people of the North, could not appreciably change the religious beliefs and the customs of the people of Tamil Nadu, though there are still a few Jaina shrines in the state. The ceremonies and worship of the deities in the temples of Tamil Nadu are therefore still performed according to the Vedic and Puranic injunctions, which are very seldom found elsewhere in India other than in the south.

Another reason for the preservation of the ancient religious customs and rituals in the south is that in olden days there were twelve great Vishnava saints called Alwars and sixty three great Shaiva saints called Nayanars in this region. According to Tamil scholars of religion some of these saints lived long before the Christian era. Whatever may be their actual dates it is beyond doubt that they played a great role in propagating and preserving the cult of Bhakti (fervent emotional surrender to God) and maintaining the sanctity of the sacred Shrines and spots in this region according to ancient customs. Some of the Alwars sang the praise of a number of places sacred to Vishnu. The total number of such places, the praise of which was sung by one or more Alwars is one hundred and eight. They are called 'Divya­deshas' which means 'Divine places.' Two of these places are Vaikuntha (the region of Vishnu) and Kshirabdhi ( the ocean of thick milk where Lord Vishnu rests on the bed of the divine serpent Shesha ); but the majority of the remaining one hundred and six, which are all in India, are in Tamil Nadu. Some of them however are no longer traceable.

Shankara, Ramanuja and Madhwa, the three great reformers of the Vedic religion, propagated their doctrines extensively in this area, as a result of which also all that is holy and sacred is still preserved in Tamil Nadu. These reformers renovated many ancient shrines; got new ones constructed and revived pilgrimage to many old and forgotten sacred spots.

About five hundred years ago Mahaprabhu Shri Chaitanya visited Tamil Nadu during his pilgrimage to the south from Orissa. He, however, did not preach any doctrine except 'love of God', but his very presence infused devotion into the hearts of the people, who charged to meet him on his way or in the sacred places he visited.

There are many sacred places and ancient shrines in Tamil Nadu. Almost in regard to every old temple there is a book called 'Sthalapuranam', which gives the history of the temple, its origin and glory. These temples serve not only as centres of worship but also as centres for the study of scriptures, lectures on religious topics, recitations from the sacred books, religious congregations and certain nodal activities such as marriages etc.

In the following paragraphs an attempt has been made to describe in brief the various sacred places in Tamil Nadu giving the details of their location, the reasons for which they are held sacred, historical references about them if available, quotations from the scriptures and verses from the hymns in support of their glory and in praise of the deities worshipped in the temples there.

Madras, the capital of Tamii Nadu is one of the biggest cities of the Indian Union. It is 1278 kilometers south­east of Bombay, 1659 kilometers south• west of Calcutta and 2187 kilometers south of Delhi by railway. It is 356 kilometers east of Bangalore and 789 kilometers south of Hyderabad. Though the city, founded by the British, is of recent origin, yet there are holy spots and shrines in the city from ancient times, which are noted below.

  1. The ancient temple of Kapaleshwara is situated in Mylapore, south of the city. The Shiva Linga in the temple is known as Kapaleshwara. There are separate shrines of Parvati and Subrahmanya in the temple. It is said that the Goddess transformed Herself in the form of a peacock and worshipped Her spouse Lord Shiva. This fact is depicted in the sculpture inside the temple. The name Mylapore is a corruption from Mayurapura. Behind the temple there is a holy tank where floating festival is held.

    It is said that in the temple of Kapaleshwara a miracle was performed in olden days by Jnana Sambandha Nayanar, who brought back to life the young daughter of a Chettiyar, who died of snake bite and whose bone-ashes were preserved in a pitcher.

    Pey Alwar, the third of the twelve famous Vaishnava saints called Alwars in the south, was born in a well in Mylapore which can be seen even today. The following translation of a verse of Divyasuristotram tells about his birth.

    Him I adore, that celebrated Mahatma, who was born out of a water lily, blossoming within a well, in the month of Ashwin under the influence of the Shatabhisha ( twenty- four stellar mansion) as a manifestation of Nanda (the sword of Vishnu).

  2. The temple of Parthasarathi, which is also very old, is situated at Triplicane. It is said to have been originally founded by a Pallava king in the eighth century A. D. The place where the temple stands is a Divyadesha, the name of which is Tiruvellikkeni. The praise of this Divyadesha was sung by three Alwars, viz., Mahayogi (Pey), Bhaktisara and Parakala. Besides the image of Parthasarathi there are images of Mannatha Bhagavan, Nrisimha, Rama, Devaperumal (Vishnu on Garuda). Corresponding to each of the images of the deity there is an image of the goddess Lakshmi. There is a holy tank called Kairavini.
  3. The temple of the goddess Amba (Mother Bhagawati ) is at a little distance from Parthasarathi's temple.
  4. The temple of Lord Shiva is at a little distance from the temple of Amba. This temple is also said to be very old.
  5. The temple of Balaji is in Sahukarpet. Lord Venkateshwara (Vishnu) with Shri Devi and Bhu Devi is enshrined in the inner Shrine of this temple.
    At Tiruvottiyur, about twelve kilometers north of Madras, there is an ancient temple of Lord Shiva called Vedapurishwara. There are separate shrines for Tripurasundari Kashi Vishwanath and Tyagaraja.

    At a distance of about twenty kilometers south-west of Madras by railway there is a railway station called Pallavaram. About four kilometers south of Pallavaram there is a very sacred hill called Toyagiri or Tirunirmaloi. It is a Divyadesha, the praises of which were sung by Bhutayogi and Parakala Alwars. There is a famous ancient temple of Vishnu on the top of the hill. There are many ancient images in it. The images of the deities worshipped in the temple are of (1) 'Neelameghavarna Vishnu with the goddess Lakshmi in standing position, (2) Ranganath on the bed of Shesha, (3) Shanta Nrisimha, (4) Trivikrama and (5) Rama.

    (To be continued)