What's the link between Tiruvannamalai and Halebid?

The legendary lighting of the mahadeepam in Tiruvannamalai is a spectacular event, with all the houses in the holy town aglow with agalvilakkus. At the entrance of the ancient Shiva temple, on the Eastern side, stands a massive tower — Vallala Maharaja Gopuram, with a sculpture of the king. I wondered if it was named after the Hoyasala king, Veera Ballala III.

Suddenly, my mind traversed across the State to Halebid and Belur in Karnataka that were ruled by him. I wanted to establish the link between Halebid and Tiruvannamalai.

And so, I set off on a sunny day in November. It was a long drive past a barren and rocky terrain from Hassan to the historical town of Halebid (the old abode), once ruled by King Vishnuvardhana.

History has it that when all earlier rulers were against the Pandyas, a humane Ballala wanted to help King Sundara Pandiyan in Madurai fight against his step-brother, Veera Pandian. When Ballala took his army to the South, Sultan Alauddin Khilji, with his commander Malik Kafur, ravaged the city of Halebid or Dwarasamudra. For long, the Sultan had been wanting to suppress the king, and waited for an opportunity to crush him. Also, for nearly two decades, the Sultan had been planning to capture Ballala. Proof of his intentions can be seen in the many mutilated sculptures in Halebid.

Since Halebid had been a frequent target, Ballala established his kingdom in Tiruvannamalai.

A King's repentance

It is said that after constructing the rajagopuram of the Arunachaleswara temple, Ballala became proud. However, an incident made him realise his folly. During a temple festival, the Lord, seated in a palanquin, refused to move through the entrance. It was only after Ballala repented that the Lord consented to pass through this gopuram.

In 1343 A.D., the Sultan's forces unexpectedly attacked and took the king captive. Ballala was killed brutally in the battle of Madurai. But, his immense heroism paved the way for the Vijayanagara dynasty under Harihara Raya.

Records show that Tiruvannamalai used to be called Arunachalapuram, and King Ballala had a palace at Pallikondapattu. Legend has it that Ballala, who was praised for his uprightness, generosity, humaneness and love for the Lord, prayed to him for an heir. The Lord is said to have taken the form of the royal couple's child, but soon disappeared.

However, since the King had embraced the child with love, Lord Shiva assured him that he would perform his funeral rites. Even today, on the death anniversary of the king, the Lord comes calling on his appa at Pallikondapattu village. This festival is known as Maasi Magam Theerthavari Urchavam.

My mind's eye took in the sculptures on the Vallala tower and compared them to those seen at the Hoyasaleshwara temple in Halebid, the Chennakesava temple in Belur and the Chamundi temple. Though the architecture shared a resemblance, at times, the Chola style of sculpture was also seen, implying a migration of Tamil sculptors to Belur and Halebid.

The link was finally in place.