Nothing prepares one for the size of the main deity of the Tirukkannamangai temple near Tiruvavur

I first visited Tirukkannamangai on a rain washed afternoon in 2010. And I have since made the trip repeatedly, the verses of Tirumangai Azhwar and Muthuswami Dikshitar’s ‘Bhaktavatsalam’ (raga Vamsavati) being the main inspirations. It is a small temple, set in sylvan surroundings, just five miles from Tiruvarur. Fronting it is a huge tank – the Darsha Pushkarini. It is easy to miss the temple by losing yourself in the beauty of the water body. This is perhaps why Dikshitar gave specific instructions – the temple, he says, is located on the western bank of the Darsha Pushkarini.

Having been blessed with a set of ten verses (Ezhampathu/Pattham Tirumozhi) by Tirumangai, the temple qualifies as a Divya Desam, one of the 40 in Chola Nadu. The Azhwar in his opening verses, keeps comparing the Lord here to sugarcane and also refers to the village as the place where blue lotuses bloom. While those flowers may not be so visible now, the sweetness of the shrine cannot be denied.

A temple with just one outer circumambulatory corridor, it appears to owe its present structure to the Nayak and Mahratta periods. The gopuram has four levels and the sub-shrines to the Goddess Abhisheka Valli and Andal have wagon-vaulted roofs to the pavilions fronting them. One of the earliest inscriptions here dates back to the 17th century and speaks of renovations by Vijayaraghava Nayak.

‘Virajasya Mahavibhava Pradam’ (granting great glory to Garuda), says Dikshitar in his song and you understand the meaning of it when you see the shrine for Garuda that faces the sanctum. Vishnu’s feathered mount, known here as Pakshi Raja, is in standing posture and is considered to be a very powerful giver of boons. He is not clad in the standard red bordered white dhoti but in a multi-coloured silk sari! And on his neck is placed a sweetmeat offering that is unique to Tirukkannamangai. It goes by the name of Amrita Kalasam and resembles a laddu. Abhishekams are performed for Garuda every Sunday.

The sanctum is entered via a granite mandapam with four pillars, all of which have several interesting carvings. It is believed that the four Vedas took the form of four pillars and the pavilion goes by the name of Veda Sagara. Dikshitar was clearly impressed with it, for he mentions it in his song (‘Vishala Veda Sagara Mandapam’). Nothing however prepares you for the size of the main deity – Perumpurakkadal or Brhtabahishsindhunatha. In keeping with Perum/Brhat, he is 14ft in height, flanked by his Goddesses. The vimana that is above the deity goes by the name of Utpalavaka (‘Sushobhita Utpalavaka Sthitham,’ says Dikshitar). The Lord derives his name from the fact that he left (purakkanittu/bahishkrta) the sea (kadal/sindhu) of milk to come down to earth to marry Lakshmi. The wedding is believed to have taken place here and hence, the village is known as Krishna Mangala Kshetram or Tirukkannamangai. The utsavamurthy goes by the name of Bhaktavatsala or Bhaktaraavi.

A legend

The Goddess is in a shrine to the left of the outer corridor. Abhisheka Valli derives her name from the legend that she was ceremonially bathed with the waters of the tank before her marriage to Vishnu. A beehive that waxes and wanes with the seasons keeps her company. The bees shift home every six months, residing to the left of the Goddess during the Dakshinayanam (July to December) and to her right during Uttarayanam. It is believed that the bees are the Gods who came to attend the wedding and decided to stay on, being enchanted with Tirukkannamangai. There appears to be no reference to this hive in Tirumangai Azhwar’s work and so the hive may be of later provenance. But Dikshitar clearly saw it and faithfully recorded it in his song in the line, ‘Suramaya Madhumakshikaradhitam.’ There is very little that Diskhitar leaves unsaid in his song including the detail of Darsha Pushkarini getting its name from the legend that the Moon God was redeemed from his Guru’s curse here.

The Lord may have received lavish praise from Tirumangai, Dikshitar, Kalameghapulavar and Divya Kavi Pillai Perumal Iyengar, but it was left to the Goddess to receive a verse from Ramalinga Swamigal. In keeping with the bee theme, he describes her as a ripe fruit (kanitta kaniye) and honey (theney). The work is inscribed in stone just outside the sanctum.

As I leave the place, Tirumangai, that impish and bold Azhwar, once again comes to mind. He was clearly delighted with his visit and perhaps more so with his own set of ten verses. In the last one, after having blessed those who would learn and sing them, he suggests that the Lord who wields the white conch would also benefit by learning the verses!