Out to write this travel piece, I landed at Karuppusamy’s office, headmaster at Vallalpari Higher Secondary School, Piranmalai.
About a dozen curious teachers surrounded me as the headmaster asked them to recount the tales of the region, which during the Sangam Age was ruled by one of the seven Vallals, King Paari, known for his generosity and then in the later centuries by the Maruthupandiars.
The freewheeling banter was on in the background as I looked out at Piranmalai through the door. On this hot summer afternoon, the lingam-shaped peak stood out against a bright sky. Honestly, it did not beckon me for a trek as it appeared an arduous one.
Piranmalai at 2,500 feet is a unique fortified hill with a temple at 500 feet and a dargah atop its peak. At the bottom there are traces of a moat and a fort wall, apparently pulled down in the early 19th Century. Patches of paddy fields, coconut and banana groves, wild shrubs and prickly overgrown grass encircle the base of this last crop of the Eastern Ghats.
It is a battleground where many fierce wars were waged. Locals climb up regularly to pay obeisance at the dargah of Waliullah Sheikh Abdullah Shaheb. You need a reasonable degree of fitness for it and I was not ready for it.
But to go up the 300-odd steps to the temple was plausible. It juts out of the rocky terrain and with all its rare features makes the 2,000-year-old capital of Vallal Paari — earlier known as Parambumalai — famous. It also came to be known as Mullaimangalanadu after the creeper plant, which as the legend goes, grew once the gracious King Paari lent his golden chariot to it when he found the mullai lying on the ground.
At noon, I had no choice but to hop, skip and run across the vast temple over 30 acres and three levels as the floor under the feet felt like a furnace. The head priest, Shivacharya, the 25th generation in his family, took me to ground zero called the paatal where a lingam is worshipped. The middle level symbolises dharti where Bhairavi is worshipped. The main temple at the top is called the swarga where the presiding deity is lord Shiva, also known as Kodunkunranathar and the temple gets its name from him.
The Sri Kodunkunranatharsamy temple is praised in the hymns of Saint Tirugnanasambandar, who refers to the hill as Embiranmalai. It also finds mention in more than 65 texts of the Sangam period and other ancient literature. Photography is strictly prohibited here as this is the only temple where Shiva is not worshipped as a lingam. His marriage with Parvati is depicted in a natural stone carving inside the hill temple which resembles a cave. There is neither the quintessential Nandi nor a flag post in this temple.
Inscriptions on the north and behind the garbha griha state that the temple was built by King Paari and talks about a city called Paarisuram. There are sculptures on the upper wall of the mandapam depicting countless devas gathered at Mount Kailash to attend the divine wedding. The sun rays apparently fall on the lord without a break from Aipasi to Panguni (October to April).
Piranmalai is also believed to be a block of Mount Meru, which got blown off during a fierce tussle between the divine serpent Aadiseshan and Vaayu, the god of winds. The tussle was about Vayu’s prowess to break Meru bound by Aadiseshan. But, according to legend, he could not move the mount. Instead, few pieces fell on earth. One such piece fell here.
History records that the Sivagangai country was ruled by the Marudhus who waged a war against the British and the Arcot Nawab alliance during the 18th Century. It is said that Umai Durai, younger brother of Kattabomman, was hidden here in an inaccessible cave in Piranmalai by the Marudhu brothers. The spot is called the “Umaiyan Kudambu”.
At Piranmalai, the choice is entirely yours — whether you want to turn to history or mythology, religion or architecture. There is plenty of everything. And if you wish to ignore all this and dare to scale the hill purely for adventure, be sure to drink enough water, wear good shoes and carry all your energy bars.
Piranmalai in Sivaganga district is 80 km from Madurai on the Tiruchi-Tirupathur Road. It is 24 km, north-west of Thirupathur, 58 km from Sivaganga and 194 km from Rameswaram. A bus service to Ponnamaravathi from Madurai Anna bus stand goes via the village of Piranmalai.