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Fire that stokes up faith

The kumbabhishekam of the Arunachaleswara temple in Thiruvannamalai will be held on June 27. T. A. SRINIVASAN delves into the fascinating legend and history of the shrine.

The Arunachaleswara temple in Thiruvannamalai ... a haven for saints and sages.

AZHWARS AND NAYANMARS have sung the glory of the Almighty as One who symbolises the five elements of Nature — fire, water, sky, wind and earth. The places where the Lord is seen as one of the elements are known as Panchabootha sthalas. The most important among them are Arunachala or Thiruvannamalai, and Chidambaram, Many centuries ago Annamalai was a hilly range emitting fiery lava. According to geologists, after thousands of years it cooled down and took its present shape. People of the Vedic age worshipped fire. It was kept burning all the time in yaga kundams (fire pits). And fire or light is worshipped at Thiruvannamalai (on the Villupuram-Katpadi rail route). It is one of the most important Sivakshetras sung by Saints Thirugnanasambandar, Appar and Manickavasagar. It was here that Manickavasagar composed the "Thiruvempavai", sung in the Tamil month of Margazhi. The place has been mentioned in our epics, in the Sangam classics and in Saivite religious lore.

"Skanda Puranam" sings the glory of the holy place through the words of sages Suta and Gautama, and Nandikeswara, the bull-mount of Lord Siva. It is said a dispute arose between Brahma, the creator and Vishnu, the protector, as to who is superior of the two.

Siva appeared before them as a column of fire, which enveloped the entire universe and a voice from the sky said, "Whoever will be able to see the beginning or the end of the light is the superior one." Vishnu took the form of a boar and went farther and farther down into the Earth to find the base of the light but He realised the futility of His quest. But Brahma who took the form of a swan flew high and when He could not find the head, He sought the help of a flower (thazhampoo) coming down from Siva's head, to tell the world that he was successful in his effort.

So Siva cursed Brahma that he will have no temple for him on the Earth and said that no one should offer thazhampoo during Siva puja. Celestials prayed to Lord Siva to control the raging fire, as they could not bear its heat. Heeding their plea Siva manifested Himself as Arunachaleswara. The celestials declared that whoever went around Arunachala hills with reverence would be blessed by the Lord in every way.

According to another legend, Goddess Parvati once playfully closed Siva's eyes and the entire world was plunged in darkness. Hence She did penance at Kasi , Kanchi and Thiruvannamalai. The Lord, pleased with Her penance, appeared before Her on Karthigai day in the month of Karthigai. To mark the occasion, Karthigai Deepam is lighted on that day. She prayed to the Lord that the people who worship Him as Arunachaleswara should be forgiven for their mistakes, committed knowingly or unknowingly.

To mark the event a big copper vessel is kept atop the hill in which tonnes of camphor, ghee and fresh cloth are placed and lighted. The light is visible from a distance of 20 km. Known as Bhookailayam, the Tiruvannamalai hills are home for numerous temples and ashrams including those of Ramana Maharshi, and Seshadri Swamigal, and Guhai Namasivayar Temple and Skandashramam.

There are as many as 360 holy water sources in the hills, the most important among them being Brahma Theertham and Sivagangai Theertham in the temple, and Agni and Indra Theerthams on the hills.

The Thiruvannamalai temple is one of the biggest in Tamil Nadu and its compound wall runs to a length of 1,320 metres.

It is a Saptaprakarasthala if one includes the Girivalam route as a prakaram. There are four Rajagopurams in the four directions. The one on the east has a height of 65 metres. It is full of sudhai images. Apart from these four main towers there are numerous towers for the shrines in the temple whose number is said to be over 300.

Apart from the three Saivite saints the temple is linked with the life of Saint Arunagiri, the author of "Thiruppugazh", sung in praise of Muruga.

The saint, who spent his early life in pursuit of worldly pleasures, realised his mistake and wanted to end his life by falling from the tower of the temple here. He was saved by Lord Muruga who asked him to sing His glory by giving him the first words of the opening stanza of "Thiruppugazh". As one enters the temple one finds a big stone idol of the Nandi and on the left side is the Sivaganga Theertham. On the right side is the 1,000-pillared mandapam. The cave with pathaalalingam, worshipped by Ramana Maharishi can be seen and the moolavar and utsavar idols of Arunagirinathar are enshrined here. ``Thiruvezhukootrirukkai'', composed by the saint, is inscribed in marble in his shrine.

One of the towers is known as Vallala Maharajan tower, after the king who built it. The king had no children and it is said that Lord Siva appeared as his child. When the king and his wife left the world the Lord Himself performed the obsequies and even now on Masi Magam day every year the Lord visits a nearby place known as Pallikonda to perform the annual ceremony for the king and his wife.

Facing west, on the southern side of the temple, is the Kala Bhairavar shrine and the image there has been beautifully sculpted. Near it is the Brahma Theertham. The magizham tree, which is the sthalavriksham, is also found nearby.

The Goddess, known as Unnamalai Amman or Abithakusambikai is housed in a separate shrine. The idol has a height of only one metre. The "Thiruvempavai" of Manickavasagar is engraved on the walls of the shrine.

There are hundreds of inscriptions in the temple dating back to the period of Paranthaka Chola of the 10th Century, which give valuable information about the antiquity of the temple.

The hoary temple has been completely renovated and the kumbabhishekam is to be performed on June 27.

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