Heritage Of two aspects that make Tiruvaiyaru special - Tyagaraja and the Panchanadiswarar temple, where renovation is under way. Rupa Gopal

D riving about 15 km from Thanjavur brings one across the Cauvery to Tiruvaiyaru, and into Tyagaraja's terrain. The river and its tributaries form the five rivers after which the deity Panchanadiswara is named, the god being synonymous with primordial sound, where music hangs permanently in the air.

Tyagaraja's much-spruced up Samadhi sits on the river banks, amidst vast grounds, which come alive each January, with devotees and laymen, musicians and rasikas all thronging in memory of the musical saint. The shrine looks new with some of the saint's compositions etched into marble, made possible by donations. One such donation draws the eye - that of a small statue of sage Narada, in front of the sanctum. The donor is none other than the late Gemini Ganesan.

Idols of Tyagaraja

“The stone and bronze idols of Tyagaraja are worshipped by his brother's descendants,” says the young Brahmin in charge. A grilled enclosure displays a small idol of Lord Rama, with his consort Sita, along with Lakshmana and Hanuman. “These were the idols worshipped by Tyagaraja,” says the Brahmin, himself a descendant of Jalpeshan, Tyagaraja's brother. But are not the idols worshipped by Tyagaraja in Thanjavur kept in the house of the saint's wife's descendants? The man goes into defence mode – “Tyagaraja had many idols of Rama,” he says. “This is one of them.”

But it is known that Tyagaraja had only one set of idols that he held dear to him, the same that was thrown into the river by his brother Jalpeshan, then found, and worshipped till the saint's end. This was the same idols that were described by Muthuswami Dikshitar in his immortal Manirangu composition ‘Mamava Pattabhirama.' The lines ‘Chatrachamarakaradhrita Bharatalakshmana Shatrughna' describe the idols beautifully. The group of idols has Rama and Sita in a seated pose with Bharata holding the umbrella, Shatrughna the ‘chamaram' (feathered fan) and Lakshmana standing on the right side of Rama.

Tyagaraja's own bloodline petered out after two generations, when a childless daughter-in-law, widowed early, brought away the idol with her, from Tiruvaiyaru to Thanjavur. Tyagarajan, the current descendant  of the widow's parental family, living in a simple home in Varagappaiyer Street, Thanjavur, near Therku Veedhi, performs an arati, for us to see this haloed  image - the idols can only be viewed by lamplight, and no photos are allowed. All the musicians come here during the aradhana, sing or pray, and take the Lord's blessings. Truly, inheritance disputes leave no one untouched, even centuries after.

The Chola connection

The great temple of Tiruvaiyaru is also called Dakshina Kailasam, huge with five praharams, and 60,000 sq. m in size. Originally built in the first century BC, the Chola king Peruvalathan was crossing the town, when his chariot got stuck, and could not set it free. On digging, he found a lingam first, then Dharmasamvardhini, Ganesha, Muruga, and Nandi. On digging further he came across a living saint Niyamesar, deep in meditation, with his long matted hair spread out. The sage blessed the king and bade him to build a temple, the funds for which the king would find under Nandi's idol, he said. Till today, no one is allowed to walk around the sanctum, as it is believed that this sage was Siva himself, and that his hair lies spread out.

(Tirunavukkarasar) wished to worship Siva at Kailasam, and undertook the pilgrimage with great difficulty, facing many trials. Finally Siva ordered him to bathe in a pond and whereupon he would emerge from the tank at Tiruvaiyaru, where Kailasam would be revealed to him. Accordingly Siva and Parvati at Kailasam was shown to the saint, the scene complete with gods worshipping the couple, as also holy rivers like the Ganga. Apsaras and gandharvas, sages, and Nandi as the guard - Appar's vision was complete, and he instantly sang ‘Madhar Pirai Kanniyanai,' in praise of this vision. Sundarar, Sambandar and Pattinathar have also sung in praise of Panchanadiswara.

Shrine for Nandi

This shrine is special for Nandi, for here is where Nandi was born, spent his childhood and at the later stage he prayed for serving the Lord. Saint Sundarar too visited this place, and the raging river is said to have parted, to give the saint access to the temple. The rear entrance of the temple has the Alkondar shrine, where Siva is decorated with garlands of poisonous creatures. In front is a huge pit where Kungiliam (Benzoin) is burnt, as offering. The toxic smoke is said to allay fear of poisoning.

Splendid old murals mark the walled platforms of the mandapam, while lovely sculptures seem a timeless tableau with the sky as backdrop. Even Tyagaraja is said to have often sat and meditated at the Mukti Mandapam, dwelt on the deity, and composed more than 30 songs. The vast temple has provided timely shelter to the townsfolk, rendered homeless due to incessant rains. A small hollow in the wall echoes one's voice yards away and it is believed that it is transporting one's requests to the Almighty.