Thoniappar temple: An Indian version of Ark created during great deluge

Thoniappar is the representation of how Lord Siva and Parvathi saved Devas

Updated - July 08, 2022 04:18 pm IST

Published - July 08, 2022 01:08 am IST

Sirkazhi is one of the few temples where He is worshipped in human form. 

Sirkazhi is one of the few temples where He is worshipped in human form.  | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

A myth straddling continents. Even to contemplate one that is strikingly common between the Abrahamic and the Indic — the Noah’s Ark — is fascinating. Some might be chagrined by the comparison these days, but when you visit the Thoniappar temple at Sirkazhi in Mayiladuthurai district, you are inevitably reminded of the famous Ark. In the Bible, before destroying the earth, God instructs Noah, a virtuous man, to build an ark. In accordance with God’s instructions, he takes into the ark a male and female pair of all the world’s species of animals, from which the stocks are to be replenished.

Sirkazhi has its own ark: only here does God the job himself, not leaving it to a mortal. “During the Great Deluge, or pralayam as Hindus call it, Lord Siva and his consort Parvathi converted the pranava into a boat and floated on the floods and touched land on the mound here and saved devas and men from destruction,” says S.R. Balasubrahmanyam, the author of the Later Chola Temples. Thoni in Tamil means a boat. “Thoni-Appar is the representation of the legend (cf. the legend of Noah’s Ark),” Balasubrahmanyam, who has written in detail about the Sirkazhi temple, explains in his book. “Though Shiva is worshipped in the form of Linga in most of the temples, Sirkazhi is one of the few temples where He is worshipped in human form,” said Mathusoothanan Kalaiselvan, a faculty member of the Saiva Siddhanta of the Dharmapuram Adheenam, which manages the temple.

Even in Sirkazhi, the main deity Brahampuriswarar is worshipped as a Linga. Thoniappar is on a mound on the first floor, which can be reached by a flight of steps. The Sattainathar shrine — as he wore the skin of Vishnu — is on the second floor. “Over 12 feet in height, Thoniappar is probably one of the tallest Shiva idols. Seated beside him is Parvathi and both the idols are made of stucco. Oils treated with herbs will be applied to the idols six times a year,” Mr. Kalaiselvan said.

Sirkazhi’s place in Tamil bhakti movement and classical music is unparalleled. Saivite saint Gnanasambandar, who established the supremacy of the Saivite religion in Tamil Nadu, was born here. Legend has it that when the three-year-old boy cried for milk, Thoniappar and Parvathi in the boat on the mound appeared before him and offered milk. He rendered Thodudaiya Seviyan, his first song. It was also sung by Appar and Sundarar, the other two Saivite saints. Brahmapuram, Venupuram, Pugali, Venguru, Thonipuram, Pundarai, Sirapuram, Sanabai, Sirkaki or Srikali, Kochchaivayam and Kalumalam are the other names of Sirkazhi.

According to Balasubrahmanyam, Sirkazhi was also the original home of Kali (mother goddess). “Such an old and celebrated centre has only three inscriptions of the later Cholas: one of Rajathiraja II and two of Kulothunga III,” he notes.

Origins lost

But the origins of the shrines of Brahmapurisvarar, Thoniappan and Sattainathar are lost in oblivion. “The three later Chola inscriptions do not throw any light on the earlier fabric. All the earlier inscriptions must have been lost in the later renovation. It is a pity,” he regrets. He has opined that the enlargement of this temple campus must have taken place, as in the case of the Nataraja temple at Chidambaram, in the periods of Kulothunga I, Vikrama Chola, Kulothunga II and completed during the reign of Kulothunga III.

Sirkazhi also has a pre-eminent place in Tamil classical music. Long before the advent of Carnatic Trinity — Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Shastri — born here were Muthu Thandavar (1525-1600), Arunachala Kavirayar (1711-1778) and Marimuttha Pillai (1712-1787). They are known as the Tamil Trinity or Sirkazhi Moovar. Later Tamil scholar U.V. Swaminatha Iyer in his autobiography recalls that his father had earned a name by singing the Rama Nataka Keerthanas of Arunachala Kavirayar.

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