Pillared mandapams that house history

May 27, 2022 12:00 am | Updated 05:31 am IST

The unique Bhuvaraha Swami in Srimushnam, a treasure trove of inscriptions, is also known for its architectural style

Srimushnam, a town in Cuddalore district, is home to a temple for Bhuvaraha Swami, the third incarnation of Vishnu. Although this temple is not one of the 108 Divyadesams, as it has not been sanctified by the Tamil verses of the Azhwars, it is an important shrine since it is one among the eight Svayamvyakta-kshetrams (self-manifested Vishnu shrines).

The principal sanctum enshrines the image of Bhuvaraha Swami standing with both hands on the hips, as, according to this temple’s tradition, the deity had just slain the demon Hiranyaksha. This rare Salagrama idol, approximately two ft tall, has two hands holding the conch (sankha) and discus (chakra) tucked near the waist.

The processional deity, flanked by Goddesses Sridevi and Bhudevi, is called Yagnavaraha.

In front is a mandapam with 16 exquisitely carved pillars, famously known as the Purushasukta, constructed in the Nayaka period (17th century C.E.), a representation of the Vijayanagara-Nayaka style of architecture. Those in the four corners are composite pillars, with the main one in the centre and slender shafts around, all chiselled out of one piece of stone. Life-size sculptures of Achyutappa Nayaka, (1560-1614 C.E.), the ruler of Thanjavur, who sponsored the construction of this mandapam, his brothers, and smaller sculptures of other members of his family can be seen on the pillars in the centre. The mandapam’s basement has numerous carvings of warriors, rows of elephants, kolattam dancers, and deities. Not many visitors look up at the ceiling here, but those who do are richly rewarded with a feast for the eyes — the lotuses in full bloom with parrots pecking at the petals have been chiselled by talented artistes.

Another pillared hall in this temple is the Udayarpalayam mandapam, so called as it was constructed during the time of the zamindars of Udayarpalayam. A sculpture of a man on one of the pillars here could possibly be of a zamindar . This mandapam is also known as ‘Kannadi Arai’ because of the mirrors placed here, and it is here that the beautifully decorated deities are worshipped during the annual festivals. A hundred-pillar mandapam is also seen in this temple. Other important sanctums include those for Ambujavalli Thayar (Lakshmi), Andal, Rama, Venugopala, Vishvaksena, Kuzhandai Amman, and Ramanujar (the pre-eminent Vaishnava preceptor).

Unique features

Two stately gopurams adorn the north and west entrances. The northern gopuram, called Vaikunta Vasal, in five tiers, is opened only during Vaikunta Ekadasi when the deity is taken out in procession. The main seven-storied west gopuram is a magnificent structure. Well-wrought panels of miniature carvings, depicting episodes from the epics and Puranas as well as dancers and musicians adorn the inner-side of the doorway. In front of the west gopuram is a unique tall monolithic pillar, atop which is an image of Garuda facing the temple (Garuda-stambha), a feature rarely seen in Vishnu temples in Tamil Nadu.

The large temple-tank known as Nitya Pushkarini is behind the temple, and the ashvatha tree (arasa maram in Tamil), which is the sthala vriksham is close by. The Nityeshwarar (Shiva) temple of Chola vintage, under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India, is situated near this tank.

The Bhuvaraha Swami and Nityeshwarar temples have numerous Chola, Pandya, Vijayanagara and Nayaka inscriptions. That the Vishnu shrine was in existence even during the Chola period of the 11th century C.E., is known from an epigraph of King Vira Rajendra Chola dated 1068 C.E., found in the Nityeshwarar temple. It also registers a royal gift of a village to this Varaha shrine. The deity is referred to as Sri Varaha Azhwar in some Chola inscriptions.

Numerous epigraphs in this Vishnu temple belong to the period of the Vijayanagara kings starting from the 15th century C.E. and their feudatories, the Nayaka kings of Tamil Nadu. The temple is referred to in a Vijayanagara inscription as Adivaraha Nayanar Koil.

Achyutappa Nayaka contributed substantially to the Varaha temple by funding not only the construction of the Purushasukta mandapam but many of the smaller shrines as well, and also provided for the upkeep of this temple.

Many festivals are celebrated in the Bhuvaraha Swami temple, in which the Pancharatra system is followed. The most important are the two Brahmotsavams — in the Tamil month of Masi (February-March) and Chithirai (April-May).

The writer is a Chennai-based historian.

The Bhuvaraha Swami and Nityeshwarar temples have numerous Chola, Pandya, Vijayanagara and Nayaka inscriptions

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