|Saranatha Perumal Temple|
|Direction of façade||Standing|
The Saranathan Temple in Thirucherai, a village in the outskirts of Kumbakonam in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, is dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. Constructed in the Dravidian style of architecture, the temple is glorified in the Divya Prabandha, the early medieval Tamil canon of the Azhwar saints from the 6th–9th centuries AD. It is one of the 108 Divyadesam dedicated to Vishnu, who is worshipped as Saranathan and his consort Lakshmi as Saranayaki. It is believed that Saranathan appeared for Cauvery, the river goddess, who performed penance at this place.
The temple is believed to be of significant antiquity with contributions at different times from Medieval Cholas, Vijayanagar Empire and Madurai Nayaks. A granite wall surrounds the temple, enclosing all its shrines and three of the four bodies of water. The rajagopuram, the temple's gateway tower has five tiers and raises to a height of 120 ft (37 m). The temple is unique where the presiding deity Vishnu has five consorts. It has also a shrine dedicated to river Cauvery, which is unique feature among all Vishnu temples.
Saranathan is believed to have appeared to river Cauvery, sage Markandeya and Hindu gods Indra. Six daily rituals and three yearly festivals are held at the temple, of which the chariot festival, celebrated during the Tamil month of Chittirai (March–April), is the most prominent. The temple is maintained and administered by the Hindu Religious and Endowment Board of the Government of Tamil Nadu.
As per Hindu legend, when time came to destroy the world and finish the yuga, Brahma was worried a lot. He pleaded Vishnu to tell him a way to keep the tools necessary for Srishti and all vedas safely. Vishnu ordered him to put all these things in a strong mud pot and after trying mud from all places Brahma finally made a pot out of the sand taken from Thirucherai and saved all Vedas and all necessary aids for creation. Hence as this placed gave the magical mud which held a lead role this place became the reason for all living things to live even after the Maha pralaya so this place is called “Sara Shetram”.
Among all rivers, there was a question on who was superior. All the rivers approached the Hindu god of creation, Brahma. He said that during the Vamana avatar, Vishnu appeared as dwarf and later became Trivikrama to the king Mahabali. He placed his third feet on the demon king and cleansed Ganga by placing his foot on it. Based on the narration, Brahma quoted that Ganga was the holiest of all rivers. River Cauvery wanted her status to be equal to river Ganges and performed a severe penance. To test her devotion, Vishnu appeared in the form of a child in front of her. Realising the anonymity, Cauvery treated the child with care and motherly devotion. Vishnu was pleased with her devotion and revealed all his ten avatars to her and asked her to visit Sara Kshetram and have a holy dip in the Sara Pushkarani.
There are two inscriptions in the temple from the period of Chola Parakesari Varman (906-946 AD) and Babasahib of Madavipallam (1728–38) indicating various grants to the temple. The temple is believed to be of significant antiquity with contributions at different times from Medieval Cholas, Vijayanagar Empire and Madurai Nayaks. The crown of some of the images from the Chola period show influence of Buddhist tradition in the region. The metal image of Sita is believed to be a classic example of Chola Art during the 9th-10th centuries.
After the fall of the Vijayanagar empire in Tanjore, Azhagiya Manavala Naicker who ruled Tanjore planned to erect a temple for Rajagopala swamy in Mannarkudi. He appointed his minister Narasa Boopalan for this job. He was to get Blackstones from all possible places. This minister was a great worshipper of Saranatha Perumal of Thirucherai and wanted to erect a temple for him too. So he ordered his men to unload one stone from each cart which passed Thirucherai. A spy of the king caught hold of this and informed the king. The angered king came for an inspection. But before that in overnight Narasa Boopalan constructed this temple and to please the king he added a shrine for Rajagopala swamy. His plan worked and he was saved from the king's anger after that the king ordered to complete the temple with his money.
The temple is 380 ft (120 m) long and 380 ft (120 m) wide. The temple has a temple tank in front of the temple with the same dimension. The five-tiered gopuram (temple tower) is 120 ft (37 m) tall and pierces the large compound wall around the temple. There is a second gopuram is three-storied and it is located in the first precinct around the sanctum. The presiding deity, Sarantha has a 12 ft (3.7 m) tall image in standing posture. The stone images of Cauvery and sage Markandeya are housed in the sanctum. The festival deity is accompanied by Bhudevi, Sridevi and Neeladevi. A small idol of Santhanakrishna and Selvar are also housed in the sanctum. The shrine of Saranatha's consort Saranayaki Thayar is located adjacent to the sanctum. The image of both the main idol and the festival image in the Thayar are depicted in seated posture. In the second precinct there is a Kalayana hall, where there is a shrine of Rajagoplaswamy. The images of Rukmini and Sathyabama are also housed in the same shrine. In front of the shrine, the shrine of Thiruvenkatamudayam is situated. There are separate shrines of Sri Rama, Narashima, Kaliyamardhana, Bala Saranatha, Senai Mudaliar, Ramanuja, Pillai Logachariar, Azhwars and Manavala Mamunigal in the temple. Mudikondan River flows from the west and Kudamurutti River in the south of the temple. There is a shrine of Hanuman from the west end of the temple tank and Vinayaka from the North eastern side.
Festivals and religious practices
The temple priests perform the pooja (rituals) during festivals and on a daily basis based on Vaiksana Agama. As at other Vishnu temples of Tamil Nadu, the priests belong to the Vaishnavaite community, a Brahmin sub-caste. The temple rituals are performed six times a day: Ushathkalam at 7 a.m., Kalasanthi at 8:00 a.m., Uchikalam at 12:00 p.m., Sayarakshai at 6:00 p.m., Irandamkalam at 7:00 p.m. and Ardha Jamam at 10:00 p.m. Each ritual has three steps: alangaram (decoration), neivethanam (food offering) and deepa aradanai (waving of lamps) for both Saranatha Perumal and Saranayagi. During the last step of worship, nagaswaram (pipe instrument) and tavil (percussion instrument) are played, religious instructions in the Vedas (sacred text) are recited by priests, and worshippers prostrate themselves in front of the temple mast. There are weekly, monthly and fortnightly rituals performed in the temple.
The major festival, the twelve-day Brahmotsavam is celebrated during the Tamil month of Thai (January - February). It is believed that it only on the auspicious day of Pushya star of the month that Vishnu descended from Vaikuntam to earth to bestow Cauvery. Rathotsavam, the temple car is drawn during the ninth day of the festival. The other Vaishnavite festivals like Krishna Janmashtami, Karthigai, Tamil New Year, Margazhi ten-day festival, Sankaranthi, Panguni Uthiram and Rohini Utsavam are celebrated.
The temple is revered in Nalayira Divya Prabandham, the 7th–9th century Vaishnava canon, by Thirumangai Azhwar in eleven hymns. The temple is classified as a Divyadesam, one of the 108 Vishnu temples that are mentioned in the book. He has mentioned about the devotees of Saranatha who are deeply immersed in Narayana consciousness. Divya Kavi Pillai Perumal Aiyangar in his Ashta Prabanda states that people should not waste their time glorifying wealthy men, but should laud the greatness of the almighty. This is the only Divya Desam where Vishnu is seen with five consorts. The temple is represented in five divine elements of Perumal, Nachiyar, Vimana, Theertha and land and hence called Tirucherai.
During the coronation of Rama, the avatar of Vishnu, Vibishana was presented the sacrosanct Sri Ranga Vimana. He was carrying it all the way to his kingdom of Lanka and midway, to rest, he placed the image on the banks of Cauvery. After performing his routine pooja, he tried to lift the Vimana, but it could not be lifted. Mahavishnu appeared to him and said that he desired to stay as Ranganatha in the place, which went on to become Srirangam. Vishnu also desired to watch the Brahmotsavam at Tirucherai. The festivals of the temple are thus considered sacred.
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