Murli Menon in conversation with Prittle Prattle News
Arunachleshwar – Exploring the magnificent temple – I have just returned after a memorable trip to Tamil Nadu, the ancient kingdom, of the Cholas. The visit lasted a few weeks, but its memory will last a lifetime. In Tamil Nadu ( and also Andhra Pradesh, where Srikalahasti is located) I visited many ancient architectural wonders which I would like to share with our esteemed readers. I visited the “Arunachaleshwar” (fire) temple at Thiruvannamalai, which is more majestic than any of the so-called “wonders of the world”. I am extremely happy that this ancient treasure is hidden from the cynosure of materialistic tourists and offers a great experience to Indian families who want to spend a blissful day away from the vagaries of stressful life and spend a day in bliss. This is exactly what I experienced during my visit to the ancient city of Thiruvannamalai. A visit to the 1400-year-old neem tree, inside this temple, is a once in a life-time experience. Life is not counted by the moments you breathe but life is counted by the moments which take your breath away. Seeing the mango tree inside this poetry in stone is one such moment in my life!
The Arunachaleshwar temple is located at Thiruvannamalai, which is 150 km. drive away from Chennai. At Arunachaleshwar Shiva is represented as the Fire element in a fiery lingam surrounded by a ring lamp lit with sesame oil. A 1400-year-old neem tree is located inside the temple. There are five temples dedicated to Lord Shiva each to a primordial element namely Jambukeswara (water) at Thiruvanaikaval, Natarajar at Chidambaram (sky), and Kalahasti Nathar at Srikalahasti (wind) in addition to Arunachaleshwar. These temples were constructed 1400 years back and are living proof of the ancient wisdom of our ancestors. Even on this date, no country on this planet can even dream of building such a huge stone temple, leave alone moving a huge uncut stone by a centimeter. The main entrance tower is 60 meters in length. This is one of the tallest gopurams in South India. This gopuram was built by the Vijayanagar king Krishnadevaraya who also built Ekambareshwar. This majestic temple is spread over all of 40 acres with a huge lake in the center. The unique feature about this temple, which is shared by a few others is a thousand pillar hallway with 1008 Shiva lingas.
One notable feature of the temple is the “hallway with a thousand pillars”, which was built by the Vijayanagar Kings. The temple’s inner walls are decorated with an array of 1,008 Siva lingams. This gives credence to the fact that this event actually happened and western historians are ignorant when they term the Shiva Purana as mythological! The energy aura of this 3500-year-old tree was astounding. I sat and meditated near this ancient tree to soak in its cosmic energy.
The architectural beauty of the Arunachaleshwar temple is beyond compare. Many hotels, resorts, and homes (featured in snobbish architectural magazines) who buy and decorate their rooms and gardens with sculptures were stolen from ancient heritage monuments are also equally to blame for the desecration of these magnificent temples. I spent four weeks exploring the ancient temples of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala, just to soak in the atmosphere and creatively visualize life in the ancient kingdoms of the South, during the time the Vijaynagar, Chola, and Shaktan Tamburan kingdoms were at their peak in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, respectively.
Traditional stories tell us that there was an unsettled dispute between Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma as to who was more powerful. They sought the help of Lord Shiva to judge who was really more powerful; Lord Shiva grew into a long flaming light stretching between earth and heaven and asked them to find its root and crown.
Brahma agreeing to reach the crown took the form a swan and flew, and flew to an extending height and could not reach the crown. In his upward flight, he caught hold of a flower of Pandavas falling from Shiva’s crown and requested the flower to bear a false witness that he collected it from Shiva’s crown. Knowing this Lord Shiva cursed Brahma that he would never be worshipped in the temple, and banished Pandavas flower from his adornment.
Lord Vishnu took the form of wild boar and kept digging down to reach Shiva’s foot; Shiva was really pleased with the humility of Vishnu and took him in his heart. At Mount Arunachala, Shiva is worshipped a as fire. The shiva Lingam inside the sanctum sanctorium id brightly illuminated by a circle of golden lamps, lighted by pouring sesame oil.
The most exciting adventure adter spending the first day exploring this giant stone temple, is to wake up at 5:00 a.m. and trek to the upper echelons of Arunachala Hill to watch the sunrise. As darkness gives way to light, a miracle unfolds itself in the skies. The red orb of the sun peeks out of the skies, little by little. Soon the sun appears like a burning canfle flame, flickering in the darkness. It is one of the best sunrises visible in India, if not the world. The reflection of the first rays of light on the gopuram (temple tower) of Arunachaleshwar
Having so decided, the Eternal Shiva manifested Himself as a Column of fire before us. The Column transcended all the worlds and its limits could not be perceived. Blinded by the sight, both of us stood still. We became confused and unnerved on seeing that blazing Column of Effulgence. Then there arose a voice in the air: Children, why do you fight? Shiva alone knows your strength and weakness. The form of Sambhu has now appeared before you as a Column of Effulgence. He who finds out the beginning or the end of it is the greater of the two. Upon hearing these words we stopped fighting. To discover the limits of Sambhu in the shape of a beginningless and endless Column of fire, one of us decided to trace the beginning and the other the end. Like a child who tries to seize the moon reflected in water, each of us began to measure the Supreme Effulgence in order to understand it. For this purpose, Vishnu in the form of a huge boar began to dig the earth vigorously to find the lower end. I took the shape of a swan and soared swiftly to find its summit. Madhava (Vishnu) bored into the earth and went beyond, but found that the Column of fire went still lower. Even after seeking for millions of years, it was not possible to find out the source of that beginningless Column of fire. Therefore Vishnu became dispirited and discouraged. He was weary and tired and he was forced to return.
Then Vishnu, whose intelligence is immeasurable, sought refuge in Shiva, the Universal Refuge and began to think thus: Ah! On account of my immense stupidity caused by my ego I forgot the Supreme Self, my Lord. He is truly the Supreme Shiva, the source of all the devas, the Vedas and the worlds. I was born out of Him who is beginningless and endless. Assuming the form of a brute I tried to gauge Shiva who is of such greatness. By the Grace of Sambhu, Self-knowledge has dawned on me.
When Lord Sambhe unique Shiva Linga here is located in picturesque soundings with the Dakshina Kailasa mountain at the back and the north flowing river Swarnamukhi in front.
The magnificent stone temples, dedicated to Lord Shiva, as fire water, earth, wind and sky stretch from Srikalahasti to Arunachaleshwar to Chidambaram to Thiruvanamalai. Hemakuta Hill, is home to Sasivekalu Ganesh which is a giant monolith rock sculpture of Lord Ganesh, Adjacent to Sasivekalu Ganesh is the other bigger monolith known as Kadalekalu (Bengal gram) Ganesh. The huge seated God, carved in the round out of a massive boulder, is about 4.5 metres high and is housed in a large shrine with a fine open pillared mandapa in front. The tall, slender and graceful pillars are of the ornate cubical Vijaynagar type with solid early corbels. The mantapa is singularly classical in its architectural proportions and has been admired by many architects and critics. The temple also forms one of the important vantage points from which a good and picturesque view could be had of the Arunachaleshwar monuments! Both these Ganesh statues are surrounded by huge stone boulders precariously balanced on the edge of the hill. The balance appears so delicate, that it appears that a mild breeze could topple the boulder and send it cascading down to the valley below. But a divine force protects the temples of Arunachaleshwar and one can confidently meditate under these giant boulders to soak in the cosmic energy exuded by these rocks.
Most of the sculpture is in devotion to the Hindu Gods, Vishnu, Rama, Shiva, and Lord Ganesh in giant monolith slabs of rock. It is indeed unbelievable that in the 10th century, these rocks were transported hundreds of kilometers across such rocky terrain. Around 50 to 60 years back there used to be lemongrass leaves around the banks of the Tungabhadra which made the water in the river alkaline. This alkaline lemongrass flavored water is extremely good for health. Watching the reflections of the golden sunlight over the temples of Arunachaleshwar is an unforgettable experience that is etched on one’s soul. I was fortunate to watch the sunrise and sunset several times during my long stay at Arunachaleshwar.
Out of the hundreds of sculptures, a few which stand out include the giant stone sculpture of Nandi outside the shrine. The gopuram is equally majestic and can be seen from miles afar looking white as snow against the background of clear blue skies. The Apsaras (celestial nymphs) and dwarapalakan (guardians of the temple) statues are fine examples of intricate architecture where the smile on the faces of the apsaras and the emotions on the faces of the statues are clearly visible. It is a pleasure to study the intricate details and finer nuances of every sculpture that adorn the temples of Arunachaleshwar. Minutes turn into days as one explores the hidden treasures of Arunachaleshwar. It took me three hours to study the intricate designs that adorn the stone chariot and the carvings of the Arunachaleshwar temple alone. There are several giant statues inside the temple which have been sculpted from giant monolith rocks, transported from hundreds of kilometers away, a thousand years back. Ancient Vedic Indians had the power to levitate giant rocks by using the power of mantras. Wandering through the giant sculptures of Arunachaleshwar is proof of ancient Vedic wisdom.
As one explores the temples of Arunachaleshwar, we can experience poetry etched in stone. Delicate sculptures of plants, animals, gods, goddesses, nymphs and serpents decorate the walls of temples in endless rows. The temple has colourful giant figurines of animals, birds and trees representing cosmic unity.
The story of the Goddess Kamakshi praying under the single mango tree is depicted in a mural at the entrance of the temple. No other temples are so profusely adorned as “Arunachaleshwar temple.” More than a thousand sculptures form a remarkable backdrop to what was purely a religious structure.
Each level of this temple is profusely adorned with carved friezes and deities. Sculptures of deities in recessed and projecting niches cover all sides of the temple. The lower most level has many niches with rudimentary images of Lord Ganesh in the centre. The images of Sheshashayi Vishnu in the central niches, on the upper levels, are more elaborate.
The Vijayanagar kings built the magnificent Shiva temple dedicated to the fire element around this sacred hill. It was a delight to soak in the primordial energy of Arunachaleshwar Hill. If you really want to study the architectural beauty of Arunachaleshwar, reserve a full day for exploring the temple, unlike the regular tourists who leave after clicking a few photographs of the gopuram. Every sculpture at Arunachaleshwar is a living tribute to the ancient wisdom of Vedic India. The language of stone indeed defeats the language of man at Arunachaleshwar. Also, on the upper levels of the Arunachaleshwar temple, are impressive images of Laxmi-Narayana, Uma-Mahesh, Brahma-Brahmi, and Kuber and Indra, with their respective consorts. Arunachaleshwar temple has two giant stone Nandi’s carved out of monolithic rocks in the courtyard outside the mail temple. Both are equally majestic though the one near the main entrance is a size smaller than the one in the inner courtyard. There is also a smaller Nandi in panchadhatu (five metals) outside the sanctum santorium.
How to get there:
The nearest international airport to reach Thiruvannamalai is at Chennai. There are several options for Indian tourists to get to Thiruvannamalai from Chennai.
The easiest way to get to Thiruvannamalai from Chennai is by bus. This 70 km. trip takes 90 minutes.
There are several local trains available to Thiruvannamalai from Chennai. Arunachaleshwar temple is located 2 km. away from Thiruvannamalai Railway Station.
Where to stay?
Hindu Dharamsala is an ideal place to stay. It is a value for money proposition by Indian standards, as one can pay a voluntary donation to the Dharamsala. Young Indian couples and families from Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad frequent this Dharamsala. The rooms are spacious and can comfortably accommodate a family of four. The bathrooms are comfortable.
Where to eat?
Many restaurants serving pure vegetarian South Indian cuisine dot Thiruvannamalai. Freshly steamed idlis, served with coconut chutney, is a local dish which melts in the mouth. The food at the high profile restaurants is only for the gastronomically adventurous who like greasy food floating in oil. Fresh fruits including mangoes, tender-coconuts, bananas and jack-fruits are available at the local market.
Thiruvannamalai is a religious place and there are several pilgrim shelters, where one can stay the night for free. Do not pay touts or middlemen who will accost you at the bus and railway stations. Ask for the way to Hindu Dharamshala or Gujarati Satram both of which offer comfortable rooms with attached bathroom for free (you can make a voluntary donation if you so wish) and is located a short walk away from the temple. Avoid the high profile hotels including the ones run by the tourism department as they are exorbitantly priced during the rainy season which is the low season for tourism. Do not hire two-wheelers or bicycles to move around Arunachaleshwar as they often lose your original identity cards which the hiring shops retain as security. The temple is within walking distance of most guesthouses and pilgrimage homes. Avoid the modern ashrams of “so-called” gurus in India, as thefts are common at these ashrams, besides being forced to shell out exorbitant donations for overcrowded dormitories with untidy bathrooms.
How to get there:
The nearest airport to reach Arunachaleshwar is at Chennai which is 70 km. away. The nearest railhead is at Thiruvannamalai which is 2 km. away from Arunachaleshwar temple. The 70 km. drive between Chennai to Thiruvannamalai takes about 90 minutes. Local trains are available from Chennai to Thiruvannamalai.
Where to stay:
Lots of budget guest houses with bed and breakfast are available at Arunachaleshwar. They range from Rs. 600 to Rs. 1000/- per night and offer clean rooms with hot water showers and are located within walking distance from the main temples. The best way to explore the temples is to walk along the temples as they appear.
Where to eat:
Lots of small restaurants serving South Indian cuisine are found in Arunachaleshwar and all along the highway from Hospet to Arunachaleshwar. Hot Jowar rotis are served with potatoes with fenugreek and brinjals cooked in mild gravy flavoured with mint. Macrobiotic vegans can get a variety of fruits and vegetables at the local market.
About the author :
Murli Menon, is a travel writer, stress management consultant and author based at Ahmedabad, India. He is the author of “ZeNLP-Learning through stories” published by The Written Word Publications, “ZeNLP-the power to succeed” published by Sage publications and “ZeNLP-the power to relax” by New Dawn Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org