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Festive time at the city of temples


COME CHITHIRAI, and Madurai city and its neighbouring villages and towns are agog with activity for three weeks as it marks the festivals time at Meenakshi temple and then that of Lord Kallazhagar. But it would not have been so 400 years ago, before the reign of Thirumalai Nayak, who built many portions of the temple at Madurai, Azhagarkoil, Srivilliputhur, the palaces in all the places and the big temple tank at Madurai.

Before his time, the Meenakshi temple festival was celebrated in the month of Masi. The streets around the temple are named after Tamil months - Adi, Chithirai, Avani, and Masi. The Chithirai festival was a minor event prior to Tirumalai Nayak's rule and the main festival was the Brahmotsavam, celebrated in the month of Masi, during the harvest time.

The Chithirai Festival at the Kallazhagar temple near Azhagarkoil, one of the 108 Vaishnavite holy places, attracted huge crowds from towns and villages. The Lord was taken from Azhagarkoil to Thenur and Kuruvithurai, near Madurai, a distance of over 30 km.

This festival was held to re-enact a Puranic episode, according to which a sage, Sudapas, who was cursed to become a frog by Sage Durvasa, was relieved of the curse by Lord Kallazhagar on the banks of the Vaigai. The place where Sage Sudapas did penance was known as ``Guru Iruntha Thurai'' which later became ``Kuruvithurai''. The villagers accompanied the Lord till He returned to His hilly abode.

Seeing this, King Thirumalai Nayak was said to have changed the Meenakshi temple festival dates to precede that of Lord Kallazhagar, so that they became a continuous affair for well over three weeks. He also ordered that Lord Kallazhagar, be taken to the outskirts of Madurai, and the Lord, after entering the Vaigai would proceed to Vandiyur. He also built a huge mantap in the middle of the river where the villagers of Thenur were honoured.

This custom is followed even to this day, though the ancient mantap is in a dilapidated condition due to neglect over the years.

The Chithira Ratha Vallabha Perumal Temple at Kuruvithurai, which was in a state of neglect and disrepair, was renovated and consecrated recently. It is believed to be the place where Sage Sudaapas did penance.

Another legend links it to the Kacha-Devayani episode. Kachan, son of Brahaspathi, who rejected the hand of Devayani, daughter of Sukrachariar, the preceptor of the demons, was immobilised by her curse. Brahaspati or Guru Bhagwan did penance at Kuruvithurai praying to Lord Narayana to save his son. Subsequently, the Lord, who appeared in a beautifully sculpted car (Chithira Thaer), came to his rescue. According to Guru's wishes, the Lord, known as ``Chithira Ratha Vallabhar'' or ``Chithira Thaer Valavan,'' fulfils the wishes of those who worship Him, especially on ``Guru Peyarchi'' day.

The temple is a Pandya period structure and according to historians, it was built by Jadavarman Sri Vallabha Pandyan, who ruled from 1101 to 1124 A.D. Son of Kulasekhara Pandya, he built a town known as Kulasekaramangalam in memory of his father. The place formed part of Cholandaka Chathurvedi Mangalam (present Sholavandan) which was earlier established by Veerapandya in 950 A.D. Kulasekaramangalam later came to be known as Kuruvithurai. He chose this place to build a temple, as the Vaigai, after flowing north, turns eastward here. The Moolavar idols of the Lord and His consorts, which are almost 10 feet high, have been sculpted out of a single huge sandalwood log.

There are many inscriptions in the temple, belonging to the Pandya period of which at least seven have been deciphered. One inscription inside the Prakaram of the sanctum - sanctorum is in ``Vattezhuthu'' and its date has been fixed as third century A.D. The Mukamandapam, Thayar Sannidhi and other structures of the temple were built later.

An inscription says that Jadavarman Srivallabha Pandya built a dam across the Vaigai at Kuruvithurai known as ``Parakirama Pandyan Kattanai'' in memory of his brother, Parakrama Pandya. Yet, another inscription says that Thiruvarangan Petra Thiru wife of Appan Easwaran, a merchant of Nerkuppai, offered 12 gold coins to the temple for offering food to the Lord. This inscription mentions the name of the Lord as Paramaswami by which name the Moolavar in the Azhagarkoil temple is also known. That the Kuruvithurai temple was surrounded by well-laid streets with big buildings is learnt from the inscriptions. There are separate shrines for Shenbagavalli Thayar, Srinivasa Perumal, Yoga Narasimhar, Azhwars and Ramanuja.

According to ``Tirumalai Ozhugu,'' which records the Tirumala temple events, the idol of Rama in the Kuruvithurai temple was taken there following a calamity. The idol was installed, according to legend, by one Viswambaran and it was taken to Tirumala by a devotee. Saint Ramanuja, who was then staying in the Tirumala temple giving discourses on the Ramayana, pleased by the arrival of the idol of Sri Rama from Kuruvithurai, enshrined the Lord there with His consort. These idols are worshipped even now.

Though an ancient structure, belonging to the reign of the Pandyas and the Cholas like Rajaraja and Kulothunga, the temple is not one of the 108 holy places as it has not been sanctified by the hymns of Azhwars. But some Vaishnavite scholars ascribe the Thiruvaimozhi song beginning with the words ``Chithira Thaer Valava'' to the Lord of Kuruvithurai.

T. A. SRINIVASAN

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