By Sharon St Joan
The stone steps, narrow and slightly sloping from centuries of use, extend downwards from between the paws of the great lion down into the green waters of the tank where devotees put their hand into the water and sprinkle it on their heads. The largest and oldest of the temples in this area, the Vrinchipuram Margapandeswarar Temple stands near Vellore, in Tamil Nadu, in south India.
Its outer walls tower perhaps forty feet into the air and are massively thick, like those of a fortress. The atmosphere in the courtyard paved with giant stones is peaceful and very ancient — its ancientness being interwoven with its peace and its massive structure. Like eternity, it seems indestructible, permanent, and unmoving, calm like the great stones that dot the nearby granite hillsides.
Two Ganeshas in bas relief stand near the temple entrance – one for the main deity, Shiva, who is called here Margapandeswarar, the other for his consort, Parvati, called Maragadambal. They have two marriage halls in the temple where once a year crowds gather to celebrate anew their divine wedding. Steps lead up to these huge platforms that are adorned with hundreds of columns.
The Vrinchipuram Temple gets its name from Brahma, who is known here as Virinjin, and who worsipped Shiva at this place. In the sixteenth century, the Bomma Nayaka kings added the two wedding halls, for Margabandeswarar and the goddess Maragadambal, filled with beautiful sculptured columns, delicate and intricate, in the Nayaka style.
Nayak rulers assumed power in south India after the defeat of the Vijayanagar Empire in 1564 by Moslems from the north. The Nayaks built many pillared halls in existing temples and tall gopurams.
Before entering the interior space of the temple, one walks along the wide stone pavements, inside the four outward walls. The temple goes back to the eighth century CE, to the time of the Chola kings, with Raja Raja Chola, who constructed the main shrine, being one of the earlier builders. Before Charlemagne held sway over his empire in Europe, people were coming to these halls to worship.
As if to emphasize the expanse of time, a sundial stands in the courtyard, telling with its shadow cast by the sun, the correct time of 10:30 in the morning.
Growing along the walls, are palms which are the temple tree; here they have the unusual property of, on alternating years, producing black, then white flowers. No one knows how or why.
One of the greatest Hindu saints, Adi Shankar, who brought back Hinduism in the eighth century, after it had for some time been eclipsed by Buddhism and Jainism, visited this temple, to sing a sacred song by the waters of the tank at the feet of the lion.
Eight centuries later, in 1520, Sri Appayya Dikshithar (1520-1593), was born here. An enlightened Vedic teacher, philosopher, and writer, he is remembered as one of the greatest intellectual and spiritual lights of Hinduism, after Adi Shankar. A large cross-shaped indentation has been dug out in the courtyard and lined with stones. Once a year, it is filled with water as a memorial to him. His brother was a direct ancestor of the statesman C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar, in memory of whom the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation was founded in 1966, in Madras.
Among a row of Shiva icons is a representation of a female Tamil poet and saint, a woman living in the sixth century who spent her life writing poetry to Shiva.
As in most Hindu temples, one may circle the icons of the nine planets, the navagraha. These are the sun; the moon; the five visible planets, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn; Rahu, who is the north lunar node; and Ketu, who is the south lunar node (lunar nodes are points along the moon’s orbit that relate to eclipses).
Unusually, the roof above the main sanctuary is made of strings of rudraksha beads. These are reddish seeds from a particular sacred tree. They are widely used and often worn as garlands for their properties to induce healing and spiritual well-being.
Beautiful and serene, massive and unmovable, the Vrincipuram Temple stands unperturbed by the din of the modern world, a doorway to worlds and levels beyond this one.
Photos: Nanditha Krishna