The Rock Fort Temple, or Ucchi Pillayar Koil, is a combination of two famous 7th century Hindu temples, one dedicated to Lord Ganesh and the other dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is located on top, and carved into, a huge rock in Trichy. The 83m high rock is said to be one of the oldest in the world, dating over 3 billion years ago, predating Greenland and the Himalayas. We were told that the biggest part of the work to carve out the rock and associated temple construction took 300 men eleven years of effort. To visit the temple is a big climb, up the 437 steps cut into the stone, to the top, but well worth the effort.
This was a part of our trip through southern Tamil Nadu and Kerala. On our trip, we booked a train ride from Tiruchirappalli (commonly called Trichy), Tamil Nadu, going to Kanyakamuri. Before we boarded the overnight train we spent the day visiting a few of Trichy’s sights. This post is about the Rock Fort Temple. Soon we will post about the other temple we visited, the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple. You can read an overview of our trip in this post.
The name Rock Fort comes from the fact that the place was used for military fortification first by the Vijayanagar emperors and later by the British during the Carnatic wars.
The Rock Fort Temple stands 83m tall perched atop the rock. The smooth rock was first cut by the Pallavas but it was the Nayaks of Madurai who completed both the temples under the Vijayanagara empire.
The temple complex is composed of two parts: a Shiva temple (Thayumanaswamy) carved in the middle of the rock and a Pillayar (Ganesh) temple at the top portion of the rock. The Shiva temple is the bigger one, housing a massive stone statue of Shiva in the form of Linga along with a separate sanctum for goddess Parvati. The temple is mystic in its nature with an awe-inspiring rock architecture. The Ganesh temple is much smaller with an access through steep steps carved on the rock and provides a stunning view of Trichy, Srirangam and the rivers Kaveri and Kollidam. Due to its ancient and impressive architecture created by the Pallavas, the temple is maintained by the Archaeological Department of India.
Mythology of the Vinayaka Temple
Vibhishana was the younger brother of the Asura King Ravana who ruled Lanka. Lord Rama in the epic of Ramayana rescued his wife Sita, who was kidnapped and held by Ravana, with the help of Sugriva and Hanuman who defeated him. In this war, the moral and truth-abiding brother of Ravana, Vibishana, aids Rama in his battle against his brother. Ultimately Rama wins the war, and as a token of love He gifts Vibishana a vigraham (idol for worship) of Lord Ranganatha, a form of Vishnu.
Vibhishana, though he supported Rama, was basically an Asura, hence the Devas(who are arch rivals to Asuras as per Hindu mythology) wanted to stop this idea of an Asura taking the Lord’s supreme form to his Kingdom. They request the help of the Remover of Obstacles and God of Learning, Lord Vinayaka (Ganesha), and the Lord accepts the plan. Vibhishana, while on his way back to his Kingdom, goes through Trichi, and wanted to take his bath in the river Kaveri and do his daily rituals. However, he is perplexed, as the deity, once kept in land, can never be removed and has to be in that place forever.
As a solution, Vibishana tries to find someone to hold the deity while he was taking a bath. He finds the Lord Vianayaka under disguise of a cowherd boy. As per the plan, when Vibishana is fully into the water, Vinayaka takes the deity and keeps it firmly in sand, in the banks of the Kaveri. On seeing this, the angry Vibhishana chases the boy to punish him, and the boy keeps running and climbs over the rock near the Kaveri bank. Vibhishana finally reaches the boy and hits him on the fore-head. The little boy then reveals himself to be Vinayaka. Vibishana immediately apologizes and the Lord gives him his blessings and sends him off to Lanka. This is similar to the story of Lord Ganesh in Gokarna with Ravana in the same Ramayana period.. Ref Gokarna
The place on which the Ranganathan deity was kept was later covered in deep forests, due to disuse, and after a very long time, it was discovered when a Chola king, chasing a parrot, finds the deity accidentally. He then establishes the Ranganathaswamy temple, Srirangam, as one of the largest temple complexes in the world. Meanwhile, the Pallavas built the Vinayaka temple and the Thayumanaswamy temple, in the rock which Vinayaka used to escape from Vibishana.
Mythology of the Thayumanaswamy Temple
According to another mythology, a pregnant woman named Rathnavathi is nearing labor and she suffers in enormous pain as her mother who is to help her has not yet arrived. The pregnant women suffers alone and pleads to God. Then Lord Shiva takes the form of her mother and helps her in the childbirth. Thus, the Lord was praised as “Thayum Ana Swamy” (The Lord who could act like a Mother) and hence the temple began to be called as “Thayumanaswamy temple”. Around 200 steps need to be climbed to reach the beautiful temple. The paintings on the ceiling are amazing. The structure of the temple shows the excellent art in olden days. The temple has many small shrines inside, but major shrines are for Lord Shiva, Goddess Parvati and Mahalakshmi.
Driving towards the center of Trichy, you start to see the Rock Fort rising above the street level.
You can see that it is a massive structure, far above the city.
A large portion of it is behind stone walls that rise from the rock below.
This is a closeup of the Vinayaka Temple, at the very top of the rock, seen from the street.
These figures are at the top of the Thayumanaswamy temple. You can see the usual guardians and Nandis.
The central figure seems to be Murugan, holding his spear.
We parked and walked through the streets to the temple entrance.
One the way we passed by some construction, with women working as laborers, which is typical in Tamil Nadu.
This woman has a smile for us, with a heavy load of rocks balanced on her head.
This carpenter is working on a piece of wood. He is using a chisel and hammer to cut joints into the wood. This use of the chisel is common here, and the carpenters have great skill in making tight fitting joints with it.
At the entrance to the temple is the Temple Elephant.
At the temple entrance is a price list. We buy entrance and camera tickets. I notice that pooja prices range from rs 5 to rs 750.
We start our climb up the hundreds of steps. Before we are through, it will be like we climbed the stairs up a 20-story building.
As we ascend the stairs there are several side doors. This one leads to a small shrine. It looks to be open to the sunlight from above.
This side door opens to a pillared hall, dark and a bit mysterious. I see a picture of gods on a bull in the distance, so it must be Siva and Parvati.
We come out into the sunlight and get a good view of the stone wall that rises above us.
Another side door leads to an altar. Nandi is in front, Ganesha is to one side, and Murugan with his two consorts to the other. In the center is a Siva Lingam with a circle of lights behind it. All the murtis are nicely dressed in dhotis (or sarees for the consorts).
More stairs up.
Ganesha in a niche.
We stop at a landing. Around us, high on the wall, is a series of paintings. They illustrate the story of the pregnant woman who received Siva’s help (in the guise of a midwife). Because of this story, this temple is a place that a pregnant Indian women will travel to and pray at, for an easy childbirth.
Here is Murugan, holding his spear, standing in front of his mount, the peacock.
More stairs up.
This plaque tells the primary stories of these two temples.
I think this is the Goddess Mariamman.
We are about to enter into the Thayumanaswamy temple. We anticipated the issue of not being allowed into this temple due to the color of our skin. Before we entered, Carol asked Sathya, the wife of our driver Valen, to give her a bindi to wear. As expected, at the entrance were several officials checking to see that only “Hindus” enter. Valen and Sathya were ready to defend our right to enter, and Sathya offered the evidence of my bindi as proof that we are indeed Hindus. We were allowed to enter the temple.
Unfortunately, no photos are allowed once inside. We can see the flagpole through the door. The temple has an open ceiling, so the temple flag can be raised and seen from the area surrounding the temple. These temple flags announce festivals and holy days. The temple is very interesting, with beautifully painted ceilings and a gigantic lingam in the main chamber.
Now we are leaving the Thayumanaswamy Temple and on our way to the Vinayaka Temple. The rock rises high above us.
Here is a pillared hall, cut into the rock itself. This is the The Pallava cave, dug into the rock about 700 CE.
Looking back, we can see this sign above. It illustrates Siva’s assistance to the pregnant woman, shown to the left. It is an entry sign for Thayumanaswamy Temple.
Looking back, above the sign we can see the temple towers that rise above the main shrines.
The gold one behind is above the big lingam.
At the end of this set of stairs is an open area. There are a couple of vendors selling food and drink.
Families stop here to eat. They will have brought all the food up the stairs, in big metal containers, like the one seen here.
Here is the topmost temple, the Vinayaka Temple.
More stairs to climb.
I had heard that non-Hindus may not be allowed in this temple either. Carol is about half way up the stairs. Does she look Indian enough to get in? It turned out not to be an issue.
Here is the top of another shrine seen from the stairs.
We are getting close to the top.
Here is the open area below. There is a tree for shade. I guess this is the temple tree, since there is no place for one inside the Rock Fort Temple.
Here is the roof of the Thayumanaswamy Temple. From the size of the roof, you get an idea just how big the temple is inside.
Here is the city below. We can see, through the haze, a river, and the towers of the Ranganathar temple, 3 km away.
Below the temple are piles of garbage, I guess thrown out the windows.
We are able to get entry into the temple. Naturally we cannot photograph into the main shrine.
People look out the windows into the city below.
They also sit on the floor. This women (and I think, her husband) have their heads shaved as a sacrifice to God as a part of visiting the temple. She had her tonsured head covered with yellow turmeric.
To the right there is the main shrine, behind this wall.
The city below.
The temple tank can be seen far below. Since the temple is high on this rock, the tank has to be far away from it, where there is space and water.
One last look at the temple on top of the rock. Then down the many stairs.
As we are almost to the bottom, we see that many people are queued up, getting tickets to go in.
This is the main attraction in Trichy, I think, and one that is certainly worth the visit. It always staggers my imagination to realize that these places are more than one thousand years old. I try to think what was happening in the west, in Europe, at this time? Certainly in India civilization was advanced at that time, far beyond most of Europe and the west.
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