Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple in the Srirangam district of Trichy (officially named Tiruchirappalli) in Tamil Nadu is clearly one of the most important Vishnu temples in the world. It is a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Ranganatha, a reclining form of Lord Vishnu. This is the form in which he is open to listening to all of his devotees’ woes, and blesses them.
The temple claims the largest temple area (156 acres) and the highest temple tower (the gopuram, called the Rajagopuram, is 236 feet tall) of any temple in Asia. It also is the most notable of the eight Svayam Vyakta Ksetras (“self-manifested shrines”) of Lord Vishnu. In addition, it is the first and foremost among the 108 Divya Desams, the holy abodes of Lord Vishnu. It has seven prakaras, or enclosures. These enclosures are formed by thick and huge rampart walls which run around the sanctum. It is the only temple in India with seven enclosures, a sacred symbolic number which for present day Vaishnava believers represents either the seven centers of Yoga, or a reference to the seven elements making up the human body, in the center of which dwells the soul.
There are 21 magnificent towers (shown on the photo below, from srirangam.org), providing a unique sight to any visitor.
This temple lies on an islet formed by the twin rivers Cauvery and Coleroon.
The story of this temple’s creation is told in two different versions. In one version, supported by the story of the creation of the Rock Fort Temple, nearby:
From wikipedia article “Srirangam“:
The vimana of srirangam temple originally came out of “paarkadal” with the powers of brahma dava (One of the three main Gods of Hinduism). The incarnation of lord Vishnu called Ramavathara has performed poojas to this vimana. As a symbol of love he gifted this vimana to Vibishana (brother of Ravana) to take back with him to Sri Lanka. There was a condition that he could not set the vimana on earth and if he did it would set itself permanently. Vibishna took this vimana and was traveling towards Sri Lanka, and came upon the banks of the river Cauvery. Tired from his long travel, he wanted to bathe in the river. Lord Vinayaka posing as a young kid, plays a trick on him and sets the vimana on the ground where it sets permanently creating the central shrine for the temple at srirangam, on the banks of river Cauvery.
Then Chola kings namely Dharmavarcholan and Killivalavan developed the shrine into big temple seen now. They have laid the Basic foundations and primary Buildings.
The alternate explanation:
Again from wikipedia, this time from an article on “Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple“
Sriranga Mahathmiyam is the compilation of religious accounts of the temple, detailing the origins of its greatness. According to it, Lord Brahma, the Lord of Creation in Hindu mythology was once in a state of deep meditation and in His supreme trance received the gift of the Lord Vishnu’s idol, “Ranga Vimana”. He was told by the Supreme Lord that there would be seven other appearances of such idols on earth –Srirangam, Srimushnam, Venkatadri (Tirumala), Saligram (Muktinath), Naimisaranya, Totadri, Pushkara and Badrinath. The idol was then passed on by Brahma to Viraja, Vaiswatha, Manu, Ishwaku and finally to Rama. Lord Rama, himself an avatar of Vishnu, worshipped the idol for a long time, and when he returned victoriously from Sri Lanka after destroying Ravana, he gave it to King Vibhishana as a token of appreciation for the latter’s support for Rama against his own brother, Ravana. When Vibhishana was going via Trichy en route to Sri Lanka, the Lord wanted to stay in Srirangam.
The location where the Ranganathan idol was placed was later covered by an overgrowth of deep forests, due to disuse. After a very long time, a Chola king, chasing a parrot, accidentally found the idol. He then established the Ranganathaswamy temple as one of the largest temple complexes in the world.
According to historians, most dynasties that ruled the South—Cholas, Pandiyas, Hoysalas, Nayakkas—assisted with renovation and in the observance of the traditional customs. Even during periods of internal conflicts amongst these dynasties, utter importance was given to the safety and maintenance of these temples. It is said that a Chola king presented the temple with a golden serpent couch. Some historians identify this king with Rajamahendra Chola, supposedly the son of Rajendra Chola II. But it is of interest to note that he never figures in the latter’s inscriptions, neither in the 4th year (that shows various members of the family going on rampage in different regions) nor in the 9th year (that shows only one member of the second generation).
The temple is mentioned in Tamil works of literature of the Sangam era, including the epic Silapadikaram (book 11, lines 35-40):
“On a magnificent cot having a thousand heads spread out, worshipped and praised by many, in an islet surrounded by Kaveri with bellowing waves, the lying posture of the One who has Lakshmi sitting in his chest
āyiram viritteḻu talaiyuṭai aruntiṟaṟ
pāyaṟ paḷḷip palartoḻu tētta
viritiraik kāviri viyaṉperu turuttit
tiruvamar mārpaṉ kiṭanta vaṇṇamum”
However, archaeological inscriptions are available only from the 10th century AD.
That these two origin stories do not agree is, I have found, fairly typical in India. Maybe the first fits within the second, I don’t know. In India there are many stories, often about the same thing or place. And these stories often do not agree. I wonder sometimes what you are supposed to believe? All of them? The one you like the best? None of them? If you have problems with ambiguities, then India is not the place for you.
We visited this temple during our trip through southern Tamil Nadu and Kerala. We toured Trichy for a day, waiting for the overnight sleeper train to Kunyakumari. This trip is detailed in this post.
Driving through Trichy, we can see a temple tower rising from the street in front of us.
As we get closer, the size and magnitude becomes more apparent. It looks like maybe 15 levels on the gopuram.
A closer view, from just beneath it.
Then we do something unlike we have done before at any temple: we drive through it, and drive around to the left in a circle on the streets, the outer walls outside us now.
The picture below shows this, with rows of towers on the east, north, west and south side, with the main temple complex in the innermost enclosure. (Picture from wikipedia):
We drive by and through a number of magnificent gates.
Inside the gates is like another part of the city, with many vendor stalls, etc.
We will drive through this tower gate.
This is one of the main gates on the east side of the temple. We will park near here and walk the rest of the way.
Each shrine has a tower above it, all colorfully painted. If you look closely at the figures to see the main God shown, then you will know what God is in the shrine. I see a reclining figure here above the entrance, so it must be the reclining form of Vishnu, Lord Ranganatha, the primary God of this temple complex.
More street activity within the temple complex.
With the three ladies in yellow sarees, I wonder if yellow is a special color of Lord Ranganatha?
We will walk through this gate tower to enter the main enclosure.
As we do, we see more figures above the entrances to the next structure.
Here are a series of close ups. Some of the figures I know. Most I do not. Tiruvannamalai, Arunachala, and the main temple here, Arunachaleswara Temple, are all Siva temples, with figures characteristic of Siva temples, like Ganesh and Murugan. In Vishnu temples, I think the figures are mainly Vishnu and avatars of Vishnu.
Here is a close up of the tower that we will enter through. We enter into the fourth prakara. This area is open to all. Starting, I think, at the third prakara, only Hindus are allowed.
I do not know the seated figure to the left, nor the figure in the circle of fire to the right.
Do not know this figure either. Maybe someone can help us with this information. I know that each figure has a meaning and a story.
This is Krishna and Arjuna, from the Bhagavad Gita.
More unknown figures. I suspect that this group include Hanuman, since two of the figures seem monkey-like.
Here is the main god of this temple complex, Lord Ranganatha. This form is of particular importance to the Sri Vaishnava community. His name is Sanskrit for “protector of the place of assembly”.
We are in one of the pillared halls.
Carved into the base of each pillar are gods and figures from holy stories.
There is an office that sells tickets to access the rooftop, where good views of the temple complex are available. We buy tickets, and additional tickets for our cameras.
Then climb the stairs up.
There is a great view of the overall temple enclosures.
One of the many splendid temple towers that rise from the structure, with others behind.
Two gopurams to the east. The near one is white. All the others we see are painted. This one is white. I wonder why the difference?
A view of an area near us, showing a temple entrance, with figures above to show who is the god here.
This looks north from where we stand. Three towers, including the last the we came through, stand before us.
We will go through this gate next. A little later there is a good photo of one of the two ‘guardians’ that stand by the door wearing green dhoties.
Nice rooftop figures. Is the central one Krishna? He is blue.
This certainly is Krishna — young Krishna playing the flute.
Another temple tower, above a shrine.
And another. They are so nicely constructed, with many figures, carefully and colorfully painted. From the main figure, the flute-playing Krishna seen above, I would guess this is a Krishna shrine.
The view to the south. The golden tower over the main shrine is in the center. Other towers line up in a row, as in the photo near the start of this article.
A close up view of the white tower.
The far tower to the east is painted. From the distance, the colors seem faint.
People asleep in a pillared hall.
Women sitting. It looks like they have shared a meal.
One of the figures by the gate to the next gopuram, wearing what looks now like a green dress, not a dhoti, so this is a woman. What goddess?
Through the next gopuram. This entrance has a clock, 4:02 pm.
In this hall there is a series of paintings, illustrating the Sriranga Mahathmiyam, as referenced in the beginning of this article. I have tried to put comments on the story in the right place. I have done the best I can, not being able to read the Tamil script under each painting. I am fairly sure I got them in the correct sequence.
Lord Brahma, the Lord of Creation in Hindu mythology, was once in a state of deep meditation, and in His supreme trance received the gift of the Lord Vishnu’s idol, “Ranga Vimana”.
The idol is passed on to other sages by Brahma.
The other sages worship it.
It is then given to Rama.
Who worships it for a long time, then gives it to King Vibishna
The king is going to take the idol with him.
The King Vibishna loses the vimana on the banks of the Cauvery River.
A Chola king, chasing a parrot …
Has a dream …
And locates Lord Vishnu’s idol, “Ranga Vimana.”
He then established the Ranganathaswamy temple.
Here are paintings of Ranganatha and two other Gods.
This hall houses the paintings.
A woman sits.
Here is one of the large gods, I think Vishnu, about 20 feet tall.
To be allowed into the next section of the temple, we had to go to the office and have Valen and his wife sign papers vouching for us as Hindus. Only then were we allowed to go further. Carol had a tilak on her forehead, as would a good Hindu woman.
We walked into the dark temple, up stairs and through a pillared hall.
then finally queued up in a line to enter the Inner Sanctum that houses Lord Ranganatha. As we stood in line, two men, one that looked like a police officer, came up to us and challenged our right to be in the line. Valen told them that we had been cleared by the main office for entry.
The main shrine is through this golden door.
This photo was taken after we left the shrine. Naturally no photos allowed inside. When I entered the shrine, I got the big hug from the priest! It was the biggest hug that I have gotten in India from anyone! After all the trouble getting permission to visit, and having my presence challenged, I was so surprised by the warm greeting!
An oil lamp illuminates a dark spot in the temple. I love the kind of light these lamps give off.
Idols in a wall-side chamber.
A beautiful Vishu picture, with Vishnu clothed in gold.
A small shrine, up a set of stairs.
This is kind of like a price list. It is to ask Vishnu for a child with good karma. This best thing to offer is Turmeric, then gold, then silver, etc. The worst thing to offer is coconut.
You put the offering in one side of the scale, we were told, then a weight for the size baby you want. Make this offering to assure the good karma of your baby.
Another pillared hall inside the main temple, closed for repairs.
A hallway lined with massive pillars. I love how these look like something out of another time. They certainly are, being hundreds, if not more than one thousand, years old.
A murti (stone statue) of Krishna. Note the hat. When you visit a Vishnu temple, the priest has hats like this, made of silver or brass. They will place it on your head as you pass by, offering a blessing I think.
Outside the main shrine now, we pass by an area lined with ancient statues.
A side shrine. We did not enter.
The white gopuram towers above us.
We are on the east side, in a pillared hall.
On one side of this hall are stone figures of horses, rearing.
Each is different, and has its own details. They are more than 15 feet tall.
We sit and take a rest.
On the other side of an open area is the “Thousand Pillared Hall,” which actually ‘only’ has 953 carved stone pillars.
One last look at the white gate.
And then we have to leave. As we head back through the temple I notice this row of figures carved into the stone. Each of these is black, I think from ghee (clarified butter) poured over them, for many years.
We had to leave the temple and get to the train station. We were going to take an overnight train to Kanyakumari.
After we have visited Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, and photographed it, I studied the temple using articles I found on the Internet. I learned so much about it after I had visited. I wish I had done more homework before I got there.
There were several sources that I used for materials in this article. The most important were wikipedia and http://www.srirangam.org/.