Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, also known as Thiruvaranga Tirupati, is one of the most illustrious Vaishnav temples in the country, dedicated to Ranganatha, a reclining form of Hindu deity, Bhagwan (God or Lord) Vishnu. Situated in an ethereal setting on the island of Srirangam that is bounded by the two rivers of Cauvery and Kollidam (a tributary of Cauvery), this living temple and sacred centre of pilgrimage is counted as the first and foremost among the 108 Divya Desams dedicated to Bhagwan Vishnu.
More importantly, it is not just a temple but a temple-town, unique in its Sapta-Prakaram formation, a temple centred settlement pattern that comprises of Sapta (seven) concentric rectangular enclosures or prakarams formed by thick and huge rampart walls that run round the sanctum sanctorum in which the deity presides. While the inner five enclosures of the complex constitute the temple, the outer two enclosures function as the settlement. Thus, the distinction between the temple and the settlement gets blurred and the temple is also referred to as Srirangam many a times. This Temple-Town typology is unique to this part of the world and Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple is an exceptional example of the same.
Constructed in the Dravidian style of architecture, the Temple Complex is massive in scale and spread over 156 acres (63.131 hectares). According to some scholars, this makes Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple the largest Functioning Temple in the World and is often found ranked amongst the largest religious complexes of the world, including the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Borobodur in Indonesia, Machu Picchu in Peru and the Vatican City.
Apart from the 7 prakarams with massive walls, the Temple Complex has 21 very colourful sculpted gopurams (consecrated gateways with towers), 50 sub shrines, 9 sacred pools, gilded Vimana (dome) over the sanctum sanctorum of the presiding deity, and other interesting features such as fresco paintings. Active interchange of human values was happening between the public and rulers in planning, designing, executing and using the Temple complex. Part of the temple is dedicated to the temple with its regular sevas, festivals and activities of Vaishnav Cult. The other part is vibrant with regular human settlement with all its daily routines and events. The temple is the nucleus and the life of people is centred around it.
Another unique feature of the Srirangam Temple-cum-Township lay-out is that starting with the eastern outer wall of the Sanctuary, there are consecrated mini-Mandapams housing the blessed feet of the Lord in collinear formation through the Seven Enclosures.
The inner three enclosures taken together, with the Arya-bhata and the Parama-pada gates defining the south-north axis, constitute the Inner Court and the entire outer area occupied by the rest of the enclosures is known as the Outer Court.
Evidences prove the origin of the temple in 1st century CE during the Sangam period (3rd Century BCE – 45thCentury CE). However, as it stands today, the temple represents an accretion of building activity over centuries, the architectural idioms coming from the several royal dynasties who were captivated by and adored the Temple. Some of these were the early Cholas (1st Century CE) ruling from Uraiyoor situated to the south of Srirangam across the river, later Cholas (13th Century CE) of Pazhaiyaarai and Thanjavur, the Kongu rulers from Tamil west, the Pandyas from south (6th – 10th Centuries CE and 13th – 14th Centuries CE), the Hoysalas (10th – 14th Centuries CE), and the later rulers and viceroys of the celebrated Vijayanagara Empire of Karnataka (16th Century CE). The expansion schemes included addition of functional structures and pavilions of grand temple protocol (like the Mallikarjuna Mandapam) and its growth is a pointer to an antiquity since the time this unique centre of religious devotion had been known to and extolled by a diversity of religious and linguistic groups across the nation periodically surging towards this centre of pilgrimage par excellence.
Description of some significant components is as follows:
1. Mandapams (Halls): There are many mandapams at Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple. One of the finest is the Hall of 1000 pillars (actually 953), an example of a planned theatre-like structure. Made of granite, it was constructed during the Vijayanagaraperiod (1336–1565). The great hall is traversed by one wide aisle in the centre for the whole of its greater length, and intersected by transepts of like dimension running across at right angles. There still remain seven side aisles on each side, in which all the pillars are equally spaced out.
The most artistically interesting of the halls that the Nayaks added to the complex is the Sesharayar Mandapam on the east side of the fourth enclosure. The hall is celebrated for the 40 leaping animals carved on to the piers at its northern end. The Sesharayar mandapam consists of monolithic pillars with sculptures of wild horses bearing riders on their backs, trampling their hoofs upon the heads of rampant tigers and seem only natural and congruous among such weird surroundings.
The Garuda Mandapam (hall of the legendary bird deity of Vishnu, Garuda) located on the south side of the third enclosure is another Nayak addition. Courtly portrait sculptures, reused from an earlier structure, are fixed to the piers lining the central aisle. A free-standing shrine inside the hall contains a large seated figure of Garuda; the eagle-headed God faces north towards the principal sanctum.
The Kili mandapam is located next to the Ranganatha shrine, in the first enclosure of the temple. Elephant balustrades skirt the access steps that ascend to a spacious open area. This is bounded by decorated piers with rearing animals and attached colonettes in the finest 17th-century manner. Four columns in the middle define a raised dais; their shafts are embellished with undulating stalks.
The Ranga Vilasa mandapam is a huge one, where the weary devotee may rest a while and watch others haggle and purchase items for rituals. The Ranga Vilasa mandapa carries the sculptures of Bala Ramayana and exquisité murals.
2. The Kottarams (Granaries): The Kottaram houses the huge Granaries which stand testimony to a systematic food security planning not only to the temple but probably to the entire population of the temple town.
3. Small shrines: The Venugopala shrine in the south-west corner is in the fourth enclosure of the temple with an inscription of 1674 CE. The exterior of the vimana and attached mandapa has finely worked pillars with fluted shafts, double capitals and pendant lotus brackets. Sculptures are placed in the niches of three sides of the sanctuary walls.
4. Gopurams (Temple Towers): There are 21 huge Gopurams. The Rajagopuram is the second tallest Temple tower in the world rising to a height of 72 mts.
5. Inscriptions: Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple is a veritable treasure trove for epigraphists. Over 640 inscriptions have been copied and published from the temple. The Archaeological Survey of India has devoted an entire volume (XXIV) in its South Indian Inscriptions series to record the inscriptions copied from the temple. The Big Temple in Thanjavur is the only other temple in Tamil Nadu to have such an exclusive volume devoted to the inscriptions found in a particular temple.
The inscriptions throw up interesting and valuable light on the history, culture and economy during a period of over a thousand years. The temple abounds in inscriptions dating between the early Chola and late Nayak periods.
The documents, while mentioning the boundaries of the lands, provide useful information on irrigation facilities, land measures, tax structure and the names provided for the lands in the particular village.
Inscriptions also throw light that the Srirangam temple was one among the handful of temples which have had an Arokyasala (Health Centre) that had rendered medical service to the people.
There are about 800-odd inscriptions dating back to the rule of different dynasties, available at various shrines of the temple proclaim the past civilisation, trusts, culture and land donation and even flood relief measures in the form of land reclamation. These inscriptions relate to the period of the Adhithyan-I; Paranthagan-I; Paranthangan-II also known as Sundara Chola; Rajathirajan – I; Athi Rajendran; Kulothungan – I; Vikrama Chola; Kulothungan – II; Rajarajan II; Rajathirajan – II; Kulothungan – III; Rajathirajan – III; and Rajendran – III. The oldest inscription pertains to the period of the Adhithyan-I who was also popularly known as Rajakesari Varman.
6. Fresco & Mural Paintings: The walls of the Temple complex are painted with exquisite paintings using herbal and vegetable dyes. They speak volumes about the culture and tradition followed at those times. The figures of gods and Goddesses tell us stories and teach us morals. The high end technologies used in these paintings ensured a long life for these paintings and poses a tough challenge to reproduce them in these modern days.
The idol of the main deity is unique that it is not made of granite as in many temples, but Stucco (a unique combination of lime, mortar and stones bound together by a special paste (Thailam), made of musk, camphor, honey,Jaggery and sandal).
7. Vahanas: The Vahanas (Vehicles on which The Lord is mounted and carried on the shoulders by devotees) are by themselves excellent pieces of architecture on wood. Wood is carved into the shapes of animals, exotic birds, sun, moon, trees etc and elegant gold or silver plating is done on them.
The Garuda vahana, Simha vahana, Yanai vahana, Kudirai vahana, Hanumantha Vahana, Yazhi vahana, Sesha vahana, Annapakshi Vahana, Otrai and ettai Prabhai vahana are all examples of unmatched beauty. To see Lord Ranganatha mounted on them is a treat to watch especially as he moves along the streets of Srirangam inch by inch amongst a sea of devotees.
An interesting piece of history is the Yanai Vahana. An ordinary eye would describe it as an Elephant, however on a closer look one would observe that it has four tusks. A quick search on the Encarta Encyclopedia will let us know that these four-tusked elephants were known as Mastodontoidea, which are said to have evolved around 38 million years ago and became extinct about 15 million years ago when the shaggy and two tusked Mastodons increased in population.
8. Water Harvesting Systems (Temple Tanks): The Temple complex has 2 large Temple tanks inside it, Chandra Pushkarini and Surya Pushkarini. The Complex has been built in a way that all the water collected flows into the tanks. The capacity of each Pushkarini is around 2 million litres and the water is cleansed by action of fishes in it.
Apart from these there are 10 more Temple Tanks around Srirangam that come under the control and management of the Temple. Open sand beds and Nandavanams (Flower gardens) help in absorbing the rain water.