Exploring the Temple Town of Tiruvarur: The Abode of Carnatic Music and Shaivism

Tiruvarur in Tamil Nadu is a repository of the cultural, historical, and spiritual heritage of India. It attracts scores of pilgrims, art enthusiasts, and music connoisseurs from across the globe.  

It was during an evening chat over a cup of tea at the Central University of Tamil Nadu’s (hereafter, the university) canteen in Tiruvarur that Manisha Choudhary, professor of history, kindled an urge in the authors to explore the Thyagaraja temple in the town, considered as the abode of moksha. She explained about the unique potential of the temple to transport an art enthusiast to the world of fantasy and myth. Dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, the temple, with its magnificent workmanship, attracts pilgrims from across the world. Tiruvarur, which is regarded as a holy town, is among four towns in the country associated with the concept of “liberation,” as per the Hindu faith. The three other towns are Chidambaram, Varanasi, and Thiruvannamalai. There are many myths and legends about Tiruvarur and the Thyagaraja temple, which any interested story-teller looks forward to explore.    

After researching about the temple for days, we embarked on a day-long journey to the majestic Thyagaraja temple. At dawn, ready for an exciting day, we reached a giant ornate gopura (the monumental gateway tower to a Hindu temple complex), which almost touched the vast dark sky where the stars still twinkled. The temple was not crowded. The fragrance of fresh jasmine flowers, incense sticks, and sandalwood paste wafted in the air. We headed to the temple walking through the stone-paved paths, and were lost in the beauty of the magnificent structures. 

The Birthplace of Shaivism

We were told by many pilgrims about the magnificent chariot that is exclusive to the Thyagaraja temple. The annual chariot festival held in April is one of the largest festivals in Tamil Nadu. Once we entered the temple, we became aware of its vastness. The temple is located in a sprawling 30-acre area.  

A staff member walked us to Thyagarajar and Neelothbalambal, the prominent deities of the temple. The walls of the temple have numerous inscriptions, and are also adorned with paintings of revered Shaivites, like Appar, Njana Sambandar, Manikavasagar, and Sundarar. The Devacharya Mandapam in the temple complex once served as the site where the devotees of Shiva used to assemble. Tiruvarur is regarded as the birthplace of some prominent Shaivite saints. Periya Puranam, a 12th-century Shaivite canonical work written by Sekkizhar, dedicates a chapter to the people born in Tiruvarur. The Thyagaraja temple and Tiruvarur town bear several signs and works of early Shaivite devotees, which bears testimony to the development of the Hindu sect called Shaivism in Tamil Nadu.   

Thyagaraja temple has a history of invasions attached to it, like other South Indian temples. The temple had been subjected to continuous invasions from the period of Delhi Sultanate ruler Alauddin Khilji. Later, the Vijayanagara kings and Maratha chieftains played a key role in restoring the temple to its previous glory. They encouraged the production of art and architectural marvels within the temple complex. It is recorded in history that the temple was even subjected to attacks from the French. Thus, the temple also stands as a testament to long invasions and colonial atrocities. 

The captivating architecture of the temple took us to the glorious past, filled with grandeur. We could imagine how the Chola kings would have walked on the same stone-paved paths centuries ago. Standing at that sanctum sanctorum, breathing the air filled with the strong smell of incense sticks and Shiva chants, we realised that, probably, for a layman, Tiruvarur temple has given everything, including art, music, and even the highest goal of life to attain moksha. The sunbeams slowly peeped through the huge trees, lightening our faces. We move ahead to explore more wonders that awaited us. It felt like we were taking a walk back to ancient history.

A Cultural Hub

Tiruvarur has been a cultural hub of the region, promoting various art forms, crafts, and even hosts myriad architectural marvels. The magnificent entrance, which awaits the pilgrims, pierces the eastern wall of outer prakaram (circumambulatory path) and is 110-feet wide and 60-feet tall, and is crowned with a 120-feet tall gopuram, which dates back to the 13th century. It is a five-tiered structure topped with 11 kalasams (inverted pot like structures found on the top of temple towers). There are seven huge towers embellished in exquisite detail, which are visible from a distance, attracting the attention of all those who pass through the temple roads. We also saw the sprawling Kamalalayam Tank, which is located west of the temple. While we asked the locals for directions to the temple, they mentioned about the particular tank as a distinct landmark of the temple town. We sat near the tank for a while, watching the early morning sunbeams on the water and the resulting golden hue. 

We then headed towards the Vanmikanathar shrine, which is one of the earliest structures in the temple. The famous Thyagaraja shrine is located south of the Vanmikanatha shrine. There is also a small shrine dedicated to Sundaramoorthy Nayanar and his consort, Paravai Nachiyar. There are also shrines dedicated to Ganesha, Subrahmanya, the 63 Nayanmars, Nataraja and Chandrasekhara to name a few. The Hindu concept of worshipping 33 crore gods is, in a way, materialised through the construction of small and big shrines dedicated to each deity. 

Another thing that caught our attention was the stone chariot of Manuneethi Cholan. According to the legend, Manuneethi Cholan rebuked his son by running a chariot over him for killing a calf. Such tales are converted into magnificent statues and are preserved for future generations in the temple premises. It has even been documented that the Tiruvarur temple serves as a cultural model for the famous Brihadeeshwara Temple at Thanjavur. Tiruvarur is also famous for ther (the chariot). The gigantic 101-feet tall chariot rolls during the annual car festival (chariot festival) in the Tamil months of Chittarai–Vaikasi (April–May). A few of our friends at the university told us how eagerly they stayed back in the hostel during the semester break to witness the spectacular temple chariot festival. Their experience of the chariot festival helped us view the festival as an actualisation of Mikhail Bhaktin’s concept of carnivalesque, where people from all walks of life come together at the temple premises, shedding their differences, to celebrate the event. 

The beauty of the temple architecture can capture the attention of any aesthete. The paintings adorning the walls of the temple can be considered as milestones in the development of Indian art. The temple also serves as a home to many rare and exquisite Chola paintings. There are more than 50 panels of 17th-century paintings in the Devasiriya Mandapam. The murals on the ceiling narrate the story of Sri Thyagaraja. A glance at the paintings recreates 17th-century life, especially that of the Marathas with charm and grandeur.

Nerve Centre of Carnatic Music

Tiruvarur is also known for nurturing art forms, like dance and music. The musical trinity of Sri Thyagaraja, Sri Shyama Sastrigal, and Sri Muthuswamy Dhikshitarwho laid the foundations for the Carnatic musiclived here. Their houses are present in the holy town as the reminiscences of a golden past.  On our way to the temple, we found many music institutes that still preserve the rich musical legacy passed on by the musical giants. Even today, the musicians in the town hum the eulogies to Hindu gods composed by Dikshitar. The streets are charmed by the musical waves floating all around, creating positive vibes. Many university students enthusiastically use the unique opportunity of being in such a culturally rooted town to sharpen their talent and imbibe the rich Indian musical tradition passed on from the giants themselves. The increased patronage of the Maratha kings has also resulted in the development of music and dance traditions. The Thyagaraja temple is known for some unique musical instruments like Panchamukha Vadyam and Barinanyam. It is interesting to know that even today, these instruments are widely used in the town. The Carnatic music festival celebrated every year in the town attracts a large audience from all over the country. 

After understanding more about Tiruvarur, we feel that this place can be developed as a cultural hub to preserve traditional performing arts, local crafts, and the vibrancy of Indian culture to be carried forward to the future generations. Even though the houses of the musical trinity, located in the temple town, are being currently renovated, we feel that the simplicity that characterised their lives is being lost due to the modern reconstruction methods, which are replacing old thatched huts with concrete structures.   

We also visited the museum in the temple complex, which has been preserving artefacts representing the historic, cultural, and spiritual elements of this vibrant town. There are also ways to develop the museum by employing innovative modern techniques of light and sound shows to demonstrate the history and significance of the temple. Additionally, appointing skilful multilingual guides in such temples could help in sharing the tales of the rich cultural heritage with visitors from across the world. In the present world of globalisation and cross-cultural exchanges, we could carve out a niche for our country’s rich culture globally through such nascent steps. 

Rural to Urban Transformation

Like every Indian village, Tiruvarur has also undergone a transformation from being a farming village to a technologically advanced town. The town at present is home to different categories of people, individuals rooted in the temple culture to information technology (IT)  professionals. The flower vendor Akka, whom we met outside the temple premises, excitedly shared her version of the change that she has witnessed. While persuading us to buy flowers, she said that young women, today, prefer not to adorn their hair with flowers and choose artificial beauty products over natural ones. After much persistence, we made up our mind to buy flowers, but had to give up on our plan as we did not carry a paper bag; the Tamil Nadu government has announced a ban on non-biodegradable plastic, and recommended eco-friendly alternatives. 

Travelling to Thyagaraja temple was an eye-opener to observe how villages and towns are transforming into bustling urban spaces. It was almost twilight, and we had finished exploring the magnificent temple. For the one last time, we turned back to get a glimpse of the temple’s entrance under the fading sun, as the mighty gopuram stood tall, and the chants of Sathyam, Shivam, Sundaram wafted around with the pleasant breeze.  

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