Sri Arunachaleswarar temple

Sri Arunachaleswarar temple, in Tiruvannamalai, is one of the biggest temple complexes in the south.  And at around 66 metres (217 feet). the imposing 11-storeyed Rajagopuram, is one of the tallest gopurams in India.  Work on this tower was started by the great Vijayanagar Emperor, Krishnadeva Raya, and was completed by Sevvappa Nayak (1532-1560), the first Nayak of Thanjavur.

The history of this town revolves round Sri, Arunachaleswarar temple, beginning from the early period (871-955) of the Imperial Cholas, to Sri Krishnadeva Raya and, later, Sevvappa Nayak, who carried out large-scale renovation and expansion of the shrine.  Besides, the Pandyas, Cholas and the Vijayanagar monarchs, the Hoysalas are also said to have donated enormously for the temple's upkeep.  The inscriptions are, therefore, in Tamil, Telugu and Kannada.  However, a predominant number of stone inscriptions are in Sanskrit, in the Grantha script.

According to the sthala purana, Brahma and Vishnu once entered into an argument over who between them was the greatest.  They then asked Lord Shiva to resolve the dispute.  Shiva replied that whoever was able to see His crown as well as His feet could be termed the greatest.  Shiva transformed Himself into a column of five (jyoti) that spanned heaven and earth.  Vishnu took the form of a boar(Varaha) and bored deep into the earth to find Shiva's feet, failed and accepted defeat. Meanwhile, Brahma assumed the form of a swan and flew around searching for the crown.  He saw the thazhampoo flower, that Shiva had decked in His hair, falling down, and asked it to show him the Lord's head.  The flower said that it had been falling down for 40,000 years and, hence, could not judge the distance.  Brahma then requested the flower to bear false witness, when he lied to Shiva about having seen the crown.  Shiva saw through the deception and cursed that Brahma would not have a temple on earth.  He also declared that the thazhampoo flower should not be used for His worship.
Tiruvannamalai was the place where Shiva had appeared as the column of fire that eliminated the egos of the gods.  At the request of Vishnu and Brahma, Lord Shiva took the form of a Lingam at the foot of the hill, where the temple is now located.  The flame took the shape of the hill in the present Kali Yuga, it is said.

It is also said that Goddess Uma Devi, while engaged in a penance, was constantly disturbed by the asura, Mahisha.  She slew him on Full Moon Day in the Tamil month of Karthika (November-December). Shiva then presented Himself in the form of a flame atop the Tiruvannamalai Hill and merged Goddess Parvati into the left half of His body.  This event is commemorated on the tenth day of the Karthika festival, when a huge fire is lit atop the hill exactly at 6pm, symbolizing Shiva, the Ardhanareeswaramoorthy, as Jyoti Swaroopa (an embodiment of fire).

Aruna is fire, and, here as Arunachaleswarar, fire is worshipped, as an aspect of Shiva.  Of the five elements, fire is considered as one of the most important. Fire symbolizes purity and light, the light of wisdom.  And, just as a fiery flame destroys everything in its path, fire also signifies the destruction of the ego and ignorance.  Mention is made of this shine and of this celebration in the ancient Tamil classic, Tholkappiam, dating back to more than 3,000 years.  During Pournami (Full Moon), hundreds of thousands of devotees go round the hill (Girivalam).  The 14-oddkm circumambulation reaches a climax on Chitra Pournami day (April/May) when millions flock to this town.

There are seven prakaras (enclosures) in the temple.  In the third prakaram is the shrine of Arunchaleswara's consort, Unnamalai Amman, known in Sanskrit as Abidhakujambal.  At the entrance to the third prakaram are images of Ganesh and Subramanya, and the dwarapalakas.  There are a number of deities in the second prakaram.  In the first prakaram is the sanctum that houses the presiding deity, Sri Arunachaleswarar or Annamalaiyar.

Numerous are the saints who have sung in praise of this temple, but the shrine is famously assciated with Saint Arunagirinathar, who is believed to have lived in the 15th century.  It is said that the saint's association with this temple began, when he attempted to thrown himself down from one of the gopurams.  Sri Subramanya (Muruga) halted his fall and saved him from death.  He then composed a number of verses in praise of Muruga, which are part of Tiruppugazh.
The temple, spread over 25 acres, is situated east, at the bottom of the hill.  It is one of the biggest and grandest of temples in South India.  It is also known for its architectural importance and sculptural beauty.  there is a long, rectangular mandapam preceding the entrance.  To the right, as we enter, is the thousand-pillared mandapam.  This mandapam, as well as tank opposite, was Sri Krishnadeva Raya's other contribution.  Adjoining the mandapam is the Pathala Lingam, a basement shrine, where Tiruvannamalai's most famous resident in recent times, Sri Ramana Maharishi meditated. 

Sri Ramana Maharishi (1879-1950) had made the Arunachala his abode from the time he left home when he was barely 16.  Devotees from all over the world flock to Sri Ramana Ashram, to pray at his austere samadhi, and also at the samadhi of his mother, which is now a shrine.

How to get there:

Tiruvannamalai is 188km from Chennai, the nearest airport.  It is easily accessible by road.
Accommodation: there are guest houses run by the Devasthanam, while Sri Ramana Ashram has its own cottages.  There are private lodges as well.

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