Sometimes you arrive at a place and immediately say to yourself, ‘I’ve always wanted to visit a place like this.’
Even before you realize it, you are in love with it. It’s almost like a living dream. It doesn’t happen often, maybe one in a hundred journeys. Travelling is not about finding such a place, but when you do find it, all the travails and experiences of the road seem to fade and recede into the background. What lives is only the place where you are standing. Srirangam.
Coming to Srirangam is in itself a wonderful experience. It is a only a short ride from the busy city of Trichy. The bus drives by a bridge over the broad expanse of River Cauvery. Little floating islands of grass and weeds dot the calm surface waters. On the other bank is a sea of coconut palms. Beyond this green canopy, the rajagopuram of the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple of Srirangam stands towering over everything else in the landscape. This is one of the great spectacles of South India.
The bus winds around the streets and seems to be getting away from the temple. I need not have concerned myself about it. Soon I am dropped near the temple. I walk a few paces, turn a street corner and I am face to face with the rajagopuram. At 72 meters on 13 levels, this is the tallest gopuram in the world. Some say the one at Murudeshwar on the Western coast of Karnataka is the tallest. I don’t even consider the latter as a real gopuram. It is nothing more than a modern skyscraper built like a gopuram.
Srirangam is almost the perfect temple town. The entire town is built around the temple. The temple is surrounded by streets on all four sides and they make many concentric squares. Passing from the outer to the inner streets, under little colourful gopurams, is like a journey to the center of heaven, which the temple depicts. Street scenes complete this picture of a temple town – gold-bordered sarees and dhotis hang at the feet of dwarapalakas, coiled garlands of jasmine lend their fragrances to the air, colourful chalks for drawing kolams sit in small wooden boxes, banana leaves decorate mandapas on the way to the temple, women return from the temple with prasadams in hand, bare-chested priests in dhotis and sacred threads weave noiselessly through the streets in their scooters.
It is a quiet morning. People are busy coming and going. Yet the place has a feeling of laidback attitude. There is no rush or hurry in the way things are happening. The sun is shining brilliantly but the day is not uncomfortably hot. The atmosphere is charged with piety. It seems at times that nothing has changed across the centuries. This is what Madurai would have been once upon a time.
For a small fee of ten rupees, I get the chance to get on the roof of a mandapa by a stairway on the southern side of the temple. From here I realize for the first time the vast proportions of the temple complex and the town beyond. It is really difficult to tell where the temple ends and the town begins. Both are one and the same. I stand looking at the tall whitewashed gopuram on the eastern side. To my right, is the colourful and majestic rajagopuram. From the south to the north there are as many as 12 gopurams with the golden vimana in between over the main sanctum. Other gopurams on the east and west take the total to nearly 20. I need not at this point tell you about the number of mandapas, corridors, sculptures and sanctums in this great Vaishnavaite temple. One can only imagine.
The main deity is Sri Ranganathaswamy, Lord Vishnu in the reclined form. This is the same deity enshrined in temple of Srirangapatnam. I have darshan and wander a great deal admiring reliefs on pillars or simply taking in the medieval ambience. I notice near the entrance mandapa a massive dwajastambha in stone. This is not unlike the great Jain stambhas of Karkala or Moodbidri in Karnataka. On the abacus, a little shrine stands. The stambha is so tall that it pierces the roof of the mandapa through a small opening. Sunlight peeps through this opening and lights up part of the dim mandapa.
Among the great things at this temple is a shrine dedicated to Garuda, Vishnu’s vehicle. The statue of Garuda is huge, the largest I have ever seen. The 1000-pillared mandapa is a vast space. The pillars seem to contain may interesting reliefs but studying them at close range is a little difficult. The space has been rented out to some company that is assembling bicycles. Talk about inappropriate use of temple premises!
Facing this mandapa is a smaller one named the Sheshagiriraya Mandapa. It is from the Vijayanagar Period. On its northern side are eight pillars containing masterpieces of Vijayanagar sculptural art. Warriors and horseman ride with their shields, spears and swords conquering their adversaries, possibly Muslim invaders from the north. The details are superb. Scenes from the Ramayana make interesting study. Acrobats add variety. The eastern gopuram just a few paces from here looms over the mandapa and reaches for the high sky. I take lots of pictures and later spend many minutes sitting in this mandapa. The temple is closed for darshan and the devotees are all gone. A priest comes along, picks up his bicycle parked at the mandapa and wheels away for lunch.
I leave the temple and walk around. A line of coconut trees along the red and white bands of a temple wall makes a beautiful sight. I pass traditional houses with pillared verandahs, large windows and sloping tiled roofs. I come across a pair of tall stone pillars, perhaps 30 feet high. Just two pillars with the narrow street in between. There is enigma in the way they stand without purpose. Once upon a time they must have been part of a mightly gateway or mandapa. Today they stand as beautiful relics of history and medieval engineering. I pass a huge temple chariot locked away in an enclosure of its own. I can see a little bit of its decorated domed crown. Elsewhere between sculpted pilasters and aedicules are painted symbols of Vaishnavaite worship, the namam of three vertical lines signifying the worship of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahalakshmi.
When I return to the rajagopuram, I look at it for one last time. There are no excessive decorations on this one, unlike in Madurai. This is a modern gopuram completed in 1987. Yet its vertical perspective is quiet stunning. The central projection converges sharply to a point. Gopurams may be meant to call the faithful to prayer but I think the rajagopuram at Srirangam is meditative as well.