Palani is home to one of the most famous shrines for pilgrimage in Tamilnadu where millions congregate to worship Lord Murugan. It is situated in Dindigul district and is approachable both by Coimbatore and Madurai. One of the special traditions associated with this temple is the practice of coming to this temple on foot, irrespective of the distances involved while carrying a Kavadi (a physical burden to balance a spiritual debt). This practice is exactly the same as that of the Devghar temple of Lord Shiva in Bihar, which is one of the twelve Jyotirlingas.
One of the most enduring traditions associated with the family of Shiva, Palani has a direct link with it. Shiva has two sons, Ganesha and Kartikeya (also known as Murugan). In north India, Ganesha is always given first preference for worship as he is treated as the destroyer of all hardships while Kartikeya, the commander of the army of Gods is not generally worshipped in northern temples. We get to see Kartikeya’s youthful beauty and warrior finery during the Durga puja celebrations wherein the Puja pandals give equal importance to both brothers, Ganesha and Kartikeya. In southern India, Kartikeya in the form of Murugan is one of the main deities and a very large number of temples are there to attest to his popularity and importance in the religious landscape.
There are six main places in Tamilnadu which are known as Arupadai Veedu, six abodes of Murugan. Palani is considered to be the third home. The roots of this practice can be traced to the story linked with the establishing of Murugan’s temple in Palani.
Shiva had a normal home life on Mount Kailash with his wife Parvati and both his sons Ganesha and Kartikeya. In this idyllic household, a simple yet significant action changed the whole family’s future in a very profound way. The eternal mendicant sage Narada happened to pass by their home and gave a fruit to Shiva indicating that it is the fruit of wisdom and it may be given to his kids. Shiva wanted to divide this fruit among both his sons. But Narada counselled against this step and suggested that it be given to only one of his sons, who shows him to be worthy of such a fruit by going around the world first. It was not the first time that Narada was introducing intriguing twists in celestial matters.
Kartikeya took off on his mount, the peacock and started on his journey across the world. Ganesha preferred to use the logical route and claimed that for him his parents (Shiva & Shakti denoted the world) are everything in the world. So he went around them and claimed that he had circled the whole world. The parents happily accepted the theory and rejoiced at Ganesha’s discerning behaviour and gave the fruit to him. When Kartikeya came to know about this stratagem, he was furious as he considered this action by Ganesha as a duplicitous move. He vowed to never return to his parents and stayed on in southern India, where he had reached while wanting to circle the whole world. From that time onwards, Kartikeya has remained in the south and is revered in Tamilnadu as Murugan. He came to the hillock at Palani and stayed there, renouncing the material world.
Shiva and Parvati came to this place trying to placate their beloved son, who refused to go back with them. They told him that he is himself the source of knowledge and wisdom (Pazham Nee – you are the fruit). This phrase is considered to have given rise to the name Palani, by which the town is known today.
Temple at the foothill
There are two major temple complexes at Palani. While the temple on the top of the Sivagiri hill is the main temple for worship where millions of people come every year, it is the temple at the base of the hill which is considered the real home of Murugan. Known as Thiruavinankudi temple, it is considered as the third among the six sacred adobes of Murugan in Tamilnadu.
(The mandapam near the sanctum of the Thiruavinankudi Temple)
The etymology of this unique name consists of Bhoomi Devi representing ‘Thiru’, Kamdhenu contributing to ‘Aa’, Sun represented as ‘Vi’ and god of fire Agni represented as ‘Enan. The combination of all these deities give rise to Thiruavinankudi. One of the meanings of Kudi (Kuti or Gudi) denotes a place (Town or Village) in the Tamil language.
In this temple, Murugan is worshipped in the form of Kulandai Velayudhaswami, which means the child form of Lord Murugan with a lance (Vel in Tamil) as his weapon. Here he is depicted as a child riding his mount, the peacock. The six-faced representation of Murugan is a common depiction in this temple. His five heads represent the five natural elements (Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Ether) and the sixth head denotes pure consciousness or Chaitanya Shakti.
Arumugam or Six faced representation of Lord Murugan)
The Temple has a Gopuram at the entrance with a vertical big lance depicting Murugan’s Vel. This symbolism is easily understood by devotees to represent Murugan.
Gopuram with the highlighted Vel or lance)
The Sthala Vriksha is a sacred tree that forms part of the venerated places within the temple complex. A Sthala vriksha is common in most temples, especially in South India. There are a variety of indigenous trees that can be Sthala vrikshas and different temples have different venerated trees depending upon the ecology of the area and the main deity in the temple. Some of these trees are varieties of Ficus, Mango, Gooseberry, Cannonball, Stone apple etc. As one of the most ancient religious principles of mankind (when living in harmony with nature was the norm for humanity), Hinduism and ecology go together. Knowledge of trees and herbs of the region whilst giving them sacred importance, ensures a sense of responsibility towards the environment to protect and cherish it.
The Sthala Vriksha in this temple is the Nelli Maram or Gooseberry tree (Emblica Officinalis). Gooseberry is a rich source of Vitamin C and it has other health properties that have made it an important ingredient in the traditional medicines of India. While making a parikrama or circumambulation of the main shrine, one gets the chance to see the sacred tree and fold hands in respect for its properties that help us live a better life. A small space there has been created for pilgrims to leave their offerings for this sacred tree.
The Sthala vriksha- Gooseberry tree)
There is another very important tree in the compound, the Nagalingam tree. It is Shivkamal or Kailaspati in Hindi, Nagalinga Pushpa in Kannada, Nagamalli or Mallikarjuna flowers in Telugu and Cannonball tree in English. Hindus revere this tree as the stigma of the beautiful big pinkish flowers resembles a lingam and petal resembles the hood of a naga snake. This tree is commonly found in Shiva temples.
The flower buds and fruits on the Nagalingam or Cannonball tree)
There are numerous smaller shrines around the main shrine. One shrine is dedicated to Shani Devata, a powerful deity having a significant effect on a person’s life.
Smaller shrines within the temple complex)
The mandapam of this temple has beautifully carved pillars. One striking depiction is of the warrior princess, Meenakshi, who is a form of Goddess Parvati. It is said that Meenakshi came as a boon to Malayadhwaja Pandyan, King of Madurai. She was born with three breasts as is depicted in this pillar sculpture. It was said that Meenakshi would lose her third breast when she came in front of her soul mate. Meenakshi became a warrior and led expeditions in the three worlds. She reached Kailash Parvat, Shiva’s abode and defeated Nandi. On seeing Shiva, the hermit, it was love at first sight and she lost her third breast. This is well portrayed in carvings and wall murals at the Madurai Meenakshi Temple. This sculpture symbolises Shakti as the mother of Murugan.
Goddess Meenakshi, the Warrior Princess)
There is a depiction of dancing Lord Ganesha. It is a beautiful depiction of Ganesha lifting his favourite sweetmeat, modak, with his trunk while dancing in joy standing on his right leg.
Dancing Lord Ganesha)
There are some intriguing images on the pillars too. There is an image of a mendicant with the lower body of a snake. Another depiction is of a man with the head of a bull.
One can spend a long time just viewing the pillar carvings as no two are the same. Mendicants and sages are common depictions. One mendicant is portrayed as holding a stringed instrument that resembles a Veena. A court jester also finds a place. A woman performing the hard labour of removing the chaff from grains tells us a lot about the hardworking agrarian society.
The ritual of ‘Mundan’, the offering of a baby’s hair to the family deity is an important (and often a mandatory) practice amongst Hindus. It is usually done at a sacred place that may be a family temple, a sacred river bank or a spiritually significant temple. A few very important locations attract people from far away for this ritual. Palani is one of the most favoured places for this ritual in the western and southern part of Tamil Nadu. During the mid-1990s, I lived near Madurai and Erode district and the one thing common was the pull of Palani for the people of these areas. It has taken me almost a quarter of a century to finally visit this most sacred site and understand its importance in the lives of a Hindu.
Pilgrims throng the lower temple area and make hair offerings to their beloved deity. These rituals are not limited to just babies but children and adults also get their hair tonsured as a mark of offering.
Main temple at the hilltop
The main temple, which is the magnet for pilgrims is on the top of the Sivagiri Hills. This is the hill where Murugan had come after the fight with his parents over the subterfuge by Ganesha to get the fruit of wisdom. Palani has a scenic landscape. From the Thiruaavinankudi temple on the foothills of this hill, one can see the beauty of the Sivagiri hills with temple structures inviting the pilgrims to climb to the top. Palani hill is not far from the Kodaikanal hills and the Western Ghats.
A good view of the Sivagiri hills that celebrates the Dandayudhapani form of Murugan)
The temple on top of the Sivagiri hill celebrates the Dandayudhapani form of Murugan which is different from the usual depiction in other Murugan temples in Tamilnadu. Dandayudhapani literally means ‘a staff in the hand as a weapon’. He is shown to have renounced everything, wears just a loincloth and stays here with just his staff.
There are various ways to reach the shrine on top of this hill. One can take the ropeway or the winch as the easy walk to up the hill by taking the steps that have been made for the convenience of the pilgrims.
The entryway to the temple is in typical Dravidian style with bali peetham, dhvaja stambh and the entry to the mandapam. There is a granite peacock within a small shrine just before the main shrine entryway. One can see the Dandayudhapani form of Murugan depicted above the lintel of this entryway.
One of the unique aspects of any major and popular temple in India is the stories about its establishment and the significance of the place from a religious perspective. Even in a tradition as rich and diverse as the Indian temple lore, there is probably no match for the tradition associated with the statue of this Palani temple and its creator, an ascetic named Bogar.
The deity in this temple is not built of the usual elements like stone, metal or wood. This unique statue was crafted by the renowned sage Bogar, who was also a great exponent of Ayurveda. He is considered to be one of the most accomplished siddhas of ancient India. The time period of the creation of this statue is supposed to be the advent of the Kali Yuga, dated to approximately 3100 BCE. In the Indic cosmology, one cycle of creation consists of four yugas (Epochs). Kali Yuga is supposed to be last epoch of this cycle and the world is expected to face a lot of trouble in this period. Bogar wanted to help humanity navigate through difficult times ahead, so he consulted with 18 renowned siddhas and deliberated upon the best way to ameliorate the anticipated troubles. The story of this event has been painted on the temple walls. One of the images shows Bogar floating above the geosphere of the earth. This is in accordance with the fantastical exploits attributed to him (More on this to come later in this article).
(Sage Bogar consulting eighteen sages; Sage Bogar floating above the Earth’s geosphere)
Based on the opinions of the experts, Bogar created a unique amalgam for using it as the material for the image of Murugan. Thousands of herbs were combined to create nine compounds called the Nava Pashanam (nine poisons). According to local tradition, these were called Veeram, Pooram, Rasam, Jathilingam, Kandagam, Gauri Pasanam, Vellai pasanam, Mridarsingh and Silasat. These nine items were combined in a specific ratio to make the image of Murugan in his Dandayudhapani form. The deity has a unique visage with a very striking and beautiful face combined with a thin structure for the rest of the body.
This murti was installed in the sanctum sanctorum as the presiding deity. Bogar established the practice of doing Abhishekam with milk and Panchamritam. The Panchamritam is usually made of five different ingredients – bananas, country sugar, honey, ghee and cardamom and all these are available locally(the hill banana from this area has a great fan following). The materials used for the Abhishekam are supposed to interact with the material of Nava Pashanam and the resultant prasadam is said to have curative properties. This process was institutionalised to help people in times of illnesses and disease. The town of Palani has become a centre for such healing as many people are attracted by the curative property ascribed to the Nava Pashana statue of Murugan in this temple.
(In recent times there have been controversies due to the fact that the murti seemed to have lost some of its material and there was suspicion of foul play by some parties who were trying to use its material for their Ayurveda medicine business.)
(Bogar creating the image of Murugan with the Nava Pashanam amalgam)
On one entrance to this temple, there is a footmark on the rock. This is said to be the footprint of Murugan. His mount, the peacock, stands in front of the mark.
(Footmarks with floral offerings)
The mandapam that precedes the sanctum has amazing pillar carvings. The Yali or mystical creatures, part lion and part another animal, are a common feature of most pillars along with everyday people in traditional attires in some pillars. These beautiful sculptures stand in a welcoming pose, greeting the devotees and guiding them towards the darshan of the main deity.
The beautiful pillared mandapam in front of the sanctum sanctorum)
The construction of the current temple structure is associated with a Chera king who ruled this area sometime between the 2nd and 5th century CE. It is said that the worship of Dandayudhapani Murugan was forgotten in the course of thousands of years and the temple was lost. It so happened that the Chera king, Cholaman Perumal got separated from his party while hunting in this area. He became tired searching for the way and eventually fell asleep near this hill. He dreamt of Murugan, who told him to trace the statue and restore its worship. When he woke up, he searched for this statue and traced it. Thereafter he fulfilled Murugan’s wish and constructed this temple for the worship of the Nava Pashanam image.
The outer wall of the main shrine has dedicated one area to the Chera King and he is shown riding a horse while wielding his sword. The temple structure was later expanded in the time of the Pandya kingdom.
The outer walls of the main shrine have niches that host deities and sages. There is a little statue of sage Agastya, who has had a massive influence on the traditions of South India. We also find a tiny image of Kal Bhairav, a form of Shiva.
Carving of Chera Raja; Tiny Kaal Bhairav; Garlanded Sage Agastya)
Inscriptions on the temple walls
Temple walls speak a lot, we just have to understand the writings and carvings on the walls. On the outer walls of this Murugan shrine, there are many edicts made by Pandya kings. Many kings such as Sadaiyavarman Sundarapandian, Sadaiyavarman Veerapandian, Veera Nanjana Udaiyar and Mallikarjuna Devarayar II have gifted lands for the upkeep of the temple and for regular poojas.
The edict by Sundarapandian, a famous king of later Pandyan dynasty whose reign started in 1251 CE, is probably the oldest of all such inscriptions.
Several levels of inscriptions in different styles and of different eras)
There are numerous halls within the temple complex. These halls or mandapams have been made by different rulers of different eras and kingdoms. There are two Natya mandapams within these halls. The base is square and made out of granite. Four pillars on the four corners hold the intricately carved roof to this platform meant for performing temple dances in honour of the bhagwan. These Natya mandapams give a glimpse of the rich cultural and aesthetical heritage of the area.
One of the Natya mandapams)
There is so much to see in the vast hill temple complex as there are numerous shrines and halls for a devotee to visit. The Vimana is golden that shines bright and is visible within the complex. This is a temple of abundance with devotees thronging the area in reverence.
(A glimpse of the golden Vimana of the main shrine)
The association of this temple with the siddhar sage Bogar is not restricted to his fashioning the image of Murugan with the Nava Pashanam. There is a lot more. Bogar’s life story is given in a fantastical write up called Bogar Jnana Sagaram (Bogar’s ocean of knowledge).
Bogar is portrayed as an adept in advanced yogic practices. His guru was the great siddhar called Kalangi Nathar, who was a great yogi from Kashi (Varanasi). Kalangi Nathar is supposed to have gone to China to teach Yoga. Bogar was called by his Guru to China and he reached the place via the existing trade route. He stayed there to learn the advanced yogic practises and became a renowned Guru. After Kalangi Nathar attained Samadhi, Bogar became the Guru.
It is here that this story goes into really fantastical elements. These esoteric tales include the ability of Bogar to travel across the world in the astral plane, his ability to use Kaya Kalpa and transform his body to defeat ageing and achieve the ultimate yogic action of raising his kundalini to the final chakra point of the crown of the head (Sahasrara). He is supposed to have used Kaya Kalpa medicine and transformed his and his chief disciple’s bodies to give them the power to defy ageing. The span of the story encompasses hundreds of years and there are tantalising hints of his presence being the reason for the rise of Lao Tzu and his philosophy of duality of Yin and Yang (like Shiv and Shakti) during the period of 600 BCE onwards in China. It is interesting to note that the most widely available Chinese tradition related to Lao Tzu mentions him as appearing directly as an adult with no traceable childhood. He is supposed to have left the boundaries of the known world of the Chinese kingdom on its western border and never returned. Quite a curious coincidence!
The reliability of such accounts can be difficult to fathom, but it is a fact that there are other Chinese Traditions which can be directly traced to Indian visitors or Indian linkages. Even the establishment of martial arts teaching in the Shaolin temple is attributed to a south Indian monk by the name of Bodhidharma, who travelled to China. Bodhidharma was a Pallava prince. It is a historically documented fact that the advent of Zen Buddhism in China was based on materials collected about the Yogakara practises under Theravada school of Buddhism by Xuan Zang (Hiuen Tsang) on his visit to the famed Nalanda monastery in the eastern Indian state of Bihar.
Bogar returned to Palani and spent his last days here. His Samadhi is within the temple complex.
The shrine wherein Bogar took Samadhi)
In this temple, Bogar worshipped the Goddess Bhuvaneswari and Shiva in the form of an Emerald (Margatham) Lingam. These items are still kept at the Bogar Samadhi. There is a small opening below the samadhi, which is supposed to lead to a cave below the sanctum sanctorum. Bogar handed over the upkeep of the temple to his faithful disciple Pulipani and went back to this cave via this small entrance. He is supposed to be in Nirvikalpa Samadhi in this cave. Nirvikalpa Samadhi is the highest stage of Samadhi in the yogic practises where all thoughts are dissolved and the Yogi becomes one with the divine.
Goddess Bhuvaneswari and Lord Shiva in the form of an Emerald Lingam)
The story behind this practise of carrying a Kavadi on one’s shoulders is also very interesting. It refers back to the earliest of times when struggles between the Devas and the Asuras was at its peak. Murugan is the commander of the Deva army. He defeated the Asura king Surapadam in a decisive battle (the place is identified as Tiruchendur in the deep South of Tamilnadu, another one of Murugan’s sacred abodes). Interestingly this event is celebrated every year on the same day as Chhath Puja (Surya Puja) is celebrated in Bihar. One of the defeated Asuras called Idumbar regretted his role in the war and became a follower of Murugan. Idumbar is linked to Palani through the ancient sage Agastya.
A devotee with a Kavadi performing circumambulation of the main shrine)
The association of Sage Agastya with a plethora of religious sites south of the Vindhya matches with the tradition according to which he moved permanently to Southern India. One of the traditions maintains that there was a big gathering of sages at the home of Shiva at Mount Kailash, where Mahadeva was to explain the meaning of the Vedas. The world tilted towards the north due to the accumulated weight, hence Shiva asked Sage Agastya to move to the Southern part of the country to act as a counterbalance. Agastya had such great spiritual merit that he alone was treated as sufficient to restore the balance. He wanted to take two hills along with him as a memory of the Himalayas. He asked Idumbar to carry these hills along with him and he carried both hills on his shoulders in a form of Kavadi. When he reached Palani, he felt tired and kept them down. After a rest, he tried to lift them but could not lift the hills even after his best efforts. He discovered that there was a small child wearing just a loincloth, standing on one of the hills. He asked him to get down but the child refused. There was a fight and the child, who was none other than Murugan killed Idumbar. Agastya interceded with Murugan on his disciples’ behalf and Murugan reinstated Idumbar’s life. Idumbar was also granted a boon that anyone who carries a Kavadi for worship at this temple will be blessed and their wishes will be fulfilled.
Apart from being one of the foremost Vedic sages, Agastya has many important attributes associated to him in southern India. As an accomplished Siddhar, he is considered as one of the originators of Siddha school of medicine (A medicine practise like Ayurveda). He is also associated with the formulation of the grammar of Tamil language along with architectural practices. The still extant practise of Nadi Jotisham, forecasting a person’s future based on palm leaf scriptures (supposed to contain future of all individuals ever born), is also traced to him. The whole encyclopaedic volume of these sets of forecasts, written on sets of Palm leaf manuscripts is supposed to have been written by him millennia ago.
The eighteen siddhars who are supposed to have assembled along with Bogar have been given individual shrines just at the exit point of the main temple. Agastya is mentioned even before Bogar, befitting his status of the foremost guru in Siddha practice. Apart from Bogar and his disciple Pulipani, there are other well-known names represented in this group like Dhanvantari, Patanjali, Karuvoorar etc.
(Shrine devoted to Agastya, Bogar, Pulipani and the other sages)
The identity of Idumbar is inextricably linked with the Palani temples. Just a short distance away from Palani hill, across the main parking lot, there is a smaller hillock known as the Idumbar hill. There is a shrine for Idumbar worship on its peak. It has been constructed recently. Many devotees go there to offer their worship.
The Idumbar Hill)
Shrines on the pathway
A good way to explore the Sivagiri hill is to take the steps on at least one way, although for the devout, climbing the pathway to the hilltop Murugan shrine is an important part of the ritual. It signifies the spiritual effort required to obtain divine blessings. On the steps up the hill, there is a shrine representing Idumbar. One of the pillars of this shrine has a sculpture showing Idumbar carrying two hills in a Kavadi on his shoulders.
(Idumbar depicted carrying the two hills like a Kavadi)
One of the striking sculptures in this shrine has the six-faced form (three visible faces carved on stone) of Murugan standing with his parents Shiva and Devi Parvati. In keeping with the theme of this location, the representation of Murugan is the dominant form in this sculpture. This composite sculpture depicts Shiva and Shakti requesting their son to come back. Goddess Parvati is seen imploring her son. This depiction evokes emotion and one can only marvel at the shilpkar’s dexterity with stone sculpting.
An emotional depiction of parents imploring their son to return home)
Water sources are extremely important in the hills and frequently associated with the sacred. It is no wonder that a water source has been selected for establishing a shrine for Valli Amman, considered to be one of the two wives of Murugan. This place is called Valli Sonai and it has assorted deities of local importance assembled on a platform under a makeshift arrangement. There are numerous Naga deities worshipped in this shrine and many such statues are brought by visitors and placed in this area.
The Valli Amman shrine and Naga deities)
A colourful melange of the marriage scene of Murugan and Valli has been recreated through beautiful statues near this underground natural water cistern. The courtship of Murugan and Valli has been shown by representing Murugan as a visitor to the hill and the local girl Valli meeting him. These representations are very recent creations.
The Palani temple is undoubtedly the most important place for the pilgrims in Tamilnadu. Millions of devotees come to worship Murugan in one of his sacred homes and to offer worship to the Dandayudhapani on his hilltop temple. The special properties of the materials used for Panchamritam and the curative properties of the prasadam are one of the unique aspects of this great temple. The traditions and stories associated with this temple encompass the sacred geography of the whole subcontinent and beyond.
This article was first published by Pragyata