The hill temple of Palani is one of the best-known abodes of Lord Shivaís second son Kartikeyan
Located almost mid-way between Dindigul and Coimbatore on the national highway, Palani is to Shaivaites what Tirupathi is to Vishnu worshippers.
In Tamil Nadu, Kartikeyan is alternatively known as Murugan, Skanda or Sharavana Bavan. Born to Parvati with the definitive agenda of killing a demon called Taraka, who was harassing the devas, the legends of the birth of Skanda and his subsequent battles have been duly honoured, with an entire Purana being dedicated to him.
There are seven holy places in Tamil Nadu that are sacred to the devotees of Murugan, of which Palani is the third. Each of these temples, located at an elevation, have the Lord in different guises, and the deity in Palani is no different. Perched at a height of around 1,500 feet (there are steps to climb that are not too hard to ascend), the deity here is known as Dandayudhapani Swami, the Lord having the staff in his hand. He is dressed as a young lad who looks as if he has renounced the material world. Wearing only a loincloth, holding a stick in one hand and a begging bowl in the other, he symbolises the mute metaphor of renunciation in order to attain spiritual salvation.
The tale of how Murugan came to be worshiped as a young mendicant in Palani is well documented. It is said that once Narada gave a prized mango to Lord Shiva, which both his sons Ganesha and Murugan wanted. It was decided that the child who traverses the world and returns to his parents first, would be given the prized fruit. While Murugan set off on his peacock to travel the world, Ganesha circumambulated his parents in the belief that they constituted the cosmos. Impressed by this, Lord Shiva gave the mango to his first-born son. Outwitted by his brother and incensed by what he believed to be partiality on the part of his father, Murugan in anger vowed to leave home and his family, and came down to the foothills. Lord Shiva pacified his angry son saying that he did not need the fruit because he himself was the embodiment of all wisdom and knowledge. It is from this legend that the place gets its name as Pazham-nee, meaning you are the fruit or Palani.
The main deity here is very special. While most mula vigrahams -main deities in the sanctum sanctorum-in temples are made of black stone, the deity in this shrine has been sculpted out of a compound called Nava Bashanam which is a complex mix of nine minerals and herbs, and which when completed turned out to be as strong and inflexible as granite. Legend has it that the idol was installed by a Chinese philosopher named Bogar, who disillusioned by the confusing and disorganised spiritual pursuits in China, sought refuge in the path of yoga through Ashtama Shakti, a form of yoga then practised in India. Bogar who found his solace in Palani and attained samadhi there, has a shrine dedicated to him.
Tamil Nadu abounds in sthala puranas or stories that are associated with holy sites. Rituals and festivals have taken birth in these legends. Very closely associated with Palani is Kavadi, a colourfully decorated sling in which devotees carry their offerings. It is believed that sage Agastya wanted to take two hills-Sivagiri and Saktigiri-to his abode in the South and commissioned a disciple named Idumban to carry them. Idumban slung the hills, one on either side across his shoulders in the form of a kavadi, but soon fatigued, and needing a rest, placed them down when he reached Palani. When he wanted to resume his journey, he found to his chagrin that he could not lift the hills. Murugan who met him in the guise of a young mendicant had made it impossible for Idumban to carry the hills any further. The Lord, however, granted his disciple that whoever carried the kavadi, signifying the two hills and visited the temple as a vow would be blessed. He also immortalised Idumban by making him the sentinel of the temple. Since then, pilgrims going to Palani take their offerings on their shoulders in a kavadi and the custom has spread to all Murugan shrines all over the country.