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Jambukeswaram pilgrimage

Jambukeswaram – An Exalted Shrine Hidden in Time

Tucked away near the major pilgrim centres of Thanjavur, Madurai and Srirangam is a little known but beautiful temple of Jambukeswaram at Tiruvanaikkaval. With a wealth of carvings on the façade as well as inside the temple boasts of a rich heritages as colourful as those of temples that are better known.

An overnight train journey away from Madras, towards the south, lies the city of Tiruchirappalli (Tiruchi or Trichy as it is popularly known). Although it may not find a place in conventional tourists’ itineraries, it is ringed on three sides by very famous temple towns that a draw a steady stream of visitors all through the year. An hour’s drive east from Tiruchi lies Thanjavur; the imposing Brihadeesware temple here built by Rajaraja Chola draws pilgrims and tourists by the thousands and much has been written about its intricate carvings and superb architecture. To the south of Tiruchi, just three hours away by train and even less by road, is yet another renowned temple town, Madurai, where the Meenakshi temple is a must on all sight-seeing schedules. And to the north, just 10 kilometres away on the outskirts of Tiruchi, is Srirangam, a hallowed place of pilgrimage for all followers of the Vaishanava faith since time immemorial. The 13th century shrine dedicated to Lord Ranganatha here made news recently with the consecration of its new gopuram (temple tower) of truly awesome proportions- soaring through 13 tiers to over 70 metres, the tallest temple tower in Asia. The mammoth recling figure of Ranganatha has been immortalised by the medieval Tamil saint-poetess Andal, known as the Meera of the south and the only woman to be included in the exalted 12 alwar saints of south India.

With three major temple attractions thus clustered close by, all of them pilgrim centres for several centuries, the spotlight seems to have been turned away, as far as tourists are concerned, from another beautiful temple tucked quietly away at Tiruvanaikkaval (pronounced Tiru-vaania-kaaval) a mere nine kilometres out of Tiruchi; which is a pity, for this hallowed shrine has some of the most exquisite samples of temple carvings in stone that could turn a stopover here into a serendipitous delights.

If Srirangam is among the most exalted shrines for Vaishnavites, Tiruvanaikkaval is no less special for the Shaiva sect (followers of Shiva) for it is the site of one of the 12 holy jyotirlingams around the country that are venerated as elemental manifestations of Shiva. Here it is the appu or water lingam, with spring water oozing from underground in the sanctum sanctorum which is venerated.

The bus plying from Tiruchi drops the visitor on a dusty road that at first sight seems no different from any other main road in the south. The ubiquitous cool drink shops and flower vendors line the way leading to the shrine a short distance away. As south Indian temple gopurams go, this one may not lay claims to a Guinness entry, but the wealth of carvings all over the façade as well as inside is marvellous and the temple boasts a rich history and lore every bit as colourful as those of temples that are better known.

This 12th century temple is said to commemorate the spot where a sage, after a severe and prolonged penance, took the form of a jambu tree in order to spread shade over the Shiva lingam hence the name Jambukeswaram that the temple is known by. This jambu tree still stands, rising right in the middle of the build—up inner sanctum, and the priest here tells me that the tree is over 2,000 years old. Another story has it that a spider and a legendary elephant were also devotees of Shiva at this spot (the spider spinning a web overhead in order to shield the lingam from rain and sun) and this can stand at a particular spot between two stone pillars and get a grand view of all five gopurams within eye range on either side. Eight hundred years ago, when the master builders who erected this temple had no facilities like computers or sophisticated machinery, they were still able to calculate with the precision the angles and distances that would align the different portions of the edifice in order to lay them in a line as straight as any laser beam could fashion. It is a humbling thought.

As in other temples, there are also a series of smaller shrines within the spacious temple precincts, dedicated to Ganesha and other deities. The first time I was taken here as a child, many years ago, the lingam in the sanctum was visibly awash with the mysterious water that sprang from underground; the priest performed the rituals of worship standing ankle deep in the water. Today, thanks to pervasive drought conditions in the region and the consequent drying up of all underground water this year, the seepage is barely discernible; all the same, the damp oozing underfoot is unmistakable.

While Shiva’s consort is depicted in nearby Madurai in her bridal manifestation, Parvati here at Tiruvanaikkaval is not married but worshipped as a yogini, ascetic in penanc.e This shrine has been immortalised by one of the Trinity of Carnatic music, Muthuswami Dikshitar, with two unusual compositions in Sanskrit, one titled ‘ Jamboopate’ (the Lord of Jambu) in Yamunakalyani raga and the other ‘Akhilandeswari’ (the name given to Parvati at Jambukeswaram) in Dvijavanti Raga – unusual because both compositions are in ragas that are not indigenous to the south but borrowed from the music of the north. These are among the earliest songs of the south Indian classical repertoire that use Hindustani ragas. On Fridays in the month of Adi in the south Indian calendar (July-August), an estimated 100,000 pilgrims turn up, the temple management tells me but on ordinary days it seems to be largely bypassed by visitors probably because it is not as widely known outside the region as some of the other temples in the area. While I could see a large contingent of Gujaratis being taken around the Srirangam temple, and several foreigners around the Madurai Meenakshi temple, at Jambukeswaram in contrast there were only a few scattered pilgrims, all south Indians who had come to offer prayers. And yet I was glad that, having first decided not to stop here on may way back from Srirangam (because I was tired), I changed my mind or rather, Mr. Balasumbramanian who was showing me round, made the decision for me to get off the bus here. The detour was every bit worth it.

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