The Frog Sage and Other Stories, Thirumaaliruncholai-Part II
Manduka Maharishi, (manduka=frog), had a very peculiar gift. He could stay under water forever, without coming up for air. He had obtained this exceptional ability, through unending penance to Narayana. And he put the skill to more use of the same kind. Daily, he would go into the river, immerse himself in the cold flowing waters and away from the eyes of the world, offer his hearfelt namaskars to the lord. This became a daily ritual, and the hours under water kept increasing. It was on one such occasion, when Manduka was deep under the waters, that Durvasa came along. Known for his extremely sharp temper and equally sharp curses, he was recieved and treated with respect where ever he went, lest the place earned the misfortune of his displeasure. Knowing through his Gnana Drishti that Manduka was indeed under water, he waited for him to come out. Manduka on the other hand was so immersed in his prayers that he hardly acknowledged the presence of Durvasa, and did not come out. The angry sage’s temper soon reached its critical point and boiled over. “Hey Manduka, When you remain under the water for so long, you are no longer fit to be a human. May you turn into a frog.”, he shouted and in a huff, prepared to leave. Manduka Maharishi realising the gravity of the situation, jumped out and fell at his feet, begging for forgiveness. Durvasa, easily sated as heated, smiled and told him “I am sorry, but a curse is a curse. Only when Shriman Narayana chances to come upon you, will you regain your human form. Long live your devotion”.
Manduka maharishi, with his new amphibian body, swims across to the holy city of Madurai. There by the banks of the sacred Vaigai, he engages himself in constant prayer to Narayana. Vishnu, pleased with his unflinching bhakthi, comes down from his hilly abode in Thirumaaliruncholai (Azhagar Kovil, Vrishapathri) and grants him freedom from the curse. The rishi, back to the human form, praises and sings about the gracious lord at Thirumaaliruncholai and decides to set his ashrama along with the hundreds of sage already occupying the place besides the holy Silambar.
At that time, Madurai was ruled over by the great pandya king, Malayathvaja Pandian. He was the proud owner of a very beautiful pushpaka vimana (ancient aeroplane) and he used it to go to the ganges every day for a holy bath. One day, as he was flying over the hills of Vrishapathri, the tapas force of the rishis stopped the vimana and brought it down. Wondering the reason for his sudden halt, pandian looked around and came across the beautiful Silambaar. At that moment, a voice announced across the skies “Oh king of the mighty Pandya Empire, why go north every day, when you have this sacred river par supreme running right outside your city?” Malayathvajan, understanding the divine will, started to bathe in the Silambaaru every day after that, his heart constantly praying for a heir to the all powerful throne of the Pandya empire. His prayers were answered when he was blessed with a beautiful girl child, Thataadhagai, who was none other than the future ruler of Madurai, Goddess Meenakshi herself. She married Shiva (Somasundara perumal) and the divine couple still reign over the ancient Pandya lands, whilst her brother rules over the mountains of Vrishapathri, a stone’s throw away. A place which we now know as “Azhagar kovil”.
Azhagar Kovil, happens to be one of the foremost divya desas in Pandya naadu. Also known as Thirumaaliruncholai, the main deity is called Paramaswami. He gives his darshan, standing tall, armed with the Sudarshana (prayoga chakram), the Paanchajanya, the Saaranga and wearing the Kausthuba. However the place gets its name from the Utsavar, who is called Soundararaajar or Azhagar (the beautiful one). Since, he happens to be the chief deity of the Kallas (a caste in India), he is also called Kallazhagar. The utsavar statue is a marvel in gold. Carved out of Aparanji, this happens to be one of the two existing statues made of this highly precious form of gold. The other one is a much more gigantic statue, of Ananthasayana, which is worshipped at Trivandrum in the Anantha Padmanabha Swamy temple.
The temple stands at the foot hills of Azhagar malai, on the outskirts of Madurai. The mountains also house the last of the arupadai veedu of lord Muruga, Pazha Muthir Solai. At the very peak, flows out the Noopura Gangai. The source of the spring is yet undetected, and it wells out from the sanctum of Rakkayi Amman and rushes down with all its purifying power. Rakkayi amman is the protector of all the theerthas in the place and is supposed to be the daughter of Angirasa munivar. On new moon days, special poojas are offered at her mountain shrine. Thousands believe that a dip in this Noopura Gangai is as holy as one in Kasi. All abhisheka performed to Azhagar are done with the holy waters of this river. Temple protocol says that if any other water is used, the gold statue will immediately turn black.
The temple complex houses a number of shrines dedicated to minor deities and the thaayar, KalyanaSundaraValli Naachiyar. One of the many strange things about the temple is the presence of a shrine to Valamburi Vinayagar and Kaala Bhairavar. Predominantly shaiva deities, vibhoothi is given as the prasadam in these two sannidhis. Bhairavar is supposed to be the kshetra paalakar of this temple (He is usually the caretaker in all Shiva temples). Legend says that in the days of yore, after the artha jaama puja, the head priest used to lock the door of the temple and hold out the key through a hole, into the temple. This was taken by the kshetra paalakar for safe keeping and was found on the door step the next morning.
The shrine to Jwaala Narasimhar in the temple prakaaram is quite famous too. The lord is supposed to be in his ugra form and nithya thirumanjanam takes place with waters, curds, butter, honey etc. to cool him. A big opening is provided right above his head, for him to vent his anger out.
The Kothai shrine is probably the most celebrated after the main one at the trmple. It was here that she prayed the lord to bless her in her endeavour to attain him as her husband. She promised Azhagar ” a hundred silver pots of butter and a hundred pots of akkaravadisal, will I give to you with utmost love, only if you eternally join me with the Raja of Rangam”. Kothai eventually marries Ranganaathan and merges with the lord, thus not being able to fulfill her promise to Azhagar. Shri Ramanujar, knowing about this unfulfilled promise, went on to the provide the dishes to Azhagar on Andal’s behalf, and thus earned the title of Anna (Elder brother) from Kothai herself. Every year, the marriage between Soundarajar and Kothai is celebrated with much splendour and gaiety, near the Andaal sannidhi.
The temple is also surrounded by the ruined forts of Naagapuri. This city was ruled by Uloopi, the Naaga princess who married Arjuna, and gave birth to Aravaan ( Yet another interesting story here!!!). Naaga worship is still done in areas surrounding the temple, with great respect and devotion.
The present day temple, is said to have been built by Malayadhvajan and his successors. Though the Pandya kings swear their unflinching devotion to Somasundara Perumal of Naan Maada Koodal, they have also had a soft corner for this sacred vaishnava spot. The temple once had large lands, from which it drew a sufficient income to conduct grandscale festivals. Thirumalai Nayakar also showered the temple with lands and gold. He was a very staunch devotee of the lord. The mani mandapams that we can see, dotting the path to Azhagar kovil, from Madurai, were built by him. When the Saayarakshai pooja (evening prayers) started at the temple, the bell at the temple would ring. This ring was taken up by subsequent men at the mani mandipams, who rang their respective bells too, until the sound reached the Nayakar mahal. When he heard the bell ring, it is said that, Thirumalai Nayakar would leave all his work, turn in the general direction of the temple and offer his humblest prayers. Such was his devotion.
The main festival at the temple is, ofcourse, the Chithirai thiruvizha, held in conjunction with the one at the Meenakshi temple in Madurai. There are also large scale poojas on Ekadashi, Raama Navami, Purattasi Saturdays and other important Vaishnava sacred days.
The major attraction of the place is not as much as the temple as its doors. No visitor to Azhagar kovil would leave the gigantic, sandal-smeared, ever-closed main doors of the temple unnoticed. Especially not when you have nine foot long swords lying by it. 😛
The story behind these closed doors… Coming up in the next post 😀
To be cotd