The Saga of Thulukka Naachiyaar, Sri Rangam
I wonder how many people who visit the gigantic temple at Thiruvarangam, the first of the 108 Divyadesas and the very heart of the ShriVaishnava cult, know that the lord of the temple, Sri Aranganathan, got married to a muslim princess out of her love for him. And still fewer do actually know the tide of events that lead to this divine union and the series of interesting events that followed it. Here I lay forward the story of this strange marriage, a story that spans over sixty years, a story that transcends all religions to prove once again that God is indeed one.
It was a time when the atrocities of the Muslim inveders were reaching new heights. Their hatred for idol worship made the hindus tremble, not in fear for their lives, but in fear of the possible damages that the holy idols in their hallowed temples would suffer. Drastic measures were made to save the idols from disrespect. The ruthless Muslims, used to destroy the idols and if that was not possible, deface them. The smaller utsavar idols made of the expensive Panchaloha were carried off in large heaps to Delhi, to be melted into new ornaments. The priests did their very best to cover the sanctum with bricks and send the smaller idols for safekeeping with trusted families. The Muslim forces however, kept driving further south in conquest.
Headed by Malik Kafur, the crushing army came to the banks of the Kaveri. On an island between the Kaveri and Kollidam stood a magnificent temple, gleaming with riches. Sri Rangam, the holy abode of Lord Ranganatha. Malik Kafur was astonished by the grandeur of the temple and by its sheer size. But his instincts immediately kicked in. “Charge”, he thundered and his army broke into the largest functioning temple complex in the world.
So huge was Sri Rangam that Malik Kafur took days going around the Prakarams, plundering the people. The inner temple,was fiercely protected by the staunch vaishnavas, who refused to let the muslims defile their holiest shrine. They held out the army for three days, time sufficient enough to build a wall in front of the main sannidhi and to hide out the reclining god. The priests even managed to bury the utsavar of Ranganayaki under a neem tree, but alas, before they could save the utsavar of Ranganathar, the army broke in. They killed every one in sight, took the utsavar and marched back to Delhi.
The whole city of SriRangam wore a forlorn look. People mourned the deaths of their near and dear. More so, they mourned the loss of the utsavar from their temple. A few brave, bright men came forward and vowed to bring back the idol from Delhi. “We will not return without Arangan”, they said and over the next few days, they hatched their master plan. A couple of days later, the group set out to Delhi, disguised as an entertainment troop.
Meanwhile at the palace of Malik Kafur in Delhi, strange things were afoot. When the soldiers brought in the idol, the daughter of Malik Kafur, Princess Surathani, was overwhelmed by the charming face of Arangan. “Baapa”, she called out to her father, “Can I have this sweet idol as my doll? I like him a lot. Please do not melt him too.”, she begged. Malik Kafur allowed her to play with the idol and Surathani imediately carried him to her room. Over the next few weeks, Surathani never used to be away from Arangan. She bathed the idol, dressed it, offered food and even slept with the idol. Pleased with her acts of love, Ranganathar used to appear before her every night and offer her darshan in various forms and avatharas. Without actually realising it, Surathani fell in love with Rangar.
The entertainment troop from Srirangam finally reached Delhi and asked for permission to perform before the sultan. When the permission was granted, on a sacred Ekadashi day, they performed before Malik Kafur’s court. They put up their best dance and song skills and ultimately won the sultan’s liking. Malik Kafur was so overjoyed by the performance, that in return he gave them what they expected. “You have been excellent, just excellent. For your talent I offer you anything within the confines of this palace. You are free to take anything”, he offered. “Shahenshah”, said the lead man, bowing deeply, “we would like to have the statue of Arangan back. That is all that we need.” “You got it”, granted Malik Kafur and walked away. The troop however knew that the princess was deeply involved with the idol and that she would make a fuss if they took it away. So they waited for night to come upon, and when the princess was deep in sleep, they retrieved the idol and started out of the city.
They ran as fast as their carts could take them, lest the sultan sent his army behind. But to their bad luck, Surathani was so distressed to find her idol gone, that she immediately jumped on to her horse and followed the entertainment troop. Malik Kafur followed with his humungous army. Frightened by the army, the troop split into various smaller groups and decided to meet back in Sri Rangam. The man carrying the idol, his father and his son, ran into a dense forest and totally lost their way. The grandfather soon succumbed to the shock of the past few days and attained the lotus feet of Vishnu. The child too tripped and fell into a deep ravine, and ultimately reached Vaikuntha. Now, this was too much for the man carrying the idol. He lost his senses and became mad. Totally lacking any interest in life he wandered around the forest. He wandered and wandered…
Back at Srirangam however, Surathani searched all over for the idol. Not finding it, she gave up her life before the very doors of the sanctum. Seeing this, Malik Kafur was so enraged that he ordered every Vaishnava to be killed. A bloody war followed in which close to 13000 Vaishnavas lost their life. The beautiful Devadasis of the temple, finally,managed to seduce the army generals and sent them back home.
The temple somehow survived the catastrophe. But a lot of things were not in order. The utsavar was not with them and the temple festivities had to go on. The head priests, then secretly ordered for another identical utsavar to be made and installed it, saying that this indeed was the original one.
Ranganathar also appeared in the head bhattar’s dreams and pronounced that he had now taken Surathani to be his wife. She too had to be given all the respects that were given to the other Naachiyaars. The Bhattar then conveyed this dream to the temple head. A shrine was built for the muslim wife of Lord Ranganaatha. Since Islam shuns idol worship, she was worshipped in the form of a painting, richly decorated with gems and gold and is still worshipped today.
Sixty long years passed by. One fine day, a group of traders found themselves to be lost in the same dense jungle we had talked about. And wonder of wonders, they came across a totally unkempt man, with hair so long that it trailed behind him. His eyes lacked any hint of sanity. In absolute silence they followed this man. In the very depths of the forest they found the man, pouring water crudely over a statue of Vishnu. “That looks like the utsavar of Srirangam”, shouted the eldest among them. “But what is it doing here?” Puzzled, they confront the bear-man for an explanation. The moment they took the idol in their hands, the man dropped down. His soul fled from his body to the higher reaches of Vishnuloka. Now totally perplexed, the traders brought the idol back to Srirangam and placed it before the Bhattar. It had been sixty long years and the people who had witnessed the disaster were long since gone. Confusion reigned at the temple.
It was then that the old, blind temple washerman came to their rescue. “Bhattarperuman,” he told, meekly “If permitted I can find out which of the two statues is the original one. Days earlier, when I was but a small boy, my father used to give us theertham squeezed from the clothes of the utsavar. I have been used to the taste of the theertham. Therefore by drinking the Thirumanjana Theertham of the utsavars, I could possible point out the original one.” he offered. The bhattar too agreed. Thirumanjanam was performed to both the idols and the theertham was given to the washerman. The washerman identified the original statue to be the one that was brought in from the forest. Everyone rejoiced at the recovery of the ancient statue. The original utsavar was reinstalled in the temple. However, the other utsavar could not be left alone, for it too had been worshipped for sixty years. The bhattar, therefore, placed it near Rangan’s feet and continued to offer poojas to it. To add on to this interesting series of events, Ranganayaki appeared in a boy’s dream and asked him to lead the Bhattar to a particular neem tree and dig under it. The boy too dutifully did the same and out came the long buried statue of Ranganayaki. It is indeed a surprise that she revealed herself only when the original utsavar was back in the temple. The mysterious ways of our gods!!!
So even today, in SriRangam, at the sannidhanam, we can see two utsavars receiving worship. Also, the shrine to Surathani is found near the Arjuna Mandapa, next to the main sanctum and she is lovingly called Thulukka Naachiyaar. Once a year, the Kalyana utsavam of Thulukka Naachiyaar with Arangan is celebrated with great pomp and show. In testimony to her unflinching love, to this day, Arangan’s breakfast naivedhyam consists of Butter Roti’s and Sugar, cooked Mughalai style. They are first offered to the Naachiyaar and then only offered to Rangan.
And so, the temple continues to exist, with all its grandeur refurbished and shining bright, the Naachiyar shrine, a standing example of what true devotion and love is actually supposed to be.
[P.S. I would love to dedicate this post to Varun [Gultee], Vinoth [Dubukku] and Ram [Kama], who were the ones who let me in on this story, one bored night, at the hostels in college :D]