To Kill a Rogue Elephant, Vazhuvoor
Sprinkled over the landscape of Tamil Nadu are eight temples dedicated to Shiva in his terrific form as the destroyer of everything evil. These eight temples, often collectively known among the Shaivites as the Ashta Veeratta Sthalas, or the eight holy places where the Lord revealed his wrath and strength, stand in testimony of the basic facet of Hinduism that God will indeed protect us from all evil, whatever maybe the cause. These eight temples are worth a visit not only for their sanctity but also for the rare bronze idols or utsavars of the Lord. They are unique in their form and structure, and have to be indeed seen to be admired. Each of these have an intriguing sthala purana, which always makes an interesting read.
Vazhuvoor, which lies about 9 km from Mayiladuthurai, is my favorite of the Ashta Veeratta Sthalas. Here the Lord is revered as Gajasamharamoorthi or the Vanquisher of the rogue elephant. Like a majority of sthala puranas, this kshetra too has its purana intricately linked with some well known happenings in hindu myth.
So back we go to the churning of the milk ocean (See Somasooktha Pradakshinam). When the devas asked the asuras for their help in churning the ocean, the asuras readily agreed, subject to a condition. The asuras were to be given an equal share of the amrutha or the nectar which would come out of the milk ocean. In their state of despair the devas readily agreed to the same. And so the churning began. After the initial hurdles and sitbacks, the ocean started throwing up its riches. Out came Kamadhenu (the sacred wish yielding cow), Ucchaishravas (The winged horse), Airavatha(The celestial elephant), Kalpakavriksha (the wish bearing tree), Kausthuba (The divine jewel), Varuni (The Wine goddess), Maha Lakshmi, Chandran(The Moon) and many many more. The devas and asuras divided the treasures amidst themselves. Maha Lakshmi garlanded Shri Vishnu as her groom and Chandra decided to adorn the sacred locks of Shiva. The churning continued and finally out of the waves emerged Danwantari, with the Amrutha Kalasha in his arms. At once the devas and asuras pounced upon him. But Danwantari was too quick and set out like a flying horse. The whole retinue of devas and daityas followed him to grab the nectar for themselves, all previous promises forgotten.
It was then that Mahavishnu decided to act in the best interests of the world that he sustains. The asuras had to be stopped from taking the nectar at all costs. In a moment he transformed himself into the most ravishing beauty anyone had ever set their eyes upon. Mohini was extraordinarily breathtaking. With a full sensuous body draped with the most suggestive of garments, she walked up to the devas and asuras who were fighting over the nectar. “Ahem”, said the lord, and in a heartbeat silence descended upon the scene like a thick cloud. Every mouth was open wide, some drooling and some just having a momentary attack of lockjaw. “If you dont mind, I would like to distribute the nectar to you”, she said, her voice the combination of a billion nightingales. And next moment the jar of nectar was in her hands. “Yes, Oh Beautiful Lady!!!”, cried the crowd in unison.
What happened later is news to everyone. The devas were offered all the nectar and the asuras were cheated out of the deal. The efforts by the asuras to fight back against the devas were in vain as the nectar had made the devas invincible. Once again Vishnu had saved the day, but the purpose of the Mohini Avatharam had only been fulfilled in part. And so Mohini waited by the trees of Tharukavana, waiting for the time to arrive. She waited and she waited.
Finally, on the faraway horizons of Mohini’s sight appeared the man she had been waiting for. And that was no ordinary man, for he was a fit pair for Mohini. Extremely handsome and strongly built, he had all the Sarva Lakshanas for an auspicious groom. Carrying a trident in one hand and a kapala in the other he came to a standstill in front of Mohini. Mohini glanced up at him, her eyes shining with perfect understanding.
For the man was none other than Shiva himself, as Bikshadanar, the naked god of extreme beauty. And the reason for his appearance-the ultimate union of Shiva and Vishnu to yield a male child who could vanquish the demoness Mahishi. Mahishi had obtained a boon that she could be killed only by a son born to Shiva and Vishnu, who had spent 16 years on earth living the life of an ordinary mortal.
The cosmic dice rolled as Shiva came together with Mohini, and in the lush surroundings of the forests their divine spirits merged. Thus was born Manikanda, later to be taken up by the king of Panthala as his own heir. Their duties discharged, Mohini and Bikshadanar went their ways.
Bikshadanar decided to roam the sacred forests of Tharukavanam, reverberating with calm and silence. The forest was home to a number of rishis. Rishis who had taken a very different outlook to the existence of god. Over a period of time they had come to believe that it was Karma alone which was necessary and supreme, and that the worship of god does not yield any fruits. And so they immersed themselves in the performance of yagnaas and rituals, and endlessly followed this dogma of karma. Little did they realise the fact that these deeds could yield the desired fruits only if there is someone to distribute the same. The appearance of Bikshadanar on the scene was staged to teach these rishis the importance of worship rather than just Karma.
The bewitchingly beautiful lord walked onto the streets of the aashramas begging for alms with the kapala in his hand. The supreme lord of the universe, who is worshipped continuously by Kubera himself, was begging for alms!!! And out came the rishipathnis (the wives of the rishis). They had been busy all day, preparing a feast for all their husbands who were performing yet another yagnaa. And one look at the charming form of Shiva was all that it took for them to give a similar reaction to the one that the asuras and devas had given for Mohini. In a moment their heart was no longer with them and they started following the lord down the streets like lost zombies, with loud shouts of admiration on his captivating form.
The conglomeration of the beauty and its admirers then passed the site of the yagnaa that the rishis were performing. The rishis were dumbstruck with two things- the extraordinary beauty of the lord and the utter stupidity of their wives. To see his wife following another man with a wild look of lust in her eyes is any man’s worst nightmare. The rishis were flabbergasted at this loss of virtues by their wives and they personally held Shiva to be responsible for it. In a fit of sudden anger they decided to destroy the source of their wives’ sudden baseless behavior. In the burning fires of the yagnaa they poured in chilies and spices. The smell was overwhelming and the rishis chanted in strange tongues. They were performing an Abichara Yagnaa (Black Magic Sacrifice) to gather forces to destroy the lord.
And out of the fire came a snake, hissing and spitting venom. It flew at the lord’s neck, but Neelakantha, the drinker of Hala Hala, just caught it with a single finger and wore it as his belt. The infuriated rishis now sent out a tiger but alas the tiger was killed and its skin was worn around the perfect hip of Shiva. Ever more angry, the rishis sent out evil fire and a drum that produced ear splitting fatal noise. The lord caught both of them in his arms, the fire now glowing an auspicious yellow and the drum producing the ever reverberant sound of ‘Om’. And then the rishis lost it all. They poured in libations and called out to all the evil spirits to help them in their endeavour.
Out of the fires came an elephant. Huge and terrible, the elephant’s eyes glinted with anger. The rishis ordered the elephant to kill the man who was the cause for all their distress. The pachyderm now charged at the lord, who was standing as relaxed as ever. And then in a second, Shiva assumed a miniscule form and entered the trunk of the elephant. And the world was strewn into darkness. All life stopped for the instant. The elephant came to a halt, surprised at his unexpected victory. Parvathi who was playing with Skandha at the moment picked him up and began to run, her motherly heart beating for all her children of creation and the disappearance of her beloved.
Now, the elephant started rushing madly everywhere. It was undoubtedly experiencing extreme agony, a continuous internal burning. Not being able to bear it, it ran and fell into a pond. And then with an a world splitting sound, out came Shiva, tearing through the body of the elephant. With six arms holding various weapons and two holding the torn apart skin of the rogue elephant, the sight was terrific to behold. Shiva stood on the elephant’s head, one leg lifted up, eyes glinting with fury, giving darshan as Gajasamharar. Shakthi herself was overcome with fright at this gory sight and tried to remove herself from the place, all the while restraining the baby Skandha who was super excited at the dramatic appearance of his short lost father!!!
The rishis were aghast at their failure and finally realised that it was the lord himself who had come to teach them a lesson. They all surrendered unto his feet, profusely apologising for their blatant ignorance. The lord forgave them and granted moksha to the elephant. The rishipathnis returned to their normal states and blushed with shame at their acts of lust. The rishis had learnt their lesson on the importance of true worship and with that the Gajasamhara episode drew to a close.
It is believed that this feat of killing the devil elephant took place in a place called Pazhuvoor which over the centuries came to be known as Vazhuvoor. The place is also referred to as Veerattanam in the puranas and is believed to be surrounded by Pippalavan, Tharukavanam, Badharikavanam and Sameevanam.The temple’s presiding deity is Balakurambigai sametha Kirthivasar, a linga swaroopa. The ambigai is believed to grant santana bhagyam (the blessings of motherhood) to women who pray with true devotion to her. The moolavar is a swayambu of extraordinary beauty and gives darshan with the nagabharanam. The temple has been visited by Jyeshta devi and the Sapthamathargal for worshipping Shiva and the lingas that they had worshipped can be seen even today.
The main attraction of the temple is however, the Gajasamharar sannidhi, where the bronze idol of Gajasamharamoorthi is worshipped. It is referred reverentially to as Gnanasabhai, or the hall of knowledge. The idol is an exceedingly beautiful work of art. A peculiar feature of the idol is that the inner side of the lifted left foot of the lord is visible. This occurs in no other image of Eeshwara. The foot is usually kept covered and is revealed only at the time of every aarathi. The complete beauty of the idol can only be witnessed when circumambulating the sannidhi. One can see the elephant hide covering the back of the idol, the legs hanging loose on the sides. All flawlessly sculpted in bronze. The idol is accompanied by an idol of Shakthi with Skandha in her arms. Shakthi is portrayed as trying to reluctantly run away from the spot, confused between her care for her husband and her apparent fright. Skandha is shown pointing his hand at the moorthi of Gajasamharar as though crying out, “Oh, there is dad, Mommy”. The whole set of sculptures has a very lifelike appearance about it.
Apart from these, there are separate shrines for Ayyappa (this is supposed to be his birthplace), Vinayaka and other parivara devathas. The navagrahas are positioned in a strange manner. Guru who is usually antagonistic towards Shani, however faces Shani here, making it a Grahamithra Kshetram.
The temple celebrates all the major festivals in the Shaivite calendar, but the grandest spectacle is the Gajasamhara Thiruvizha that is held in the months of February-March. On the day of Gajasamharam, the idol of Gajasamharamoorthi is all decked up and brought outside to the banks of the Panchamukha theertham. This is believed to be the pond into which the rogue elephant fell. The elephant is said to have fallen into the North-Western corner of the pond and Parameshwara gave darshan as Gajasamharar at the South-Western corner. Following the sthala purana, in the evening the utsavar is taken to the North-Western corner of the tank. There a huge elephant awaits, made of clothes and decked with flowers. The lord’s dance of destruction begins and suddenly the idol of Gajasamharamoorthi is placed into the interiors of the cloth elephant. All lights go off, at every home and temple in the town and the whole town is immersed in darkness. Under the cover of darkness the elephant is rushed to the south-western corner where the elephant is torn apart and the Lord emerges again. Mangala Arathi is waved before Gajasamharamoorthi and the lights are all turned up, the whole town now bathed in billiant colourful lights. The victory of Parameshwara is celebrated and grand poojas are conducted after the utsavam. This re-enactment of the divine feat is unique in itself and takes place at no other place.
So, here did Shiva vanquish the rogue elephant and teach a lesson to the self obsessed dogmatic rishis. Here did he come as Bikshadanar to charm the rishipathnis of Tharukavanam and here He stays blessing all the devotees, crushing the elephant like negative energies that may trouble them from time to time. Here at Vazhuvoor, in the hall of Knowledge, remains Shiva, the terrific and yet the benevolent, the Lord of Shakthi and the master of all.