August 10, 2010

Nellaiyappar and Kanthimathi Amman Temple - A 7th century temple of Tirunelveli, South India

Tirunelveli is one of the ancient cities of Tamil Nadu, the southern state of India. As per the records, it can be dated back to 500 BCE. The most important pilgrim site as well as the tourist site of Tirunelveli city is Nellaiyappar Kanthimathi temple. Similar to Tirunelveli city, the temple of Nellaiyappar Kanthimathi is also a great site. It is difficult and will be too lengthy if I try to write everything about this temple in one blog post. Hence, I am writing only about the legend and history of the great temple called Nellaiyappar Kanthimathi in this post. I will write more articles in this blog covering the structure of the temple and other aspects.

The temple of Sri Nellaiappar and Sri Kanthimathi Ambal is situated at the heart of the Tirunelveli city. It is a Shiva temple. Lord Shiva is named as Nellaiappar in this temple and his consort is named as Kanthimathi. Nellaiappar and Kanthimathi temple is one of the '274 Paadal Petra Sthalams' (one of the 274 most important temples of Lord Shiva). Tirugnana Sambandhar, the great deity of Lord Shiva, who lived in the 7th century CE, has sung about Nellaiappar. Hence, if not this temple, at least the idol of Nellaiappar must be older than 7th century CE. However, as per the records, it appears that this temple would have been built by the Pandya king 'Ninra Seer Nedumaran'. Nedumaran was a Jain king, who got converted to Shaivism by Tirugnana Sambandhar in the 7th century CE.
Kanthimathi Temple Tower

As per a legend, the sage Agastya got the darshan of Lord Shiva and Parvati's marriage in Tirunelveli. As per another legend, Lord Ram worshiped Nellaiappar and got a weapon named 'Pasupatastra' which was helpful for him to fight with Raavan. Even though as per the historical records, the temple must have been built by Nedumaran, as per the legend the temple was built by a Pandya king named 'Muzhudum Kanda Rama Pandian'.

According to yet another legend, Lord Shiva once took the form of a Linga, came to Tirunelveli and took his abode here. All the four Vedas stood around Him as bamboo trees and provided Him shade. So this place came to be known as Venu Vanarn (Venu means bamboo tree and Vanam means forest) and the Lord came to be known as Venuvananathar. When this place - basically a bamboo forest - was under the rule of the Pandya king named Rama Pandian, there was a person named Ramakkon who used to bring milk in a pot via this bamboo forest. One particular bamboo used to obstruct him and he always slipped and dropped the pot of milk everyday. One day he tried to cut the bamboo tree with axe but the blood started oozing out. He reported this to the king Rama Pandian. Rama Pandian dug the place and discovered the Linga. It is believed that he was the king who constructed the temple over here.
Nellaiyappar Temple Tower

There is a legend behind the name of the city Tirunelveli. Once there was a poor Brahmin in this city named Veda Sarma who was a great Shiva devotee. Every day he used to go out begging and the alms thus gathered were used by Veda Sarma for offering to the Lord. One day, when the brahmin was drying the paddy, it rained suddenly and Veda Sarma feared that all the paddy might be washed away due to heavy rains. He became much distressed and prayed for help to the Lord who took pity on him and protected the paddy from the rain by covering it and standing around it like a fence. So this place came to be known as Tiru Nel Veli (Tiru - means beautiful, Nel - means paddy and Veli - means fence). The Lord also came to be known as Nellaiappar. Thus, the name of the place changed from Venuvanam to Tirunelveli.

This post has became a bit lengthy...let me talk about the temple structure in another post. Till then...

Happy travelling.

Read the following posts to know about the temple structure, architecture, sculpture and other details.

Temple Structure - Part 1
Temple Structure - Part 2
Temple Structure - Part 3
Temple Structure - Part 4
Temple Structure - Part 5
Temple Structure - Part 6

Fast Facts:

Site Name: Nellaiyappar and Kanthimathi Temple

City Name: Tirunelveli

1) One of the oldest and biggest temples of South India
2) Musical Pillars
3) Beautiful sculptures
4) One of the five adobes of Nataraj
5) One of the 275 Paadal Petra Sthalam temples

Location: 180 kms from Madurai; 620 kms from Chennai; Located in the Southern part of Tamil Nadu state, India
Nearest Railway Station: Tirunelveli; Tirunelveli station is a popular train junction; you can find a lot of trains from all over India to this city
Nearest Airport: Madurai (around 180 kms)
How to reach: Easily reachable by road and train
Hotel: A lot of luxury hotels and budget hotels are available in Tirunelveli
Restaurants: There are a lot of good restaurants in Tirunelveli; Don't forget to taste the Halwa either from Iruttu Kadai or Shanti Sweets

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1 comment:

  1. Dear author,

    The Nellaiyappar Temple of Nellai is indeed one of the biggest, most beautiful temples and holy places which contains amazing architectural and sculptural nuggets which are present in limited places but mainly in the erstwhile Pandya country. Some of these are the Srivilliputhur temple, the Krishnapuram temple and last but not the least, of course the Kasi Viswanathar temple of Tenkasi, 50 kms. from Tiruchy. Yes, the temple is indeed constructed by Nedumaran whose wife is very unique in the Saiva sampradaayam, in that she is only one female among the 63 Saiva Nayanmaargal (similar to the 12 Azhwars in Vaishnava sampradaayam). These temples are Pandya nuggets and gifts to humanity and a symbol of their devotion, valour and many other human abilities.

    I suppose you may have missed a very important piece of info in your article, which we can call a factual nugget. The Nellaiyappar is indeed a Saiva Temple dedicated to Shiva (in what is another rarity, inside the temple premises on one of the walls there is also a vigraham - but not one worshipped but only decorated with flowers, I think - of Lankapati Raavana - universally recognized as the foremost devotee of Shiva ever born), you perhaps did not point out a very very important artefact - a pointer to Pandya Kings' secularism and which defies their categorization as patrons of Shaiva or Vaishnava traditions. That artefact is the sannidhi dedicated to Nellai-Govindar i.e. a reclining Vishnu which is RIGHT NEXT to the sanctum sanctorium of Nellaiyappar in the temple. Of course, it is another matter that this fact is not revealed to one unless he asks. I accidentally chanced upon the sannidhi of Nellai Govindar which was covered in chandanam powder. When I asked the priest, he said it is the reclining form of Vishnu called Nellai Govindar in the temple.

    I request that in future edits to this wonderful and informative article, you may like to mention this and highlight the fact which will make people revere and respect the wonderful Shrine that Nellaiyappar-Kanthimathi temple is, much more they did before. Thank you.