January 10, 2011

Bairagi Mutt Temple - Sowcarpet, Chennai, India

Do you know about the temple in Chennai which was built by a saint from Pakistan? Have you heard about Bairagi sect and their association with Chennai? Have you seen the female form of Garud, the divine vaahan of Lord Vishnu? Let me introduce you to a temple that has a lot of unique features and lesser known tales. The temple is called as Bairagi Mutt Tiruvengadamudaiyan Venkatesa Perumal Temple. It is located in Sowcarpet locality in Chennai city in Tamil Nadu state of India.


  • God Tirvengadamudaiyan a.k.a. Prasanna Venkatesa Perumal
  • Goddess - Alarmel Mangai
  • Sthala Tirtha (Holy water) - Varaha Pushkarani
  • Temple that predates the British period in Black Town formed by the British
  • Temple built by a saint from Pakistan
  • Funded by a Muslim woman
  • Blend of north Indian and south Indian idols as well as rituals and poojas
  • Mutt, South Indian type big temple, a small North Indian temple, all in single complex
  • Vishnu in eight different forms in different shrines (excluding mutt)
  • Garud in the female form (separate vaahan for Alarmel Mangai)
  • Temple administered by lesser known Bairagi sect
  • Vishnu found along with his three consorts
  • All three consorts of Vishnu holding kid in their arms
  • One of the oldest surviving Tulsi Madams of Chennai
  • Idols of almost all South Indian Vaishnava saints

Who are Bairagis?

Black Town or George Town, the area which was formed by the British has its population from diverse communities. (Sowcarpet is part of this locality). Marwaris, Khedawal Gujaratis, Jains, Telugu Chettis, Armenians and so on. No history book has done justice about exploring all these communities of Black Town and their diverse culture.

Bairagi is a Hindu Vaishnava sect. It was arguably started by the saint Ramananda in the 14th century CE. There are four divisions of Bairagis, namely Ramanujis, Nimanandi, Vishnu Bairagi and Tyagi Bairagi. The Bairagis are found in large number in Nagpur and around in Maharashtra as well as Allahabad and around in Uttar Pradesh.

Who built this temple?

As per the historian Shri S. Muthiah, it was probably this temple, which was referred as "Lorraine's Pagoda" in the Madras Map dated 1710 CE. He even believes that Kitti Narayana, the son of the famous Dubash Beri Thimanna, would have constructed this temple in the late 17th century CE. "Lorraine" was probably the anglicized form of Narayan.

The temple authorities have altogether different story. According to them, Bairagi Mutt was formed even before the British arrived Madras (Chennai). (Mutt, which is also written as Matha or Math, is more like a monastery for Hindu saints). Lal Das Ji, a Bairagi saint from Lahore (which is part of Pakistan nowadays), started this mutt in the early 1600s. He apparently cured the stomach ache of a rich Muslim woman. She donated gold coins to the saint, which he used to extend the mutt and built the temple of Venkatesa Perumal.

To my little knowledge, it appears that this temple might have been built by Bairagi saint and not by the Dubashi's son due to the following reasons:
  • The temple is under the administration of the Bairagi community even today. The successors of Lal Das Ji (Mahants) still live in the mutt.
  • The architecture of the temple resembles Vijayanagara or Nayaka period. There is no reason why a Dubashi in the British period would have followed this style of the architecture.
  • The temple is magnificent with so many sub-shrines and hundreds of idols. There is no other temple in Madras built or contributed by the British or its Dubashis, which has so many number of sub-shrines. All such temples are very simple in layout and have only limited number of deities.
  • Bairagis are there all over India. In North India, wherever a mutt of Bairagi is found, an adjoining temple is also found, similar to this temple complex. There is no reason why Kitti Narayana would have extended the Bairagi mutt into a temple.
I do not deny that Kitti Narayana might have contributed to this temple, which was misinterpreted as he had built this temple. (I have written about such a false claim by a Dubashi in my article on Chenna Kesava Perumal temple). I do not deny the possibility of this temple being referred as Lorraine Pagoda in the map. According to me, here Narayan refers to the presiding deity and not Kitti Naryana.

Although we cannot go by whatever is claimed by the temple authorities, we could at least believe that the mutt was there even in the 1600s and the temple was extended in the later period. Definitely, it was not built by any Dubashi or Dubashi's family members.

Layout of Temple Complex

The temple has three sections. The Mutt which enshrines the North Indian style white marble idols is the first structure. It has an east facing entrance. The magnificent temple of Tiruvengamudaiyan Venkatesa Perumal is the second structure. It has three entrances in the east, north and south directions. Within this temple complex, near the temple tank, a small separate North Indian style temple is located. It has its own small entrance.

Bairagi Mutt

If we enter into the small lane called General Muthiah Street from N.S.C. Bose Road, Bairagi Mutt is the first structure. The mutt has east facing entrance.

The sanctum enshrines very beautiful marble idols. The white marble idols of Ram with Lakshman on his right side and Sita on his left side is enshrined in the sanctum. (It should be noted that Ram has Lakshman instead of Sita on his true right side, which is not usual.)

Behind the idols of Ram Parivar, the black marble stone idols of Vishnu and his three consorts are found. Vishnu is normally found with his two consorts, namely Sri Devi and Bhoo Devi. However, in this sanctum, his third consort Neela Devi is also found. Vishnu has two arms and holds conch and discus. He is found in the standing posture. All his three Devis are found seated. Each of them hold a kid on her lap, which is unusual.

An idol of Krishna keeping his two arms in stylish way on his hip is also found in this sanctum. It is made of black marble.

Few bronze idols of Krishna in various postures are also kept in the same sanctum.

The Tulsi Madam (the holy altar with the Tulsi plant) that is found in this mutt is one of the oldest surviving Tulsi Madams of Chennai city.

The red colored idols of Hanuman and Ganesh are found in the prakara.

A big red colored relief image of Hanuman found on the wall of this mutt is very interesting.

Temple Tower

Adjoining to the Bairagi mutt, the main entrance of Tiruvengadamudaiyan temple is located. It faces the east direction. Five tiered tower with lot of interesting stucco figures is found at this entrance.

The south facing entrance has three tiered tower. There is another entrance at the north direction.

Beautiful Mukha Mandap

The Mukha Mandap is very long and wide. It is designed like a chariot. The pillars are full of figures of elephants, horses, Yazhils, lions and soldiers. The sculptures in this mandap appear like late Vijayanagara or Nayaka style.


The east facing sanctum enshrines the gigantic seven feet image of Tiruvengadamudaiyan. He is also called as Prasanna Venkatesa Perumal. He is found in the standing posture and has four arms holding conch and discus in his two upper arms. He resembles the image Tirupati Balaji.

The utsava idols of Tiruvengadamudaiyan and his two consorts Sri Devi and Bhoo Devi are also found in the sanctum.

There is no flag staff in this temple. Instead, a deepa stambha is found. Garud is found in Maha Mandap area, facing towards the sanctum.

Alarmel Mangai

The Goddess of the temple is Alarmel Mangai. Her beautiful and big image is enshrined in a separate shrine in the south western corner of the prakara. Her bronze idol is found in the same shrine.


In Ardha Mandap, there is a separate south facing shrine of Ranganath. He is found in the reclining posture. Sri Devi and Bhoo Devi are found along with him. Brahma is found seated on lotus that emerges out of his navel.

Mandaps and Important Shrines

There are three important mandaps found in this temple.

The mandap located in the south western corner has three shrines namely Alarmel Mangai, Ram-Sita-Lakshman and Varadarajar-Sri Devi-Bhoo Devi.

There is another mandap located in the north western corner has three shrines namely Andal, small images of Nardana Krishna-Rukmini,Bhama and Varaha in the standing posture.

The third mandap is located in the north eastern corner of the temple. There are three shrines situated here. They are Manavala Manmuni, Lakshmi Narasimha and Puri Jagannath. In Puri Jagannath shrine, the small images of Jagannath, Baladev and Subhadra are found, similar to Puri temple. Narasimha Yantram is found in Lakshmi Narasimha shrine.

All the sub-shrines enshrine the stone as well as the bronze images of the deities.

The mandaps are full of pillars with so many beautiful and interesting sculptures. Apart from these mandaps, the pillars with carvings are found all over the temple.

Paramapada Vaasal (entrance) is located between the first two mandaps, which is painted beautifully in vibrant colors.

Anjaneya is found in a separate shrine near the first mandap.


The Vaahans that carry the bronze images of the deities during the festivals and processions are very big and impressive. For example, the elephant vaahan is almost in the size of an elephant calf. Garud Seva is about Garud carrying Vishnu during the procession. In this temple, unusually Alarmel Mangai is carried by Garud during the procession. Interestingly, Garud vaahan which carries the Goddess is in the female form. 

Vaishnavite Saints

Name any South Indian Vaishnavite saint; you could find his image in the temple.

There are many sub-shrines in the Mukha Mandap and in the prakara for Vaishnavite saints that include Alavandan, Pillai Lokacharya, Koorathalwan, Ramanuja, Mudaliyandan, Tiruvarangaththu Amudanar, Tirumangai Alwar, Kumudavalli, Madura Kavi Alwar, Nammalvar, Nathamuni, Bhutat Alwar, Periyalwar, Periya Nambigal, Senai Mudaliyar, Pei Alwar, Poigai Alwar, Tiruppan Alwar, Tirukkatchi Nambi, Araiyar, Tirukoshtiyur Nambi, Empaar Bhattar, Tirumalai Nadan, Nampillai, Periyachan, Nanjeeyar, Vadakku Tiruveeti Pillai, Tirvai Mozhi and Manavala Mamuni.

All the sub-shrines enshrine the stone images as well as the respective bronze images of the Vaishnavite saints. Not many Vishnu temples in Chennai enshrine such a large number of Vaishnava saints. This should also be considered as one of the highlights of this temple.

Murali Paintings

There are many beautiful mural paintings found on the walls across the entire temple. The painting of Paramapadanathan with Sri Devi, Bhoo Devi and Neela Devi as well as the one that depicts Ram in Pattabhishek ceremony are notable paintings.

North Indian Temple

The holy temple tank, called as Varaha Pushkarani, is located on the north side of the temple. On the banks of this tank, a small North Indian type temple is found. It is constructed probably in the 20th century CE. The images of Shiv Linga, Hanuman, Sapta Matas, Kartikeya, Ganesh and Ambika are enshrined here. It is called as Hanuman temple and Shiva temple.

Happy travelling. 


  1. Awesome ! Had not known about this one .
    Thank you for the wonderfully informative post .
    - Vidya Murali