Stories in Stone is all about sculptures — either standalone or entire narrative panels. Each post in this series showcases one such sculpture, looks beyond its iconography and deconstructs the details in an attempt to understand the idea and/or the story it conveys.
The sculpture under discussion in this post has a bit of an identity crisis. The temple it is located in refers to it by one name; I refer to it by another name based on its iconographical details; and a book that I highly respect and refer to frequently refers to it by a third name. What’s in a name, you may ask? Plenty, I say, for in this case, with change in identity, the story and the context changes as well.
The sculpture in question is that of Shiva and Parvati and is located in one of the external niches of a shrine in the outer praharam or circumambulatory path of the Lalithambigai (also spelled as Lalithambikai) Temple at Thirumeeyachur (or Thirumiyachur) in Tamil Nadu. At this temple, Shiva is known here as Meghanathar and though He is the main deity here, the shrine to Devi or Lalithambigai is more popular
Like most temples, the Lalithambigai Temple too has a sthala puranam or legend associated it. There’s a long version and a short version and since this post is about a particular sculpture and not the temple, I’m going to share the short version with you.
It all began with a Twitter DM (or direct message) I received from my friend and fellow blogger, Anuradha Shankar.
It was the summer of 2014 and Anu was travelling, or doing a temple run as she preferred to call it, in the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu. She would send me an occasional update about the temples she was visiting — delight over seeing exquisite murals in one or despair on coming across bathroom tiles in another.
When I received a DM from her that May evening, with a “See this !”, I wondered what was it she had sent me this time and whether it would be a rave or rant ! As it happened, it didn’t matter for the photograph that Anu had messaged me simply took my breath away.
I messaged back. Jain Art? In Tamil Nadu? Where? What? How? When? Anu replied, Yes. Yes. This is Kazhugumalai, 8th-9th century CE. Rest when I get back. I was stunned for till then I had no idea about the existence of Jain culture — past or present —in Tamil Nadu. I had wrongly assumed that Karnataka was the furthest South that Jainism had spread to.
That one photograph sparked off an interest in Jainism in Tamil Nadu, an interest that continues to grow by the day. From researching about the fascinating history of Jainism in Tamil Nadu to visiting heritage Jain sites in Maduraiand Kanchipuram to writing an assignment on reclaiming Jain heritage in Tamil Nadu (as part of the Indian Aesthetics programme at Jnanapravaha Mumbai earlier this year)… the quest into Jain heritage has been an ongoing journey.
Madurai is home to a number of sacred sites whose origins have now passed into the land of myth and legends. The original temple structures built on the sacred sites no longer exist today for over the centuries, they have been added to or rebuilt or renovated to become the temple complexes they are today. Along the way their myths, legends and history have intertwined to create a tradition of rituals and festivals that continue to present day.
The Kallazhagar and Koodal AzhagarKovils are two such temples in Madurai. Both are Vishnu temples and are part of the 108 divya desams or divya kshetrams — temples mentioned by the Alvars or the poet-saints of the Srivaishnava tradition. The main deities in both the temples are called Azhagar, which means beautiful / handsome in Tamil. Both the Azhagar Kovils have their own unique origin story or sthalapuranam, and are significant in understanding the region’s political history, religious traditions, and architectural landscape.
Let us first begin with an exploration of the KALLAZHAGAR KOVIL.