As one of the most sacred sites dedicated to Murugan, thousands visit Palani and worship the commander of the army of devas.
Palani is home to one of the most famous shrines for pilgrimage in Tamilnadu where millions congregate to worship Lord Murugan. It is situated in Dindigul district and is approachable both by Coimbatore and Madurai. One of the special traditions associated with this temple is the practice of coming to this temple on foot, irrespective of the distances involved while carrying a Kavadi (a physical burden to balance a spiritual debt). This practice is exactly the same as that of the Devghar temple of Lord Shiva in Bihar, which is one of the twelve Jyotirlingas.
One of the most enduring traditions associated with the family of Shiva, Palani has a direct link with it. Shiva has two sons, Ganesha and Kartikeya (also known as Murugan). In north India, Ganesha is always given first preference for worship as he is treated as the destroyer of all hardships while Kartikeya, the commander of the army of Gods is not generally worshipped in northern temples. We get to see Kartikeya’s youthful beauty and warrior finery during the Durga puja celebrations wherein the Puja pandals give equal importance to both brothers, Ganesha and Kartikeya. In southern India, Kartikeya in the form of Murugan is one of the main deities and a very large number of temples are there to attest to his popularity and importance in the religious landscape.
There are six main places in Tamilnadu which are known as Arupadai Veedu, six abodes of Murugan. Palani is considered to be the third home. The roots of this practice can be traced to the story linked with the establishing of Murugan’s temple in Palani.
Shiva had a normal home life on Mount Kailash with his wife Parvati and both his sons Ganesha and Kartikeya. In this idyllic household, a simple yet significant action changed the whole family’s future in a very profound way. The eternal mendicant sage Narada happened to pass by their home and gave a fruit to Shiva indicating that it is the fruit of wisdom and it may be given to his kids. Shiva wanted to divide this fruit among both his sons. But Narada counselled against this step and suggested that it be given to only one of his sons, who shows him to be worthy of such a fruit by going around the world first. It was not the first time that Narada was introducing intriguing twists in celestial matters.
Kartikeya took off on his mount, the peacock and started on his journey across the world. Ganesha preferred to use the logical route and claimed that for him his parents (Shiva & Shakti denoted the world) are everything in the world. So he went around them and claimed that he had circled the whole world. The parents happily accepted the theory and rejoiced at Ganesha’s discerning behaviour and gave the fruit to him. When Kartikeya came to know about this stratagem, he was furious as he considered this action by Ganesha as a duplicitous move. He vowed to never return to his parents and stayed on in southern India, where he had reached while wanting to circle the whole world. From that time onwards, Kartikeya has remained in the south and is revered in Tamilnadu as Murugan. He came to the hillock at Palani and stayed there, renouncing the material world.
Shiva and Parvati came to this place trying to placate their beloved son, who refused to go back with them. They told him that he is himself the source of knowledge and wisdom (Pazham Nee – you are the fruit). This phrase is considered to have given rise to the name Palani, by which the town is known today.
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Temple at the foothill
There are two major temple complexes at Palani. While the temple on the top of the Sivagiri hill is the main temple for worship where millions of people come every year, it is the temple at the base of the hill which is considered the real home of Murugan. Known as Thiruavinankudi temple, it is considered as the third among the six sacred adobes of Murugan in Tamilnadu.
(The mandapam near the sanctum of the Thiruavinankudi Temple)
The etymology of this unique name consists of Bhoomi Devi representing ‘Thiru’, Kamdhenu contributing to ‘Aa’, Sun represented as ‘Vi’ and god of fire Agni represented as ‘Enan. The combination of all these deities give rise to Thiruavinankudi. One of the meanings of Kudi (Kuti or Gudi) denotes a place (Town or Village) in the Tamil language.
In this temple, Murugan is worshipped in the form of Kulandai Velayudhaswami, which means the child form of Lord Murugan with a lance (Vel in Tamil) as his weapon. Here he is depicted as a child riding his mount, the peacock. The six-faced representation of Murugan is a common depiction in this temple. His five heads represent the five natural elements (Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Ether) and the sixth head denotes pure consciousness or Chaitanya Shakti.
(Arumugam or Six faced representation of Lord Murugan)
The Temple has a Gopuram at the entrance with a vertical big lance depicting Murugan’s Vel. This symbolism is easily understood by devotees to represent Murugan.
(Gopuram with the highlighted Vel or lance)
The Sthala Vriksha is a sacred tree that forms part of the venerated places within the temple complex. A Sthala vriksha is common in most temples, especially in South India. There are a variety of indigenous trees that can be Sthala vrikshas and different temples have different venerated trees depending upon the ecology of the area and the main deity in the temple. Some of these trees are varieties of Ficus, Mango, Gooseberry, Cannonball, Stone apple etc. As one of the most ancient religious principles of mankind (when living in harmony with nature was the norm for humanity), Hinduism and ecology go together. Knowledge of trees and herbs of the region whilst giving them sacred importance, ensures a sense of responsibility towards the environment to protect and cherish it.
The Sthala Vriksha in this temple is the Nelli Maram or Gooseberry tree (Emblica Officinalis). Gooseberry is a rich source of Vitamin C and it has other health properties that have made it an important ingredient in the traditional medicines of India. While making a parikrama or circumambulation of the main shrine, one gets the chance to see the sacred tree and fold hands in respect for its properties that help us live a better life. A small space there has been created for pilgrims to leave their offerings for this sacred tree.
(The Sthala vriksha- Gooseberry tree)
There is another very important tree in the compound, the Nagalingam tree. It is Shivkamal or Kailaspati in Hindi, Nagalinga Pushpa in Kannada, Nagamalli or Mallikarjuna flowers in Telugu and Cannonball tree in English. Hindus revere this tree as the stigma of the beautiful big pinkish flowers resembles a lingam and petal resembles the hood of a naga snake. This tree is commonly found in Shiva temples.
(The flower buds and fruits on the Nagalingam or Cannonball tree)
There are numerous smaller shrines around the main shrine. One shrine is dedicated to Shani Devata, a powerful deity having a significant effect on a person’s life.
(Smaller shrines within the temple complex)
The mandapam of this temple has beautifully carved pillars. One striking depiction is of the warrior princess, Meenakshi, who is a form of Goddess Parvati. It is said that Meenakshi came as a boon to Malayadhwaja Pandyan, King of Madurai. She was born with three breasts as is depicted in this pillar sculpture. It was said that Meenakshi would lose her third breast when she came in front of her soul mate. Meenakshi became a warrior and led expeditions in the three worlds. She reached Kailash Parvat, Shiva’s abode and defeated Nandi. On seeing Shiva, the hermit, it was love at first sight and she lost her third breast. This is well portrayed in carvings and wall murals at the Madurai Meenakshi Temple. This sculpture symbolises Shakti as the mother of Murugan.
(Goddess Meenakshi, the Warrior Princess)
There is a depiction of dancing Lord Ganesha. It is a beautiful depiction of Ganesha lifting his favourite sweetmeat, modak, with his trunk while dancing in joy standing on his right leg.
(Dancing Lord Ganesha)
There are some intriguing images on the pillars too. There is an image of a mendicant with the lower body of a snake. Another depiction is of a man with the head of a bull.
One can spend a long time just viewing the pillar carvings as no two are the same. Mendicants and sages are common depictions. One mendicant is portrayed as holding a stringed instrument that resembles a Veena. A court jester also finds a place. A woman performing the hard labour of removing the chaff from grains tells us a lot about the hardworking agrarian society.
The ritual of ‘Mundan’, the offering of a baby’s hair to the family deity is an important (and often a mandatory) practice amongst Hindus. It is usually done at a sacred place that may be a family temple, a sacred river bank or a spiritually significant temple. A few very important locations attract people from far away for this ritual. Palani is one of the most favoured places for this ritual in the western and southern part of Tamil Nadu. During the mid-1990s, I lived near Madurai and Erode district and the one thing common was the pull of Palani for the people of these areas. It has taken me almost a quarter of a century to finally visit this most sacred site and understand its importance in the lives of a Hindu.
Pilgrims throng the lower temple area and make hair offerings to their beloved deity. These rituals are not limited to just babies but children and adults also get their hair tonsured as a mark of offering.
Main temple at the hilltop
The main temple, which is the magnet for pilgrims is on the top of the Sivagiri Hills. This is the hill where Murugan had come after the fight with his parents over the subterfuge by Ganesha to get the fruit of wisdom. Palani has a scenic landscape. From the Thiruaavinankudi temple on the foothills of this hill, one can see the beauty of the Sivagiri hills with temple structures inviting the pilgrims to climb to the top. Palani hill is not far from the Kodaikanal hills and the Western Ghats.
(A good view of the Sivagiri hills that celebrates the Dandayudhapani form of Murugan)
The temple on top of the Sivagiri hill celebrates the Dandayudhapani form of Murugan which is different from the usual depiction in other Murugan temples in Tamilnadu. Dandayudhapani literally means ‘a staff in the hand as a weapon’. He is shown to have renounced everything, wears just a loincloth and stays here with just his staff.
There are various ways to reach the shrine on top of this hill. One can take the ropeway or the winch as the easy walk to up the hill by taking the steps that have been made for the convenience of the pilgrims.
The entryway to the temple is in typical Dravidian style with bali peetham, dhvaja stambh and the entry to the mandapam. There is a granite peacock within a small shrine just before the main shrine entryway. One can see the Dandayudhapani form of Murugan depicted above the lintel of this entryway.
One of the unique aspects of any major and popular temple in India is the stories about its establishment and the significance of the place from a religious perspective. Even in a tradition as rich and diverse as the Indian temple lore, there is probably no match for the tradition associated with the statue of this Palani temple and its creator, an ascetic named Bogar.
The deity in this temple is not built of the usual elements like stone, metal or wood. This unique statue was crafted by the renowned sage Bogar, who was also a great exponent of Ayurveda. He is considered to be one of the most accomplished siddhas of ancient India. The time period of the creation of this statue is supposed to be the advent of the Kali Yuga, dated to approximately 3100 BCE. In the Indic cosmology, one cycle of creation consists of four yugas (Epochs). Kali Yuga is supposed to be last epoch of this cycle and the world is expected to face a lot of trouble in this period. Bogar wanted to help humanity navigate through difficult times ahead, so he consulted with 18 renowned siddhas and deliberated upon the best way to ameliorate the anticipated troubles. The story of this event has been painted on the temple walls. One of the images shows Bogar floating above the geosphere of the earth. This is in accordance with the fantastical exploits attributed to him (More on this to come later in this article).
(Sage Bogar consulting eighteen sages; Sage Bogar floating above the Earth’s geosphere)
Based on the opinions of the experts, Bogar created a unique amalgam for using it as the material for the image of Murugan. Thousands of herbs were combined to create nine compounds called the Nava Pashanam (nine poisons). According to local tradition, these were called Veeram, Pooram, Rasam, Jathilingam, Kandagam, Gauri Pasanam, Vellai pasanam, Mridarsingh and Silasat. These nine items were combined in a specific ratio to make the image of Murugan in his Dandayudhapani form. The deity has a unique visage with a very striking and beautiful face combined with a thin structure for the rest of the body.
This murti was installed in the sanctum sanctorum as the presiding deity. Bogar established the practice of doing Abhishekam with milk and Panchamritam. The Panchamritam is usually made of five different ingredients – bananas, country sugar, honey, ghee and cardamom and all these are available locally(the hill banana from this area has a great fan following). The materials used for the Abhishekam are supposed to interact with the material of Nava Pashanam and the resultant prasadam is said to have curative properties. This process was institutionalised to help people in times of illnesses and disease. The town of Palani has become a centre for such healing as many people are attracted by the curative property ascribed to the Nava Pashana statue of Murugan in this temple.
(In recent times there have been controversies due to the fact that the murti seemed to have lost some of its material and there was suspicion of foul play by some parties who were trying to use its material for their Ayurveda medicine business.)
(Bogar creating the image of Murugan with the Nava Pashanam amalgam)
On one entrance to this temple, there is a footmark on the rock. This is said to be the footprint of Murugan. His mount, the peacock, stands in front of the mark.
(Footmarks with floral offerings)
Continued in Part 2