108 Divya-deshams: Thiruchitrakootam

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BY: SUN STAFF - 14.5 2024

A tour of the 108 Divya-desams, the divine abodes of Lord Vishnu and Lakshmi.

The Govindaraja Perumal Temple, or Thiruchitrakoodam, is situated in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu. This Divya Desham is dedicated to the worship of Lord Visnu as Govindaraja Perumal with His consort Pundarikavalli Thayar (Lakshmi).

The temple is one of the two rare Divya Desams, the other being Nilathingal Thundam Perumal Temple, that are housed within a Shiva temple. Thiruchitrakoodam resides inside the premises of the Thillai Nataraja Temple, and is a major shrine of Shiva worship since the classical period.

There have been several renovations and offerings to Chidambaram by the Pallava, Chola, Pandya, Vijayanagara, and Chera royals in the ancient and pre-medieval periods. The temple as it stands now is mainly of the 12th and 13th centuries, with later additions in similar style of Dravidian architecture. The temple is glorified in the Naalayira Divya Prabandham and was revered by Kulashekara Alvar in eleven hymns. Kulashekara mentions this temple as Tillai Chitrakutam, and equates Chitrakuta of Ramayana fame with this shrine.

The Govindaraja deity is believed to have been uprooted outside the temple complex during the period of Kulothunga Chola II. The deity was later found and reinstated by king Krishnappa Nayak (1564–1572). Sri Govindaraja is believed to have descended upon the earth for the sage Kanva and the 3,000 Dikshitars of the Thillai Natarajar temple.

Chidambaram is one of the many temple towns in the state which is named after the groves, clusters or forests dominated by a particular variety of tree or shrub, being the same variety of tree or shrub sheltering the presiding deity. The town used to be called Thillai, following Thillaivanam, derived from the mangrove of Tillai trees (Exocoeria agallocha) that grow here and the nearby Pichavaram wetlands.

Thillai Sri Govindaraja Perumal

Shiva and Parvati once decided to judge who among them was a better dancer, and wanted their sons Vinayaka and Murugan to judge their performances. Both of them judged in favour of Parvati, after which Shiva was not satisfied. He wanted Brahma to judge, and that competition was held in Thiruvalangadu. Brahma was still not satisfied, and he wanted Vishnu to judge, and the latter wanted the competition to be held in Tillaivanam. Shiva performed the Urthvathandavam pose of picking his earring with his legs, and wearing them in the ear with his legs. Parvati was not able to perform the feat, and due to her frustration at her defeat, became Kali at the Thillai Kali temple.

King Kulothunga Chola II is believed to have uprooted the presiding Govindaraja image from the shrine. Kulothunga was a Shaiva king, and he wanted to establish the supremacy of Shaivism by destroying Vaishnava temples and killing Vaishnavas. In the 16th Century, king Krishnappa Nayak was instrumental in installing the image of Govindaraja back in the temple. There was a lot of resistance from those belonging to the Shaiva tradition against reestablishing the Vishnu image in what had become a revered Shiva temple, but the king was unmoved and the image was installed in the present form.

Sri Govindaraja Perumal and Pundarikavalli Thayar

There is no satisfactory evidence of co-existence of the Shiva and Vishnu shrines within the same temple built during the same time. There was a dispute in 1849 regarding the rights on the Govindaraja deity and Alvar Sannidhi (sanctum of Alvars) between Vaishnavas and Dikshitars, and the position of the Vaishnavas was upheld by the district court.

Thiruchitrakoodam also has close connections with the Govindaraja temple in Tirupati, dating back to the saint Ramanuja of the 11-12th century. Ramanuja fled to Tirupati with the utsava (festival image) of the temple to escape persecution.