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Shrine in the forest

SRIMATI KRISHNAKUMAR traces the history of the ancient Rajagopalaswamy temple in Mannargudi, Tamil Nadu.

THE cowherd prince stands amid his herd, one foot tucked behind the other. In one hand, he twirls a shepherd's crook while the other seems to rest on the bovine back of one of his herd.

He is a snappy dresser and drapes one end of his gold bordered veshti around his head like a turban, no doubt to keep his wild, locks in check. His jewellery is magnificent — mostly flaming, incandescent rubies that glow like embers. The cluster of golden keys suspended from his waistband testifies to his onerous responsibilities, but he appears to bear his burdens lightly. Is it his smile or his handsome face that is so bewitching? He is Rajagopalan, presiding deity of Mannargudi, my natal town.

The Rajagopalaswamy temple, whose beginnings go back 1,000 years, is about an hour's drive from both Kumbakonam and Thanjavur. A rock inscription of 1118 A.D. from Kulothunga Chola's reign in the temple precincts narrates its early history. Mannargudi was one of many towns carved out of forests in the region south of Thanjavur by the Chola kings and was originally called Rajarajadhiraja Chaturvedimangalam. Its founder, Rajadhiraja Chola, son of Rajendra Chola intended it to be a settlement for Brahmins proficient in the four Vedas. The temple was then called the "Rajadhiraja Vinnagaram". According to Kulothanga Chola's inscription, he rebuilt this Vishnu temple — then 100-years-old and most probably a brick structure — in black granite. He renamed it "Sri Kulothunga Chola Vinnagaram". The copper idols of the deities, Rajagopalan, Rukmini and Satyabhama, were cast in the mid-Chola style. Rock edicts of the succeeding Chola kings detail the grants of land or money and expansion or construction work carried out by them.

This temple witnessed another spurt of vigorous activity and glory during the rule of the Nayakas of Thanjavur towards the end of the 16th Century. A rock inscription dated 1577 records grants to the temple from Atchutappa Nayaka of Thanjavur, but his greatest contribution is the unique Garuda dhwaja sthambham. It consists of a small Garuda temple resting on a 5' x 5' granite pedestal on a 54' monolithic pillar, the stone for which was brought all the way from Pudukkottai, as granite was not locally available. Figures of Rajagopalan, Hanuman, Atchutappa Nayaka and his wife Murtimamba have been carved on the pedestal. Palm leaf manuscripts say that Atchutappa Nayaka's successors Raghunatha Nayaka (A.D. 1614-1633), Vijaya Raghava Nayaka who called himself "Mannaru Dasa" (A.D. 1633-1673) and his son Mannaru Devan built many prakaras, gopurams, mandapams and tanks that brought the temple to its immense proportions.

Vijaya Raghava Nayaka built the huge outer gopurams, the aayiramkaal mandapam or the 1000-pillared hall and the Krishnathirtham tank, all of which still exist. He also installed copper statuettes of Atchutappa Nayaka's guru Tirumalai Nambi Thathachariar, Tirumangai Azhwar and Periazhwar.

Vijaya Raghava Nayaka was a versatile and highly talented patron of the arts. Dance, drama and literature flourished in his time. He composed a number of works in Telugu and dedicated them to the deity of Mannargudi. Most of the dramas written by him premiered in the Aayiramkaal mandapam.

One of the leading litterateurs in his court was the Telugu poet Changalva Kalakavi. In 1951, the Tanjore Saraswati Mahal Library printed his "Rajagopala Vilasamu", composed by him in A.D. 1633. The prabhandha relates how Champakaranya or the Champaka forest southeast of Kumbakonam became Mannargudi.

In ancient times, Champakaranya was a serene, sacred spot inhabited by many rishis of whom Vahnimukha was one. He had two sons, Gopralaya and Gobhila, both ardent devotees of lord Vishnu. Pleased with the severity of Gopralaya's penance, the lord granted him a boon. Apart from a request for moksha for himself and his brother, Gopralaya beseeched the Lord to stay forever in Champakaranya. Vishnu consented and was installed as Lord Gopala. The tirtha is known as the Krishna Tirtha and the water flowing from it is the Haridra Nadi. The tank at Mannargudi is still called Gopralaya, after the sage responsible for bringing the Lord of Dwaraka to Champakaranya.

The Rajagopala Swamy Temple with its five prakaras, seven mandapams, and seven gopurams including the majestic 154' tall Rajagopuram stands on six sq. acres of land. Tradition, in fact, takes back the antiquity of the temple, not by centuries, but by aeons. Brahma, the creator, is said to have worshipped at this temple in the Krita Yuga, Goddess Lakshmi and Brigu Maharshi in the Treta Yuga, Agni in the Dwapara Yuga and at the end of the Dwapara Yuga, Gobhila and Gopralaya whose austerities made Rajagopala a permanent resident of Mannargudi. In the present age or Kali Yuga, history records the devotion of Kulothunga Chola, the Nayaka kings, Kshetrayya, Tyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar and several others, not to speak of millions of humble devotees who throng the temple daily.

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