Thirugokarnam – Gokarnesvara Temple

Thirugokarnam is a suburb in the Pudukkottai town and is famous for its Thirugokarnam Temple. The temple started as a simple rock-cut shrine which later got developed into a large temple complex through various additions and extensions made by different dynasties reigning at different periods. The sthalapurana of the temple narrates a legend stating that once the celestial cow Kamadhenu arrived late at Indra’s court and as a consequence was banished from the heavens to live an ordinary life at earth until she was able to expiated her sins by worshiping lord Gokarnesha. She started living at the hermitage of sage Kapila, and on latter’s suggestion started started worshiping an idol of Gokarnesha under a bakula tree (Mimusops elengi). Everyday she used to fetch Ganga’s water in her ears for abhisheka (ablution) of the idol. Due to this, the lord is called Gokarnesha or “Lord of cow’s ears”. When her time of salvation approaches, the lord put her to a scrutiny. One day, when she was returning, carrying water in her ears, the lord took form of a tiger and stopped her at a place, now known as Thiruvengaivasal. The tiger wanted to devour her but she asked for some time as she wanted to complete her ablutions. The tiger allowed her to go on her promise that she would return. The cow performed ablutions and returned to the tiger as per her promise. The lord, being satisfied with her devotion, transformed himself into his real form accompanied with Parvati. They later took the cow with them to the heavens. The legend tells that the tarn on the mountain was cut by the cow to store waters and a cleft on the top of linga is said to be hoof-print that the cow left as she bathed the idol in the sacred water1.

We have references that the temple and its lord was extolled by Nayanar saints, Sambandar and Appar, both lived during 7th century CE. Sambandar has mentioned existence of a cave temple as the Lord is invoked with the epithet Malaittalaivan and the sthala is a place where Shiva lives, sivan valumitam2.  Appar compares the hill of Gokarnam with that of Kailasha and the lord is told to hold a tanka and a sword in his hands and his crest is being mounted with the river Ganga3. However as Appar mentioned the place Gokarna to be surrounded by sea, therefore it is very probable that he may be referring to another famous temple of Gokarna in Karnataka state.

At some later point in time, a shrine for goddess Brhadamba was constructed inside the temple complex and it gained prominence during the Tondaman dynasty. Due to this, the temple complex is locally known as Brhadamba Temple or Arakasu Amman Temple. Goddess Brhadamba became the tutelary deity of the Tondamans. However, this was not the case with the earliest members of the dynasty. The originator of the dynasty, Raghunatha Raya Tondaiman (1686–1730) and his son, Vijaya Raghunatha Raya Tondaiman I (1730–1769), was consecrated at Kudumiyamalai4. However, the later Tondaiman kings made lavish benefactions to the shrine throughout the eighteenth century, and its Brahman priests performed the ruler’s installation rites, and the various other ceremonies, which expressed the line’s claim of kingship5. When Ramachandra Tondaiman (13 July 1839 – 15 April 1886) took the title of Brihadamba Das, the goddess Brhadamba gained prominence and supreme importance.

The goddess Brhadamba is also known as Arakasu Amman because of the state coin issued in her name. The Tondaiman kings had privilege of issuing their own coinage. Though their territory was under the British territory of Madras Presidency, however the Tondaimans exercised their privileges by issuing a coin as a token which can be used to buy small items such as fruits and snacks. This token was known as Amman Kasu, a small denomination coin where twelve Amman Kasu were equal to one quarter anna of that time. Another legend behind this issue tells that once a king lost an important document which he failed to find despite his best efforts. He then prayed to goddess Brhadamba and soon recovered the lost document. The king was overjoyed and minted coins with image of the goddess on one side. He used to distribute these coins to his subjects on special occasions of festivities.

Rock-cut Shrine

Gokarnesvara Cave Temple – The present huge temple complex, which now houses many shrines and mandapas, began with a simple rock-cut excavation which by gaining multiple extensions in later periods resulted into the complex as we find it today. The rock-cut excavation was done on the eastern face of a low-lying hill. This excavation has a ardha-mandapa and a garbha-grha cell at the rear wall. The ardha-mandapa has two pillars and two pilalsters at the front dividing the hall into three bays. The pillars and pilasters are divided into square base and top sections (saduram) and an octagonal section (kattu) in between. The intercolumniation between the pillars are almost equal. The corbels above are curved and adorned with taranga (roll ornamentation) and median patta (band). These all characteristics are very typical of the early Pallava rock-cut shrines.

Ganesha
Shiva-Gangadhara

The southern lateral wall of the ardha-mandapa has a niche carrying an image of four-armed Ganesha. He is shown carrying sugar-cane or flower and a broken tooth in his upper hands, while one lower hand is holding a modaka while another resting on his thigh.  The northern lateral wall contains a relief image of Shiva as Gangadhara. Shiva is shown four-armed standing in tri-bhanga mudra, in one upper hand holding akshamala (rosary) and in another upper hand his tresses to receive Ganga, the latter is shown in female form in anjali-mudra, coming down from clouds. His one lower arm is in kataka-mudra while the other is resting over his waist. Shiva-Gangadhara icon is found in many caves attributed to the Pallavas, however this icon is not very frequently found in the cave shrines of the Pandya region.

Saptamatrikas Panel
Shiva, Brahmi and Maheshvari

On right side of the cave, to the south, are carved Sapta-matrikas accompanied with Shiva and Ganesha.  Shiva is shown with four hands and seated in ardha-padmasana-mudra, his upper two hands are in kataka-mudra and lower hands are kept near thighs. Two chauris (fan) are shown on either side of him. He is followed by Brahmi who is depicted with her three heads and four arms. She is the only matrika in the group who is shown with four arms, rest all with two arms. hands. Next to her are shown Maheshvari, Vaishnavi, Kaumari, Indrani, Varahi and Chamunda. Chamunda is shown holding a knife in one of her hands. She is also wearing a munda-mala. Ganesha is carved as the last member of this group. He is shown four-armed, in his upper arms he carries a sugar-cane and his broken tooth.

The rear wall has four pilasters corresponding to their counterparts in the ardha-mandapa. These pilasters are tetragonal throughout. The space between the inner pilasters is left as the opening into the cell, while the space on the sides is made into niches carrying inscriptions of late Pandya period. The cell inside is almost square and has a rock-cut linga almost occupying one-third of the space. The linga is placed over an avudaiyar (pitha or platform) composed of various mouldings; upana, jagati, vrtta-kumuda, lower kampa, kantha, upper kampa, pattika and prati. Presence of a rock-cut linga suggests that this excavation did not follow the contemporary Pallava practices but the practices as seen in other Pandya or Mutharaiyar shrines.

The earliest inscription found here is dated to 7th or early part of 8th century CE6. As this is not a foundation inscription, however it speaks about an architect who might be instrumental in the original excavation. This suggests that the cave-temple was excavated latest by the second half of the 7th century CE if not earlier. Like many other rock-cut shrines in the Pandya territories, this excavation is also in proximity of a Jain center. An inscription of later Pandya period mentions a grant made to a Jain temple.  This also suggests that the excavators of these rock-cut temples selected their rocks in proximity of an existing religious center, and took advantages of the same.

Inscriptions – Various inscriptions collected from this rock-cut shrine are detailed below

  1. On the south wall of the rock-cut shrine7 – fragmented inscription of one line in Sanskrit reading “sthapanacaryo Bhagattacharya” meaning Bhagattacharya, the religious founder
  2. On the south wall of the rock-cut shrine8 – dated in the 17th regnal year of the Pandya king Maranjadaiyan, identified with Varaguna-varman I (765-815 CE), date corresponding 784-85 CE – records a gift of 15 kalanju of gold for a perpetual lamp to the temple of Mahadeva at Gokarnam in Tiruvelppur by Varagunavadiyaraiyan alias Nakkan-setti of Kalkurichchi in Kavirappal, a village in Valla-nadu.
  3. On the south wall of the rock-cut shrine9 – dated in the 3rd regnal year of the Chola king Parakesarivarman – records a gift of a kalanju of gold for a lamp to be burnt in early morning service in the temple of Mahadevar at Tirugokarnam in the Kavirpal of Valla-nadu by Samanayakan Kudiayambadaran of Viracholapuram.
  4. On the fourth pillar from the north in front of the rock-cut shrine10 – dated in the 4th regnal year of the Chola king Parakesarivarman – records a gift of 11 kalanju of gold by a resident of Sirukulattur for a perpetual lamp in the temple of Mahadevar at Gokarnam at Tiruvelpur in the Kavirpal of Valla-nadu.
  5. On the north face of the second pillar (from the right)11 – dated in the 13th regnal year of the Chola king Parakesarivarman – registers a gift for a festival of Ganapatiyar on the Panguni-uttira day in the temple of Srigokarnam in Tenkavira-nadu.
  6. On the east face of the third pillar (from the right)12 – dated in the 37th regnal year of the Chola king Parakesarivarman, identified with Parantaka I, corresponding 944 CE – seems to record a gift of one kalanju of gold to god Mahadeva of Gokarnattu by Peruman Vamanan, a resident of Tiruvetpur in Kavira-nadu, a subdivision of Valla-nadu.
  7. On the east face of the second pillar in the right side13 – dated in the 8th regnal year of the Chola king Rajakesarivarman – mentions the deity Mahadevar of the Srigokarnam temple at Tiruvelpur which was a devadana in Kavira-nadu.
  8. On the east face of the second pillar in the right side14 – dated in the 9th regnal year of the Chola king Rajakesarivarman, identified with the Chola king Rajaraja I (985-1014 CE), corresponding 993-94 CE – records a grant of a land for the maintenance of the tank called Kavirakkulam in Tiruvetpur in Tenkavir-nadu by a brahmana named Karanjai Nambippiran Kramavittan alias Arikulakala-Brahmandiraiyan of Merkillimangalam, a brahmadeya in Tirualundur-nadu on the southern bank (of Kaveri) in Chonadu.
  9. On the south wall of the rock-cut shrine15 – dated in the 13th regnal year of the Chola king Rajakesarivarman, identified with the Chola king Rajaraja I (985-1014 CE), corresponding 997-98 CE – registers that the lands belonging to the Mahadevar temple at Gokarnam were declared tax-free by the nattar.
  10. On a stone built into the south wall of the mandapa in front of the rock-cut shrine16 – dated in an unidentifiable regnal year of a chola king – mentions only few words like Iditturai-nadu, [Mannaik]-kadakkam, etc. as part of the historical introduction of the king.
  11. On a rock overhanging the temple17 – dated in the 12th regnal year of the Chola king Kulothunga II, corresponding 1144-45 CE – mentions construction of a flower garden, a car street, a great sluice, and a tank for storing water and several irrigational channels as well as many wells by Tillaikali, a native of Tondai-nadu, belonged to a clan of brahmana who exercised rights of crowing a king and the lord of Tiruvetpur.
  12. On a rock to the north of the rock-cut shrine on the way to the natural pond18 – dated in the 10th regnal year of the Chola king Rajaraja III, corresponding 1216-17 CE – registers a gift for a perpetual lamp to the temple of Thirigokarnam by Vachchayan, a servant of Somaladevi, the mother of Someshvara-deva, the son of Posala Vira-Narasimhadeva of Doraisamuttiram. The gift was made by the donor for the merits of his father and mother
  13. On the rock called Sadaiyaparai near the image of Jaina tirthankara in the village19 – dated in the 24th regnal year of the Pandya king Konerimaikondan – registers a royal order addressed to the residents of Tenkavi-nadu annulling the taxes from the lands which were endowed by the owners of the Jaina temple of the place, for the daily offerings and other expenses to Parunarkilicholapperumpalli-Alvar of Kallarruppalli in the above nadu. The order was to take effect from the 24th regnal year of the reign of Sundara-Pandyadeva.

References:
1 Ayyar, K R Venkatarama (1944). A Manual of the Pudukkottai State Vol. II, Part II. Sri Brihadamba Press. Pudukkottai. pp 974-982
2 Latha, V (2005). Cave Temples of Pandya Country: Art and Ritual. Sharada Publishing House. New Delhi. ISBN 8188934224. p 33
3 Latha, V (2005). Cave Temples of Pandya Country: Art and Ritual. Sharada Publishing House. New Delhi. ISBN 8188934224. pp 33-34
4 Hiltebeitel, Alf (1989). Criminal Gods and Demon Devotees. State University of New York Press. ISBN 9780887069826. p 419
5 Bayly, Susan (1989). Saints, Goddesses and Kings. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521891035. p 57
6 Dayalan, D (2014). Cave-temples in the regions of the Pandya, Muttaraiya, Atiyaman and Ay Dynasties, in Tamil Nadu and Kerala part I. Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi. p 189
7 No 6 of Ayyar, K R Srinivasa (2002). Inscriptions in the Pudukkottai State part I. Commissioner of Museums. Chennai. p 11
8 No 25 of South Indian Inscriptions vol. xiv
9 No 39 of Ayyar, K R Srinivasa (2002). Inscriptions in the Pudukkottai State part I. Commissioner of Museums. Chennai. pp 33-34/  No 37 of South Indian Inscriptions vol. xix
10 No 41 of Ayyar, K R Srinivasa (2002). Inscriptions in the Pudukkottai State part I. Commissioner of Museums. Chennai. p 34/ No 82 of South Indian Inscriptions vol. xix
11 No 54 of Ayyar, K R Srinivasa (2002). Inscriptions in the Pudukkottai State part I. Commissioner of Museums. Chennai. pp 39-40 / No 316 of South Indian Inscriptions vol. xix
12 No 73 of Ayyar, K R Srinivasa (2002). Inscriptions in the Pudukkottai State part I. Commissioner of Museums. Chennai. p 47 / No 435 of South Indian Inscriptions vol. xix
13 No 27 of Ayyar, K R Srinivasa (2002). Inscriptions in the Pudukkottai State part I. Commissioner of Museums. Chennai. p 26 / No 174 of South Indian Inscriptions vol. xiii
14 No 28 of Ayyar, K R Srinivasa (2002). Inscriptions in the Pudukkottai State part I. Commissioner of Museums. Chennai. p 26
15 No 36 of Ayyar, K R Srinivasa (2002). Inscriptions in the Pudukkottai State part I. Commissioner of Museums. Chennai. pp 31-32 / No 339 of South Indian Inscriptions vol. xvii
16 Pk:45 of Mahalingam, T V (1991). A Topographical List of Inscriptions in the Tamil Nadu and Kerala States vol VI. Indian Council of Historical Research. New Delhi. pp 11-12
17 No 120 of Ayyar, K R Srinivasa (2002). Inscriptions in the Pudukkottai State part I. Commissioner of Museums. Chennai. pp 97-98
18 No 183 of Ayyar, K R Srinivasa (2002). Inscriptions in the Pudukkottai State part II. Commissioner of Museums. Chennai. pp 167-168
19 Pk:48 of Mahalingam, T V (1991). A Topographical List of Inscriptions in the Tamil Nadu and Kerala States vol VI. Indian Council of Historical Research. New Delhi. p 12