The fourth of the six principal shrines (Aru Padai Veedu) of Subramania in Tamil Nadu, Swamimalai or Tiruveragam, is located three miles from Kumbhakonam. Legend has it that Subramania once asked Lord Brahma as to what was the meaning of the pranava – Om. Brahma could not reply satisfactorily and so Subramania had him clapped in chains and assumed the role of creator himself. On coming to know of this, Lord Shiva came to enquire and having received the explanation asked his son if he knew the meaning. Subramania offered to explain it to him, if he, Shiva, would accept him, Subramania as his Guru. Shiva acquiesced and having placed his son on his shoulder, had the supreme truth whispered into his ear. With this Subramania became preceptor to his own father and was therefore referred to as Swami Natha. The temple in this sthalam commemorates this celestial event.
Swamimalai temple is on a man-made hillock. It is a small shrine and can be covered in an hour at the most. There are three sacred tanks surrounding the shrine, namely the Vajra, Saravana and Netra Pushkarinis. In addition the Kaveri, flowing a short distance away, is also a water-body associated with the temple.
The temple is approached from the south where there is a five-tiered Rajagopuram of modern origin. There are gopurams on the east and west also, both of which are usually locked. There are three circumambulatory corridors in the shrine, the first being at ground level, the second at an intermediary level and the third around the sanctum at the top of the hillock. It is customary to first worship at the sanctum in this shrine and so let us proceed upwards. There are sixty steps to be climbed for reaching the sanctum, each one said to represent one year in the Hindu cycle. At the flagstaff, there is a shrine to Ganapati, who is facing south. Here he goes by the name of Netra Ganapati for he is said to have blessed a blind man with vision when the latter bathed in the Netra Pushkarini and then offered worship. Even now, devotees with defective vision offer special prayers here.
The sanctum to Subramania faces east. The main idol is over six feet tall and rather like the Lord in Palani, has two arms, with the right holding a staff and the left resting on his thigh. A variety of alankarams are done throughout the day, as a result of which he sometimes looks like a mendicant and at others like a king. Flanking the main shrine are two others, in each of which, the Lord is enshrined with one of his two consorts. In one, he is with Devasena and is referred to Sabhapati. In the other shrine, he is in the form of a hunter and is with Valli. He is called Senapati here. Both the Sabhapati and Senapati icons are made of panchalokam as is the main processional deity who is with both consorts. There are sub-shrines to Veerabahu, Mahalakshmi, Saraswathi, Idumban, Dandayudhapani, Surya and Chandra here. You do not see the customary peacock facing the Lord here. In this shrine, an elephant takes its place, because Indra after offering worship to Subramania here, left his mount Airavatham for the Lord’s use. The Palliyarai or bedchamber of the Lord has an exquisite icon of seated Valli.
Coming down the steps, we can pause at the second prakaram in the middle level and enjoy the breeze and the view of the village and the distant spectacle of Kaveri. Coming to ground level, we can offer worship at the shrines to Meenakshi and Sundareswara, both of whom were installed here by Varaguna Pandya. It is said that in keeping with Subramania’s status as Guru, Shiva as his disciple is to be worshipped last and which is why he is at a level lower than his son. The sthala vrksham or sacred tree here is the Nelli. It is considered to be a representation of Bhu Devi or Goddess Earth.
The temple is a busy one with worship being offered six times a day. The asterism of Karthikai is celebrated each month with large groups of devotees attending. In addition Skanda Shashti is a big festival here. The annual festival or Brahmotsavam is in April. The Vaikasi Vishakam in May is a big draw as is Thai Pusam in January. Panguni Uttiram in March and Karthikai in November are also important festivals at this shrine. The deity has a golden chariot which is paid for as a propitiatory rite by several devotees and taken out in procession on many days. This takes place in the circumambulatory passage in the ground level.
The temple, originally built during the reign of Paranthaka Chola I, suffered extensive damage during the Anglo Carnatic Wars of the 18th century. It has since been renovated with a lot of the work taking place in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Music and Dance
That the shrine is an ancient one is evident from the fact that it is praised in the Tirumurugatruppadai of the Sangam period. Arunagirinatha (14th century) lavishes praise on this shrine in about 30 verses of his Tiruppugazh. In one verse, (Taruvaarivar) he describes the beauty of the river Kaveri at this shrine and says that it surges noisily along and the roar of its waves makes the spectator wonder if it is the ocean itself. He also states that cranes, storks and swans frolic in the waters and search for their prey. In another verse “Iruvinil Punaindu”, Arunagirinatha praises the Lord here for having chosen his place on the northern bank of the Kaveri, famed for its conch shells. In the same verse he also prays that the Lord must open his (the devotee’s) third eye, the eye of wisdom. This could be an indirect reference to Netra Ganapati who is also said to grant knowledge. In his verses, Arunagirinatha uses various names for this shrine including Samimalai, Tiruveragam and Gurumalai. It is a common belief even now that the Sabhapati idol depicts Subramania in a dancing posture as the arms are spread out. That this belief existed even in Arunagirinatha’s time is evident from the verse “Endath thigaiyium” where he says that Subramania dances delightfully even as Devayanai, she of the slim waist is seated in front of him.
Writing on Swamimalai in Kalki in the 1960s, Bhaskara Thondaiman states that Arunagirinatha was specially attached to Swamimalai as he vanquished Sambathandan here in a debate. But the same story is also attributed to Swamimalai.
After Arunagirinatha, we come to Muttuswami Dikshitar (1775-1835), that peregrinating devotee of Subramania, who composed songs here. Two of these are given by Subbarama Dikshitar in his Sangita Sampradaya Pradarshini. The first, “Sri Balasubramania” in Bilahari has references to the kshetra (the Lord is referred to as Swamishaila Sthitha), the icons (he is sung of as Kanakavalli Devasenopeta), and the legend of his having taken on the task of creation (Aabalagopa vidita) and that he is the Truth (atmaprakasha). The second song, “Swaminatha” in Chalanata also refers to the Lord creating the five elements (Bhumi Jalagnivayugaganakirana bhoda rupa). Two more songs of Dikshitar, “Swaminathena” in Brndavani and “Sri Swaminathaya” in Khamas have surfaced later.
Pamban Swamigal (1848-1929) a great devotee of Muruga and who composed among other works, 6666 songs on his favourite deity has created verses on Swamimalai. The 19th century poet Swami Kavirayar has composed a full work “Swaminatham” on this temple. Papanasam Sivan (1890-1973) has composed several songs on Subramania of which two songs, among others composed in Swamimalai are well known – “Tamasam En” in Thodi and “Niye Saran Shanmuga” in Kamboji. There are besides several songs of his where Swamimalai in addition to others shrines of Subramania are mentioned. Swamimalai is also a subject of a verse in several ragamalikas based on the Aru Padai Veedu theme. The last Maharajah of Mysore, Jayachamaraja Wodeyar (1919-1974) has composed “Swaminatha Palaya” in Charukesi.
Swamimalai in Concerts
Thanks largely to the efforts of Pudukottai Dakshinamurthi Pillai and his close friend Alathoor Venkatesa Iyer, many of Tiruppugazh verses were set to music and brought to the concert platform. The Alathoor Brothers, Sivasubramania Iyer and Srinivasa Iyer, were known for their Tiruppugazh concerts where all the songs were from this compilation and some of the verses of Swamimalai were made famous by them. Dakshinamurthi Pillai also conducted Aru Padai Veedu Utsavam regularly and naturally Swamimalai was one of the chosen venues. Many musicians graced the occasions and performed here. Several of the Tiruppugazh verses also became well-known thanks to Kanchipuram Naina Pillai and MM Dandapani Desigar. If “Sri Balasubramania” of Dikshitar was made famous by Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer in his concerts, “Swaminatha” and Papanasam Sivan’s “Tamasam En” became the rage because of GNB. The shrine was a personal favourite of Kumbhakonam Rajamanickam Pillai who would frequently set out with all his disciples to Swamimalai. There he would have archanais performed for all of them and pray for their well being according to an interview given by his disciple Lalitha Venkataraman. Who can forget Madurai Mani Iyer’s immortal pallavi in Shanmukhapriya that went “Saravanabhava Guruguha Shanmuga, Swaminathane”? In recent years, Sanjay Subrahmanyan has made “Niye Saran Shanmuga” famous. A song of Pamban Swamigal on Swamimalai, “Nanjamunda” set in Bhairavi has recently been heard in a commercial release of Gayatri Girish.
BM Sundaram in his “Marabu Tanda Manikkangal” (Dr V Raghavan Centre for Performing Arts) writes of a dancer, Swamimalai Nagarathnam (1868-1931) who learnt music from Umayalpuram Sundara Bhagavatar, a direct disciple of Tyagaraja. Maharajah Krishna Rajendra Wodeyar IV of Mysore greatly honoured her. Her grandson was the well-known singer Madurai Somu. Swamimalai Rajarathnam is an acclaimed name among dance masters. He too hails from this town. The popular pada varnam “Nathanai Azhaittu Va Sakhiye” in Kamboji, is on Swaminathaswami.
There is one song “Siva Guruparane” attributed to TN Rajarathinam Pillai. Is it on Swamimalai? In the absence of lyrics it is difficult to say. But if yes, then this shrine has the unique distinction of being the recipient of TNR’s only composition.