I have written earlier on this shrine, which ranks among my favourites. I have recently been serialising a three-part article in Sruti magazine on the Triad of Temples along the Akhanda Cauvery. The earlier story on Kulithalai Kadambeswarar temple can be read here
In the last issue we looked at Kadambarkoil, the first in the triad of Shiva temples along the Akhanda Cauvery near Trichy. The second of these is Iyermalai or Ratnagiri, which like Kadambarkoil is on the south bank of the river and just ten minutes away from the latter temple. If at the first shrine the Lord faced north, here He faces west. The temple is somewhat of a rarity among Shiva shrines, for it is on a hill, and a fairly steep one at that. There are 1,017 steps to reach temple. The summit is 1, 178 feet from ground level.
The Lord here is known as Thiruvatpokkiyar – He who rids us of fatigue. It is rather an ironic name, for climbing to the temple is an arduous trek. The authorities have done what they can by providing well-cut steps and the pathway has pavilions at frequent intervals which not only provide shade to the pilgrims but also prevent the granite steps from becoming baking hot. Those who cannot climb can avail of dholi service – four young men place you in a cane chair that is rather insecurely perched on bamboo poles and carry you up. While this is quite fast, I am told by those who used this mode that it is rather hair-raising as an experience. For one, you are on a shaky seat and secondly, you are invariably at a sharp angle right through as the men race upwards. It is like being an aircraft that is forever in takeoff mode.
A tiny village clusters around the hill, which dominates the surroundings and like Thiruvannamalai, is considered to be Lord Shiva Himself. Climbing up wearing footwear is therefore prohibited. Crossing a broad vahana mandapam you begin the ascent. Droves of monkeys keep a tight watch on what you are carrying and if they so much as smell some edible item they snatch your bags and baskets. It is best to go up emptyhanded. The climb takes an hour if you are reasonably fit. There are many tiny shrines en route. Halfway up the hill is a massive split rock and in its shade are figurines of the Sapta Mata-s, with Ganesha keeping them company. One of the many legends associated with Iyermalai is the same as the one at Kadambarkoil – the seven mothers mistook Sage Katyayana to be the demon Dhoomralochana and killed him. They came and did penance here by way of expiation. Another story has it that there was once a competition between Vayu and Adisesha as to who was more powerful. The serpent held the Mount Meru tightly in its grip while Vayu tried to dislodge it. Five of the peaks that comprised that mountain, each bearing a precious stone, were dislodged and landed at various places. Each became a Shiva temple. The coral fell at Thiruvannamalai, the emerald at Maragathachalam or Thiruingoimalai, the sapphire at Pothigaiand the diamond at Kodumudi. The ruby fell at Thiruvatpokki, which therefore is also known as Ratnagiri or Ratnachalam. It is customary for all males born in the village below, or those who claim ancestry from there, to have Ratnam appended to their given names. Because the Lord is on a hill, He is also known as Malaikozhundu.
It appears that most of these sthala purana-s came up after the 8th and 9th centuries for Appar in his tevaram composed here mentions none of these. The ten stanzas entreat us to sing of the Lord when we have the time, for when the servants of Yama come to take us away, it will be too late. One verse says the Lord is praised in song and dance – aadal paadal uganthavaatpokkiyaar. Arunagirinathar comes here in the 15th century and he sings in praise of the Murugan. Three verses of his are ascribed to this temple, including the ever-popular Bhaktiyaalyaanunai pala kalam.
The temple is accessed by a small doorway near the hilltop. Inside the precinct you first come to the sanctum of the Goddess – Surumbarkuzhali or Araalakesi. A benign smiling figure with four arms and in a standing posture, She appears unfazed by the loneliness of the place. Monkeys frolic all around the sanctum and it is possibly their antics that keep Her so happy. Having worshipped here, we proceed to the main sanctum which is in two levels and in a separate structure. An entrance mandapam full of inscriptions greets us and then a short flight up brings us to the Lord. The deity here is a tall linga, with a prominent scar on the top. Legend has it that a ruler from the north (Arya Raja) came in search of his lost crown and was intercepted by an old Brahmin who informed him that if he filled with Cauvery water a vessel kept by side of the Lord at the sanctum, his wish would be fulfilled. The king repeatedly made the journey to the river and brought back water only to find the cauldron never filled up. Exasperated, he lifted his sword to hit the Brahmin who had made him go to all this trouble, when the Lord emerged from the Linga, bore the brunt of the sword, deflected it and having blessed the ruler, disappeared. Hence the scar. And the Lord here is also known as Mudithazhumbar (He with a scar on his head). He is also known as Rajalinga. His deflecting the sword is given as the reason for the place to be known as Thiru Val Pokki which became over time Thiruvatpokki. In gratitude the king made a commitment – thereafter, his descendants would fetch water from the Cauvery each day for anointing the Lord. This is still followed – the person ordained to do this travels by bus or bike to the river, eight kms away. Having filled his pot with water, he places it on his head, comes on foot to the village and then climbs up the hill. Because of its association with this community, the place came to be known as Arya Malai, which over time became Iyermalai.
All the pots have the figure of a crow carved on them. Legend has it that once a crow upset a pot of milk being carried up the hill for the Lord’s abhishekam and was burnt to ashes. Thereafter, no crow ever flies over this hill. While it is true that this bird species is markedly absent here, it must also be remembered that the hill is far higher than the altitude at which crows fly. Another story has it that Lord Indra comes here on occasion as thunder and worships the Lord. The hill is prone to lightning strikes quite often and so this may have given rise to the belief. Immediately after worshipping the Linga, worship is offered to Vairaperumal who stands as a guardian close by. This is in the form of a human head and depicts a devotee who decapitated himself at the foot of the hill in fulfilment of a vow. The Lord brought the head to the summit and kept it close to Himself. Another intriguing aspect of this temple is a Nataraja that faces upwards, as though the Lord threw his head back in the joy of dancing.
Shahji, the Maratha ruler of Thanjavur has composed a song on the deity here, in the raga Ghantaravam. The hill is said to have eight rocks at the summit and together with the Linga they make nine. It therefore is also said to be the embodiment of the Sri Chakra. That by itself may have been enough for Muthuswami Dikshitar to visit the place. He created his PahiMam Ratnachala Nayaka here, in the raga Mukhari. The song is replete with references to the legends associated with the temple, including the one about the Arya Raja’s descendants bringing up the water. A few decades after Dikshitar, the great Tamil scholar Mahavidwan Meenkashisundaram Pillai was invited to the temple by a subsect known as the PanniruChettimar. It is said that once 11 of them came to this temple to apportion their profits and found that each time they calculated, they got 1/12th – that made them allot the first share to the Lord. Pillai composed a Kalambakam here, set in the form of a conversation between two male performers. The first one attains prosperity by worshipping here and asks the other one to do so in order to be rid of worldly ills. In his biography of Pillai, the Tamil scholar U Ve Swaminatha Iyerrecords a few verses of the Kalambakam. One has a devotee describing the Lord as bearing scars on His back (having been lashed by the Pandyan ruler in Madurai), on His front (He bears the imprint of Kamakshi’s breast when She embraced the mud linga at Kanchi) and on His head (at Thiruvatpokki). Only the feet remain unscarred and to remedy that, the devotee requests the Lord to come and reside in his hard heart.
Worship is offered only at midday at this temple and so you need to time your arrival. If you come by 10.00 am, you can make the climb, witness the noon worship and return in time for lunch. Your descent is as eventful as your ascent, for the monkeys chase you and snatch whatever prasadam you may have been given!
This article appeared in the October 2020 issue of the Sruti magazine.
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Following Dikshitar to Iyermalai